Monday 31 October 2011

By And By

A by-way is a little path aside from the main road. A by-product is a less important product aside from one's main aim. So I had always assumed that a by-law was a little law aside from the laws of the land. I was wrong.

If you want to know about the by in by-law you should investigate in Derby, Whitby, Rugby, Grimsby, Selby, Ashby Puerorum or any of the towns in the north eastern quarter of England that end with the letters -by.

Why are all those towns in the North East? Because they were all named by the marauding Vikings who ravaged and raped and pillaged their way around England until Alfred the Great made them stop. In fact, you can work out the line of the Vikings' farthest advance by simply pulling out a map of Britain and searching for the -bys.

By was simply the Viking word for town, and if you go to Norway or Sweden it's still the word that those unrepentant marauders use. So what do you call a law that only applies in this town? That's right, you call at it a by-law.

P.S. The media maelstrom that is The Etymologicon continues. Not only was I on the radio again last night way past my bedtime, but there's a piece in today's Daily Mail. The book will be lolling in the shops on Thursday. And, if you're in another country or can't make it to a bookshop, you can order it with free shipping to anywhere in the world from this website.

Friday 28 October 2011

A Churl on a Gentleman

For as long as I can remember I have known the old drinker's rhyme:

Beer and wine:
Feeling fine.
Wine and beer:
Oh dear.

There are even equivalents in other languages, although I can't now remember what they are. However, I did find a rather lovely alternative in Brewer's: Don't put a churl on a gentleman.

Churl is an old word for a fool, and before that it meant peasant, and before that, way back in the days of Old Norse when it was spelled karl, it just meant man. That's also where we get the names Carl, Charles, and (oddly given that it means man) Caroline.

Even more oddly, Charlemagne is a variant of Charles/Carl and because of that the Czech word for king is kral, the Polish is krol, and the Lithuanian is karalius. So a churl is, etymologically, both a man and a woman, a peasant and a king.

And, for what it's worth, I've always said:

Beer, wine and whisky:
Feeling frisky.

Would it be churlish to point out that this song is about an eleven year old?

Thursday 27 October 2011

Twinters, Bidents and Conundrum-Makers

A twinter is a two-year-old cow. It's a dialect term that is a shortening of two-winters. A two-year-old sheep, on the other hand, is called a bident. A bident is one short of a trident, which is three-toothed fork. The idea is that after two years a sheep, apparently, has two rows of teeth and is therefore ready to be sacrificed. This causes me concern as today is, in a way, my second birthday. I am a twinter and bident.

Inky Fool is two years old today. The earth has completed its weary journey around the sun twice since first I posted on the subject of branding. And just to emphasise the pointlessness of it all, the planet is now back where it started.

Inky Fool, though, is not. Inky Fool has gained many lovely readers, such as you*. Moreover, Inky Fool has a book - The Etymologicon - that will be coming out in a week's time and is already available on Kindle.

And as it is my blog-birthday, I shall simply quote the following for no reason other than the fact that I like it. It's from Dialogues of Dead (1699) by William King.

Hesychius. Why so they are! But can there be more Wit than in an Etymology, of which you are full from all Languages?

Gouldman. Etymologies may indeed furnish Materials for Quiblers, Punsters, and Conundrum-Makers, but these sorts of Wit are as much out of use as hammer'd Money.

Finally, I should apologise. There was no post yesterday. I thought there was. I wrote one and I believed that I had clicked on PUBLISH POST. Mind you, I'll believe anything.

The birthday party

*Well, I assume you're lovely. Are you? Answers in the comments, please.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Sacralgia and Kippers

File:Viles Bodies.jpgVile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh has this to say about kippers:

Adam ate some breakfast. No kipper, he reflected, is ever as good as it smells; how this too earthly contact with flesh and bone spoiled the first happy exhilaration; if only one could live, as Jehovah was said to have done, on the savour of burnt offerings.

Now, if you want to make a great smell for your deity what you need is burnt bone, and apparently (I've never sacrificed anyone myself) the best bone to do this with is the os sacrum, the sacred bone. It's at the bottom of your spine and the Romans believed that it was the part that the gods really liked. That's why it's called the sacrum to this very day.

If you have a pain in your sacrum, it's called sacralgia. What I like about this is that, etymologically, sacralgia means sacred pain, but really it means a right pain in the arse. But if you told somebody that they were being a sacralgia, they would never realise.

