Monday 31 December 2012

French Hogmanay

Hogmanay, the Scots New Year, is one of those words that sounds irretrievably non-Latinate, unless you remove the hogm, in which case it sounds exactly like the French word année, or year.

Hogmanay is a mysterious word and nobody really knows where the hog bit comes from. But it somehow seems to have been added to the Medieval French aguillanneuf, which breaks down in to aguill (mysterious), an (year), and neuf (new).

Also, hogmanay - or at least hagnonayse - is recorded in England long before it was recorded in Scotland (1443 v. 1604). The original meaning of the word was as a demand for a new year's gift, rather like trick or treat at Halloween.

Happy new year, sundry and all.

Start where you mean to end up.

Monday 24 December 2012

Christmas Drinking

The time of the incarnation is upon us. So here is a brief but edifying video on the subject of getting sloshed at this joyous time.

And a final venal reminder to rush out and buy The Horologicon.

Merry Yule.

Friday 21 December 2012

Christmas Words

For those of you who tire of text and yearn for nothing more than the sound of a rather nasal voice, here's a video of me talking about some Christmas words.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Two Bitter Ends

I'm afraid this post will be somewhat inconclusive. If you want something definitive then follow this link for yet another review of The Horologicon.

Once upon a time there was the word bit. But not in the sense of a small piece of something. This bit meant bucket, and was cognate with bucket and with a water butt. Somebody who was in charge of a bucket of water was therefore a bitter. So this became a term for a fireman. As in this line from 1467.

That the bitters be ready with hur horses and bittes to bring water.

But then a bit also came to mean a sturdy thing on a dockside that you could tie a rope to. And the end of the rope that was around the bit? Here's a quote from Captain Smith's Seaman's Grammar of 1627 (that's the same Captain Smith that had a thingy with Pocahontas).

A Bitter is but the turne of a Cable about the Bits, and veare it out by little and little. And the Bitters end is that part of the Cable doth stay within boord.

This remains in every dictionary to this day. Here's one from 1725:

BITTER, any Turn of a Cable about the Bitts is called a Bitter; and 'tis used that the Cable' may be let out by little and little. And when a Ship is so stopp'd by a Cable, they say she is brought up to a Bitter. Also that End of the Cable which is used to be wound or belayed about the Bitts,' they call the Bitter End of the Cable.

And that's what's in the OED. So the bitter end is simply the end of the rope. Right? Nothing whatever to do with bitter as in acrid and sour-tasting.

Well, that's what I wanted to say, but then I found this from a poem by George Wither published in 1622:

With hunger parched, and consum'd with heat,
I will enforce them to a bitter end;
The teeth of beasts I will upon them set,
And will the poisonous dust-fed serpent send.

Now it's possible that George Wither was just being nautical. But in the poem that's God speaking and so it's much more likely that he was remembering the fifth chapter of the Book of Proverbs:

For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.

So now, well, I just don't know any more. All the authorities say that working to the bitter end is just getting to the very end of the rope. But it also seems to have combined with the more usual sense of bitter to make poor bloggers like me not have a proper conclusion.

The reason that I was researching this all in the first place, is that I've been reading Bum Fodder, an Absorbing History of Toilet Paper by Richard Smyth. It's a great little book and ideal for reading on the... yep. Anyway, he says that the bitter end was placed in a bit (or bucket) and was used by sailors for wiping. The OED says that the bitter end was sometimes used as a whip, which seems downright unhygienic. Frustratingly, neither provides a quotation.

Anyway, back to that review.

Everyday life with a dictionary writer.

Monday 17 December 2012


The single most surprising word I came across when writing The Horologicon was feague. It's the rudest word in the book by quite some way, so I put it in the preface. Here for your delectation and disgust is a simple, extended quotation from the fourth page of the book.

There is a single eighteenth-century English word for shoving live eels up a horse’s arse. Here is the definition given in Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

FEAGUE. To feague a horse; to put ginger up a horse’s fundament, and formerly, as it is said, a live eel, to make him lively and carry his tail well; it is said, a forfeit is incurred by any horse-dealer’s servant, who shall show a horse without first feaguing him. Feague is used, figuratively, for encouraging or spiriting one up. 

