Friday 29 July 2011

Pot-Fury and Ale-Passion

I have very little to say today, except that pot-fury is the excitement brought on by inebriation and ale-passion is an old word meaning hangover. That's passion in its original sense of suffering, as in the passion of Christ. Ale-passion is mentioned in the 1593 Bacchus Bountie in the following context:

Fourthly, came wallowing in a German, borne in Mentz, his name was Gotfrey Grouthead; with him he brought a wallet full of woodcocks heads; the braines thereof, tempered with other sauce, is a passing preseruatiue against the ale-passion, or paine in the pate.

I'm now off to find a bunch of woodcocks.
Do you eat the beak as well?

Thursday 28 July 2011


Merdurinous means composed of dung and urine, and if you can't find a use for that word, you have too few enemies. Merdurinous is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, which makes it a particularly satisfying word to say or shout. I've tested.

It was coined by Ben Jonson in a poem called The Famous Voyage, which I thoroughly recommend you read. It's a mock epic about two men who take a boat up the Fleet River in London. The Fleet River wasn't exactly a river, it was more of a ditch, and in effect an open sewer and the smelliest stinkiest place in Elizabethan London.

Jonson's poem is about two men who sail up it for a bet, just to see if their noses can take it. There's also an informative little digression of fast food in renaissance London, which shouldn't be read by any cat lovers:

Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted
And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted;
Then selling not, a dish was ta'en to mince 'em,
But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince 'em

The Fleet River has now been covered over and filled in, but the name survives. When people refer to the British press as Fleet Street, it's a metonym for the street that was once a river.

Jonson's full poem is here.

The truth about Fleet Street

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Fanfreluching, Biscoting and Synonymia

Way back in the mists and fogs of time, (before standardisation of measurement) weights and distances and everything else would vary from country to country. For example, the leagues around Paris, which were marked by stones at the roadside, were much shorter than those everywhere else. Rabelais (C16th) had an ingenious explanation for this and I'm going to reproduce the whole thing here, simply because of the extraordinary words that were invented by the (C17th) translator, Thomas Urquhart. I shall put them in bold, just for fun. old times countries were not distinguished into leagues, miles, furlongs, nor parasangs, until that King Pharamond divided them, which was done in manner as followeth. The said king chose at Paris a hundred fair, gallant, lusty, brisk young men, all resolute and bold adventurers in Cupid's duels, together with a hundred comely, pretty, handsome, lovely and well-complexioned wenches of Picardy, all which he caused to be well entertained and highly fed for the space of eight days. Then having called for them, he delivered to every one of the young men his wench, with store of money to defray their charges, and this injunction besides, to go unto divers places here and there. And wheresoever they should biscot and thrum their wenches, that, they setting a stone there, it should be accounted for a league. Thus went away those brave fellows and sprightly blades most merrily, and because they were fresh and had been at rest, they very often jummed and fanfreluched almost at every field's end, and this is the cause why the leagues about Paris are so short. But when they had gone a great way, and were now as weary as poor devils, all the oil in their lamps being almost spent, they did not chink and duffle so often, but contented themselves (I mean for the men's part) with one scurvy paltry bout in a day, and this is that which makes the leagues in Brittany, Delanes, Germany, and other more remote countries so long.

I'm quite sure that you can guess at the meanings as efficiently as the OED does. What I particularly love in this passage is that the saucy and preposterous verbs are all presented in pairs, and that the second verb of each adds nothing significant to the meaning. Chinking and duffling are, I assume, pretty much the same thing. This rhetorical figure, called synonymia, is very beautiful if used sparsely and sparely.

Synonymia is also used on the nouns of the passage: "brave fellows and sprightly blades" and "as weary as poor devils, all the oil in their lamps being almost spent".

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some important fanfreluching to attend to. I may even attempt to biscot a biscuit.

