Wednesday 30 November 2011

Permit Me To Discept

I was reading Nightmare Abbey the other day, when I came upon this opening line in a piece of dialogue:

Permit me to discept.

'Eh?' I thought, and ran to a dictionary. Discept, it turns out, is a very, very arcane way of saying disagree. However, it has the great advantage that as nobody will be quite sure what the word means, it would be hard to take offence. Moreover, as nobody has any idea what the word means it immediately establishes that you're a jolly clever person and your disception will therefore carry more weight.

As a tidbit of literary trivia, the character who utters the line, Mr Ferdinando Flosky, is a piss-take of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Nightmare Abbey also contains the wise words: "You may as well dine first, and be miserable afterwards." This is a rule by which I live.

P.S. I'll be at the author evening in Waterstones Islington tonight from five till eight. But, if you're a North West Londoner, I'll be at West End books on December the eighth; and, if you're a central Londoner, I'll be at Waterstones Covent Garden on the evening of the 15th.
Disception granted.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Skinning a Flint

The other day I happened to use the word skinflint, and even as the word was popping out of my mouth, it occurred to me to wonder where on earth it had come from. Does it meant that you're flinty-skinned? Or that you have such a lean and hungry look that it appears that your skin is drawn over flintlike bones?

It turns out that neither is the case. Instead, there is a dead phrase whose cadaver lurks in that word. Once upon a time, avaricious people were said to be so greedy that they would skin a flint for its hide. Presumably, back when central heating was expensive and furry animals were abundant, people would occasionally skin dogs and cats (there's more than one way to do this) and, I imagine, even mice and rats in order to save money at the tailor. The absurd pinnacle of such skinning would be the attempt to skin a flint.

Daniel Defoe wrote a book called the Complete English Tradesman (1727), in which he warns that a successful merchant is liable to end up with the following reputation:

That he has been a Hard-Head, a Devourer, a Jew; for these, and more such are the general Titles by which such Tradesmen are usually distinguished and known; that he will let no Body live by him, that he will skin a Flint, that he will buy cheaper than any Man can fell, and sell dearer than any Man can buy; that he cares not who sinks if he can but swim; that he grinds the Faces of his Workmen, and will hardly let a poor Man live by his Labour: Thus he has got what he has by griping and squeezing of labouring Men; and that it will never thrive with him, and the like.

There was even a sister phrase to flay a flint and a later American variant that he would skin a flea for its hide and tallow. All lost and gone to the great phrasebook in the sky.

P.S. For those of you who live within striking distance of Islington, I will be along for the author evening at the Waterstones on Islington Green tomorrow (Wednesday) night. Essentially, there'll be mince pies and wine from 5 till 8 and all are welcome and I undertake to sign copies of The Etymologicon with any personalised dedication that your big heart requires.
Bring me my best skinning-knife.

Monday 28 November 2011

Variant Extravaganzas

The word extravaganza was imported from the Italian to describe an extravagant type of writing that was terribly popular in the nineteenth century. The Victorian stage was filled with extravaganzas, which were defined, by one of their chief exponents, as the whimsical treatment of a poetic subject.

Extravaganza was merely the Italian term for an extravagance, and nowadays, of course, you can have an extravaganza of Christmas trees or shopping or whatnot. Anything faintly over the top can be an extravaganza.

So far, so fun. But regular readers of this blog will know that I have a penchant and peccadillo for vagant words. You see, the vagant in extravagant just means wandering, and an extravagance was merely a wandering beyond the limits. That means that I've also been able to post on the English words noctivagant (wandering around at night), montivagant (wandering over mountains) and omnivagant (wandering absolutely everywhere).

This opens the delightful possibility that if you spent the whole night wandering around it would be a noctivaganza, and that a week's walking holiday in the Alps might count as a montivaganza and so on and so forth.

All of this was suggested to me by Paul Norman of Books Monthly who has just written a very complimentary review of my book The Etymologicon, which you can read here (it's on the left of the page).

File:Rice & Barton's Big Gaiety Spectacular Extravaganza Co. - Gaiety Dancers.png
I think the third from the left may be a crafty man.

