Friday 31 August 2012

Once On A Blue Moon

Today is the day when unusual things happen, for today is a blue moon. It is the second full moon in a single calendar month (the last one was on August 2nd), something that only happens every three years or so.

In fact, to be accurate, there are several slightly different definitions of a blue moon, with some people saying that it's the fourth full moon in a three month period, and others (including Brewer's) just saying that it's when the moon appears blue because of dust in the atmosphere.

Nobody even knows where the phrase comes from exactly, or why you would call the extra moon blue. There are theories, but none very convincing.

If a full moon is something that happens once every two or three years - the last was in 2010 and the next will be in 2015 - then it's much rarer than a month of Sundays, which, if you think about it, should rack up every thirty weeks.

As for donkey's years, I have already discussed them in this old post.

As for Blue Moon the song, that was the fourth version. The original song was called Oh Lord, Make Me a Movie Star and the lyrics (sing 'em) went:

Oh Lord,
If you're not busy up there,
I ask for help with a prayer
So please don't give me the air.

They were written for a 1933 film called Hollywood Party, but the scene was cut. In 1934 Rodgers and Hart tried re-working them for a film called Manhattan Melodrama:

Act One:
You gulp your coffee and run;
Into the subway you crowd.
Don’t breathe, it isn’t allowed.

But that scene was cut too. So they reworked it for the nightclub scene:

Oh Lord,
What is the matter with me?
I'm just permitted to see
The bad in every man.

That scene wasn't cut, and here it is!

But the lyrics still weren't romantic enough. So Hart, probably pissed off as hell by this point, knocked out a fourth version that went:

A tip of the blogger's bowler to Altanese Cato for bringing the blue moon to my attention.

P.S. I've managed, with sinister dexterity, to slice open the index finger of my right hand, which will apparently be unusable for several weeks and is filled with stitches. This may affect blogging as I'm typing as fast as a continent drifts.

Tuesday 28 August 2012


At first blush (or even second) brimborium sounds rather like a place name from The Lord of the Rings. But in the proper context, its OED meaning makes some sort of satisfactory sense. So, Fanny Burney in 1786 referred to:

...brimborions, baubles, knick-knacks, gewgaws.

So a brimborion is a shiny, worthless nothing. It comes from the French breborion, which was defined in a 1611 dictionary as:

Old dunsicall books; also the foolish charmes, or superstitious prayers, used by old, and simple women, against the tooth-ache etc; any such thredbare, and mustie rags of blind devotion.

Duncical books and threadbare rags would mean that I have several breborion cupboards in my bedroom alone.

Wednesday 22 August 2012


With the publication of The Horologicon approaching, I thought I'd do a few posts of words that didn't make it in. There's a little over two thousand strange words in there, but there were, nonetheless, poor animals that didn't make it into the ark because I couldn't weave them in.

For example, in the section of office politics, I somehow failed to include catch-fart, which is defined in Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) thuslyly:

A footboy; so called from such servants commonly following close behind their master or mistress.

As many modern bosses have a catch-fart following them around, the term is still eminently usable, and eminently comprehensible after a moment's thought.

Monday 20 August 2012

The Horologicon

A horoscope is a look (scope) at the hour (horo) that you were born. It's related to horology, which is the study of clocks, and to a horologicon, which is a book of hours, and - much more importantly - the title of my new book which comes out on November the first.

The Horologicon will not, I confess, address all, or even any, of the burning questions of horology. Instead, it is a book of strange and wonderful words that I've found cavorting at the back of the dictionary. However, unlike most books of strange and wonderful words, these are arranged in a useful manner. They are arranged by the hour of the day when you're most likely to need them.

So if, for example, you have ever woken up before dawn and lain abed worrying, The Horologicon tells you in chapter one (6am) that you are suffering from what the Old English called uhtceare, or anxiety experienced just before dawn. If you devote your life to the academic study of breakfast, you will find out in chapter three (8am) that you are an aristologist. And if you come home at midnight and wake everybody up by tramping around the house, it will explain that you are merely the victim of a nightingale floor.

The really important thing about the book, though, is that it has an absolutely beautiful blue and silver cover, which is as good a reason as any to order it now from Amazon, Blackwells, Foyles, Waterstones or the Book Depository; so that it slaps onto your doormat on November the second.

Ah, lovely.

Wednesday 15 August 2012


What does wi-fi mean?

Come on, you ought to know. You almost certainly have wi-fi (unless you're reading this blog from some paleolithic dial-up system). So? Wi-fi?

Can you guess?

It means nothing at all. Or nearly nothing.

Hi-fi - that means something. It's a shortening of high fidelity, meaning that the sound produced is highly faithful to the original sound recorded. Hi-fi has existed since 1934. The Germans tried to standardise the meaning of the term hi-fi back in the sixties, but it didn't really catch on. It was just a general term of approval that then became interchangeable with cassette player because everybody claimed to be highly faithful.

Then in 1999 the inventors of the new IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence went to a marketing firm called Interbrand to come up with a name that was "a little catchier". Interbrand decided that hi-fi was famous, tried and trusted and that if you changed the hi to wi (for wireless) you would have a tip-top brand name.