This makes sacralgia a very useful word.

The Inky Fool regrets his choice of restaurant.

Monday 24 October 2011

Currying Favour and Curried Horses

It's a little odd that even at the finest of Indian restaurants you can't order a curried favour. In fact, currying favour gets odder the more you look at the phrase. That's because favour isn't favour. It's a horse.

Once upon a time, six or seven hundred years ago there was a French allegorical poem called the Roman de Fauvel. It's about a horse called Fauvel who leaves his stable, moves into the biggest room in his master's house, and installs a custom made hayrack.

The point of the allegory is that the second the horse appears to be in charge everybody suddenly wants to be his friend. People come from far and wide to groom Fauvel.

For some reason this story was immensely popular and got translated into English, with the name Fauvel unchanged. However, the English word for grooming a horse was currying. It's a verb that is, apparently, still used in equestrian circles*. Thus a phrase developed. Anybody who sycophantically went round trying to be nice to a lord was said to be currying fauvel.

However, once the old French allegory had been forgotten, the idea of currying fauvel started to look rather odd. What the hell was a fauvel? Nobody knew any more.

Confusion about the phrase lasted until 1560 when the Geneva Bible came up with this line:

He thoght by this meanes to courry fauour with the worlde

It makes sense. Nobody knew what a fauvel was, but everybody knew that a sycophant wants a favour. So every since then favours have been curried and patronage has been vindalooed.

And here is the original favour being curried.

*I have never moved in equestrian circles myself. I can't seem to maintain a stable relationship.

P.S. There's an article about my book, The Etymologicon, in today's Sun.

Sunday 23 October 2011

The Telegraph

File:Télégraphe Chappe 1.jpgSome words pop up long before you think they would. The periodical Nature mentioned a marvellous maze of internetted connections in 1883. Computers have been employed since 1613 (when they were people who computed). The telegraph has been around since 1794. It was invented by a French chap called Claude Chappe and it consisted of wooden posts that could be moved around and thus form a distant vision or, in Greek, a tele-graph.

All of which is a long way round of saying that today's Sunday Telegraph (available at all good agents of news) has two lovely articles about Inky Fool and the book The Etymologicon: a leader that can be read here, and an article that is behind this link. In the papery version of the paper (from Greek papyrus) they can be found on pages 13 and 27.

This makes me inordinately and exorbitantly proud.

File:Chappe semaphore.jpg
The Inky Fool could not afford a mobile phone.

Friday 21 October 2011

Authentic Authors

A couple of weeks ago I was in a pub. There is nothing unusual about that. The pub had two beers available on tap, and on the taps were those little armorial plates that tell you the name and the ABV and other such urgent information. What struck me, though, was that one of the beers described itself as original, and the other described itself as authentic.

I, of course, made a fuss. I told the barman that I made a point of only drinking beers that were both. I tried to haggle a reduction, failed and got drunk anyway. However, even in my beers, it occurred to me that I didn't really know what authentic meant. Did it mean real, extant? In which case it would hardly need to be pointed out. Did it mean not fake? Who fakes beer?

So, I fled to a dictionary, and of course authentic, etymologically, means something that is by an author, and therefore has authority. So authentic is, or was, roughly a synonym for authoritative and referred to books.

It should be remembered here that in the medieval period there were writers and there were auctors. Auctors were the only ones who had auctorite and whose words were therefore auctentyke, from which we get authentic.

I have to therefore concede that T-shirts could be authentic or knock-off copies. I would also note very, very strongly, that as I am an author The Etymologicon (which comes out in only a few days time now) will definitely be authentic, although it unfortunately contains no beer.

Pre-order it here. Please.

Me in the pub

Thursday 20 October 2011

A River, In Other Words

If you click on this little link, it will take you through to a map of America. On it every place name that refers to a watercourse is marked (apart from river and creek because they're too common). However, the bayous are marked in green, the rios are marked in white, the brooks in pale blue, and so on and so forth. It's therefore a map of regional dialects and old languages.

It's rather wonderful, and I didn't even know that a kill was a kind of stream (it's evidence of Dutch settlers).

Also, if you click on the image, it ought to enlarge.

This, incidentally, is what T.S. Eliot had to say about rivers:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget.