There are three instructive points to be taken from that definition. First, you should never trust an eighteenth-century horse dealer. Especially if you’re a horse. Or an eel.

 Second, the English language is ready for anything. If you were to surprise a Frenchman in the act of putting a conger up a mare’s bottom he would probably have to splutter his way through several sentences of explanation, filled with circumlocutory verbocinations. However, ask an English-speaker why they are sodomising a horse with a creature from the deep and they can simply raise a casual eyebrow and ask: ‘Can’t you see I’m feaguing?’

 The ability to explain why you’re putting an eel up a horse with such holophrastic precision is the birthright of every English-speaking man and woman, and we must reclaim it.

Thirdly, and finally, you will notice that that definition is not from the Oxford English Dictionary. Though the OED is the greatest and heaviest reference work yet devised by man, it does not necessarily touch the sides of the English language. In the case of feaguing, the OED does actually quote Grose, but rather coyly only mentions only the stuff about ginger.

And if that is not enough to make you scamper to the bookshop and buy, here is a lovely review from John Lloyd at The Book Bag.

And here is another review by virtue of video:

Friday 14 December 2012


There's a splendidly useful little word hidden away in The Dialect of South Lancashire, or Tim Bobbin's Tummus and Meary (1850), kicklety.

Kicklety means likely to fall over, and can therefore describe Christmas trees (Hmm, looks a bit kicklety for me), and anybody stumbling out of a pub this weekend (Are you sure you want another? You're looking a bit kicklety).

I should remind you all that The Horologicon is filled with such words, and here's a review to prove it.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

A Cheap Chap in Chepstow

EDIT: BIRMINGHAM IS NO MORE! Although I will pop in and sign some books at about two thirty or three.

I'll be giving a talk in Chepstow this evening, in the Drill Hall at 7:30. Details here.

Chepstow is a cheap place, etymologically speaking. Well, in fact, Chepstow means market place. And to explain why that is, and why chep is the same as cheap and chap I shall reproduce a post from a couple of years ago.

Before I do, though, I'm also talking in Birmingham tomorrow and Warwick on Friday. Click for details.

dear chap is a bad thing, etymologically speaking.

Once upon a time, markets were calledcheaps. That's why there's Cheapside and East Cheap in London. Cheapmeant any sort of trade or bargaining or financial push-me-pull-you. If prices were low, it was a good cheap, just as with the French bon marché. If prices were high, it was a dear cheap, as in thePromptorium Parvulorum's:

He byeth in tyme and at hour, so that he hath not of the dere chepe 

So a market man, a buyer or a seller, became a chapman. Thenchapman dwindled to chap so that in The Beggar's Opera (1728) Peachum can say:

Wife, rip out the Coronets and Marks of these Dozen of Cambric Handkerchiefs, for I can dispose of them this Afternoon to a Chap in the City

By which he does not mean fellow, but customer. However, trade and humanity are woven fine. It is in the nature of Economic Man to view all his fellow fellows through the distorting lens of a shop window. Thus we talk today about a tough customer, even though the tough in question may have no intention of buying.

Similarly, chap drifted from meaning a potential purchaser and, sometime in the Eighteenth Century, became a word for any old fellow. And if you like the chap, he's a dear chap and that's now a Good Thing.

The Inky Fool felt let down by the roofers

Monday 10 December 2012

Don't Be Nesh

The Inky Fool in Oswestry
I was in Shropshire over the weekend and came across a lovely little dialect term: nesh. It's one of those words with a very precise meaning, which is, according to several Shropshirerians "afraid of the cold". It's used only in the phrase "Don't be nesh" which means something along the lines of "Stop worrying about getting your scarf, we're going for a long walk anyway."

And then you end up fair clemmed, or frozen.

Tomorrow, I'll be doing a talk in Blackwells Charing Cross at six thirty.

Friday 7 December 2012

Oswestry and Out

The last episode of Book of the Week came out today, and here it is.

Tomorrow, I shall be giving a talk in the Booka Bookshop in Oswestry. More details here.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Kensington and Charing Cross

Just a reminder that I shall be loitering around tonight at the Waterstones in Kensington ready to sign books. And next Tuesday I shall be giving a whole talk and reading at Blackwell's in Charing Cross, which will be the only actual talk I do in central London.

