Friday 30 March 2012


Just a quick one today: jumentous. Jumentous is a nice-sounding word. If you call somebody jumentous they might even thank you. However, it means resembling horse urine. So your challenge for the weekend, dear reader, is to use the word jumentous and get away with it.

It comes, incidentally, from jument, which means beast of burden.

Wednesday 28 March 2012


The Londoners among you, will need only one word on a day like this: apricate, which means to bask in the sun. Londoners rarely get a chance to do this, and even when we do, we are liable to be disturbed by cranks and madmen of the city. This is not a new trend. Aubrey's Brief Lives has this story about Sir Thomas More (1478-1535):

Sir John Danvers's house at Chelsea stands in the very place where was that of the Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More, who had but one marble chimney-piece, and that plain.

Where the gate then stood there was in Sir Thomas More's time a gatehouse, according to the old fashion. From the top of this gatehouse, according to the old fashion. From the top of the gatehouse was a most pleasant and delightful prospect as is to be seen. His Lordship was wont to recreate himself in this place to apricate and contemplate, and his little dog with him. It so happened, that a Tom o'Bedlam [madman] got up the stairs when his Lordship was there, and came to him and cried, "Leap Tom, leap!" offering his Lordship violence to have thrown him over the battlements. His Lordship was a little old man, and, in his gown, not able to make resistance; but having the presentness of wit, said, "Let us first throw this little dog over." The Tom o'Bedlam threw the dog down: "Pretty sport!" said the Lord Chancellor: "go down and bring him up again, and try again." Whilst the madman went down fro the dog, his Lordship made fast the door of the stairs, and called for help: otherwise he had lost his life.

Be cautious in your aprications. Nothing changes. Only the dogs are different.

Incidentally, apricate has nothing to do with apricots, which are so called because the ripen early in the summer. The Latin for early is praecox. Add an A and your get A-praecox. This means that they are more closely related to an affliction of hasty gentlemen than to the heat and calor of the day.

Not so fast.

Monday 26 March 2012


If the sight of a jogger jogging in the park jogs your memory, that is thorougly appropriate. To jog originally meant to jerk. So if your memory receives a jolt, it is jogged, as in the tract of 1778: An Antidote to Popery; or, the Protestant's Memory jogg'd in Season.

However, if what happens if you jerk and jolt yourself repeatedly? Well, obviously you could just add the frequentative suffix -le and get joggle. But you might find yourself moving along in little jolts, or as Dr Johnson put it in his dictionary:

Jog: to move with small shocks like those of a low trot.

So a joggling jogger who jogs your memory, is all one verb jogging around the language. However, it has no relation to juggling - which is actually a cognate of jocular.

Etymologically unnecessary.

Friday 23 March 2012

The Polyphloisboisterous Wiliad

The following is from the London Review of Books. It's a rather recondite discussion of the historical existence of Troy and its relationship with a city called Wilusa, but it gives me such puerile pleasure that I thought I should reproduce it here so that you, dear reader, can snigger.

Wilusa is most definitely Troy. The book we know as Iliad is the adjective for the city of Ilios - in our present text of the Iliad the place is called Troié less often (53 times) than it is Ilios (106 times). Ilios sounds much closer to Wilusa than Troié but their identity need not rely on a similarity that could be coincidental, because it can be shown quite conclusively that the city's original name was 'Wilios': the W sound in both spoken and written East Ionic Greek, was used till 1200 BCE and became increasingly silent thereafter: the Iliad was really the 'Wiliad'.

Full article here.

While we're on the subject of the Wiliad, there's a word that Homer often uses to describe the sea. πολυϕλοίσβοιο or polyphloisboio, which means loud-roaring. So familiar was this word to the classically educated chaps of the C19th, that is got imported as-is and has endured a long, if rather obscure, run in the English language. First was polyphloisboioism in 1823, then polyphloisboian, then Thackeray really upped the game in 1843 with the sentence:

The line of the shore washed by the poluphlosboiotic, nay, the poluphlosboiotatotic sea.

And then in the 1890s it was portmanteaued with English to make polyphloisboisterous, which is great fun to say aloud.

The Inky Fool smoked his pipe obscurely.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Manufactured Manure

It's always rather pleasant to watch a word shift in meanings until it means the opposite of itself. Such a word is manufactured, which is Latin for handmade. Manus is hand, as in manual, and facture is making as in, well, a factory, where things are made. But the difference between a factory and a manufactory is the handiwork.

