Wednesday 30 May 2012

The Pope is Dead

Alexander Pope is, as this blog has established, the most quoted English poet. He died 266 years ago today and two people wrote poems on the subject. Here they are:

On the Death of Mr. Pope

Seal up the book, all vision's at an end,
For who durst now to poetry pretend?
Since Pope is dead, it must be sure confessed
The Muse's sacred inspiration's ceased;
And we may only what is writ rehearse:
His works are the apocalypse of verse.

And, as Pope was such a satirist:

Spoken Extempore on the Death of Mr. Pope

Vice now may lift aloft her speckled head,
And front the sun undaunted: Pope is dead!

Astro Turf and Radicals

On Monday I was chatting with some political types (or rather they were chatting and I was sternly drinking my wine) when they all started to use the verb astroturfing. It should be noted that I'm not quite sure how to spell this. Astro Turf is, officially, two words and a registered trade mark. The conversation went something like:

"Oh, he's only astroturfing."

"I know he's only astroturfing. Obviously it's Astro Turf."

"But the papers can see that he's astroturfing too. They won't buy it."

Often you hear a new word, but it kind of doesn't work because people sound that little bit smug while they're saying it and then explain it afterwards to make themselves sound clever. Not here. This was clearly a standard part of their vocabulary that they used as freely as I would use the word drinking. So I asked what it meant.

They all looked at me as though I were some kind of hick, which of course I am, and one of them, descending briefly from the higher realm of politics explained quickly that Astro Turf is meant to look like grass but is in fact manufactured, and that astroturfing is therefore when a politician carefully organises and controls a campaign, but tries to make it look as though it's all coming up from the grass roots.

Incidentally, the root of radical is radix which is the Latin word for root (you may need to read that twice). Thus a radish is a root, to eradicate is to pull up by the roots, and grass roots politics is etymologically just the same as radical politics.

I'd vote for that.

Monday 28 May 2012

Bashful Bah

Bashful is one of those wonderful words without an opposite. Try as you might, nobody will ever call you bashless. Which poses the question: what the devil is bash and how did you get so full of it?

To answer that question one can turn to the Old Curiosity Shop where Dickens mentions that Dick Swiveller "spends all his money on his friends and is Bah!'d for his pains."

By this Dickens means that Swiveller's friends say Bah to him, Bah being an exclamation of contempt. Dickens looks terribly original, but in fact bah has (probably - this is all merely the best theory) been verbed before, by the French and Normans a thousand years ago.

First, you should note that bah comes straight from the French. But the Normans had a verb ebahir, which meant to be astonished, or more literally to be reduced to saying 'bah' in amazement. This got altered to abaïr, and that got altered to abaissir and that got altered to abash.

These days it's easy to be abashed in the passive; but once upon a time it was just as common to go around abashing people until they were abashed, or just bashed, at which point they became bashful.

Thus, by a preposterously serpentine route, Dick Swiveller is abashed.

None of which has anything to do with a bash on the head, which appears to come from the Old Norse who had a deplorable habit of doing a lot of such bashing.


Friday 25 May 2012

Sun-Bathing and Philosophy

There's a rather strange work by Thomas Nashe called Summer's Last Will and Testament. It is about the handover of seasons in the changing year. In it, Winter describes how writing was invented for the warmer seasons, and that writing is a Bad Thing. Its first evil result was poetry.

There grew up certain drunken parasites, 
Termed Poets, which for a meal's meat or two 
Would promise monarchs immortality;
They vomited in verse all that they knew, 
Found causes and beginnings of the world...

But even worse than that poets were the resulting philosophers:

Next them, a company of ragged knaves,
Sun-bathing beggars, lazy hedge-creepers,
Sleeping face upwards in the fields all night,
Dreamed strange devices of the Sun and Moon;
And they, like Gypsies, wand'ring up and down,
Told fortunes, juggled, nicknamed all the stars,
And were of idiots termed Philosophers:

And that is the first ever recorded reference in English to sun-bathing. It beats the posher aprication by 31 years.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a hedge into which I must lazily creep.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Jubilee and the Horn

The jubilee approacheth, and millions of patriotic British etymologists are trying to turn sheep into musical instruments.

When God and Moses are up on Mount Sinai having a chat, God tells Moses that he should work hard six days a week and then take a break (most people know about this commandment). But he then tells Moses to do the same thing every seven years:

Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land.

This sounds rather lovely, and is, of course, the origin of the sabbatical. But what happens every seven seven years? Well at that point God just declares a holiday multiplied by a holiday.

And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years. Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. A jubile shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed. For it is the jubile; it shall be holy unto you: ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field.

And what (I hear you shriek) is the trumpet of the jubile. Well, a jubile is a Hebrew yōbēl or ram, and so the trumpet of the jubile is a ram's horn trumpet that gets blown every fifty years.