Anyway, here's a link to the fourth episode of The Horologicon on Book of the Week.

Monday 3 December 2012

Book of the Week

It begins. The Horologicon is being serialised as book of the week on Radio 4 and you can listen to the first 15 minute episode by clicking on this link.

That is all, except to mention that I'm going to be talking at West End Lane Books in West Hampstead on Wednesday at 7:30. I'm going to be at Waterstones Kensington at six on Thursday signing copies. And I'm going to Booka Bookshop in Oswestry on Saturday at 7pm.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Deansgate and Radio 4

Just a little reminder that I shall be in the Waterstones in Deansgate Manchester from noon until one today (that's Saturday) to sign copies of The Horologicon. And The Horologicon will then, on Monday, become book of the week on Radio 4. Hugh Dennis will commence at a quarter to ten in the morning.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Bath and Wanstead Library

Shakespeare went to Bath. He wrote a sonnet about it. You see, people used to go to Bath because the warm waters there were considered medicinal. Shakespeare also explains why they're warm.

Cupid laid by his brand, and fell asleep: 
A maid of Dian's this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground; 
Which borrow'd from this holy fire of Love 
A dateless lively heat, still to endure, 
And grew a seething Bath, which yet men prove 
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure. 
But at my mistress' eye Love's brand new-fired, 
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast; 
I, sick withal, the help of Bath desired, 
And thither hied, a sad distemper'd guest, 
   But found no cure: the bath for my help lies
   Where Cupid got new fire - my mistress' eyes.

But I'm going to Bath to do a talk and a reading at Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, tonight at seven. And then tomorrow I'm off to Wanstead library for a fantastic event organised by Newham Books.

Ain't no cure for love.

There's another old post I did about Bath poetry here. 

Wednesday 28 November 2012


I was idly leafing through The Dialect of South Lancashire, or Tim Bobbin's Tummus and Meary (1850), when I came across Suss-middin which is, apparently:

Suss-middin A lazy woman, too idle to move from her seat.

Aside from the woman bit, that's me; except that I'm off to talk at Cheltenham Waterstones tonight and at Mr B's Emporium in Bath tomorrow. Must dash.

Monday 26 November 2012

More Britishisms

Just a link today, becauseI'm lazy. Here's an article from the New York Times on the relentless infiltration of Britishisms into the American language. The main reason that I find such articles interesting is that there are a lot of words that I didn't realise were peculiar to English. It's jolly rum.

P.S. I'll be in the Steyning Bookshop in West Sussex for a talk tomorrow at 7:30, and then off to Cheltenham and Bath.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Counting on the Race Course

I'll be talking in Blackwells Newcastle today at six, and Blackwells Edinburgh tomorrow at six thirty. Also, The Horologicon has just been voted the Alternative Christmas Bestseller by independent bookshops. Here's a Telegraph article about it.

I have been learning the language of bookmakers, from a bookie. Well, to be honest, I've only been learning to count to ten. It's a curious counting system, which has a fair amount of backslang. Backslang is the old Victorian underworld system of slang that gave us the yob, or backwards boy. You get this with ruof, xis, neves and possibly tee aitch. Then there's the rhyming slang of cock and hen for ten. One is taken directly from the semaphore system used on the race course and actually said aloud as "top of the head", which seems rather cumbersome. And my informant has no idea about bottle or carpet.

1 Top of the head
2 A bottle
3 Carpet
4 Ruof (pronounced rough)
5 Handful
6 Xis (pronounced exes)
7 Neves (pronounced nevers)
8 Tee Aitch (presumably back-slang from eight or THgie)
9 Nines
10 Cock and hen

The reason I note all this down is that, apparently, the language is dying. Moreover, it doesn't seem to have made it into the OED, with the exception of Neves, which is defined as obsolete criminal slang.