Thus an Elizabethan chap could write:

Yet the image is rather a manufacture, to wit, a thing wrought vpon a creature by the artificer's hand...

And yet now, we would consider handmade and manufactured to be antonyms.

Another lost hand of etymology is manure. Once upon a time manuring was simply working by hand. People would manure their farms and gardens until their hands were sore. But obviously, a central part of this horticultural handiwork, was spreading dung upon the land. Mind you, a 1561 translation of Calvin could still have the line:

The worde of God‥if it light upon a soul manured with the hand of the heavenly spirit, it will bee most fruitfull.

Which is something to consider next time you're getting a manicure.


Monday 19 March 2012

Dicked in the Nob

Gay Copenhagen vintage 1950s travel poster
It's always rather amusing when a word once blameless now has a rude meaning, and a double example of this is dicked in the nob, which once meant silly. Nob used to mean head in C18th thieves slang and dicked... well dicked is a bit obscure, but the first recorded use of it to mean penis wasn't until a slang dictionary of 1891.

What we might now call a dick was, back in the C18th, sometimes referred to as a man's gaying instrument, where gaying meant happy-making.

I think I should stop there, only noting that, according to William Holloway's General Dictionary of Provincialisms, in early Victorian Yorkshire an ass-hole was an ash-hole.

Friday 16 March 2012

Let's Get Terpsichoreal

As a group, the Nine Muses get a lot of words: museum (a shrine to the Muses), mosaic (a work of the Muses), music, bemused (devoted to the Muses); although weirdly they seem to have no etymological connection to the verb muse.

The individual muses tend to get less attention, largely because you'd have to remember which was which. The only one that ever sticks in my mind is Terpsichore, the muse of dance. This is largely because whenever I invite a hapless wallflower to skip the heavy fandango with me, whether at rave or discotheque, I usually phrase it "Would you like to pay homage to Terpsichore?"*

I thought that I was alone in such recondite invitations, until I found this 1960 film in which a very young Oliver Reed propositions a girl by saying:

Say, baby, you feel terpsichorical? Let's go downstairs and fly.

Well, now I know how to phrase it.

Begin then, sisters of the sacred well.

*N.B. This line is unsuccessful, but it is amusing.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Etiquette on Tick

Once upon a long time ago in France, there was the word étiquette. But it didn't have the meaning that it has today. Etiquette was nothing to do with passing the port the right way through a revolving door. An étiquette was just a small piece of paper.

So far as anybody can tell (and nobody is sure of this) people would write down the rules of the court on a small piece of paper and hand them out to visitors, or pocket them so they didn't forget who was meant to give way to whom. Thus our English etiquette.

However, the primary French sense also got straight into our language by the much simpler route of dropping the E at the beginning. Etiquette became ticket: train tickets, political tickets, lottery tickets. Even the small piece of paper behind the bar on which your drinks bill is tallied is a ticket. That's why, when you buy something on credit, you buy it on tick.

Court etiquette used to be a terribly complex and time consuming thing. For example, when you got up to leave from supper everybody had to leave in reverse order of seniority, with the king going last. That meant that you had to size up everybody else at the table and shuffle around and wonder whether it was your turn (unless you slyly consulted your étiquette) and it all got very awkward and slow. That's why when Lady Macbeth tells her dinner guests to leave immediately, she says:

At once, good night:
Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once.

The order there isn't her command, it's about not standing on ceremony and just Getting Out Now.


Monday 12 March 2012

Trumps and Triumphs

It may seem odd that charges in the newspapers are almost invariably trumped up. The cause can be found in a bit of etymology which leads, like all good roads, back to Shakespeare. In Antony and Cleopatra, when Antony realises that all is lost, he complains that Cleopatra has:

Pack'd cards with Caesar, and false-play'd my glory
Unto an enemy's triumph.

The card-playing metaphor continues to the very last word of that quotation, because a triumph, or terrestrial triumph as it was more usually called, was an old term for a winning card.

It didn't take long for a triumph card to get slurred and shortened to trump card. Then trump got verbed and you became able to trump your opponent.

Trumps are annoying things when your opponent has them, and so phrases emerged like trumping upon someone, which meant to throw out an obstacle as one card player will do to another. So trump became a synonym for any unexpected obstacle, and trumping became a term for producing such an obstacle out of the blue.

So if you arrest somebody out of the blue just to stop them doing something, then you trump up charges, like a card player spoiling your winning ace.