Friday 25 November 2011

The Law of the Plinth

A very observant reader has posted on the Dear Dogberry page asking why there aren't more rhymes for plinth. She observes that:

I can't think of anything it rhymes with or even any other word with 'nth' apart from numbers ending in a 'n' when ordering things by position.

Now that's not exactly right, and indeed she corrected herself with labyrinth. There's also hyacinth, labyrinth, absinthe (depending on how you pronounce it) and synth. There are even some weakly stressed words like jacinth (a kind of gem) and Corinth. However, that last example might make you notice that all of these words are late imports. None of them derive from Old English.

Even the OE-derived words that have Nth, such as month and ninth, once didn't. The Old English for ninth was noneth, and for month was monat. Had you been alive a thousand years ago you wouldn't have found any nth words. Or mth words. Or mf words. The Anglo-Saxons had no umph. This is the long arm of the Ingvaeonic Nasal Spirant Law.

Don't worry. Ingvaeonic Nasal Spirant sounds rather intimidating and complex, but it isn't.

Ingvaeonic just means Old English, Old Frisian and Old Saxon. These were old languages spoken in Denmark(ish) and then brought to England.

A Nasal sound is just one that you can't make when holding your nose. Try it. Pinch your nose and say 'tatty'. Easy, isn't it? That's because T isn't a nasal sound. Now try saying 'man'. Weird, ain't it? Now try saying 'Steve McManaman'. As Jesus of Nazareth almost put it: 'Man cannot say God and mammon when holding his nose.'

A spirant is the same as a fricative. It's any sound made by forcing air through a bit of your mouth. So clasp your tongue between your teeth and blow. You should get a Th sound. Put your top teeth on your lower lip and... Ffffff. It's the same for Sssss and shhhh. And, technically, the last sound in Johann Sebastian Bach is also a fricative.

So what's the Ingvaeonic Nasal Spirant Law? It's the Law that says that in the Ingvaeonic languages words never end with a Nasal sound followed by a Spirant. Just doesn't happen. And nobody knows why. The Germans do it all the time. The Germans, for instance, say Uns. The Old Germans said Uns. But for some reason, when Old English was being formed, that N got dropped and so we say Us. The Germans talk about a gans, but we have a goose.

All of which means, that one observant reader was close to discovering a law of first-millennial linguistics all on her own.

I was lounging around on my plinth
And thought, as I sipped an absinthe,
Though some like the guitar
I'd rather by far
Hear the sweet man-made sound of a synth.

The which limerick was necessary so I could post this slightly blue-languaged video.

This song is particularly funny if you live as close to Exmouth Market as I do.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Utter Filth and Obscenity which Should be Burned

Read no further. The following post will be utterly obscene. Filth. Beginning to end lewdness and blueness. If you desperately need a respectable logophilic fix, click on the clever widget on the right and you can read all sorts of lovely etymologies in my brand new shiny book, The Etymologicon.

It's got the thirty pages of wonderful etymologies and, so far as I recall there's nothing obscene there at all. As The Observer correctly observed last Sunday, it's "The stocking filler of the season... How else to describe a book that explains the connection between Dom PĂ©rignon and Mein Kampf." Only those who are beyond redemption should continue with this post.

Got that?

Fine, if you're a foul enough gutter-dweller, you may click on the jump break.

Wednesday 23 November 2011


Once upon a time, there was a Latin word fumare that meant to smoke, from which we get fumes. Now, some smoke is a welcome guest in the nose of the smeller and some isn't. So burnt incense was called perfume, but smoking out a hornets' nest was called fumigation, and the dung of deer was called fumet, although why you'd need a special word for deer-dung is beyond me.

There's a pub I know that has a little beer garden at the back. This closes at 10:30pm and a sign says that "smokers may fume out the front", which is a funny little etymological pun. Moreover, it alludes - unknowingly, I assume - to the obscure C19th word fumacious. A fumacious person is one who is fond of smoking.


Tuesday 22 November 2011


The Latin word for cloud was nubes and, as a result, some eighteenth century classicist invented the lovely word enubilate, which meant to blow the mists and fogs away and to make something clear. It's rather like elucidate or clarify, just much prettier.