There was a French-Canadian children's programme called Fanfreluche.
Don't ask me why.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

The End

Not of this blog, but of the dictionary. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder what was right at the back of the OED. So I pulled out volume twenty and flicked past zonkey (the offspring of a zebra and a donkey), zygology (the study of fastenings), and Zyrian (pertaining to the Komi people of Siberia) and got to zyxt, which is an obsolete piece of Kentish dialect meaning you see.

And with that the English language comes to an end.

It would also get you 23 in a game of Scrabble.

A zonkey

Monday 25 July 2011

The King James Bible

I always seem to be pointing out phrases that come from the Bible, but where as I do them one by one, this chap has combined one hundred such phrases and made them rhyme.

It's rather an astonishing achievement, and I only know about it because it was e-mailed to me by an antipodean reader to whom I tip the blogger's bowler.

Friday 22 July 2011

The Four Corners of the Earth

And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

So said Isaiah (11v12) and it's rather odd, because at first sight it would appear to contradict the newfangled theory that the earth is round. When you think about it more, though, it becomes yet odder, because it seems to suggest that the earth is not simply flat, it's square.

So did the ancient Hebrews believe that the earth was square? No. The Hebrew word here is kanaph which means, among other things, quarter. It's the four quarters of the earth: North, South, East and West.

So were the sixteenth century translators of the Bible twisting things to make it look as though the earth was square? No. Back then corner didn't have to mean corner in the modern sense. It could also have this definition from the OED:

...a region, quarter; a direction or quarter from which the wind blows (obsolete)

Winds could come from different corners, meaning quarters or points of the compass. So in the gulling scene in Much Ado About Nothing you can get this exchange:

LEONATO No, nor I neither; but most wonderful that she should so dote on Signior Benedick, whom she hath in all outward behaviors seemed ever to abhor.

BENEDICK Is't possible? Sits the wind in that corner?

It's hard to find any civilisation that ever definitely believed the earth was flat. Not only did the ancients know it was round, but a clever chap called Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth with an error of only 2%.

The Medievals knew it too. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville* (C14th) says clearly that "the world is quite round" and "those men who live right under the Antarctic Pole [star] are foot against foot to those who live right below the Arctic Pole [star], just as we and those who live at our Antipodes are foot against foot." Because antipodes means foot against foot.

Mandeville then writes:

I have often thought of a story I have heard, when I was young, of a worthy man of our country who went once upon a time to see the world. He passed India and many isles beyond India, where there are more than 5,000 isles, and travelled so far by land and sea, girdling the globe, that he found an isle where he heard his own language being spoken. For he heard one who was driving a plough team say such words to them as he had heard men say to oxen in his own land when they were working at the plough. He marvelled greatly, for he did not understand how this could be. But I conjecture that he had travelled so far over land and sea, circumnavigating the earth, that he had come to his own borders; if he had gone a bit farther, he would have come to his own district. But after he heard that marvel, he could not get transport any farther, so he turned back the way he had come; so he had a long journey! Afterwards it happened that he went to Norway, and a gale blew him off course to an island. And when he was there he knew it was the island he had been in before and heard his own language, as the beasts were being driven. That could well be, even if men of limited understanding do not believe that men can travel on the underside of the globe without falling off into the firmament. For just as it seems to us that those men there are under us, so it seems to them that we are under them.

Northwest Airlines 1950's Ad - Four Corners of the Earth - Sold
The truth is out there.

*One of my favourite books.

Thursday 21 July 2011

More Seldom

Here's a little bit of poetry by E.E. Cummings (corrected for punctuation and missing capitals)

Love is more thicker than forget,
More thinner than recall,
More seldom than a wave is wet,
More frequent than to fail.

i quote it only because there was a question on the Dear Dogberry page as to whether anything could happen more seldom.

Seldom is usually an adverb, like often. So let's have a look:

I often wash.

I wash more often.

Compared to:

I seldom wash.

I wash more seldom.