But... there's no fidelity involved at all. No sense of this being a more faithful connection to the router. Wireless fidelity would, if it meant anything at all, refer to a spouse who remained faithful even when not attached to electrodes. It's just a leftover term from a previous invention.

The new Wi-fi Alliance were rather awkward about this. They did, for a little while, try to refer to wireless fidelity, but it's such an utterly meaningless idea that the term was dropped and hasn't been seen since 2003. So, wi-fi does not mean wireless fidelity, it means hi-fi with one letter changed.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Bull, Bullshit and T.S. Eliot

Some words have origins much ruder than you might imagine, others were once clean and pure but now smeared by association. Take, for example, the phrase "a load of bull". This is usually believed to be a shortening of bullshit. And bullshit, you might imagine, was merely an expansion of good old shit.

But way back at the beginning of the fourteenth century, the writer of Cursor Mundi said that he wanted to tell his story "withuten bul", meaning without any nonsense. He was not one of the hypocrites that are "all ful with wickednes, tresun and bull".

Bull goes back to the Old French boul, and beyond that to the Latin bulla, which meant bubble. So when somebody talks of a "load of bull", it is not excrement, but empty and worthless bubbles.

Dialect Notes of 1914 mentions bull as "Bull, talk which is not to the purpose; ‘hot air’", and bullshit is first recorded by the OED in 1915. Guess who invented it.

The first known use of the excremental bull is in a poem describing the publishing industry titled The Triumph of Bullshit, which was written by T.S. Eliot. The poem was written before 1915 (probably 1910), and of course Eliot may not have invented the word, simply used it.

So for your delectation and delight, here is Mr Eliot's work in full. I should warn you that it's not really in the style of the Four Quartets. Of course, the ladies referred to are the lady publishers who kept rejecting his poems:

The Triumph of Bullshit

Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,
Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,
Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,
Impotent galamatias,
Affected, possibly imitated,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous
Awkward insipid and horribly gauche,
Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous,
Dull as a heart of an unbaked brioche,
Floundering versicles, feebly versiculous
Often attenuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotions that turn isiculous,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies who think me unduly vociferous,
Amiable cabotin making a noise
That people may cry out "this stuff is too stiff for us" -
Ingenuous child with a box of new toys,
Toy lions carnivorous, cannons fumiferous
Engines vaporous - all this will pass;
Quite innocent - "he only wants to make shiver us."
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

And when thyself with silver foot shalt pass
Among the theories scattered on the grass
Take up my good intentions with the rest
And then for Christ's sake stick them up your ass.

I love the phrase "ineptly meticulous". More early Eliot poems here.

Friday 10 August 2012

Imaginary Holidays

I've just completed a Grand Tour. I would say that I've just completed a Grand Tour of Europe, but that would be a tautology as the OED insists that a Grand Tour is:

A tour of the principal cities and places of interest in Europe, formerly supposed to be an essential part of the education of young men of good birth or fortune.

Three attributes to which I can lay only a fragile claim. I visited Verona and saw Juliet's balcony, which is odd because Shakespeare never visited Verona and the idea that that particular balcony is Juliet's is utter hokum cooked up much later. I made the mistake of trying to explain this to the nice lady in the tourist information bureau. She did not take it well.

I visited Vienna, subject of the splendid 80s song by Ultravox, which is odd because Midge Ure had never visited Vienna when he wrote the song.

I visited the Hofgarten in Munich which is mentioned in Eliot's The Waste Land. Most of that section is derived from a book called My Past by Countess Marie Larisch, whom Eliot had also met in person. It's a funny little autobiography of an aristocrat describing her mad relatives. For example, one of them saw the ghost of the dead King Ludwig and had a strange conversation with him:

"'Ah me!' he sighed. 'Death has not brought me peace. Cissi, she burns in torment. The flames encircle her, the smoke suffocates her. She burns and I am powerless to save her.' 

 "'Who burns, dear cousin?' I asked. 

 "'I do not know because her face is hidden,' he answered, 'but I know that it is a woman..."

But Eliot had visited Munich, indeed he wrote much of Prufrock there. And My Past contains no references to the Hofgarten at all - making this a proper piece of poetic tourism. I even went on in the sunlight, though summer did not surprise me.

In Prague I read Too Loud a Solitude and then chucked the book into the paper recycling bin. If you want to know why that is so neat, you will have to read the book too.

In Marseille, a friend told me that he had, through his own researches, discovered the exact spot that the Marquis de Sade had poisoned three teenage prostitutes. I have never read any De Sade, and can't say that I was filled with a desire to do so.

But the main poetic point that I learnt on my travels is that there are no native English rhymes for Prague. This is immensely frustrating if you are trying to write a limerick about every city you visit. The best I could come up with was:

While messing around in old Prague a
Czech chap purloined my lager.
So I slew him right there
In Wenceslas Square
And cooked his remains in my Aga.

Geneva was easier but less printable, and Brussels was a doddle. Anyone who can do better with Prague should leave their poem in the comments.

P.S. I also visited two branches of Shakespeare and Sons (English language bookshops), one in Berlin and the other in Prague. They were both excellent.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Snollygosters and Presidents

Right, I'm back. And here, for your delectation, is a TedX talk that I did in June which has just popped up on the Interweb.