The Inky Fool was sure of backing a winner

Monday 19 November 2012


I'm off to Leeds today to give a talk at Waterstones at 7pm. This will give me a wonderful chance to hurple. Hurple's a strange verb that I found in an 1862 glossary of Leeds dialect, where it's defined thuslyly:

Hurple To shrug up the neck and creep along the streets with a shivering sensation of cold, as an ill-clad person may do on a winter’s morning. ‘Goas hurpling abart fit to give a body t’dithers to luke at him!’

And tomorrow I shall be in Durham doing the same thing, then it's Newcastle on Wednesday and Edinburgh on Thursday. Hurpling all the way.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Loose Ends

I know. I'm sorry. I didn't post on Friday. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. It's the perils of a book tour. However, to half make up for it, I was on Loose Ends on Radio 4 today and so, if you like the sound of my horrid voice, you can listen to me being interviewed by the fragrant Emma Freud. I'll put up the iPlayer link when it's up.

And here it is!

I should also, in a fit of logrolling, note that both The Staves and Cerys Matthews are wonderful.

A typical day at Radio 4.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Commodities, Accommodation and Commodes

I'll be talking in Blackwells Oxford this evening and in Heffers Cambridge tomorrow. Now read on...

Whilst sitting upon the commode and contemplating the commodities market, you may be struck by the line from the Four Quartets:

The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie
A dignified and commodious sacrament
Two and two, necessarye coniunction
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde.*

And wonder what all the accommodation is doing. The answer is that once upon a long time ago there was a Latin word commodus, which meant suitable or perhaps convenient. Therefore if you find an object (such as loo roll) that is useful and convenient for you, it is a commodity. Likewise, if you devote yourself to another's convenience (in the non-lavatorial sense) you are being accommodating. Likewise if something is beneficial and apt, it is commodious, as in the sacrament of marriage.

Likewise, what is sometimes called a convenience could also be called a commode. As King Lear puts it:

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. 

And here's a photo I took the other day:

*As I recall this is all quoting Julius of Norwich, but I can't find it at the moment.

Monday 12 November 2012

Abingdon, Oxford, Cambridge and Ely


This week I shall be scurrying around the near South of England giving amusing and almost informative talks at lots of beautiful bookshops. These shall be:

Mostly Books in Abingdon on Tuesday night at 7:30.

Blackwells in Oxford on Wednesday at 7:00.

Heffers in Cambridge on Thursday at 6:30.

And whilst we're on the subject of Cambridge, here is an entry from a dictionary of C18th slang that is included in The Horologicon:

To Cut

(Cambridge.) To renounce acquaintance with any one is to cut him. There are several species of the cut. Such as the cut direct, the cut indirect, the cut sublime, the cut infernal, &c. The cut direct, is to start across the street, at the approach of the obnoxious person in order to avoid him. The cut indirect, is to look another way, and pass without appearing to observe him. The cut sublime, is to admire the top of King’s College Chapel, or the beauty of the passing clouds, till he is out of sight. The cut infernal, is to analyze the arrangement of your shoe-strings, for the same purpose.

And finally Topping Books in Ely on Friday at 7:00. 

Ely has a claim to being one of the greatest places in the English language for reasons to do with sex and monks.

Bad habits

Friday 9 November 2012

Taunton and Bristol

I'm off to Taunton today to do an event at Brendon Books this evening at 7pm. More info here. Then tomorrow I'm at the Blackwells on Park Street in Bristol for 7pm. Now I must dash, as I have to pack.

Next week it's the three great universities: Abingdon, Oxford and Cambridge.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Blessed, Handsome and Crooked Presidents

As some sort of event has just happened in the United States of America, I should remind you that Barack is Swahili for blessed, that Hussein is Arabic for handsome, and that Obama is Dholuo for crooked. This means that, etymologically speaking, Barack Hussein Obama is Blessed, Handsome and Crooked. Mind you, as my first name means God of War (from Mars), I'm not sure you can read too much into a name.

Anyway, these days he's addressed as Mr President. So here, though I've posted it before, is me doing a Ted Talk on the word president.

I should point out that I said 1771 instead of 1789. The perils of speaking without notes.