Of course, this year the Queen is Diamond Jubilarian. So maybe we shouldn't use a ram, and instead make a trumpet out of a pigeon.

I must also remember to free my slaves.

Tootle tootle.

Monday 21 May 2012

Donning and Doffing

As you step out in the cold misery of a British May, you don your hat. Then you see a lady of your acquaintance and you doff your hat. Then you don it again. Doff. Don. Doff. Don. And suddenly you realise, in a moment of etymological ecstasy, that the verb don is merely a contraction of do on, and that doff is merely a contraction of do off. And you're so excited that you kiss that poor lady and run off howling and hatless.

Friday 18 May 2012

Crickets and Stool-Ball

File:ALPP - Stool-Ball.png
Stool at bottom right
I spent yesterday lounging around at Lord's watching a game of stool-ball. This is a sport in which a chap throws a ball at a stool and another chap attempts to bat it away. Stool-ball is the subject of a lovely little C17th poem by Robert Herrick:

At stool-ball, Lucia, let us play 
 For sugar-cakes and wine : 
Or for a tansy let us pay, 
 The loss, or thine, or mine. 

 If thou, my dear, a winner be 
 At trundling of the ball, 
The wager thou shalt have, and me, 
 And my misfortunes all. 

 But if, my sweetest, I shall get, 
 Then I desire but this : 
That likewise I may pay the bet 
 And for all a kiss.

Where a tansy is a kind of cake. I don't know if any arrangement like Herrick's had been made between Andrew Strauss and Darren Sammy, but I did notice that the game seems now to be commonly referred to as cricket, and that nobody seems to be utterly sure why. The OED has a veritable essay on the subject, but the best theory seems to be that a cricket is a stool. You see, there's a kind of little foot-stool called a cricket-stool which is recorded from 1559 (Item 2 old chaires‥. Item one litill crekett stole.), and therefore if stool-ball were played with a cricket stool it would become cricket. And so, in 1575 you have the first record of the noble game:

Ther are made likewyse, many-kynde of Balles, Tut-staues or Kricket-staues, Rackets, and Dyce, for that the foolish People, shoulde waste or spende their tyme ther-with, in Foolishnes.

This is utterly true, but I like foolishness. I should also mention that the reason I was at the cricket in the first place was the release of a lovely book called Third Man In Havana that you should go and buy instantly etc etc if you have any interest in stool-ball.

Four slips and tonsure

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Wamfling Wamflers

Goya y Lucientes, Francisco de - Woman with Clothes Blowing in the Wind - Romanticism - Mixed technique - Genre - Museum of Fine Arts - Boston, MA, USAI may simply have a thing for words that begin wam- (see this old post on wamblecropt), but I was immeasurably happy, whilst flicking through the OED the other day, to discover the verb wamfle, which is defined thus:

To go about with flapping garments. Of garments, etc., to flap, flutter (in the wind).

Wamfle's first mention is in Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), where it gets this slightly more precise definition:

To wamfle, to move like a tatterdemallion; conveying the idea of one moving about, so as to make his rags flap. Fife.

I slightly prefer the OED's one as it chimes with the neighbouring noun: wamfler, which means a beau or a gallant.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a good breeze up and conditions are perfect.

The fine art of wamfling whilst wamblecropt

Monday 14 May 2012

Schmaltz, Grease and Home

Sometimes the dictionary doesn't tell you the whole story. Every reference work I've seen puts the etymology of schmaltz as Yiddish shmalts meaning melted chicken fat, from Old German smelzan meaning melt. Indeed, the first recorded use of schmaltz in the figurative sense even mentions the etymology. It's from a 1935 article in Vanity Fair :

Schmaltz (cf. the German schmalz, meaning grease) is a derogatory term used to describe straight jazz.

So far, so not that interesting really. Schmaltzy = greasy. But today, only today I learnt that it's the smell and associations of the grease that are important. Melted chicken grease would be an integral part of the big family dinners that New York Jews associated with home, and mama and papa, and sentimentality and all of the other terrors of kinship. Thus schmaltzy = sentimental.

Schmaltz isn't just fat, it's family.

Home, sweet home.

Friday 11 May 2012

Hard Graft, Grafting and Calligraphy

Once upon a long time ago there was a Greek word graphein that meant write. When you wrote yourself that was an autograph, when you wrote on something that was an epigraph, when you wrote about prostitutes it was pornography and when you wrote beautifully it was calligraphy (presumably if you wrote about beautiful prostitutes it would be callipornography).

Anyway, the result of all these graphs was that the Latin word for a stylus (or sharp writing implement) was a graphium, and the result of that was the the Old French for a sharp instrument was graife. Therefore, when you cut off a shoot from a plant with a graife and attached it to another plant this was known as grafting.