The Detection of Kepplinger - card cheating
The Inky Fool loses a trick

Friday 9 March 2012


An orgiophant is, according to the OED, an overseer of orgies. I'm not sure whether this is a useful word for you, dear reader, but I thought I'd tell you in case the word ever popped up in the jobs section of the classified ads.

I imagine that your main duties would be getting the orgial started, as an orgial is a song sung at orgies. That and looking after the clothes.

Anyway, it's etymologically appropriate as orgy is probably related to the Greek ergon meaning to work. If this is so, then orgy would be connected to ergonomics (the study of people at work), and I suppose that would be another concern of the orgiophant.

The Inky Fool knew this would be a tricky one.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Pulp Shakespeare

Usually, parodies of Shakespeare are rubbish. People think that if you throw in a few thous, prithees and marry nuncles that that's enough. It's not. Because if you've ever read much Elizabethan drama you'll know that that is how they all spoke. Moreover, they usually fail to make any use at all of blank verse, which means that the Shakespeare parody is nothing more than godwottery, gadzookery and a blizzard of well-known archaisms.

That's why the video below is fantastic. Not only have the writers put it mostly into iambics, not only do they have occasional references to actual Shakespeare lines (making the beast with two backs with the moor), but they have zeroed in, as all good parodies do, on Shakespeare's weaknesses. Will's love of puns and word play is often quite preposterous. Before watching this you should know that tread, for example, was an Elizabethan term for sex and for foot, thus setting up a ridiculously overinvolved set of puns on the subject of foot massages. And the silliness of "dropping the rock of horror as though he were a mere stone" and "The rock's words stick and stutter as stones themselves/And roll smooth no more" is just what Shakespeare would have done.

Were I in LA I would be buying tickets now.

Eagle eyed readers will have worked out by now, that this is a Shakespearean reworking of the film Pulp Fiction, familiarity with which is probably necessary for full enjoyment.

Monday 5 March 2012

Opportunity Blows

The temple of Portunus
If you're a sailor in a sailboat then you care a lot about winds, and the best sort of winds are those that blow your ship towards the port that's your destination. Or at least, they're the best sort when you're on the open sea.

If you're a sailor who happens to speak Latin, then you will describe these winds as ob portunus, or towards the port, because Portunus was the god of harbours. These ob portunus winds are good and favourable and represent, for the homesick seasick sailor, an opportunity.

By a reverse of this process, you can really pick the wrong moment to ask somebody for something and thus you are im-portuning them.

Etymologically speaking, this has a pleasant side-effect. Port wine is named after Portugal which is named after the Portus Cale. So if you hurl yourself towards an unguarded bottle of port then you have become an opportunist.

When leaving port, you should rely more on the tides than the winds. Wait till high tide, or flood, and then let the retreating waters pull your boat out. To see exactly how the metaphor survives have a look at this passage from Shakespeare.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

File:Cesar-sa mort.jpg
An opportunity

Friday 2 March 2012

Cuckoos, Cuckolds and Ale

Being a city dweller, the seasons are not measured for me as they were for the rustics who formed much of our language. I do not see the tender daffydilly poking its petals towards the questing vole, or any of the other signs of spring that my forbears noted. In fact, spring to me is the season in which the restaurants start to put their tables outside on the pavement. Instead of swallows, I have crowds of happy smokers loitering outside the pub on the corner. Instead of melting snows, I have the slow disappearance of hats.

I shall therefore, probably, never know the joys of the cuckoo ale, which is described thus in a magazine from 1821:

A singular custom prevails in Shropshire which is, we believe peculiar to that county. As soon as the first cuckoo has been heard, all the labouring classes leave work, if in the middle of the day, and the time is devoted to mirth and jollity, over what is called the cuckoo ale. 

The cuckoos will never, I fear, return to Clerkenwell, although the cuckolds may. As is well known, cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and therefore if someone else has lain in your bed, you have been cuckooed or cuckolded.

Also, the bone at the base of your spine is called the coccyx because it resembles, supposedly, a cuckoo's beak.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to devote myself to mirth and jollity. The cuckoos may not arrive till April, but the pub tables are out in force.

P.S. I know that Google is being odd about this site having malware. I'm pretty convinced it doesn't. It's still the same old blogspot thing underneath. There's probably just one link somewhere on one post that goes to a site that's no good, but I can't for the life of me work out which one it is.