Friday 30 September 2011

Twenty [One] Books on Language

A lady asked me to post a link to her list of the twenty best books on language. So here it is, and a very interesting list it seems too. However, there is one glaring omission that renders it utterly obsolete - it doesn't include this blog's book The Etymologicon.

The mere fact that The Etymologicon doesn't actually come out until November the third does not excuse this. November 3rd is only a few weeks away; and, anyway, you can already pre-order it with FREE SHIPPING TO ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD from this website, and that's with a 25% reduction.

And how else are you ever going to find out about the etymological connection between film buffs and buffaloes, or find Mick Jagger's use on a lawn? No how - that's how. No how.

Did I mention the free shipping? Did I? I did? I mentioned the free shipping. Good. Then your Christmas shopping is solved by FOLLOWING THIS LINK.

Gold foil on crimson cloth.
It's all too beautiful.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Umbrellas and Bumbershoots

It's a funny thought for an Englishman that the etymological purpose of an umbrella is to keep the sun off you. Umbrella comes from the Latin umbra, or shade, so an umbrella is a little shade, just as a parasol is a protector-against-the-sun, just as a parachute is a protector-against-falling.

An eldritch combination of the above words is bumbershoot - which is an American slang term for an umbrella and an utterly lovely word to say. Basically, if you mess up the word umbrella you're as likely as not to get something along the lines of brolly or bumber. Then, if you notice that an umbrella looks a bit like a parachute you can add the chute onto the end and get bumbershoot, which first appeared in 1896.

The OED has bumbershoot down as originally and chiefly US. However, I intend to import it the moment that the Indian Summer currently hanging over London perishes in October's icy grip.

Damned sunburn

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Anglophone Saxophones

The English-speaking world is anglophone because England (or Angle-land) is named after the Angles who invaded along with the Saxons when the ages were Very Dark Indeed. But what of the poor dear Saxons? Why didn't they get a phone?

Well, they sort of did. You see, the surname Sax or Saxe means Saxon, and does all across northwest Europe. So Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) must have come by a straight male line of descent from a Saxon. So when he patented the saxophone in 1846, the anglophone world was finally reunited with its etymological twin.

Anglophone and saxophone.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Hanging Out with Pickwick

There's a strange feeling that you get when you're reading an old novel and find what you thought was a new phrase. Take, for example, hanging out. It's a phrase that I would have imagined was invented by surfers in the 1960s. So when you come across it in Dickens' Pickwick Papers from 1837 it feels decidedly odd:

Mr. Bob Sawyer, thrusting his forefinger between two of Mr. Pickwick's ribs, and thereby displaying his native drollery, and his knowledge of the anatomy of the human frame, at one and the same time, inquired—

'I say, old boy, where do you hang out?' Mr. Pickwick replied that he was at present suspended at the George and Vulture.

Not only was the phrase around, but it was familiar and annoying enough to be parodied. In fact, hang out comes from the idea of hanging out a sign to show that you're there for business. The same thing once struck me when I was reading Great Expectations. Wemmick is miserable and tells Pip:

"It's a bad job," said Wemmick, scratching his head, "and I assure you I haven't been so cut up for a long time."

Pickwick Papers also contains a character called Mr Phunky, which may be a forerunner of our more modern term. It was only eight years later, in 1845, that a writer called Samuel Naylor was able to pen the immortal line:

I do feel somewhat funky.

Anyway, here's a recording of an interview with Mr Pickwick.

Monday 26 September 2011

The Esquivalient Cartographer

Many moons ago, I wondered whether there was a lexicographic equivalent of a cartographer's folly. Basically, mapmakers put tiny mistakes into their maps so that they can prove that a rival has simply copied from them. So I was wondering whether dictionaries did the same thing. And it turns out that they do.

The New Oxford American Dictionary apparently included the word esquivalience as just such a copyright trap. The entry ran:

Esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities ... late 19th cent.; perhaps from the French esquiver, ‘dodge, slink away.’

Which is rather appropriate. The trick worked as well. included the word and credited it to their paper-sister publication Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English. So the lexicographer's folly exists. have since removed the word.

Mind you, I think esquivalient is rather a beautiful word, and intend to use it for every workshy lollygagger I come across.

Of course, in some ways, Blackadder got there first with his contrafibularities.

American readers should now recognise Hugh Laurie.

P.S. This article also has a nice bit about Mountweazels.

Friday 23 September 2011


Last night I was sending a text message in which I happened to use the word apocolocyntosis. I was shocked to discover that apocolocyntosis isn't in my phone's dictionary, but even more shocked when the lady I was texting replied that she didn't know what apocolocyntosis meant. Barbarians and heathens! I live among barbarians and heathens.