None of which has anything to do with hard graft, which goes back to graft meaning dig, which goes back to graff meaning dig, which goes back to grave meaning dig, which is where we get the grave that was dug. Which leads inevitably to the question of what you call a man with a spade in his head.


Hard graft

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Omphalopsychites and Umbilicani

I've heard the phrase navel gazing exactly a million and one times, without ever suspecting that it had once been more than a figure of speech. I thought that it merely involved contemplating yourself, and a particularly uninteresting part of yourself at that.

The term is only recorded in English from 1854 when Harper's Magazine had the line:

Therefore‥every man who has contemplated his own navel until he is solemnly convinced that he has seen to the bottom of it‥is cocksure that he can help the world.

Thus my joy and jubilation when I realised that there were once real navel gazers who took the matter seriously. The Hesychast monks of the Middle Ages would sit on Mount Athos contemplating their belly buttons in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Here are Abbot Symeon's instructions on the matter of meditation:

Sitting alone in private, note and do what I say. Close the doors and raise thy spirit from vain and temporal things. Then rest thy beard on the breast and direct the gaze with all thy soul on the middle of the body at the navel.

The Hesychasts therefore became known as the Omphalopsychites, which means, approximately, navel-spiritualists. They were also called by the Italians the Umbilicani.

If a belly button is actually a pre-requisite of spiritual purity, it is no wonder, if you think about it, that Adam and Eve fell.

This picture contains two mistakes.

Monday 7 May 2012

The Natural Order of Things

Nothing but a link today to an excellent article by Tom Chivers in the Telegraph. I wouldn't say that I agree with it all, but I was astonished by this little detail:

The rules of language tend to be unspoken – for instance, I didn't realise that there is a natural order to adjectives, which you will use all the time and possibly never have noticed. (The order is opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose, so a "beautiful little old round Armenian copper cooking pot", for instance. Try it out of order to see how weird it sounds.)

An imaginary prize will be awarded to anybody who can dream up an elegant exception.

Friday 4 May 2012

Seven Types of Audiobook

The Etymologicon is out as an audiobook, complete and unabridged and various other synonyms. It's read by Simon Shepherd and can be obtained from Amazon, Audible, AudiogoMr W.H., and iTunes. And here, for your delectation and delight, is a sample.

To celebrate this leap into the audible, here's one of my favourite ambiguous sentences.

I didn't say she stole my money.

It doesn't look ambiguous, does it? Looks like a simple statement. However, it is ambiguous when it's read aloud (hence the connection). Depending on which word you stress, the sentence has seven distinct meanings.

"I didn't say she stole my money." =  "Somebody else made that accusation."

"I DIDN'T say she stole my money." = "That statement was never made."

"I didn't SAY she stole my money." = "I kept quiet about the theft."

"I didn't say SHE stole my money." = "It was the man on the grassy knoll."

"I didn't say she STOLE my money." = "She certainly obtained it, but did not steal it."

"I didn't say she stole MY money." = "I accused her of stealing somebody else's money."

"I didn't say she stole my MONEY." = "But she did steal my socks. And I want them back."

As that is exactly the sort of sentence that might be uttered in court, you should take all transcripts of trials with a pinch of salt; or buy the audiobook.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Cottoning On

File:Mandeville cotton.jpgCottoning on to something, in the sense of understanding it is a rather odd phrase. Indeed, it's so odd that it doesn't exist in America, so far as I can tell. On those strange shores cottoning on means getting on well with, which is in fact exactly what the phrase meant on these strange shores a hundred and fifty years ago.

In John Camden Hotten's A Dictionary of Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words Used at the Present Day in the Streets of London (1860), you'll find this entry; and it's pretty easy to see how you can go from liking something to understanding it.

COTTON, to like, adhere to, or agree with any person; "to COTTON on to a man," to attach yourself to him, or fancy him, literally, to stick to him as cotton would. Vide Bartlett, who claims it as an Amercanism; and Halliwell, who terms it an Archaism; also Bacchus and Venus 1737.

Well, Halliwell was right. The phrase is, to all intents and porpoises, pre-American and has been around since the mid sixteenth century. So far as anybody can tell it comes from the practise of lining clothes with cotton. So something that is made of a coarse, thick, warm material on the outside can have a cotton interior to make it comfortable. A dictionary of 1706 has this:

In making Hats, To Cotton well, is when the Wool and other Materials work well and imbody together.

Obviously, the inner and outer layer have to fit perfectly together and thus cotton well, and thus two people who fit together perfectly are said to have cottoned.

Or there's the possibility that it comes from the Welsh cytuno, meaning agree. I'd try to combine the two explanations, but they just won't cotton.

Hi, mum.