Tuesday 30 October 2012

More Horologicon

The Daily Mail being a daily thing, there's more digested Horologicon to be read today. You can find out about everything from nod-crafty to wamblecropt. Just follow this link.

Monday 29 October 2012

The Daily Mail

Out of bed: Put on your pantoflesWhen I first heard the word blackmail I was only a child. I assumed that it involved letters that arrived in black envelopes, possibly posted down the chimney. I was, as I usually am, utterly wrong. For the mail in blackmail comes from an old word for payment or rent. In fact, there used to be silver-mail (payment in silver) and burrow mail (rent for land) and all sorts of other lovely mails. But none of them have anything to do with chain mail or The Daily Mail, which has started serialising The Horologicon today.

Yes! My beautiful book! The handsome Horologicon! It's being serialised in the Daily Mail. So you can read extracts from it online right here. It's even got pretty illustrations and everything.

To remind the forgetful and edify the innocent, I've written a book called The Horologicon, which is about the strangest and most beautiful words in the English language, arranged by the hour of the day when they will be most useful to you. Today's Mail is running extracts from 6am to 10. Read it instantly.

Good words: Use your bumbershot and golgotha to protect yourself from swale on your way to work
Look! A proper illustration of something I've written.

Friday 26 October 2012

Club and Club

It's a funny little thing that a golf club can either be a nine iron used to hit a ball, or an organisation that you join because you like playing golf. Similarly, somebody could be described as clubbable because they're the sort of social chap who's welcome in any gentleman's club or because they could easily be hit over the head with a club.

What is the connection? The medieval meaning of club was big stick used to hit things with, the sort of thing slouching cavemen are usually depicted with. However, if you don't have a club of your own, you can always make one. The simplest way to do this is mentioned in a 1625 passage about people warding off elephants:

Many times they fall upon the elephants which come to feed where they be, and so beate them with their clubbed fists, and pieces of wood, that they will runne roaring away from them.

You can make a club out of anything, even your hair. Ladies in the eighteenth century would often wear their hair in a club, which is to say that it wrapped together into what we'd call a bun on top of their heads. And metaphorically, you can wrap people together to make them one powerful object, like a club.

The sense development here is, to be honest, pretty damned obscure. Maybe the haircut was the bridge or maybe the sense of a group of soldiers formed into one blunt and brutal club. But pretty much everybody agrees that the idea of a club of people is that metaphorically they have come together like the instrument carried by a slouching caveman.

So a golf club and a golf club are, etymologically, one and the same.

Both are now weapons

Wednesday 24 October 2012


File:1p0c 8c0637.jpg
A reader has asked what the relationship is between pneumatics and pneumonia, and it's more fun than I'd thought. Both of them in their common form relate to air. Pneumatics uses air to drive pistons and the like, pneumonia is a disease of the lungs and affects their ability to breathe air. So far so simple.

They both come from the Greek word pneumon, which meant either breath or spirit. For that matter spirit means either breath or spirit. It comes from the Latin spiro, or breathe, and still survives in respire and respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia.

The fun thing is that when you look up pneumatic in the OED, the first definition is this:

Belonging or relating to spirit or spiritual existence; spiritual.
Chiefly in the context of New Testament theology.

That's from 1624, and pneumatic doesn't get its engineering meaning until thirty years later. One of the citations (from 1899) has:

The Gospel of St. John—the pneumatic gospel, as it was called, or gospel of religious genius.

Pneumatic seems to have kept its spiritual meaning and, in the nineteenth century, Jeremy Bentham invented the lovely word pneumatico-hedonistics which means:

 ...the branch of study that deals with spiritual or mental pleasures (as distinguished from those of the body)

And it turns out that I am much more devoted to somatico-hedonistics: "those branches of art and science which, as above, have for their objects those modifications of pleasure, which have the body for their seat."

But the funnest pneumo-word in the OED is this:

 Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis n. (also pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis)  [compare pneumonoconiosis n.] a word invented (prob. by Everett M. Smith (born 1894), president of the National Puzzlers' League in 1935) in imitation of polysyllabic medical terms, alleged to mean ‘a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine sand and ash dust’ but occurring only as an instance of a very long word.

File:London Pneumatic Despatch testing.JPG
The Inky Fool goes for a spin

Friday 19 October 2012

Days for the Diary

Diurnal, meaning daily, and diary, meaning a record of days, both come from the same Latin root dies. However, that is irrelevant to me at the moment. My diary has been given to me by my almighty publishers and here are all the events, talks and signings that I'm meant to be doing until Christmas with my lovely, shiny, blue-covered book, The Horologicon.

At each place, as I understand, I shall give talk and a reading lasting about forty minutes or so and then take questions and sign books, just to prove that I wrote them. If you, dear reader, would like to come along, that would be charming.

Saturday 10th, Blackwells, Park Street, BristolPlease call 0117 927 6602 for more information for ask in store.
Wednesday 14th, 7pm, Blackwells, Broad Street, Oxford – Entry £3
To purchase tickets visit the Customer Service Department, Second Floor or call 01865 333623.
Thursday 15th Heffers, Trinity Street, Cambridge – Entry £3
To purchase tickets ask a member of staff or call 01223 463 200.
Friday 16th, venue TBC, hosted by Topping Books ElyPlease call 01353 645005 or email ely@toppingbooks.co.uk for more information.
Monday 19th, 7pm, Waterstones, Albion Street, LeedsPlease call 0843 290 8443 for more information or ask in store.
Tuesday 20th, 6pm, Waterstones, Saddler Street Durham – Entry £2Tickets are available from the shop and redeemable against purchase of the book on the night. Please call 0191 383 1488 for more information or ask in store.
Wednesday 21st, Blackwells University Bookshop, Percy Street, NewcastlePlease call 191 232 6421 for more information or ask in store.
Thursday 22nd, Blackwells, South Bridge, EdinburghPlease call 0131 622 8222 for more information or ask in store. 
Wednesday 28th, Waterstones, Promenade, CheltenhamPlease call 0843 290 8227 for more information or ask in store.
Thursday 29th, 7pm, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, John Street, BathPlease call 01225 331155 or email books@mrbsemporium.com for more information or ask in store.
Friday 30th, 7pm, Wanstead Library, Spratt Hall Road, London – Entry £5Tickets are available from Newham Books or by calling 0208 708 400.


