Tuesday 31 January 2012


Piblokto is a word that English has taken from the Polar Eskimo language of northern Greenland. It is defined in the OED thuslyly:

Piblokto A condition affecting the Inuit peoples in winter, characterized by an episode of wild excitement and irrational behaviour followed by a period of stupor or unconsciousness, sometimes with apparent seizures.

That's a very useful word for me, as it describes most of my weekends, without giving too much away. As in: "Saturday night? I'm afraid I was utterly piblokto. But anyway, how was your weekend?"

The Inky Fool waited patiently for the art school dance to end.

P.S. One reason for my piblokto was that The Etymologicon has managed a second week at number one in the Sunday Times bestseller list for hardback non-fiction. This makes me a trifle guilty as I'm keeping Dare To Dream, the exclusive story of the winners of X-Factor (with pictures) from their rightful spot at the top.

Monday 30 January 2012

How John Donne Invented the Hedge Fund

I've always, for some whimsical reason, liked to imagine hedge funds as rustic financial institutions based at the edge of fields. Etymologically I am, of course, right. And it's all down to the poet John Donne.

Once upon a time there were hedges. Bushy things at the end of your garden and the like. Then came the verb to hedge, which meant to enclose within a hedge. So you could, for example, hedge in your garden.

Then, in the early seventeenth century John Donne promised a chap called Sir Henry Goodere that he would send him a letter in verse. He didn't get round to it, and to make matters worse Goodere wrote him one, which meant that Donne really owed him. Or, as Donne put it in an apologetic letter:

I owed you a Letter in verse before by mine own promise, and now that you think that you have hedged in that debt by a greater by your Letter in verse, I think it now most seasonable and fashionable for me to break.

That's the first recorded usage of the phrase hedge in meaning to secure a bad debt by making it part of a larger one for which better security has been obtained. Although this was the first common financial use of hedging.

From that sense of making your debts safe, came the idea of hedging in your bets by betting on more than one horse which pops up in 1672. From there you get the idea of finding two near-identical things at different prices, buying the cheaper and shorting the dearer. And thus the hedge fund.

None of which has anything to do with the old slang term of hedge-whore, which denoted a kind of wandering prostitute, not attached to any brothel, who therefore bestowed her favours "on the wayside, under a hedge".

Someday, I'm going to write a poem in a letter.

Friday 27 January 2012


Oh, the things you find in old dictionaries! This from Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811):

Cundum. The dried gut of a sheep, worn by men in the act of coition to prevent venereal infection; said to have been invented by one colonel Cundum. These machines were long prepared and sold by a matron of the name of Philips, at the Green Canister, in Half-moon Street, in the Strand. That good lady having acquired a fortune, retired from business; but learning that the town was not well served by her successors, she, out of a patriotic zeal for the public welfare, returned to her occupation; of which she gave notice by divers hand-bills, in circulation in the year 1776. Also a false scabbard over a sword, and the oil-skin case for holding the colours of a regiment.

The OED doubts the good colonel's existence, but to make up for that it provides the following lovely couplet from a poem of 1744:

Let not the Joy she proffers be Essay'd,
Without the well-try'd Cundum's friendly Aid.

Either way, it has nothing to do with the town in France.

File:Condoomgebruik in de 19e eeuw.png
The Inky Fool completely misunderstood the idea.

Thursday 26 January 2012

The Cut

File:Who's your fat friend.pngHere is some Cambridge University slang from the eighteenth century:

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, etc. 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 analyse the arrangement of your shoe-strings, for the same purpose.

I have done all four of these, but never knew that there was a name for them.

Sorry, I didn't see you there.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Dust and Dustmen

Dust used to be the subject of poetry. Hamlet, in his great prose speech, asks of mankind:

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not

Because men are made of dust, and to dust we return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, fun to funky. So Auden also asked:

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

In which he merely adds sexual appetite to the vacuum-fodder. It was therefore rather pleasant to find this entry in an old slang dictionary of 1811:

DUSTMAN. A dead man: your father is a dustman.

Which lends a certain poignancy to this song:

Tuesday 24 January 2012


An epitomy was, originally, a brief summary of a book - a sort of Reader's Digest precis for people who couldn't be bothered to read the whole thing. Indeed, the Greek epitome means cut. It's from this original meaning that we get the modern sense of paragon or perfect type, for if somebody says that he's the epitomy of good manners what they mean is that you don't need to bother to read a whole book on etiquette: just look at him.