This song has always interested me. The central idea of it is that a river is something that you can skate off on, like a road. This works if you're Canadian, but to an Englishman it's like saying 'I wish I had a fish to do my gardening for me.' Some thoughts, like some wines, don't travel. The same thing goes for rain and shade in the Bible.

Wednesday 19 October 2011


Esquisse is a sublimely pretty word. Try saying it aloud. It sounds like a gentle kiss. In fact, it is a first sketch, an idea dashed off in a few seconds as a preliminary and plan for a larger and greater work. As such, it sounds like a thoroughly useful word. One could employ it in business presentations: "Of course what you see here is merely an esquisse, but once we've got the marketing guys and people from compliance in, I think you'll find it'll be quite something. Just needs some adumbrations."

It would raise the tone.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Ossian, Oscar, and Ocker

Back in the eighteenth century, European culture was obsessed with the idea of the noble savage, particularly the Celtic variety. They loved the idea of some kilt-clad warrior striding around a misty moor or foggy fen, playing lonely bagpipes and gazing down the glen.

There was a slight problem, though: no actual account of a noble Scotsmen had ever been found*. So a wily poet called James Macpherson decided to make one up. He claimed to have discovered and translated an ancient Scots epic about a chap called Ossian. It was a complete fraud, and those parts of it that I've read are terrible, but it was the fraud that the literary world wanted, and they lapped it up.

Goethe loved it and mentioned it in Werther. Napoleon was so obsessed with the poem that he carried a copy with him everywhere. He even insisted that his godson (who later became king of Sweden) be renamed after one of the characters in the poem, who had the then obsolete moniker of Oscar.

Thus did the name Oscar suddenly become popular all over Britain and Scandinavia.

A few decades later an Irish nationalist called Jane decided to give her son the silliest possible old Celtic name she could imagine to fit in with her political principles. So she called him Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde.

Oscar Wilde was convicted of Uranian lust in 1895 and the name Oscar took a bit of a hit in its popularity, but only in Britain. In Scandinavia Oscars thrived. And in Australia.

In fact, Oscar was such a common Australian name that when, in the sixties, a comedian called Ron Frazer wanted to create a character who would embody all the quintessential Australian virtues of boorishness and barflying, he called him Oscar, or more precisely he used the Australian shortening of the name: Ocker. Here is a video of Ocker in action.

As you can see Ocker isn't actually that bad a fellow. However, the word has moved on. Most Australians today are unaware of the original comedy sketches and use the word ocker (uncapitalised) as an adjective to refer to the most boorish, beer-swilling, prawn-barbying, becorked-hatted bush-whacker imaginable. It's the Australian equivalent of redneck.

It's therefore an immensely useful word if you wish to abuse Australians in words of their own invention, and who doesn't want to do that?

Ocker Oscar

*This is unchanged.

Monday 17 October 2011

Horse Chestnuts, Radishes and Radicals

I had always assumed that the horse chestnut had something to do with the horse radish, and I'm therefore terribly sad to find that I was, essentially, wrong. I had had a lovely picture in my mind of a proud horse tending his garden.

Horse chestnuts were once used as a medicine for horses, they were believed to cure their coughs. Other horse medicines included horse bane (phellandrium equaticum) which cures horses with palsy, and horse cassia (cassia marginata) which helps with their constipation.

However, horse radishes don't cure a horse of anything at all, they're just big. A horse ant is a big ant. A horse cucumber is a big cucumber. A horse mushroom is a big mushroom. And a horse radish is a great big radish.

Incidentally, radish means root etymologically speaking, from the Latin radix. That's why, if you want to change things from the roots upwards, you are a political radical. This means that, so far as I'm concerned, all radishes are radicals and all radicals are radishes.

Or maybe I'm wrong.

P.S. If you want to hear me on the radio last night, you can follow this link. I start about half an hour in. I haven't listened to it myself, but that's because I have a pathological hatred of my own voice.

Friday 14 October 2011

Beau Traps and Affpuddles

So, the rain has stopped and you're strolling along the pavement wearing your best socks when moist disaster strikes. You tread upon a paving stone that looks dry and safe, but it's loose. The stone flicks down and water that was hidden beneath it squirts up and spoils your socks, soaks your shoes, and leaves the hem of your trousers sodden. There is a name for this.

In fact, there are two names. Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) has this entry:

Beau Trap A loose stone in a pavement, under which water lodges, and on being trod upon, squirts it up, to the great damage of white stockings; also a sharper neatly dressed, lying in wait for raw country squires, or ignorant fops.