Oooh no! Can't do that. However, in America seldom is often used as an adjective. In fact, Shakespeare adjectivised it in the sonnets:

Blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.

That's how Cummings seems to be using seldom in the poem above, as a straight synonym for rare, not rarely. The line means something like "Waves are very wet, and love is very rare; indeed the rareness of love is greater in extent than the wetness of waves".

However, more still feels awkward when applied to adjectives of diminution. As in:

Alice was more small now.

The pile is more little.

All of which leaves you with two options: you can be very simple, reasonably simple, or extraordinary.

The very simple solution is to replace more seldom with less. So "I washed less".

The reasonably simple is replace more seldom with more rarely. This still has echoes of awkwardness because it sounds like "more small" etc. So if you don't want to be extraordinary, you should just add -er and -est. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu did this back in 1748 when she wrote:

Complainers are seldom pity'd, and boasters yet seldomer beleiv'd.

And Mark Twain kicked all common usage out of the door when he wrote that:

The seldomest spectacle on the Mississippi to-day is a wood-pile.

And what Montagu, Cummings and Twain have done is seldomly utterly wrong. Here's that poem in full:

Love is more thicker than forget,
More thinner than recall,
More seldom than a wave is wet,
More frequent than to fail.

It is most mad and moonly
And less it shall unbe
Than all the sea which only
Is deeper than the sea.

Love is less always than to win,
Less never than alive,
Less bigger than the least begin,
Less littler than forgive.

It is most sane and sunly,
And more it cannot die
Than all the sky which only
Is higher than the sky.

The only pop song I can think of that contains the word seldom.

P.S. I've written about seldom before here.

Wednesday 20 July 2011


A poop-noddy is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as:

Sexual intercourse (rare)

I don't know about you, dear reader, but I'm planning never to have sex again, it's pure poop-noddies from here on in. However, the origin of the word is rather curious. The OED refers you to noddypoop and noddypoop is simply a synonym for noddypoll.

Now a noddy is a fool and a poll is a head. That's why you have poll tax (a tax per head) poleaxe (an axe used for chopping heads) and tadpole (toad-head). So what has any of this got to do with sex?

Well, there's a sort of clue in Shakespeare's Pericles. There's a scene where two people who run a brothel are discussing how drab and diseased their prostitutes are:

Pandar: Thou sayest true; they're too unwholesome, o' conscience. The poor Transylvanian is dead, that lay with the little baggage.

BOULT: Ay, she quickly pooped him; she made him roast-meat for worms. But I'll go search the market.

You've definitely got a sexual context here, but poop seems to mean gave him syphilis, rather than sex. So I'm going to take a guess that poop-noddy isn't sex exactly, that it is, in fact, the act of cuckolding somebody. So if you have sex with somebody's wife you are pooping her noddy of a husband.

I could be wrong though. It could be to do with poop decks, which are owned by bad DJs.

Supply your own caption.

P.S. Why do elephants have big ears?
Because Noddy won't pay the ransom.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

The Pitying Printer

Right. A post about a bodhisattva called Avalokiteśvara, and his relationship to my godawful printer.

Avalokiteśvara embodies the compassion of all the Buddhas, which, I'm told, is one hell of a lot of compassion. At least a metric ton of the stuff.

Ava means down; lokite means looking; and vara means lord. So Avalokiteśvara is the Lord Who Looks Down, and the thing that he usually looks down upon is human suffering and lamentation. That's why*, when the Chinese took up Buddhism they rendered his name as Guanshiyin which means He who perceives the lamentations of the world.

This brings us to the utter and delightful insanity of the Chinese name taboos. There was, of late, a popular bumper sticker in America that said "The only Bush I trust is my own". There were other such witty variants. The idea was that by using the president's name in some amusing context you make the president himself look silly. What George W. Bush should have done (and would have done had he come to me for advice) would be to make it illegal on pain of decapitation for anyone ever to use the syllable bush.