Then, in the twentieth century, a journalist went further and invented the utterly wonderful word inenubilable for something that cannot be enubilated. Inenubilable can be applied to problems, mysteries, enigmas and other dark conundrums.

It may also be applied to cities that are incurably mist-laden, like London today. Or as Max Beerbohm put it in Zuleika Dobson:

There is nothing in England to be matched with what lurks in the vapours of these meadows, and in the shadows of these spires—that mysterious, inenubilable spirit, spirit of Oxford.

And there are three more lovely book covers up at

Monday 21 November 2011

Changing Covers've been having fun with the names of books. Essentially, I've been messing around and taking titles back to their etymological origins. For example, wuthering was once a dialect term for a coughing fit or a big blast of wind. Height was originally heaven. So Wuthering Heights is Coughing in Heaven.

But the truly fun thing is not what I've been doing, but the work of a graphic designer and the lovely people at Icon Books who have been Photoshopping the covers of these old books and putting on my revised titles. Would you like to see one? You would? Then go to the bookhugger website where they'll be putting them up all week.

Today's dose is Wuthering Heights and Lord of the Rings (which has to do with bread).

They're far better quality than this effort of mine, which is explained in this old post.

Friday 18 November 2011


File:Gelett Burgess.jpgSome words catch on, and some words need a helping hand. Gelett Burgess, who was a writer and humourist and artist etc etc, invented the word blurb, which we all know and dislike, but he also came up with tintiddle.

Tintiddle is an English equivalent for esprit d'escalier, or wit that comes too late. It is the perfect comeback that you think of five minutes after the event when, in the French, you are already shuffling forlornly down the stairs. It's also an utterly beautiful word and I intend to revive it, although I fear that, lethologically, I will always remember it too late.

And you, sir, are an ass.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Queer Carey Street

Those of you who follow the news (and, as Evelyn Waugh said, News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read. And it's only news until he's read it. After that it's dead.) will, likely as not, have come across the fabulous outrage occasioned by Robert Peston referring to insolvency as "Queer Street".* This has led to lots of people talking about the etymology of the phrase. So I shall throw my proverbial hat into the lexicographic ring.

Queer Street first pops up at the beginning of the nineteenth century and is defined in Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as:

Wrong. Improper. Contrary to one's wish. It is queer street, a cant phrase, to signify that it is wrong or different to our wish.

However, by the mid-nineteenth century it had come to mean broke, insolvent, penurious and heading for bankruptcy. I would take a guess that this shift in meaning comes down to the Bankruptcy Court which was established on Carey Street in London in the early 1840s. There was certainly a phrase, listed in the OED and Brewers of "being on Carey Street" meaning that you were heading for bankruptcy. The OED doesn't record this phrase until the 1920s, but I just found this description of an artist's predicament from the 1880s:

For the moment, he keenly felt the disgusting cramped situation of Carey Street, which compelled him to peep at his objects, through the rails of his apartment : for the moment, also, he felt the immediate necessity of procuring the gold talismanic key to give him once more liberty, again to wander amidst the beauties of nature : it was then that MORLAND painted for money...

And if I can backdate the phrase forty years, somebody else ought to be able to take it further.
So I shall stick my neck out and make a claim for convergence. An existing term, Queer Street, became an alternative name for the site of the new Bankruptcy Court, Carey Street. All of which allows me to use this photograph.

It's a rich man's world, but a poor man's heaven.

*Phew, what a jormungandrian sentence.
P.S. Photographic credits to The Antipodean.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Crimean Clothes

As a little follow up to Monday's post on The Charge of the Light Brigade, it's quite astonishing how many clothes are associated with that single military encounter. The basic shape of the disastrous charge was this: Lord Raglan sent an order to Lord Cardigan who got the order rather muddled and set off on the most famous and most foolish charge of the Battle of Balaclava.

Now, Lord Raglan had lost an arm in the Battle of Waterloo and therefore had his coats specially tailored so that the sleeve was sewn on in a line from armpit to neck, rather than out to the corner of the shoulder. This style is known to this day as the Raglan Sleeve.

Lord Cardigan liked wearing button-up jumpers. These are known to this day as cardigans.