A beau was, of course, a well-dressed young man. So a beau trap is the enemy of good clothing. However, the term has an antiquated feel and there is a more recent alternative. Douglas Adams and John Lloyd once wrote a book called The Meaning of Liff. The idea of the book was that they took British place names and assigned amusing definitions to them.

...there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no words exist.

On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places.

Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signposts and into the the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and make a more positive contribution to society.

Anyway, The Meaning of Liff contains this entry for the name of a Dorset village:

Affpuddle (n.)
A puddle which is hidden under a pivoted paving stone. You only know it's there when you step on the paving stone and the puddle shoots up your leg.

So there are two names for the same pavemental phenomenon. But are there any others? A friend of mine was asking me for something more modern-sounding. More hip. More cool. If anybody has another term - either one you've heard or that you've just invented - please post it in the comments.

The caption here reads: Treading in a beau trap while in the act of gaily advancing your foot, to make a bow to some charming woman of your acquaintance whom you suddenly meet, and to whom you liberally impact a share of the jet d'eau.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Leaving in the Lurch

The other day, I was promising not to leave a friend in the lurch when I noticed that I had no idea what a lurch was or how, exactly, you could be in one. I like to keep my promises nebulous.

I had always thought that leaving in the lurch had something to do with lurching back and forth, or that political favourite: a sickening lurch to the right.

However, sideways lurching is of nautical origin and has nothing to do with being in or out of the lurch. This latter lurch is helpfully defined in John Florio's 1598 Worlde of Words:

Marcio, a lurch or maiden set at any game.

A lurch is a score in a game, specifically it's a thrashing where one player doesn't win even a single point. If I beat you at tennis by a game to love that's a lurch. In fact, there are all sorts of terribly technical variants. In the game of cribbage a lurch involves scoring 61 before your opponent has scored 31. In whist it's something else, and in some sport it means scoring five before the other player scores one.

Anyway, lurch became a term for any uncomfortable pickle or scrape that you might find yourself in. And thus you can have a chap at your lurch, give a chap the lurch, or leave somebody in the lurch.

Now, if you're British, go and get yourself a copy of today's Times. If you turn to page 30 you'll see Matthew Parris writing about my book The Etymologicon, which is out in three week's time, but can, as you'll know, be pre-ordered here.

The Inky Fool prepares for a comeback

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Nice Niece News

I am unclified*. I have joined the avunculate**. I am an eme*** and an oom****. My patruity***** has come upon me. I should therefore toddle off and see my new niece.

*Turned into an uncle
** Maternal uncles regarded as a collective body (so saith the OED)
*** Uncle (Old English)
**** An older man, especially an uncle. (South African)
***** The condition of being an uncle (as opposed to paternity).

P.S. Last week's posts on uncleship were on time. My niece was not.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Advance Copies of the Etymologicon from Waterstones

The enchanting people at Waterstones are giving away a few advance copies of my book, The Etymologicon, on Facebook. To be in with a chance just follow this link.

The Etymologicon, in case you didn't know, is all about the strange etymological connections between words. So if you vitally need to know what testicles have to do with testaments, why all dogs are cynical, or how barristas connect to barristers, The Etymologicon is the tome for you.

It's here and it's shiny, and it's in the shops from November the third.

Red Herrings

Yesterday, I explained how harking back was to do with calling back dogs who have lost the trail of scent. Harking back is thoroughly necessary when the dogs are following a red herring. Hounds love the smell of a good red herring. Thomas Nashe observed, back in 1599, that:

Next, to draw on hounds to a sent, to a redde herring skinne there is nothing comparable.

So, if you want to lead a dog astray the best thing to do is to drag a red herring along the ground, thus making a false trail of scent for them to run after. It appears that this was originally done just to give the dogs and horses some exercise. You laid out a herring trail and then went for a jolly good gallop. This from the Gentleman's Recreation of 1697:

Now, that I may not leave you in Ignorance what a Train-scent is, I shall acquaint you that it has its Name as I suppose, from the Manner of it, viz. the trailing or dragging of a dead Cat or Fox (and in Case of Necessity a Red-herring) three or four Miles, (according to the Will of the Rider, or the Directions given him) and then laying the Dogs on the Scent.

Nineteenth century huntsmen, though, got wilier. They used red herrings as deliberate distractions to train hounds to follow the original scent. They would lay out one scent of proper prey, and then drag a red herring across it. If the dogs followed the red herring they were harked back to the original trail.