Equally, if you epitomise something, you edit it.

Cole Porter once did some research on epitomies. He was on a cruise and writing a song about the best things in the world. So he asked all his fellow passengers to name the thing that they considered the tops. The result was this song.

Monday 23 January 2012


Dr Johnson's dictionary contains the splendid word grum which means... well I hardly need to tell you what it means: a bit grim and bit glum. The word died out in the mid nineteenth century, but, if you felt like reviving it, everybody would understand exactly what you meant.

(And, for vital information on the practice of glumming, see this old post).

Friday 20 January 2012

English to English Translation

File:Zolotas.jpgFrom late 1989 to early 1990 the Prime Minister of Greece was a fellow called Xenophon Zolotas. However, the apogee and apex of his career from the Inky Fool's point of view, was a speech he made to the International Monetary Fund in 1957. It was not a speech that did much in the way of changing the world or any of that rot that politicians waste so much time on. It was, though, a speech composed only of words that derive from Greek. I reproduce it here and follow it with a translation of my own.

I always wished to address this Assembly in Greek, but realised that it would have been indeed "Greek" to all present in this room. I found out, however, that I could make my address in Greek which would still be English to everybody. With your permission, Mr. Chairman, I shall do it now, using with the exception of articles and prepositions, only Greek words.

Kyrie, I eulogise the archons of the Panethnic Numismatic Thesaurus and the Ecumenical Trapeza for the orthodoxy of their axioms, methods and policies, although there is an episode of cacophony of the Trapeza with Hellas. With enthusiasm we dialogue and synagonize at the synods of our didymous organisations in which polymorphous economic ideas and dogmas are analysed and synthesised. Our critical problems such as the numismatic plethora generate some agony and melancholy. This phenomenon is characteristic of our epoch. But, to my thesis, we have the dynamism to program therapeutic practices as a prophylaxis from chaos and catastrophe. In parallel, a Panethnic unhypocritical economic synergy and harmonisation in a democratic climate is basic. I apologise for my eccentric monologue. I emphasise my euharistia to you, Kyrie to the eugenic and generous American Ethnos and to the organisers and protagonists of his Amphictyony and the gastronomic symposia.

Which means, approximately:

Gentlemen, I compliment the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for the uprightness of their axioms, methods and policies, although there is a brief disagreement between the Bank and Greece. With enthusiasm we talk and consider together at the meetings of our twin organisations in which various economic ideas and dogmas are analysed and synthesised. Our critical problems such as inflation cause some agony and melancholy. This phenomenon is characteristic of our epoch. But to get to the point, we have methods that can prevent catastrophe. Also, sincere international economic cooperation is necessary. I apologise for my eccentric monologue. I emphasise my gratitude to you gentlemen, thanks to the well-born and generous American people and to the organisers and key players of this international meeting and dinner.

So Greek government finances are fine by me.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Your Ass

Merely a link today, to this linguistics essay on the use of the phrase your ass, as in get your ass in here. After all, any essay that contains the line

In 3 we argue that your ass’s unusual behavior is due to its semantic and social functions and that it can be accommodated once these are taken into account.

has to be worth reading.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

The Fifty Most Quoted Lines of Poetry

This post has already gone up twice; but, as it's the one on which I worked hardest, and as this blog is always gaining and losing adherents, I see no reason not to wheel it out for a third time. As the Bellman remarked, "What I tell you three times is true".

The idea of the post is simple. When you type a phrase into Google, Google tells you how many hits that phrase gets on the Internet, or how many pages contained that exact line. 

It should be stated before we begin that Google is, for a computer program, often strangely illogical and inconsistent, but it's the best we've got. The number of hits is listed after the line. Click on the author's name for the full poem. 

Counting down from number fifty...

