Friday 6 January 2012


As Auden said, It is time for the destruction of error.

Since the dear old Etymologicon came out, I have been fielding occasional e-mails from those who have noticed five mistkaes. It’s the first one that shames me as it is of proper lexicographic significance.

1) In my list of the words and phrases invented by Winston Churchill I for some reason included the term iron curtain. I’ve no idea why I did this as, though Churchill did make the phrase famous, it had been around since the eighteenth century as a safety device in theatres, and had been used to describe the Soviet border from at least 1920. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

None of the rest (to my lackadaisical mind) seem to be too serious, but in the interests of full disclosure:

2) I said that beechwood is good for carving because it is soft. However, a correspondent writes:

Beech wood is not soft. Speaking as a former professional cabinet-maker, I can attest with blisters to how soft beech wood is not. Botanically, it's a hardwood as it comes from a deciduous tree, and in practice it is good for the sort of carving you describe as it is reasonably tough, not brittle or splitty (splitty is a perfectly good word in common use amongst woodworkers), but most of all it is a) abundant and therefore cheap; b) of no use in ship-building and therefore available; c) fine-grained, diffuse-porous, not ring porous, and pretty consistently straight grained and therefore takes detail well. Compared to oak, it is not very hard, but compared to other commonly available woods in germany in the middle ages (such as pine and spruce) it is indeed pretty rock-like. My guess would be it was chosen for its consistency, detail-holding, and price characteristics.

3) I said that Thomas Derrick used his invention to execute the Earl of Essex. Derrick did kill Essex, but as the latter was an aristocrat it was done with an axe. A commenter points out:

Essex had the right to have his head chopped off, and Derrick made a complete hash of the job. It took him three strikes before he was able to wave the head about to a great cry of 'God Save the Queen'.

4) I said that the Ancient Greeks used poison arrows. However, I'm told that:

The ancient Greeks did not as a general rule poison their arrows in war. Some of their opponents did, such as the Scythians, so they certainly knew of the practice.

5) I said that outsiders never win horse races, and that favourites always do. A racehorse owner wrote to tell me that this isn’t really the case. The favourite wins about one third of the time. Hundred-to-one shots win slightly less than every hundred races. The remainder is made up by well backed horses who aren’t quite the favourite.

I also made an utterly idiotic passing reference to the Maginot Line, implying that it was a WWI thing, when of course it's WWII. This has already been removed from reprints.

Anyway, all of the above will be tweaked in reprints so that it will look as though I never made the mistakes at all. If anyone else has noteiced an error, do say.


  1. Oops. This is the advantage of an ebook. You can correct errors immediately...if you're inclined to.

  2. We will forgive 'mistkaes' and 'noteiced' in your post, as anoney can mispalce a fniger now adn tehn.

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  3. Ah, the joy of lint-pickers. And they pick lint with such dedication...

  4. I'm really enjoying reading the Etymologicon. Huge fan of etymology and discovering tons of goodies. Thank you.

    In 'Beastly Foreigners' (p77), I noticed the french expression "filer à l'anglaise" was missing the 'e' at the end. I've always considered it odd that to do something the "German, American, Chinese... any country" way takes the feminine form ( à l'allemande, à l'américaine, à la chinoise).

    Best wishes in 2012 from across the channel, Brad

  5. Thank you for the error at the end. If not for that, I would never have known whether the one in the tittle was done a-purpose.

  6. Are you sure of the authority of your advisor on Ancient Greek practices? Adrienne Mayor, author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs”, would disagree.

    Just from a quick look at Perseus found this.
    "For thither, too, went Odysseus in his swift ship in search of a deadly drug, that he might have wherewith to smear his bronze-tipped arrows; yet Ilus gave it not to him, for he stood in awe of the gods that are forever; but my father gave it, for he held him strangely dear."

    Odyssey 1: 260-265, Homer

    I think they used poison arrows in hunting as well but I can't remember where I got that impression. Perhaps because there are few societies in the world where poison arrows or spears were not used. Hercules killed the centaur Nessus with a poisoned arrow. His poisoned arrows were used by the Greek Philoctetes at Troy. ἰός means both arrow and poison.

  7. I have learnt all sorts from here, both from you and your correspondents. The only one I knew was the hardness of beech wood. I am all for putting your hand up when you get it wrong even though I get it wrong all the time and am thus limited in what I can do with only one hand.

  8. Thank you all.
    Mr Patterson, I have corrected.
    Pat, I've changed it to something like "a common practice in ancient warfare", which allows for my having been right the first time, but also wheedles me out of being exactly wrong.

