Friday 29 June 2012


File:Chuzzlewitt cover serial.jpgI don't know how many of this blog's readers are called Martin, it's not the sort of thing that's easy to check up on. Nonetheless, definition number five for the word martin in the OED amused me so much that I felt I ought to post it here (I have already e-mailed it to the only Martin I know).

Martin n. Agric. regional. A hermaphrodite or imperfect sterile female calf which is the twin of a male calf whose hormones affected its development; a heifer of this type; a spayed heifer

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Sixties English

Just a link today to this fascinating article in The Atlantic on how people spoke in the sixties versus the dialogue in Mad Men. The chap writing it has used a computer program to compare the scripts to actual example of sixties dialogue. I particularly like his observation that, back then, people said "ought to" much more than "need to". They were less necessary times.

Monday 25 June 2012

Root and Branch Recreation

Cover picture

I was in church yesterday, and towards the end of the service the chap in black with the funny neck-piece said the following:

O God, the strength of them that labour and the rest of the weary: grant us when we are tired with our work to be recreated by thy Spirit; that being renewed for the service of thy kingdom, we may serve thee gladly in freshness of body and mind...

Now, I do very little labour, but I do count myself as one of the weary. However, it was the words rather than the sentiment that grabbed my attention. Recreated was pronounced exactly as you might expect: ree-create. But it suddenly occurred to me to wonder what that has to do with recreation with a short re.

Create come straight from the Latin verb creare, the supine stem of which was creatum, hence the T. Creare meant to make, but if something was made new or refreshed it was re-creatum. Thus recreation is, indeed, a second creation. And you can be recreated by God or a doctor or a good drink.

Also, the first lesson was from Malachi, Chapter IV, where it says:

For, behold the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. 

Which is where the phrase root and branch comes from - as in the root and branch reform that politicians so often promise, and that I so badly need.

Heavy pruning

Friday 22 June 2012


The OED has just released their trimensual list of those lucky new words that have been admitted to their hallowed pages. You can see the whole lot here - and I imagine that someone more current than I will write about the significance of paywall and quantitative easing. The word I like was bimble, because I like the way it sounds, and I like the fact that the sound suggests the action.

To bimble is:

To move at a leisurely pace, esp. on foot; to amble, wander.

And a bimble is therefore a leisurely excursion, and I am therefore a bimbler. The word seems to have been invented in the Falklands war, which makes the affair sound much more relaxed than I had imagined.

The Inky Fool Blog
A pleasant bimble

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Little Cigars

This is a small and terribly obvious point as soon as you think about it. We all know that a statuette is a little statue, and a kitchenette is a little kitchen; but it's somehow much less obvious that a cigarette is just a little cigar.

That's because we pronounce cigar si-GAR; but we pronounce cigarette sigar-ETTE, with the stress moved away from its home syllable. So they don't immediately suggest each other.

This is the same thing that happened with excellent, pasteurised and lousy, which I wrote about in this old post.

Also, if smoking's so bad for you, why does it cure salmon?

Monday 18 June 2012

The Rains

A friend of mine was telling me the other day how happy he had been before "the rains came". There's something beautifully biblical about "the rains". It suggests a divine curse that cannot be lifted until some terrible expiation is made, probably involving a hecatomb of umbrellas.

Anyway, I shall therefore link you straight to this article that appeared on the BBC website today on strange words for the water that falls out of the sky, and never stops. I would merely like to add the term ark-building weather.

Friday 15 June 2012

Travesties and Transvestites

Sir William Davenant (who was quite possibly Shakespeare's illegitimate son, and quite certainly his godson) wrote a play about theatre life in London in the early 1660s. It takes the mickey out of the latest theatrical fads. A playwright asks an actor:

Playwright: What think you
Of Romances travesti?

Actor: Explain yourself.

Playwright: The garments of our Fathers you must wear
The wrong side outward, and in time it may
Become a fashion.

Because travesty was originally a style of theatre where people dressed funny. So you might take the Iliad or whatever and perform it wearing silly clothes and with silly verse. The playwright continues:

Playwright: You shall present the actions of the Heroes
Which are the chiefest themes of Tragedy)
In verse burlesque.

Actor: Burlesque and travesti? These are hard words,
And may be French, but not Law French.
Take heed, sir, what you say; you may be questioned for it.
We would do nothing, sir, but what is legal.

Anyway, you'd have a travesty of the Iliad or a travesty of King Arthur and then the word moved gently from meaning parody to meaning generally inferior version. But its root, etymologically, is the Latin trans (meaning across or different) and vestire (meaning to dress). Much later, in the 20th century, when psychiatrists were trying to think of a posh latinate way of saying cross-dresser, they took exactly the same roots, and made transvestite.