So in 1836 The Times could write metaphorically that:

Mr. Rice called Lord Lyndhurst's intimation that the Government might take off the whole of the stamp duty ‘a false drag—the scent of a red-herring to draw off the hounds’.

And thus the modern red herring. There is also a phrase 'Neither fish, nor fowl nor good red herring.' But nobody knows where that comes from at all.

And now go and look at this on Facebook: Waterstones are giving away advanced copies of my book! I saw the first copies yesterday and they are more beautiful than all other things on earth. So go to Waterstones and like it all those other facebiblical things that folk do.

Fishing with the Inky Fool

Monday 10 October 2011

Harking Back, Forward and Away

Shakespeare stole most of his best ideas from The Simpsons. So Mr Burns' great line "Release the hounds" is repeated in much less memorable form in The Tempest, where Prospero sets a pack of ghostly dogs on Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo.

A noise of hunters heard. Enter divers Spirits, in shape of dogs and hounds, and hunt them about, PROSPERO and ARIEL setting them on

PROSPERO Hey, Mountain, hey!

ARIEL Silver I there it goes, Silver!

PROSPERO Fury, Fury! there, Tyrant, there! hark! hark!

CALIBAN, STEPHANO, and TRINCULO, are driven out

The reason for all those harks of Prospero's is that, though hark can just mean listen up as in Hark the herald angels singhark is also a hunting cry. When you want your hounds to set off you shout Hark-away. If you want them to follow the scent onwards you shout Hark forward. However, if they have lost the scent and gone the wrong way, you shout Hark back.

In 1882 Robert Louis Stevenson said of a fellow that "He has to hark back again to find the scent of his argument."

But these days the original hunting sense has been forgotten, except by very old people who own packs of hounds, like Mr Burns.

P.S. And if you want to know the etymological connection between Caliban and the Caribbean, I explained it here.

Friday 7 October 2011

Uncle Sam of the U.S.

File:Unclesamwantyou.jpgI sometimes wonder as I post these things, whether everybody else knows this stuff already. But to continue with our theme of uncles, I never realised that Uncle Sam's initials are U.S., or United States; and though nobody is utterly sure of the origin, the OED says

The suggestion that it arose as a facetious interpretation of the letters U.S. is as old as the first recorded instances, and later statements connecting it with different government officials of the name of Samuel appear to be unfounded.

So there. I set off to do a bit of research and started reading an 1816 book called The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search of his Lost Honour, but aside from the phrase "Thus ejaculated the chief steward" it's terribly tedious. It does, though, have a nice bit at the beginning about how important it is for a book to be printed, otherwise:

Deeds of fame hard earned in iron fields of argument flutter on to future times, like the treaties of savages, on the tongues of women, mutilated, distorted, exaggerated and defrauded of half their beauty...

Which seems a terribly ungentlemanly attitude towards the tongues of women. Speaking of books being in print, did I mention that my book - The Etymologicon - is being published in three and a bit week's time? Did I mention that it's filled with all sorts of fascinating and entrancing etymological tales? Did I mention that you can pre-order it from this site with free shipping to anywhere in the world?

I did? Oh well.

This says "Friends-Democrats, Uncle Sam and Ivan". It's from a Tsarist pro-American propaganda campaign that started in 1917, and was then cut short.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Bob's Your Uncle

As a follow on from yesterday's post on avuncular nepotism, here's a brief account of exactly why Bob is your uncle.

It should be noted that there are several theories for this, and a new one is invented every week, but the standard line* is that it refers to the political career of Arthur Balfour. Balfour was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1902 to 1905, which, given the size of the British Empire, made him pretty much the most powerful man in the world. However, it was not always thus. When he was first elected to parliament in 1874 he was considered a bit of a joke; and when he was suddenly made Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887, everybody thought that it was rampant nepotism because the prime minister who promoted him was his uncle, Robert Cecil.

So, Balfour's easy success was down to the fact that Bob [Cecil] was his uncle.

As I said, there are a bunch of other theories, partially because the earliest written reference comes in 1931. However, if you wanted to know what Uncle Bob looked like, you should (probably) see the picture below.