  9. Inky Fool, great blog and recently-published book. This question's slightly off-topic but may be of interest. Have you ever noticed how Americans say "caZHmere" instead of "caSHmere" when referring to the expensive woollen fabric? It annoys me slightly because it sounds like Americans trying to describe a foreign thing exotically but getting it wrong, like I've heard references to a "Van GoH" instead of "Van GoGH" in the US. The spelling "cashmere" is annoying enough per se, as if "kashmir" was some how tainted or too difficult to spell. If this is in your area of interest, might it be worth a punt to have a look into? Thanks.

  10. Not really my area, I'm afraid.

  11. Sir, I could not help but notice another word I might question in the preface, where you say biscuit is compounded of bi and cuit/cuire, to cook. You seem to have overlooked that the word bis means twice or again in French, and therefore the delicacies might be considered twice cooked. Bis additionally is what the French shout at concerts instead of encore.

  12. That is because (sorry, Inky Fool, I do hope you'll forgive me for butting in) biscuits did undergo a twofold cooking process. First, they were baked, then dried out in a warm oven.

  13. Indeed, that was what I said. I was highlighting the omission of the French bus from the explanation, as our learned friend had jumped straight for the Latin bi.

  14. Being an editor and proofreader, I did enjoy the too mitsakes in that part of the fabric ('textus', wasn't it - the Qunitilian quotation?) referring to 'proving'.

    Incidentally, the difference between 'proving' and 'proofing': are they merely distinguished by profession (mathematics and editing respectively, for example)?

    I'm only just over halfway through the 'Etymologicon' (I bought it three days ago) and it is one of the funniest books I've ever read. It will remain in my library until we are parted by death; recommended but never loaned.

    I particularly like...well, so many; but one favourite is your observation that people have always condemned peccadilloes but never classified them (I paraphrase for want of precise lexical recall).

    And in the preface, the tale (a touch hyperbolic perhaps?!) of your unsuspecting interlocutor, and that his only goal in life was to eat his biscuit.

    Thanks for the laughs and the background (is there any etymological interest in the word background?),

  15. I have just been given your wonderful book for Christmas. As you are asking for any errors to be identified I wondered if I'd spotted one in the Buffalo buffalo section on page 68. If the sentence is saying that Buffalo's bison bully Buffalo's bison (who in turn ) bully Buffalo's bison then the capital use for the town of Buffalo should be the first, fourth and seventh Buffalo and not the third. Do you dig? Or am I woofing up the wrong tree?

  16. Having enjoyed the Etymologicon immensely I feel justified in offering a single letter of pedantry in return: the letter 'a' for your page 48.

    The prefix 'intro-' releases Jung's concept 'introvert'. The prefix 'extra-' gives 'extravert'. The Romans never did anything 'extro'!

    I know the invention is a process of levelling that has become current amongst those who never studied Latin (even the spell-checker wants to correct it), but R.F.C.Hull didn't make this mistake in his translation of the collected works of C.G.J. (See 'General Index', p.250).

  17. Right:
    On biscuits, I'm going to stick to the use of the Latin radical as that's how the word relates to bicycle and bisexual.
    On buffalo, I've just checked and I'm pretty sure the capitals are correct. They are, in my copy at least, in the same place as the explanatory sentence. The capital letter signifies the city being used as an adjective.
    On extravert/extrovert, I quite see your point, when quoting Shakespeare I've always used modernised spelling, and only delve into the old ways to explain changes. As this is the standard modern spelling of Jung's term, I think I can leave it.
    So in total, though all these points are splendid ones, I think that I can let them slide, especially as I don't want to make the typesetter cry. (The other explanation that I'm a lackadaisical charlatan may also be true).

  18. I noticed a few points about Ancient Britons that I disagree with.
    Some people keep telling me that Ancient Britons weren't Celts, but I wouldn't take that as gospel, since no-one seems able to explain to me what a Celt is or why an Ancient Briton isn't one.
    But I am more sure about Boudicca's name: There's a myth that Boudicca was a spelling mistake and her actual name was Boadicea, but I am given to understand that it's generally accepted that Boadicea was the spelling mistake.
    And then there's the woad. We are fairly sure that the Britons (not just the Picts, who must have looked a picture) were as blue as Harald's teeth, but there are a few things we don't know. We don't know whether they were tattooed or just wore war-paint, we don't know whether they were plain blue, or wore blue patterns (probably the latter if tattoos though, just from common sense). And we don't know what they used to paint themselves, but we are pretty certain it wasn't woad!

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