Wednesday 18 July 2012


Right, that's it. I'm going on holiday. I'm off to the marsh-cells, the swamp, the clearing, the white fort, the monks, the middle of the plain. I'm not even sure when I'll be back - probably in early August - but posting will be negligible to none till then. I shall be feriate (or on holiday).

I don't know if this blog has any readers in Berlin; but if it does, I shall probably be doing something at the Shakespeare and Sons bookshop on Saturday. I have also finished the new book - The Horologicon - which will hit and kick the bookshelves on November 1st.

Monday 16 July 2012


Just a link today to this balanced and judicious savaging of modern hymn-writers. I shall merely observe that hymn comes from the Greek hymnos, meaning song, and may possibly be a variant of hymenaios, which means wedding song. What's fun about that is that hymenaios comes from Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, which may possibly come from hymen meaning hymen. That is all, though, terribly speculative.

And, for what it's worth, my favourite hymn lines are by Cardinal Newman:

And with the dawn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost a while.

I think it's all the Ls

A tip of the blogger's bowler to the Antipodean.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Hidebound Competitions & Waterstones

Competition PictureSometimes, when cows fall ill, their skin becomes so tight upon them that they can barely move. Such cattle are hidebound. By extension, when the human mind falls ill and opinions become so tight that they restrain thought, the person may be described as hidebound.

However, when a copy of The Etymologicon is bound in leather, it becomes utterly beautiful. I should know, as I have a copy. There are only ten such leather-bound copies of The Etymologicon in existence and the beautiful people at Waterstones are giving one away for free in a competition. To enter, all you need to do is follow this link to their lovely website.

Wednesday 11 July 2012


File:TomSwiftMotorcycleSmallCropped.jpgLaser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Taser is an acronym too, but has nothing to do with laser. It's named after a novel.

The taser was invented by a NASA scientist called Jack Cover who worked on it between 1969 and 1974. He had been inspired by a series of children's books about a hero called Tom Swift. Tom Swift is an adventuring sort of chap who goes around having adventures, sometimes in darkest, deepest Africa and sometimes on the Moon. There have been over a hundred Tom Swift books published since 1910 and they still seem to be going strong, there was even a Tom Swift board game once. However, the one that interests us is the tenth in the series which was published in 1911: Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle. In this one Tom Swift goes elephant hunting when he discovers that some of his friends have been taken hostage by a tribe of red pygmies. Luckily for the hero (but unluckily for the red pygmies) Tom has with him his brand new invention: a rifle that uses electricity rather than bullets. It can therefore be set to different ranges and different levels of lethality, so he can stun elephants, kill pygmies etc.

It was this invention that Jack Cover was attempting to imitate, and he even decided to call it Tom Swift's Electric Rifle, or TSER. However, as that didn't make a catchy acronym he decided to add a gratuitous initial and make it Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle, or TASER.


Monday 9 July 2012

ur5 kisim gu-du-ka

There's a rather indelicate term of abuse: arse-cheese (or ass-cheese, if you are of the American persuasion). It's not that common, but it does have an entry in the Urban Dictionary. I think it was popular in the 1990s, but has since rather dwindled. Its meaning, both literal and figurative can of course be guessed. I wouldn't normally mention this phrase, but last night I was happily reading a list of Sumerian proverbs, and specifically Ni 5271, which reads, in the transliterated original:

ur5 kisim gu-du-ka

Which translates as:

...smells, cheese of the anus...

It's fragmentary and nobody knows the context, but it seemed astonishing to me that a standard vulgar term of abuse should be among the earliest things ever written down. It's rather like the Tomb of Ti at Saqqara in Egypt, which can be dated to 2,300 BC. It contains a depiction of two fishermen fighting each other. The hieroglyphic caption is usually translated by academics as "Come hither, you copulator."*

As I can't find either a picture of the cuneiform or a picture of the tomb of Ti on the Internet, I shall leave this post unillustrated. Actually, no. I shall add that cuneiform just means "wedge-shaped". Like this:

Friday 6 July 2012

Three Semicolons

Three links today, all on the same subject: the semicolon.

First, here's me writing about them three years ago.

Second, here's an article from Monday's New York Times.

Third, here's something rather strange, but pretty accurate.

I know a chap who had a gut operation that left him with a semicolon.

And here's a graph of the frequency of semicolons in English from 1500 to the present.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Taxi Slang

The other day in a bookshop I found a dictionary of London taxi driver slang. It's a little dictionary and only cost £2.50 but, if you're a Londoner, it's rather fun. (If you're not a Londoner, I fear this post may be dull.)

It's the place names that are pleasant. The Stock Exchange is, apparently, known as Thieves' Kitchen. The twelve back streets that run through Soho from Regent Street to Charing Cross Road are the Dirty Dozen, and Covent Garden is still known as the Flower Pot, despite the fact that there hasn't been a flower market there since 1974.

But my favourite definition was:

Dead Zoo - Natural History Museum

The Pancake, apparently.
(The bar at the nearest corner is the most beautiful in London)

Monday 2 July 2012


Pronunciation is a funny thing. Man has walked on the moon, but he will never be able to say "Peggy Babcock" quickly ten times in a row. Then there are the lovely tongue twisters like "The sixth sick sheik's sixth sick sheep". But sometimes you need only a single word, and that word is psithurism.

The OED explains how to pronounce it: a P, an S, a short I (as in pit), an unvoiced TH (as in thin), a UR (as in curious), and an ism as in communism.

So try it. Psithurism. It can be done, but it takes a few goes. Now, can you guess what it means? That's right. It's a whispering sound like the rustling of leaves in the wind.