*Despite what a citationless Wikipedia article may tell you.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Avuncular and Nepotistic Uncles

Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews - sons mine... ah God, I know not! Well -

The word nepotism is, literally, nephew-ism; because the Latin for nephew was nepot. However, nepotism gained its current currency from the overactive and sinful loins of the medieval popes. An Italian history of the papacy written in 1667 was titled Il Nipotismo di Roma and it opens thusly:

I begin the History of the Nipotismo, from the time of Sixtus the fourth, since he was the first that delivered up Rome and the Popedom in prey to his Nephews.

Sixtus the Fourth created 34 cardinals, of which six were his nephews; except that they probably weren't. You see a Pope wasn't officially allowed to have any sons, so, when he did, he would pass them off as his nephews and then show them enormous favouritism, or nepotism. So the primary definition of nepotism in the OED is:

The showing of special favour or unfair preference to a relative in conferring a position, job, privilege, etc.; spec. such favour or preference shown to an illegitimate son by a pope or other high-ranking ecclesiastic.

They in turn would have illegitimate sons whom they would pass off as their nephews and so on and so forth until the Roman Church had become thoroughly avuncular.

That's because avuncular just means like an uncle. So if you treat somebody in an avuncular manner, you behave as though you were a friendly and indulgent uncle. That's why nepotistic (being nice to your nephews) is exactly the same thing as avuncular (being nice to your nephews*).

In fact... hmmm... that's a very neat point, but it may be wrong. You see, I just checked, and avuncular, etymologically speaking, means like an avuncul and in Latin an avuncul is a maternal uncle. So perhaps a maternal uncle is kinder because his sister's children are not competing for his own children's inheritance. I don't know anything about Roman inheritance law, but that would make sense. Therefore, both words would have to do with the twisted relationship between uncles and wills.

This brings us inevitably to the nineteenth century and the wonderful dramatic monologues of Robert Browning. One of the best of these, and for some reason one of the least known, is The Bishop Orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, Rome. It's basically the deathbed speech of a thoroughly corrupt medieval priest who, among other things, can't remember which are his sons and which are his nephews.

Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?
Nephews - sons mine... ah God, I know not! Well -
She, men would have to be your mother once,
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!
What's done is done, and she is dead beside,
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,
And as she died so must we die ourselves,
And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream.

It's an absolutely bloody fantastic poem and you can read the whole thing by clicking on this link. There's a great bit in it where he's describing an ornament that he wants on top of his sarcophagus:

Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli,
Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape,
Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast...

Such lascivious blasphemy! Read the whole thing here. It's much better than anything I write.

*Nieces are innumerate and don't count.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

The Inky Sage

Not so much a post today, as a photograph. On the right you will see a picture of the great man Laszlo Biro. Biro (1899-1985) was a Hungarian journalist who noticed that newspaper ink dried more quickly than the ink in fountain pens. However, it was too viscous to put the one inside the other. So he and his brother came up with the ballpoint which is known today as the biro, although technically Biro should be capped up as, like Hoover or Photoshop, it remains a proprietary name.

As a strange point of linguistic imperialism, Biro was bought out by a Frenchman called Marcel Bich, who started manufacturing Bic Biros. I once bought a Bic Biro and noticed that it said on the side Made in France. What amused me was that this was a French company making a French product and I had bought the Biro in France. But it still said Made in France in English.

Monday 3 October 2011


Some words seem to have been invented just so that they could be used as names for characters in a Charles Dickens novel, or by children's authors. Such a word is dungle. I can just imagine old Professor Dungle pottering about his library, or Mr and Mrs Dungle being the evil family with whom our orphan-hero is forced to live.

In fact, though, dungle has a precise and clear meaning. It's a verb and it means to throw something onto a dunghill; once there the thing is said to be dungled.

It's worthwhile noticing that a dungled person is liable to end up sharny-faced, which is an old Scottish term for bedaubed with dung.

I'm glad I don't live in Old Scotland. However, I also reckon that I could get away with calling somebody sharny-faced and making it sound like a compliment.

As we're on the subject of dunghills, I cannot but quote John Lyly's lovely lines:

It is the disposition of the thought that altereth the nature of the thing. The sun shineth upon the dunghill and is not corrupted, the diamond lieth in the fire and is not consumed, the crystal toucheth the toad and is not poisoned, the trochilus liveth by the mouth of the crocodile and is not spoiled,

This is all terribly true, however the last clause is a bunch of crap:

a perfect wit is never bewitched with lewdness neither enticed with lasciviousness.