Monday 5 November 2012


Do you see that thing just to the right? Do you? Where it says 'Read the Horologicon'. That thing, just beneath it is a widget and, if you click upon it, you will be able to read the first thirty pages of The Horologicon for free. Thus you will discover lovely words like expurgefactor, zwodder and grufeling, which is defined in Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825) thus:

To be grufeling: To lie close wrapped up, and in a comfortable-looking manner; used in ridicule.

Nothing ridiculous about that.

Thursday 1 November 2012

The Horologicon is Out Today

It it is published (from publicare to make public)! It is launched (from lanceare to throw a lance)! It is in the shops! Rush out and buy it this very second. Find your nearest bibliopole (which is an old term for a bookseller) and demand a copy of The Horologicon. You will be given a book with a beautiful blue cover and will then be able to thank the bibliopole bibliopolistically (or in a manner befitting a bookseller).

Or you can order it over the dear old Internet from Amazon, Blackwells, The Book Depository, Foyles and Waterstones.

Moreover, you can read the last section of The Daily Mail's serialisation here.

Go litel bok, go.

The Inky Fool is launched in style

Tuesday 30 October 2012

More Horologicon

The Daily Mail being a daily thing, there's more digested Horologicon to be read today. You can find out about everything from nod-crafty to wamblecropt. Just follow this link.

Monday 29 October 2012

The Daily Mail

Out of bed: Put on your pantoflesWhen I first heard the word blackmail I was only a child. I assumed that it involved letters that arrived in black envelopes, possibly posted down the chimney. I was, as I usually am, utterly wrong. For the mail in blackmail comes from an old word for payment or rent. In fact, there used to be silver-mail (payment in silver) and burrow mail (rent for land) and all sorts of other lovely mails. But none of them have anything to do with chain mail or The Daily Mail, which has started serialising The Horologicon today.

Yes! My beautiful book! The handsome Horologicon! It's being serialised in the Daily Mail. So you can read extracts from it online right here. It's even got pretty illustrations and everything.

To remind the forgetful and edify the innocent, I've written a book called The Horologicon, which is about the strangest and most beautiful words in the English language, arranged by the hour of the day when they will be most useful to you. Today's Mail is running extracts from 6am to 10. Read it instantly.

Good words: Use your bumbershot and golgotha to protect yourself from swale on your way to work
Look! A proper illustration of something I've written.

Friday 26 October 2012

Club and Club

It's a funny little thing that a golf club can either be a nine iron used to hit a ball, or an organisation that you join because you like playing golf. Similarly, somebody could be described as clubbable because they're the sort of social chap who's welcome in any gentleman's club or because they could easily be hit over the head with a club.

What is the connection? The medieval meaning of club was big stick used to hit things with, the sort of thing slouching cavemen are usually depicted with. However, if you don't have a club of your own, you can always make one. The simplest way to do this is mentioned in a 1625 passage about people warding off elephants:

Many times they fall upon the elephants which come to feed where they be, and so beate them with their clubbed fists, and pieces of wood, that they will runne roaring away from them.

You can make a club out of anything, even your hair. Ladies in the eighteenth century would often wear their hair in a club, which is to say that it wrapped together into what we'd call a bun on top of their heads. And metaphorically, you can wrap people together to make them one powerful object, like a club.

The sense development here is, to be honest, pretty damned obscure. Maybe the haircut was the bridge or maybe the sense of a group of soldiers formed into one blunt and brutal club. But pretty much everybody agrees that the idea of a club of people is that metaphorically they have come together like the instrument carried by a slouching caveman.

So a golf club and a golf club are, etymologically, one and the same.

Both are now weapons

Wednesday 24 October 2012


File:1p0c 8c0637.jpg
A reader has asked what the relationship is between pneumatics and pneumonia, and it's more fun than I'd thought. Both of them in their common form relate to air. Pneumatics uses air to drive pistons and the like, pneumonia is a disease of the lungs and affects their ability to breathe air. So far so simple.

They both come from the Greek word pneumon, which meant either breath or spirit. For that matter spirit means either breath or spirit. It comes from the Latin spiro, or breathe, and still survives in respire and respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia.

The fun thing is that when you look up pneumatic in the OED, the first definition is this:

Belonging or relating to spirit or spiritual existence; spiritual.
Chiefly in the context of New Testament theology.