50. The mind is its own place, and in itself/[Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n] 403,000 Milton
49. Full fathom five thy father lies 438,000 Shakespeare
48. If you can keep your head when all about you 447,000Kipling
47. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways 467,000Elizabeth Barrett Browning
46. If music be the food of love, play on 507,000 Shakespeare 
45. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers 521,000Shakespeare
44. What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare 528,000 W.H. Davies
43. The moving finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on571,000 Edward Fitzgerald
42. They also serve who only stand and wait 584,000 Milton
41. The quality of mercy is not strained 589,000 Shakespeare
40. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan 594,000 Coleridge
39. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears 615,000Shakespeare
38. Shall I compare thee to a summers day 638,000 Shakespeare
37. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness 641,000 Keats
36. A thing of beauty is a joy forever 649,000 Keats
35. Do not go gentle into that good night 665,000 Dylan Thomas
34. Busy old fool, unruly sun 675,000 John Donne
33. Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone 741,000 Auden
32. Human kind/Cannot bear very much reality 891,000 T.S. Eliot
31. O Romeo, Romeo; wherefore art thou Romeo 912,000Shakespeare
30. The lady doth protest too much, methinks 929,000Shakespeare
29. The old lie: Dulce et Decorum Est 990,000 Wilfred Owen
28. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose 1,050,000 Gertrude Stein
27. When I am an old woman I shall wear purple 1,060,000Jenny Joseph
26. I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree. 1,080,000 Joyce Kilmer
25. Hope springs eternal in the human breast 1,080,000 Alexander Pope
24. When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes 1,100,000Shakespeare
23. I grow old... I grow old.../I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled 1,140,000 T.S. Eliot
22. 'The time has come', the Walrus said,/'To talk of many things'1,300,000 Lewis Carroll
21. A narrow fellow in the grass 1,310,000 Emily Dickinson
20. Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all 1,470,000 Keats
19. To be or not to be: that is the question 1,640,000 Shakespeare
18. In Flanders fields the poppies blow 1,640,000 John McCrae
17. The proper study of mankind is man 1,770,000 Alexander Pope
16. A little learning is a dangerous thing 1,860,000 Alexander Pope
15. But at my back I always hear 2,010,000 Marvell
14. Candy/Is dandy/But liquor/Is quicker 2,150,000 Ogden Nash
13. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun 2,230,000Shakespeare
12. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold 2,330,000W.B.Yeats
11. Because I could not stop for death/He kindly stopped for me 2,360,000 Emily Dickinson
10. Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all 2,400,000 Tennyson
9. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair 3,080,000 Shelley
8. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield 3,140,000 Tennyson
7. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams 4,860,000 W.B. Yeats 
6. Not with a bang but a whimper 5,280,000 T.S. Eliot
5. And miles to go before I sleep 5,350,000 Robert Frost
4. I wandered lonely as a cloud 8,000,000 Wordsworth
3. The child is father of the man 9,420,000 Wordsworth
2. I am the master of my fate 14,700,000 William Ernest Henley
1. To err is human; to forgive, divine 14,800,000 Alexander Pope

Shakespeare doesn't make the top ten and Gertrude Stein is more quoted than Byron. Bet you didn't see that coming.

And many, many thanks to the Antipodean for these (click to enlarge):

Our rules were that:
1) it had to be a 
 line of poetry (minimum 8 syllables) that
2) hadn't become famous as a title (e.g. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind)
3) or as a song (e.g. And did those feet in ancient time)
4) or is pretty exclusively for children (e.g. I do not like green eggs and ham).
5) The phrases were googled in "inverted commas", which gives you only pages with the precise phrase.
6) No more than one line per medium sized poem.
Originally I didn't allow tetrameters, or at least required a couplet, however "The child is father of the man" changed our minds as it's the second place on its own and nowhere when linked with the adjacent lines. These rules have been broken a few times at our discretion.
P.S. Google is sometimes eccentric on the number of hits, which can vary by clicking refresh. This is because it keeps adjusting to deal with spam and people trying to fool Google in to high rankings for their page. So sometimes it does odd things with line-breaks or even gives more results when there are more words in the search, which is utterly illogical. They also seem to vary slightly by country. Robert Frost's lines dipped slightly (or I noted them down incorrectly). The final arbiter has to be what pops up on my screen when I try the line in inverted commas.

P.P.S. Because of the demands of work, I shall not be able to leap upon corrections, suggestions and amendments with my usual predatory alacrity. These were measured back in February 2010 and may have changed. My attitude to such ructions and revolutions will be, I am afraid, utterly idle. I refer complainers to the Bellman.

File:Alexander Pope circa 1736.jpeg
The winner.

Tuesday 17 January 2012


Doctor Johnson's dictionary often says a little more than it seems to. Consider the second sentence of this definition.

Bellibone n. A woman excelling in both beauty and goodness. A word now out of use.