Balaclava is a cold sort of place in winter (the charge took place at the end of October) and so the British soldiers kept warm with knitted woollen coverings for their whole heads, which became known as Balaclava caps and then just as balaclavas: a style now favoured by skiers and terrorists.

Incidentally, Lord Raglan lost his arm at Waterloo where he was aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington, after whom the boots.

The rider is Cardigan, the horse is a jumper.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Waterstones, #inkf, and Piddle

Once upon a time there was a village in Dorset called Piddle. Or, more precisely, it was listed in 1212 as being called Pidela Walteri, which is Latin for Walter's Piddle. Piddle just meant lowland and Walter was, one assumes, the landowner.

Anyway, for some reason lost in the mists of medieval time, the Piddle got dropped and the Walter remained. In fact, it started to be called Walter's Farm, or in old English Walter's ton. Then people stopped pronouncing the L in Walter and it just became Water's ton. The important thing was that the people who lived there acquired the surname Waterstone. They had sex and had children who had sex and had children in a long, frenzied line of lust and procreation that led inevitably to the birth of Tim Waterstone in 1939. And his name had nothing to do with either water or stone.

Tim Waterstone founded Waterstones bookshops in 1981 and they are now the largest chain of bookshops in Britain. Then all it took was for me to write The Etymologicon and the lovely people at Waterstones to read and like it and a plan was formed. Essentially, I'm spending the day doing a word surgery. The idea is that you tweet a word to me with the hashtag #inkf and I'll do my best to tweet back with an explanation. Try to include @inkyfool and @waterstones.

It could all have been very different, though. If that Dorset village had dropped the other half of its name I would be teaming up with Piddles.

This is Wyre Piddle in Worcestershire, which I've actually visited.

Monday 14 November 2011


Tomorrow, I'm going to be doing a word surgery in conjunction with the lovely people at Waterstones. The idea is that you can go onto Twitter and tweet at me asking questions about etymology and philology and anything at all to do with words. I will tweet back to the best of my ability and thus the day will run in a spirit of joyous logopandocie. All you need to do is tweet with the hashtag #inkf.

And just to prove that I'm not making this up, have a look at Waterstones' Twitter page, it's a thing of beauty.

Quaquaversal Artillery

As a devotee of Tennyson, I've always been horribly irritated that he's best known for his worst poem: The Charge of the Bloody Light Brigade.

For the last century and a half schoolchildren have been oppressed with the lines:

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them....

Which brings me to the brunt of my post: the very useful word quaquaversal. Quaquaversal means in every direction. So those three lines could usefully be deleted and replaced with the two simple words: quaquaversal cannon, or, if you wish to keep a remnant of the metre: Cannon quaquaversally.

Tennyson actually didn't like the poem much himself and considered cutting it from the second edition of the collection in which it came out. He had only written the wretched thing in a few minutes after reading an article in The Times which mentioned that 'someone had blundered'. He liked the dactyllic rhythm of the phrase and the rest is pseudo-history.

Just in case you were wondering, Tennyson knew that most accounts had closer to 700 men involved, but wrote in a letter that 'Six is much better than seven hundred (as I think) metrically'. So the numbers are there for the metre. Also, as a Lincolnshire boy, Tennyson would have pronounced hundred as hunderd, which means that, for him at least, it really did rhyme with blundered.

Monday morning with the Inky Fool

Friday 11 November 2011


There's a rather ungentlemanly term for a woman in Britain: bint. It doesn't mean anything in particular, it's just a synonym for woman that conveys, in the most vulgar way, that you don't like her. I had always assumed that it was thieve's cant or that the word had just appeared magically in some pub and then spread like around the country. But then I happened to be reading an article on the formation of Arabic surnames (as you do), and saw the magical words:

bint = daughter

So, I hurled myself at the OED and found that bint does indeed come from the Arabic. The phrase was popularised by servicemen returning from duty in Egypt during the Second World War, the bints of Egypt being (presumably) particularly beautiful. Indeed, in my Dictionary of Services Slang bint is still defined as girlfriend, and as a synonym for lush.