That's from 1624, and pneumatic doesn't get its engineering meaning until thirty years later. One of the citations (from 1899) has:

The Gospel of St. John—the pneumatic gospel, as it was called, or gospel of religious genius.

Pneumatic seems to have kept its spiritual meaning and, in the nineteenth century, Jeremy Bentham invented the lovely word pneumatico-hedonistics which means:

 ...the branch of study that deals with spiritual or mental pleasures (as distinguished from those of the body)

And it turns out that I am much more devoted to somatico-hedonistics: "those branches of art and science which, as above, have for their objects those modifications of pleasure, which have the body for their seat."

But the funnest pneumo-word in the OED is this:

 Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis n. (also pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis)  [compare pneumonoconiosis n.] a word invented (prob. by Everett M. Smith (born 1894), president of the National Puzzlers' League in 1935) in imitation of polysyllabic medical terms, alleged to mean ‘a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine sand and ash dust’ but occurring only as an instance of a very long word.

File:London Pneumatic Despatch testing.JPG
The Inky Fool goes for a spin

Friday 19 October 2012

Days for the Diary

Diurnal, meaning daily, and diary, meaning a record of days, both come from the same Latin root dies. However, that is irrelevant to me at the moment. My diary has been given to me by my almighty publishers and here are all the events, talks and signings that I'm meant to be doing until Christmas with my lovely, shiny, blue-covered book, The Horologicon.

At each place, as I understand, I shall give talk and a reading lasting about forty minutes or so and then take questions and sign books, just to prove that I wrote them. If you, dear reader, would like to come along, that would be charming.

Saturday 10th, Blackwells, Park Street, BristolPlease call 0117 927 6602 for more information for ask in store.
Wednesday 14th, 7pm, Blackwells, Broad Street, Oxford – Entry £3
To purchase tickets visit the Customer Service Department, Second Floor or call 01865 333623.
Thursday 15th Heffers, Trinity Street, Cambridge – Entry £3
To purchase tickets ask a member of staff or call 01223 463 200.
Friday 16th, venue TBC, hosted by Topping Books ElyPlease call 01353 645005 or email for more information.
Monday 19th, 7pm, Waterstones, Albion Street, LeedsPlease call 0843 290 8443 for more information or ask in store.
Tuesday 20th, 6pm, Waterstones, Saddler Street Durham – Entry £2Tickets are available from the shop and redeemable against purchase of the book on the night. Please call 0191 383 1488 for more information or ask in store.
Wednesday 21st, Blackwells University Bookshop, Percy Street, NewcastlePlease call 191 232 6421 for more information or ask in store.
Thursday 22nd, Blackwells, South Bridge, EdinburghPlease call 0131 622 8222 for more information or ask in store. 
Wednesday 28th, Waterstones, Promenade, CheltenhamPlease call 0843 290 8227 for more information or ask in store.
Thursday 29th, 7pm, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, John Street, BathPlease call 01225 331155 or email for more information or ask in store.
Friday 30th, 7pm, Wanstead Library, Spratt Hall Road, London – Entry £5Tickets are available from Newham Books or by calling 0208 708 400.


Wednesday 5th December, 7:30pm, West End Lane Books, West End Lane, London – Free entryPlease reserve your seat via Twitter (@WELBooks), by calling 0207 431 3770, emailing or ask in store.
Saturday 8th December, Booka Books, Church Street, OswestryPlease call 01691 662244 or email for more information or ask in store.
Wednesday 12th December, 7:30pm, Chepstow Books, St Mary Street, Chepstow – Entry £4Ticket price redeemable against book purchase at the event. Please call  01291 625 011 or email for more information or ask in store.
Thursday 13th December, Waterstones New Street, BirminghamPlease call 0843 290 8149 for more information or ask in store.
Friday 14th December, Warwick Books, Market Place, Warwick – Entry £4Please call 01926 499939 for more information or ask in store.
A typical book signing with the Inky Fool

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Mayday! M'aidez!

I was reminded last night that the distress call Mayday is merely an Englished spelling of the French m'aidez, which means Help me.