Which is a terrible lexicographical statement about the modern woman. According to the OED the word was still going in 1586, which means that if we could get a firm date for this Donne poem of about the 1590s we would be able to pinpoint precisely when it all went wrong for the fairer sex.

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

From which it will be easy to see why Johnson also described chivalrous as A word now out of use.

Monday 16 January 2012


From the Dear Dogberry page comes the question of Guinea: Guinea the African country, New Guinea the Asian country, and guinea the unit of currency. They are all connected. Let us start, as the word did, with West Africa.

There is in the Tuareg languages of north western Africa a word aginaw, which means black people; and it's just possible that this is why the Portuguese decided to call a stretch of the north west African coast Guiné. Just possible, but not certain.

What is utterly certain is that Ynigo Ortez de Retez had a great surprise when he got to the Far East. He was a Portuguese explorer who knew the Guiné coast and its black, frizzy-haired inhabitants. But he went further, all the way round Africa to Asia, where people had straight hair and lighter skins until... he got to an island east even of the Malays that was populated by black fellows with frizzy hair, just like the chaps back in Guinea (see picture). He therefore decided to call it New Guinea, and the name stuck. Papua is probably derived from the Malay word for frizzy hair.

Back in Africa the British regarded the Guinea coast with envious eyes, partially because it had some lovely gold mines. In 1663 we started to use this gold to make coins with little pictures of elephants on them and one eighty-ninth of a pound of 22-carat Guinea gold in each. One of these coins was therefore worth twenty silver shillings.

But the prices of gold and silver fluctuate, and they fluctuate in relation to each other. So when gold was expensive and silver was cheap, you could find that a golden guinea was worth thirty silver shillings and so on and so forth. Eventually, in 1717, the value was fixed at twenty one shillings to one guinea. In modern parlance this means that a guinea is worth £1.05. The last guinea was minted in 1813, however, for reasons best known to nobody, it is still the currency in which racehorses are traded.

Notice the little pachyderm at the bottom

Friday 13 January 2012


In 1602 a chap called George Carew was negotiating on behalf of Queen Elizabeth with various lords of Ireland, and trying to get them to come over to the English side. One of the lords with whom he was negotiating was Cormac MacDermot MacCarthy, the Lord of Blarney.

Blarney kept sort of saying that he possibly might help without actually giving any firm promises to Carew. This went on for so long that one day, when Carew was reporting to the Queen, she (according to legend) lost her temper and shouted "Blarney! Blarney! What he says he never means! It's the usual Blarney!"

Well, that might be the true story. But the legend then gets more complicated with the introduction of the Blarney Stone. This is a stone in Blarney Castle that (apparently) if kissed will give you forever the gift of the gab. However, this appears to be a tradition that only sprang up in the 18th century.

Double-however, the whole story about Queen Elizabeth (which is retailed in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) is a trifle strange as the OED doesn't record the word before 1766.

Which makes me think that the whole thing is a bunch of blarney.

File:Kissing the Blarney Stone 1897.jpg
The Inky Fool's lapiphilia was getting out of hand.

Thursday 12 January 2012


File:The Revengers Tragedy.jpgPuny comes from the French puis né, meaning born afterwards. It was originally therefore meant to mean junior. That's why, in a British court, all but the most senior judge are called puisne judges; and, yes, puisne is pronounced in exactly the same way as puny.

So all younger children are punies. As a middle child I'm not quite sure how to take this.

A puny can also mean an absolute beginner, hence the line in Middleton*'s Revenger's Tragedy:

I see thou art but a puny in the subtle mystery of a woman.

I wish girls would stop saying that to me.

*Or Tourneur

Wednesday 11 January 2012


This is from Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811):

BITCH. A she dog, or doggess; the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore, as may be gathered from the regular Billingsgate or St Giles' answer, 'I may be a whore, but can't be a bitch.'

And what I love most about all that is the word doggess.

Tuesday 10 January 2012


How vainly men themselves amaze adding bits on to their houses - a games room, a gym, a private cinema. If I ever have the money, I shall build myself a phrontistery, or possibly a phrontisterion, they mean the same thing: a place for thinking.

In such a room the eager phrontist could meditate, cogitate and ponder. This would continue until I got into a bad mood, at which point I would go to the boudoir and sulk.

As Andrew Marvell said of his garden:

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men :
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow ;
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

File:Phrontisterion of Trapezous.JPG