That would include ambush, bushells of wheat and, of course, bushwhacking. That way nobody can make a rude pun about you.

This policy was pursued by the Chinese emperors of old. There was an absurdly liberal emperor called Shimin who said that you only needed to avoid saying shimin, and that Shi and Min on their own were all right. He even went so far as to employ a chancellor called Li Shiji, which shares a whole syllable with his name.

Fortunately for the dignity of the imperial office, his son repealed the law, had it include the last seven generations of emperor, and made the chancellor change his name to Li Ji.

Nobody in China was allowed to write the syallable Shi. This had obvious consequences for our bodhisattva Guanshiyin, or Guanyin as he was called from then on.

It should perhaps be noted at this point that Guanyin is rather androgynous. Though Avalokiteśvara is usually a he, Guanyin is usually a she. And it was in this feminised form that Guanyin arrived in Japan, where her name was altered slightly to Kwanon, which sounds similar if you think about it.

This brings us inevitably to the invention of the camera. In 1934 a Japanese fellow by the name of Goro Yoshida started manufacturing 35mm cameras. He decided to call his company after the all-compassionate bodhisattva, and so the Kwanon camera began. Here's an original logo.

Kwanon started to do rather well. They cornered the Japanese market and then started trying to sell their products in the West. However, we westerners find Kwanon a bit of an odd-looking mouthful. So the poor bodhisattva (who, you will remember, had already lost a shi to an emperor) was stripped of her W, and had her K changed to a C.

That is why you can still buy Canon cameras to this day. You can also buy Canon printers that break down and run out of toner and jam their paper and take hours to print or cancel.  However, once you know that, ultimately, Canon means Hearing the Screams of Humanity, this suddenly seems rather appropriate.

So why is my printer not handy to use?

*Although there are some rather dull complications to this.

Monday 18 July 2011


Somebody mentioned having "no qualms" about something on Saturday night, and it made me wonder what a qualm actually was. A quick check in the dictionary told me that a qualm could be the cry of a raven. But the qualm of conscience turned out to be one of those weakening words, like naughty.

Back in Old English qualm meant violent death, pestilence and plague. In fact, a qualm was anything that was monstrously and bloodily horrific. A qualm-house was a torture chamber, a qualm-stow was a place of execution.

Then, in the sixteenth century, it started to mean a period of suffering, like a bout of fever. Then it began to mean a brief illness, and then a faint feeling of discomfort. And it's from that last meaning that we get the modern ever-so-delicate qualm of conscience.

This means, that you can have no qualms about committing qualms.

Now, I'm off to a qualm-house to feel qualmish.

Many qualms and none

Friday 15 July 2011


I was reading a bestseller the other day, or rather I was trying to. But I couldn't. I'm going to try to explain why I couldn't by studying only one word of the whole book. This doesn't mean that the word (which came on page 39) was the novel's only fault, but it was a representative fault. So here goes. Here's why I couldn't read the novel. The narrator is on a boat and...

I jammed my hands in my pockets, hunched my shoulders up around my neck and crossed unsteadily to the starboard side.

The word that made me wince was unsteadily. Not that I have anything against unsteadily per se. Fine word. It was the placing of unsteadily within the sentence that I couldn't stomach. You see, try as I might, I can't read that sentence aloud.

By that I mean, quite specifically, that if I were chatting in the pub and (for some weird reason) trying to pass off the words of the novel as my own, it wouldn't work. It would sound odd.

When I was learning to drive, my driving instructor had this irritating way of talking. He would say:

I would like you to proceed to the junction where you will turn to the left.

Of course, nobody speaks like that naturally. So when you hear the words coming out of somebody's mouth it sounds odd. You get the same thing when you phone up customer service lines and the chap says "In order to redirect your call more efficiently I'd like to ask you three questions." It's hard to identify what's wrong with that sentence, but you know that he's reading from a script, which is infuriating because, when you start to make your complaint, instead of helping he just keeps reading from the damned script until you want to strangle the little waste of skin and bury his body at sea.