While I'm here, I should, perhaps, point out that SOS doesn't stand for anything. It's simply very easy to transmit in Morse Code. When SOS was thought up, there was an alternative suggestion that the signal should be CQD, standing for Come Quickly, Distress, but it was too hard to transmit.

Monday 15 October 2012

The Villain in the Villa

Once upon a time, there were Romans who had lovely villas in the countryside and the word is still with us today, even if the villas now tend to be rather suburban things. A Roman villa was not suburban it was usually attached to a farm and would therefore be one of a group of buildings. These buildings constituted the villaticum. Somehow, over the centuries a G got in there and the Old French referred to these buildings as un village and we as a village, with the villa bit still intact in there.

It's well known that people who live in villages are rustic, rural uneducated, illiterate peasants. That was the original meaning of villain. Because villains have none of the noble thoughts that fill the minds of educated city-dwellers, but are prey to their basest bucolic instincts - the word shifted meaning and started to refer to anybody who was evil, and that is where we get our modern villains from.

All this etymology makes Hamlet's words much more sensible:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark:

Because if I had a nice villa in Denmark I'd probably smile.

Finally, when not smiling and following their baser instincts, village villains often like to write rustic poetry with a peculiar rhyme scheme. And that's where we get the villanelle from. A villanelle is a poem of six stanzas. The first five stanzas have three lines and the last has four. The whole thing rhymes ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA, which would be impossibly hard were it not that the first line of the first stanza is repeated as the third line of the second fourth and sixth stanzas and the third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third fifth and sixth stanzas. Got that?


Well here's an example that Dylan Thomas wrote for his dying father, which is so beautiful that you should buy it from Amazon.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And here's Auden, which is also so beautiful that you should buy it from Amazon.

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Finally, village idiot is only recorded from 1907.

File:YMCA single cover.jpg

Friday 12 October 2012

Goodbye, Adios, Adieu

Now to my word;
It is 'Adieu, adieu! remember me.'
I have sworn 't.

Says Hamlet in a phrase that sounds terribly significant but doesn't actually go anywhere. Mind you, I've always had a private theory that the lines:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Might be adieu and not a dew. But all this is beside my etymological point. Adieu is a contraction of the old French parting A dieu vous commmant, which means I commend you to God. It's a kind sentiment, but French people weren't very kind and couldn't be bothered to say the whole thing. Spaniards were similarly lazy and A dios vos acomiendo became simply Adios.

But English people are the unkindest and laziest of all. Once upon a time we used to say God be with you. By about 1590 when Shakespeare wrote Love's Labour's Lost we had dropped the th in with, so Costard says

I thanke your worship, God be wy you.

By the time he had got round to writing Othello in the first decade of the seventeenth century, it was printed as God b'uy, I ha done - although my Arden Edition expands this to a full God be with you to make up the iambic pentameter.

These days we just say Goodbye, or even just bye.

Wednesday 10 October 2012


A whinner-neb is defined is Grose's Provincial Glossary (1787) as:

A meagre, thin-faced man, with a sharp nose.

It amused me to find this word in a dictionary because, at the time, I was sitting in the British Library and it was the perfect description of the chap sitting opposite me. I rather wanted to lean over and hiss the words "Whinner-Neb!", just to see his reaction. But I felt much too sorry for him. And anyway, I sometimes fear I'm a whinner-neb myself.

Grose speculates that the term is "Perhaps from some bird that feeds or is bred among whins", where whins is another word for gorse.

Monday 8 October 2012

The Etymologicon in the Americas

Dear American and Canadian readers, The Etymologicon is now out in your continent, wearing a ten gallon hat and heading westward across the vast untamed prairies. It's even got a brand new jacket suitable for the tastes of your young and vigorous countries. 

Just to prove that I'm not making this up, here's an interview with me in the Chicago Tribune, and a mention in the New York Times, and an extract in the Huffington Post. It's published by Berkley Penguin. Penguins being biologically from Antarctica, and etymologically from Wales*. 