The Inky Fool out on the pull

Thursday 10 November 2011

The Epithets of Transferred Wodehouse

There's a fantastic article in The Guardian on P.G. Wodehouse's letters. Being a thoroughly technical chap, what I particularly like about it is the thoroughly technical analysis of Wodehouse's use of the transferred epithet. That's when an adjective is deliberately applied to the wrong thing. For example, one might sip a contemplative whisky, when in fact it is the sipper who is contemplative and the whisky is merely whisky.

Similarly, there are Wordsworth's lonely rooms and Auden's lovely lines:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm. 

Anyway, go and read the article by clicking hereupon.

Wednesday 9 November 2011


If you are antithalian you are constitutionally opposed to fun and festivities. Thalia is the muse of comedy and the grace of plenty. So if you don't like her, you are antithalian. And if you don't like her, I don't like you.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Over to Foyles

What are you doing here? I've written a lovely long piece for the Foyles blog. It's all about bibliophagists and sarcophaguses and sarcasm, but to read it you'll have to follow this link.

Monday 7 November 2011


The Inky Fool's crack team of highly-trained IT specialists is a terribly nice chap who's quite prepared to work for biberages. Last week (while I was growing pale and spectre thin and dying) he was very kindly making some changes to the main page of So I felt rather bad, having checked it, to have to phone him up and tell him there was a typo. He had described this blog as "The rabblings of the Inky Fool", when of course it should be "ramblings".

'No,' he replied firmly when I told him. 'Rabblings is a word. I checked.'

I was suspicious, but I feel that all humans, even those who specialise in IT, should be given the benefit of the doubt. So I turned to the OED and found that there is indeed a verb to rabble. Here are the definitions.

1 a. To speak or read aloud in a rapid and incoherent way; to gabble; to ramble.

b. To utter (words or speech) in a rapid confused manner; to rattle out incoherently.

2 a. To put (something) together hastily, knock up.

b. To work in a hurried and careless manner.

Which is the most concise summation of my little web-log that I've ever seen.

We may be upgrading soon.

Friday 4 November 2011


I'm afraid I've fallen horribly ill and am incapable of doing anything other than shivering and moaning. However, over on the Kindle blog, I've written a piece on the etymology of the word kindle. Those with withdrawal symptoms can just follow this link.

The Inky Fool this morning.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Go, Litel Bok

It's out! The Etymologicon is in bookshops today. It is published (etymologically made public, and therefore related to pubs). I scampered up to the Waterstones on Islington Green and there it was on the table, lying alluringly next to The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

I feel like a proud father who has finally managed to clone himself in book form. At the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer says goodbye to his book:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedie...

And then he adds that:

And for there is so great diversity
In English and in writing of our tongue,
So pray I God that non miswrite thee,
Nor thee mis-metre for default of tongue;
And read where-so thou be, or else sung,
That thou be understood, God I beseech!

I rather like the idea of people singing The Etymologicon. In fact, I shall insist on it as a condition of sale. So, if you don't want to have to demonstrate a good voice and a mastery of the harp, you should run out and get a copy today.

By the way, for the Londoners among you, The Londonist website has a thing up today on me and the etymology of Tube stations. It can be found by clicking on this link.

Go, litel bok.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

A Widget

Look what the clever fellows at Icon Books have done. Do you see it? Just to the right of this sentence? In the right hand column? That's a widget and if you click on it you get to read the opening twenty pages or so of my brand new, shiny, beautiful, lovely, osculable book: The Etymologicon, which is available in all good bookshops (and some evil ones) on Thursday.

No. This is.

Tuesday 1 November 2011


I've never liked the word comedienne. I don't know exactly why, but it bugs me. There's something about the faux Frenchiness of it. It might be condescendingly sexist, or it might be tediously feminist, and either way it rankles. So I was immensely pleased when I happened across the word jestress, which is simply the female form of jester.

By a pleasant etymological path, a jester was originally somebody who told gestes which were medieval romances. And gestes comes from the Latin gesta which meant deeds (e.g. the Gesta Francorum was The Deeds of the Franks). Gesta comes from the verb gerere which meant carry. And that's why when you carry a child you gestate.

But jesters can't gestate, only jestresses can do that.