A hat-tip to the Antipodean for pointing this out to me.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Folk Numbers

This is just a little observation on how to write folk poetry. Louis Armstrong once observed that "All music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song."* However, there is a certain style, a certain flavour that some poems and songs have, and that others do not. If we ignore, for the moment, the music; it is rather odd that some lines should be folky and others non-folky. Why?

Sing a song of pennies,
A pocket full of rye,
Lots and lots of blackbirds baked in a pie.

Lots of blind mice,
Lots of blind mice,
See how they run...

Yes, sir, yes, sir, several bags full

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er seven hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
Of four and twenty daffodils.

Let us go through seven half-deserted streets
The muttering retreats...

Do you see what I'm getting at? Precise numbers sound folky. Of course, that isn't an iron rule, but it is a standard ingredient in that folksy flavour. Indeed, the best imitators of folk use this all the time. Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a classic example. It's almost an exercise in enumeration. He starts it off in the second line:

It is an ancient mariner
And he stoppeth one of three

Why three? There's no particular point to the number. And Coleridge does not stop there. There aren't just lots of people on the ship, there are:

Four times fifty living men

Who are condemned when a pale lady "whistles thrice." Things don't happen in weeks, they happen in:

Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.

Like one that hath been seven days drowned 
My body lay afloat;

The albatross accompanies the ship for precisely nine days, and the spirit follows the boat not "deep in the sea", as most poets would have put it, but exactly "nine fathoms deep".

The same trick is used by the great faker of folk songs, Bob Dylan. Here there are too many examples to name - seven sad forests, six wild horses, fifteen jugglers, five believers, fourth time around - once you start listening for them they're bloody everywhere.

So if you want to write something that sounds traditional and folky and magical - just chuck in some precise numbers. Simple.

Why this should be is a slightly odder question. And I have three different possible answers.

1) It reminds us of the Bible - the forty days and forty nights, the twelve disciples, the ten plagues, the four horsemen, the seven tongued angel etc etc etc. It could also, perhaps, remind us of magical spells in fairy stories where things often have to be repeated a particular number of times.

2) (And this is related) Numbers feel significant. When you read in the Ancient Mariner that the spirit was nine fathoms deep, you wonder what that means. It's as though there had been an ancient significance which is now lost in the fogs of time.

3) It's how folk actually talk. Poets and novelists will usually say that somebody stayed somewhere a long time. Actual people will say that they lived in Paris (or wherever) for three years. Nobody says "I work high in an office block." They say "I work on the eighteenth floor." Creation is vague. Life requires counting.

*Louis Armstrong lived before YouTube

Monday 11 June 2012

Pixilated and Pixelated

I don't usually go in for pointing out typos, as I make quite enough of them myself. But this report from a newspaper last week amused me immensely.

A pixilated portrait of the Queen made out of 3,120 cakes, one for each week of her reign, will be made by bakers Konditor and Cook as part of the Jubilee weekend celebrations.

You see, the word they were looking for was pixelated, with an E. Pixilated does exist and is recorded in the OED, but it means led astray by pixies.

File:I samma ögonblick var hon förvandlad till en underskön liten älva.jpg
The Inky Fool asks directions.

Wednesday 6 June 2012


The OED is sometimes delightfully laconic. Take this entry:

Nemophilous (rare) Fond of frequenting woods.

Well, I'm a nemophilous fellow and I'm heading to the countryside, where I intend to be nemorivagant for a few days (that is, I'm going to wander around the woods). I shall imbosk. This may mean a brief break in blogging, or it may not. I'm not sure. But I'm off.

The reason, incidentally, for my imbosking is that I've just finished the first draft of The Horologicon, which is my book of strange and wonderful words that will come out in November.

Home, sweet home.

Monday 4 June 2012


File:Grand Union Flag.svgThe following is highly speculative, but will satisfy the curiosity of anyone who's been wandering around Britain lately and wondering what bunting is, and whether there's a verb to bunt.

Bunting was originally just the material from which flags could be made. It seems to have come from the old verb to bunt meaning to sift, because that was what was done to the material when bunting was made (or possibly what was done with it afterwards). That in turn may come from the Latin bonitare, which meant to make good.

So bunting, etymologically, makes things good.

There is also an old naval phrase - bunting-tosser - for a ship's signalman who put out the flags.

And as an odd bit of historical trivia, that's the first American flag in the upper right of this post. Also, have a look at the flags in the background of this painting of the Declaration of Independence.

Friday 1 June 2012

Jubilee Poem

There is nothing new under the sun, including Diamond Jubilees for British Queens. Victoria had hers and Rudyard Kipling wrote a rather strange poem about it. He does not do much jubilating, instead warning of doom that impends. The only reference to the street parties and parades is "the tumult and the shouting dies", which is a classic case, incidentally, of two nouns being treated as a single idea and therefore taking a singular verb. It also contains the great phrase of destruction "one with Nineveh and Tyre", which is pretty much what most Briton's livers will be come Tuesday evening.

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

The Inky Fool approaching South London