Apocolocyntosis is, of course, the act of being turned into a pumpkin, or pumpkinification if you like. Now, I'll admit that it's not that useful a word when you're not talking about Cinderella; but, when you are, it's invaluable.

It's also a nice, single, concise word if, for example, a loved one were turned suddenly into a pumpkin and you had to call the emergency services.

The origin of the word has nothing to do with Cinderella. It was the title of a satire by Seneca the Younger. When Roman Emperors died they used to go through an apotheosis, which is when you become a god. So Seneca wrote a satire about how when Claudius died the gods wouldn't have him and he was instead sent to hell. Seneca describes Claudius' deathbed thus:

The last words [Claudius] was heard to speak in this world were these. When he had made a great noise with that end of him which talked easiest, he cried out, "Oh dear, oh dear! I think I have made a mess of myself." Whether he did or no, I cannot say, but certain it is he always did make a mess of everything.

At Claudius' funeral procession they chant this:
Mourn, mourn, pettifoggers, ye venal crew,
And you, minor poets, woe, woe is to you!
And you above all, who get rich quick
By the rattle of dice and the three card trick.

And as I'm a pettifogging minor poet who can actually do the three card trick, I find these lines unutterably tragic.

The Emperor Claudius

P.S. Just to be precise the name Apocolocyntosis was ascribed to Seneca's satire (probably) by Cassius Dio.

Thursday 22 September 2011

An Actual Oubliette

I had often heard and used the word oubliette, but until a couple of weeks ago I had never actually seen one.

An oubliette is a dungeon with an entrance (usually in the ceiling) but no exit. If you meet a chap you don't like, you can throw him into an oubliette and then forget about him entirely. The French for forget is oublier, hence the name.

Of course, despite the rumours, I don't own an actual dungeon, but the word is so useful as a metaphor that I use it regularly. I've even used the word on this blog here and here. The OED mentions that oubliette is almost always used figuratively. Then, on holiday, I was visiting the castle of Najac and saw this sign:

A ladre, by the way, is a miser. So the sign says Tower of the Misers, Ancient Oubliette. And next to the sign was a door (apologies for the quality of the photos, I had only my phone).

And here is the best photograph I could take of the interior of the metaphor.

It only remains to mention that I also visited Albi, which is the town after which the Albigensian Heresy was named, although it's better known as Catharism, which means purity. Catharism is very important in the history of buggery as I explained in this old post.

Wednesday 21 September 2011


Whenever you read the minutes of a meeting, whether it's a board-meeting, an AGM or an orgy, you will find near the top the cumbersome phrase "apologies for absence", or in some particularly verbose cases "apologies for non-attendance". This can be done away with. You see, there is a single (and singularly useful) word for that: essoinment.

Essoinment is the act of essoining, and essoining is (OED):

To offer an excuse for the non-appearance of (a person) in court; to excuse for absence.

So all that the minutes of the meeting really need is Essoinments followed by a list of names.

Too many essoinments.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

A ------ of iPhones

The other day my sister asked what the collective noun should be for iPhones (there was a pile of them on the table), and I couldn't think of one.

Just as there is a pride of lions and a murder of crows, there are all sorts of odd collective nouns hanging around the language - for example a nonethriving of jugglers.

Once*, several British Prime Ministers past and present were gathered together and somebody asked what the collective noun should be for such a meeting. Harold Macmillan suggested that they should be called a lack of principles.

Anyway, if anyone can come up with a collective noun for iPhones, please leave it in the comments. An imaginary prize will be awarded for the best.

Am I doing this right?

*The details of this story vary enormously but they all seem to agree that it was Macmillan who came up with the bon mot.

Monday 19 September 2011

The Burrito Bureaucracy

A couple of weeks ago, I sat at my desk eating a burrito, without realising that there was any connection between the two.

Burrito is Spanish for little donkey. Apparently this is because a burrito looks like a donkey's ear (and as you'll know from a previous post donkeys' ears are so long that they spawned the phrase donkeys [y]ears).

Anyway, a burrito is a little burro and burro comes from Spanish burrico, and burrico comes from Latin burricus meaning horse, and burricus probably comes from burrus meaning reddish brown.

But that same Latin burrus went into French as bure meaning dark brown. The French, being a literate lot, started to cover their writing desks with dark brown cloth. These desks became known as bureaus. Soon the office that contained the desk came to be known as a bureau, and when the office and officialdom rule, you have a bureaucracy.

And hence the bureaucratic Flying Burrito Brothers.

Friday 16 September 2011

Anadiplosis and Anaphora

Yesterday, I was shuffling along the street with my iPod on shuffle. These two shuffles are, incidentally, related. Dragging your feet  became fidgeting which in turn became moving the cards around in a pack. Anyway, I was about to shuffle off this mortal coil when on came David Bowie's song Modern Love, and I was suddenly struck by the rhetorical arrangement of the chorus.