The same thing happens with novelists.

... and crossed unsteadily to the starboard side.

I could say:

And crossed to the starboard side unsteadily.

I would be happier with:

And crossed to the starboard side - unsteadily.

You see, an adverb like that needs to be set off. In spoken English it never just qualifies a verb in the way that a standard adjective does (I saw a brown dog). If you use an adverb like unsteadily at all you put emphasis on it. So I would be happy as Larry with:

And crossed (unsteadily) to the starboard side.

I wouldn't have to use parentheses, commas might do, but parentheses give you a far firmer idea of how, in the middle of the sentence, I pause for a split second and then raise my eyebrows as I say unsteadily. There's a change in the tone of my voice, and in the pitch. Try it.

And crossed [pull face, look up, make hand gesture] unsteadily [resume normal tone of voice] to the starboard side.

That works.

In the end, though, I'd be much more likely to say staggered.

Some writers say that they never use adverbs. However, never is an adverb. I'm not objecting to adverbs by themselves. Just this one right here.

Nor am I merely being snobby about a bestseller. I read all seven Harry Potter novels without ever coming across an unnatural sentence like this. You see, it's very easy to avoid writing unnatural English: just say the words quietly as you type them. That's what I'm doing right now, and though I probably look a trifle insane, it keeps my prose natural and therefore convincing. This is how I talk. This is my voice.

(Incidentally, Raymond Chandler once said: "I'm caught talking to myself quite a lot lately. They say that is not too bad unless you answer back. I not only answer back, I argue and get mad.")

Now, there's a premise underlying all this that you may object to: does all prose have to correspond to spoken English? No. But it has to correspond to something. You might, for example, want to sound biblical. In that case you can write:

I did cross the boat: yea even unto the starboard side did I cross unsteadily.

Or you could do Shakespeare, or romantic poetry, or Dickensian/Brownian intricacy:

I attempted to cross to the starboard side of the craft, an exericse which, due to the obstinate periconfluctuations of the ocean, could be accomplished only in a manner that, had it been witnessed by the Leaning Tower of Pisa itself, would have been scorned for the wild and omnidirectional tiltings of my gait.

I'm fine with that. There's a voice there. It's not a voice in which anybody on earth has ever spoken, but it's a fully conceived and consistent voice that I can hear in my head, but...

And crossed unsteadily to the starboard side.

Who? What? The narrator is an Englishman, so this isn't some twist of the American or Australian English that I don't get. It's just unnatural. It's like saying:

Proceed to the crossroads and, when instructed, take the second turning to the right.

Me, writing this post.

Thursday 14 July 2011


If you are leptorhine you have a long thin nose. Like this.

It's the same rhine that you find in rhinoceros and rhinoplasty. The opposite of leptorhine is platyrhine, although I confess that I err toward the former.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Shakespeare Sounding Funny

I'm always a little suspicious of these things, but here is a scene from Shakespeare in what is supposed to be the pronunciation that would actually have been used in Elizabethan England. My suspicions are based on the fact that no two of these versions ever sound alike. In fact, why don't I demonstrate that by putting in two videos. Compare and, if you must, contrast.

And this:

They're both rather fascinating.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Thinking Inside The Box

The Guardian has a list of of the most annoying and hackneyed words and phrases in English. You can take a look at it here. The first on the list, chosen by Adam Horowitz, is thinking outside the box. Indeed, he suggests that anybody who uses the phrase should be sealed in a box.

I hated this phrase too, until I learned where it comes from. And I can therefore inform you all that the box referred to is, in fact, a square.

The phrase originates in a rather clever puzzle that was thought up in 1914, which I shall replicate here. Try and join all nine dots in the picture below using only four straight lines and without taking your pen from the paper (or computer screen).

Simple, isn't it?

What? No?

Well, try thinking outside the box.
Solution here.

Pandora thinking outside the box