File:Wormius' Great Auk.jpgPen is the Welsh word for head, thus Penzance in Cornwall is the Holy Headland. Gwyn is the Welsh word for white, as in Gwendolyn, which just means white in the same where that Candida does in Latin. So when Welsh sailors first saw the Newfoundland Auk, with a white patch on his head, they decided to call it a whitehead or penguin

The Newfoundland Auk promptly became extinct. The name would have died with it, were it not for the fact that the auk looks very like the unnamed birds that were pottering around at the south end of the planet. That picture on the left is an auk, so you can see the similarity. 

Thus the Welsh for white head managed to make it to the other side of the world. Berkley, on the other hand, means clearing in a birch forest - leah was the old English for clearing, and beorc was birch. So Berkley Penguin is, etymologically speaking, a great auk standing in a birch forest.

I've searched, but can find no illustration for this. 

Anyway, run to the shops and order your copy now. Or click on this link and buy it from

So stylish

*The following is all best theory, but sometimes disputed.

Wednesday 3 October 2012


Just a link today to this fascinating article on the BBC website about how Britishisms are invading America, with Harry Potter as the main mode of transport. I for one had no idea that Americans didn't chat each other up.

Meanwhile, I'm going to jump on a train for Lichfield Literature festival where I'm giving a talk at 3:45.

Monday 1 October 2012

Lichfield and The Horologicon

I'm going to be talking at the Lichfield Literature Festival on Wednesday at 3:45 - lots more details here. Also, by a strange quirk of chronology it will be the first place in Britain that you'll be able to buy The Horologicon, my lovely new book about strange words and phrases hidden in the dictionary. The rest of the nation will have to wait another four weeks, but in the home town of Dr Johnson time runs faster.

I shall do my best in my hour-long talk to cause oscitancy, which Johnson defined as "yawning or unusual sleepiness". There'll be lots of other words from The Horologicon including micher which Johnson called "A lazy loiterer, who skulks about in corners and by-places, and keeps out of sight; a hedge creeper", and describes me perfectly.

Click here for more details.

A harmless drudge.

Friday 28 September 2012

Six Degrees of Sir Thomas Urquhart

Neither this blog nor the English language would be anything without Sir Thomas Urquhart. He's one of the few authors to get his own tag (down on the right somewhere) and the OED attributes 413 words to his invention. Whether you're talking about metopomancy, eleemosynary or nival, he is that man among wordy men.

What's really needed in this sad and weeping world is a blog entirely devoted to the wonderful words that he invented. And this need has now been fabulously fulfilled. The finest possible thing you can do with your life is to click on this link to Six Degrees of Sir Thomas Urquhart, where you will find out what barytonize really means.

Wednesday 26 September 2012


As I fly back to Blighty from South Africa tonight, the word that will be going round my head is soutpiel. It's a very rude, boorish and boerish, Afrikaans word for people who divide their time between South Africa and Britain.

Sout means salt and piel means penis, because such people are said to have one foot in South Africa, one foot in Britain, and their penis dangling in the Atlantic Ocean.

I shall be using that a lot in London.

The Inky Fool at the airport

Monday 24 September 2012


If you wish to practise a South African accent, the best sample sentence is, without doubt, "Turn right at the robot, my friend".

Robot is a bit of a surprise for a foreigner, and it took me a worried while to realise that robot is just South African for traffic light.

So I had to set out to discover why. The answer, it would appear, is that South Africa has maintained a usage that has long since died out in England. Once upon a time there were traffic policemen who directed the traffic. Then, in 1927, this article appeared in the London Evening Standard, describing a strange new invention:

We, of course, changed the name to traffic lights. But in South Africa they merely shortened it to robot. So, rolling all your Rs: "Turn right at the robot, my friend."

Friday 21 September 2012

Horologicon Launch in Cape Town

It begins. The Horologicon will be launched into the icy waters of Cape Town this very evening at six o'clock. It won't reach the shores of Britain for another five weeks, but if you're in Cape Town do come along to the Fugard Theatre at six where I shall be discussing (or perhaps just excusing) the book with (or to) Beryl Eichenberger.

The Horologicon is a book of strange and beautiful words arranged by the time of day when they are most likely to come in useful. For example, over breakfast this very morning, I managed to casually use the words vitelline (pertaining to egg yolk) and aristologist (an enthusiast for breakfast).

Typical launching conditions near Cape Town