Anaphora is the technical term for starting a series of clauses with the same words. A classic example is Winston Churchill's speech:

...we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender...

It's a simple and surefire winner of a rhetorical technique. Another simple trope is anadiplosis. This is where you use the last word or phrase of one clause as the first word or phrase of the next. Yoda once pointed out that:

Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

So what do you get if you cross Winston Churchill with Yoda? You get the chorus of David Bowie's Modern Love, which goes like this:

Never going fall for
Modern love, walks beside me,
Modern love, walks on by,
Modern love gets me to the church on time.
Church on time terrifies me
Church on time makes me party
Church on time puts my trust in God and man.
God and man, no confessions,
God and man, no religion,
God and man don't believe in
Modern love.

It's a great little chorus and, if you think about, is simply an exercise in anadiplosis and anaphora that comes full circle to the refrain of modern love.

And here is a beautiful cover version.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Elephantship and other Ships

Sometimes, the dictionary disappoints. You see the word elephantship and your mind races, your imagination buds and blooms, as you imagine a boat manned entirely by pachyderms. However, the OED defines elephantship as the personality of an elephant. It's the same ship that you find in lordship, hardship, friendship, and governorship, which is not a ship manned by the gubernatorial.

It's also the same ship that you find in worship, which is really worth-ship. There used to be a lot more of these words but they have slowly dwindled and vanished. I shall revive them, though, and set sail on a drunkship to gladship.

Hell yeah.

Wednesday 14 September 2011


As I passed a shop selling homeopathic remedies the other day, it occurred to me that I didn't really know what homeopathy meant. I mean, I have a vague notion that it probably involves shoving some St John's wort in your ears to balance your negative energies, but I wasn't really sure. But I did know that homeo means the same (as in homosexual) and that pathy means suffering, as in pathetic.

And, bingo, I was spot on. Homeopathy proper is the idea that like cures like. So a disease may be cured if you give somebody a medicine that would usually cause the same (homeo) symptoms. It was thought up by a chap called Samuel Hahnemannn (1755-1843) who noticed that a kind of Peruvian tree bark that appeared to cure malaria, when given to a healthy fellow, produced the symptoms of malaria.

For myself, I'm perfectly convinced by this theory and intend from now on to cure drunkenness by drinking, and undertake to remedy anybody's nosebleed by punching them in the face.

I have also discovered that for years I have been using allopathic doctors, that's what homeopathic chaps call the rest of the medical profession. Allopathy is other suffering and it's the same allo that you get in allegory or other-speaking.

The Inky Fool now offers medical insurance

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Bibosity and Biberage

Bibosity is defined in the OED as capacity for drinking. It appears only to have been used once, in 1823, when a writer in Blackwood's Magazine referred to:

Vast ideas of stupendous bibosity.

A related word is a biberage, which is a drink given in place of a fee. So you get somebody to do you a favour and then buy them a pint. I know a lady who works for a large organisation. Usually she works for one department, but occasionally helps out at another. To keep things simple the second department pays her in champagne. I have seen bottles lined up all along her the front passage of her house. It's a beautiful sight, and all of these bottles are biberages.

The only way to commute

Monday 12 September 2011

Discovering Disco

I sat in airport yesterday for an hour gongoozling a screen on which amazing facts were being put up for the edification of the delayed passengers. One of the amazing facts was that disco meant I learn in Latin. The idea, I think, was that this was amusing because it made a disco sound like a school.

The fact was technically true, but utterly misleading, in that there is no connection between the two words. However, buried at the bottom was a little gem of truth, because a disco is really a library.

The Italian for library is biblioteca, which means book collection. It therefore follows, as surely as night follows day, that the Italian for a record collection should be discoteca. It was the French who adapted this word into the more familiar discotheque, and it was the Americans who shortened it to disco. Then, because America is cool, disco got taken up by every country in the world. And so an Italian library became a universal nightclub.

It should also be noted that the Latin disco (learn) doesn't have anything to do with discover (dis-cover).

Sunday 11 September 2011

Booker Books

I am back and normal posting will be resumed tomorrow. Until then I can think of nothing better for you to do than to have a look at this bibliophagic blog on the current contestants for the Man Booker Prize.

The Inky Fool returns from holiday

Friday 9 September 2011

One Hundred Words

I'm afraid that I'm on holy day beyond the realms of wifi. My Internet is limited to a friend's dongle. So before that runs out I shall give you a link to this list of the hundred most beautiful words in the English language. I can't say I agree with them all, but I do like chatoyant.

Thursday 8 September 2011


If you ever want to call somebody a liar, but don't want them to know that you have made such an accusation, the word to use is mendaciloquent. Although, really it's more subtle than that. Mendaciloquent is a combination of mendacity and eloquence. So perhaps it's more like having the gift of the gab, except much, much grander.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Salient Salmon and Somersaults

The word salient originally meant leaping. It comes from the Latin word salire, which meant leap, and it is one of the many words that were invented by this blog's favourite essayist Sir Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica:

Salient animalls, and such as move by leaping

But from these bestial beginnings, salient was then taken up by mathematicians, who decided to use it for a discontinuous leap in a graph. If the value of an equation changes suddenly then it leaps from one position on the graph to another. Thus is it salient.

From that you got the idea of anything that sticks out, and from there to today's meaning of important. However, many of salient's cousins are still jumping about. Salmon, for example, probably also derives from the Latin salire because salmon are always jumping out of the water. And so do the words assault (to jump at) insult (to jump in) and exult (to jump out). Moreover, there is a supersault, although we don't spell it that way anymore, because somewhere on the journey from Latin to English it got corrupted to sobersault and from there to somersault.

The Inky Fool inspecting his ceiling

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Zugzwang, the devil, and Beowulf

Zugzwang is a chess term. When any move you can make will land you in more trouble, that's a zugzwang. It's from the German for move (zug) and compulsion (zwang). But try saying it aloud. It's glorious. It has a sort of back-and-forth motion to it.

Essentially, zugzwang is the same as being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, except that it implies more options. The misery and melancholy of the zugzwang can extend in every direction.

Incidentally, you may have been wondering why I didn't capitalise the devil in devil and the deep blue sea. The reason is that the phrase has nothing whatsoever to do with his satanic majesty. Like so many phrases it's nautical.

The devil of a ship is, according to Smyth's Sailor's Word-Book (1867),

The seam which margins the waterways on a ship's hull 

Which means that it's a strip on the outside of the ship, just above the waterline. Occasionally, sailors used to be sent down to caulk the devil, which was a very precarious job because you were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

That, in turn reminds me of one of the finest moments in Anglo-Saxon poetry, with which I shall leave you for today. It's from Beowulf and describes the lake where Grendel and his mother live. Here's Seamus Heaney's translation:

A few miles from here
A frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
Above a mere; the overhanging bank
Is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
The water burns. And the mere-bottom
Has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
The hart in flight from pursuing hounds
Will turn to face them with firm-set horns
And die in the wood rather than the dive
Beneath its surface. That is no good place.

Which is classic case of elaphine zugzwang.

Poor bit of a ship.
(Incidentally, I wrote about this song before. Link here.)

Monday 5 September 2011


A gongoozler is an idle fellow who stares at things. I am therefore, I confess, a gongoozler. But it's such a lovely word that I don't mind. I gongoozle with pride.

Gongoozler is only recorded from 1904 onwards; but it's probably a lot older. It is, or appears to be, a combination of two Northern dialect words for stare - gawn and gooze - which must somehow be related to gaze and gawp.

According to the OED, gongoozler was originally much more specific and meant "an idler who stares at length at activity on a canal". Luckily, I have just moved house and am now only ten minutes amble from the Regent's Canal. So I can gongoozle to my heart's content. In fact, I find it astonishing that the estate agents didn't mention anything about the gongoozling potential.

Venice - the gongoozler's paradise.

Friday 2 September 2011

Egotheists and Interviews

One up from an egotist is an egomaniac. One up from an egomaniac is an egotheist, which the OED defines as the (mystical) identification of oneself with the Deity. One up from an egotheist is a blogger who posts a link to a magazine article about himself.

That's me.

Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.

You see, The Bookseller magazine did an interview with me because of the my book, The Etymologicon, which is coming out in November (but you can order it now). So if you're as obsessed with me as I am, click on this link. I do lots of explaining of funny words and the like and the interviewer was quite unnecessarily nice about me.

I should also mention that the OED says of the word interview:

In early times, esp. a formal or ceremonial meeting of princes or great persons

Me. Me. Me. Me. Me!

Thursday 1 September 2011

Buoyant Boys

I had never, until the other day noticed the obvious connection between a buoy, the thing that floats around in the sea, and buoyant. It may have been obvious to you, you clever thing, but it had whooshed straight over my head like the link between Capuchins and cappuccinos.

Buoy itself comes from the Old French word boie meaning chain, because buoys are chained in place. This means that a buoyant personality is technically a shackled one. What's odder is that if somebody was a prisoner they were emboie, or chained up. This meant that boy was a name given to prisoners, then servants, then peasants, and then young males in general. And that's where we get the word boy.