Wednesday 5th December, 7:30pm, West End Lane Books, West End Lane, London – Free entryPlease reserve your seat via Twitter (@WELBooks), by calling 0207 431 3770, emailing info@welbooks.co.uk or ask in store.
Saturday 8th December, Booka Books, Church Street, OswestryPlease call 01691 662244 or email mail@bookabookshop.co.uk for more information or ask in store.
Wednesday 12th December, 7:30pm, Chepstow Books, St Mary Street, Chepstow – Entry £4Ticket price redeemable against book purchase at the event. Please call  01291 625 011 or email shop@chepstowbooks.co.uk for more information or ask in store.
Thursday 13th December, Waterstones New Street, BirminghamPlease call 0843 290 8149 for more information or ask in store.
Friday 14th December, Warwick Books, Market Place, Warwick – Entry £4Please call 01926 499939 for more information or ask in store.
A typical book signing with the Inky Fool

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Mayday! M'aidez!

I was reminded last night that the distress call Mayday is merely an Englished spelling of the French m'aidez, which means Help me.

While I'm here, I should, perhaps, point out that SOS doesn't stand for anything. It's simply very easy to transmit in Morse Code. When SOS was thought up, there was an alternative suggestion that the signal should be CQD, standing for Come Quickly, Distress, but it was too hard to transmit.

Monday 15 October 2012

The Villain in the Villa

Once upon a time, there were Romans who had lovely villas in the countryside and the word is still with us today, even if the villas now tend to be rather suburban things. A Roman villa was not suburban it was usually attached to a farm and would therefore be one of a group of buildings. These buildings constituted the villaticum. Somehow, over the centuries a G got in there and the Old French referred to these buildings as un village and we as a village, with the villa bit still intact in there.

It's well known that people who live in villages are rustic, rural uneducated, illiterate peasants. That was the original meaning of villain. Because villains have none of the noble thoughts that fill the minds of educated city-dwellers, but are prey to their basest bucolic instincts - the word shifted meaning and started to refer to anybody who was evil, and that is where we get our modern villains from.

All this etymology makes Hamlet's words much more sensible:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark:

Because if I had a nice villa in Denmark I'd probably smile.

Finally, when not smiling and following their baser instincts, village villains often like to write rustic poetry with a peculiar rhyme scheme. And that's where we get the villanelle from. A villanelle is a poem of six stanzas. The first five stanzas have three lines and the last has four. The whole thing rhymes ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA, which would be impossibly hard were it not that the first line of the first stanza is repeated as the third line of the second fourth and sixth stanzas and the third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third fifth and sixth stanzas. Got that?


Well here's an example that Dylan Thomas wrote for his dying father, which is so beautiful that you should buy it from Amazon.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And here's Auden, which is also so beautiful that you should buy it from Amazon.

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Finally, village idiot is only recorded from 1907.

File:YMCA single cover.jpg

Friday 12 October 2012

Goodbye, Adios, Adieu

Now to my word;
It is 'Adieu, adieu! remember me.'
I have sworn 't.

Says Hamlet in a phrase that sounds terribly significant but doesn't actually go anywhere. Mind you, I've always had a private theory that the lines:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Might be adieu and not a dew. But all this is beside my etymological point. Adieu is a contraction of the old French parting A dieu vous commmant, which means I commend you to God. It's a kind sentiment, but French people weren't very kind and couldn't be bothered to say the whole thing. Spaniards were similarly lazy and A dios vos acomiendo became simply Adios.

But English people are the unkindest and laziest of all. Once upon a time we used to say God be with you. By about 1590 when Shakespeare wrote Love's Labour's Lost we had dropped the th in with, so Costard says

I thanke your worship, God be wy you.

By the time he had got round to writing Othello in the first decade of the seventeenth century, it was printed as God b'uy, I ha done - although my Arden Edition expands this to a full God be with you to make up the iambic pentameter.

These days we just say Goodbye, or even just bye.

Wednesday 10 October 2012


A whinner-neb is defined is Grose's Provincial Glossary (1787) as:

A meagre, thin-faced man, with a sharp nose.

It amused me to find this word in a dictionary because, at the time, I was sitting in the British Library and it was the perfect description of the chap sitting opposite me. I rather wanted to lean over and hiss the words "Whinner-Neb!", just to see his reaction. But I felt much too sorry for him. And anyway, I sometimes fear I'm a whinner-neb myself.

Grose speculates that the term is "Perhaps from some bird that feeds or is bred among whins", where whins is another word for gorse.

Monday 8 October 2012

The Etymologicon in the Americas

Dear American and Canadian readers, The Etymologicon is now out in your continent, wearing a ten gallon hat and heading westward across the vast untamed prairies. It's even got a brand new jacket suitable for the tastes of your young and vigorous countries. 

Just to prove that I'm not making this up, here's an interview with me in the Chicago Tribune, and a mention in the New York Times, and an extract in the Huffington Post. It's published by Berkley Penguin. Penguins being biologically from Antarctica, and etymologically from Wales*. 

File:Wormius' Great Auk.jpgPen is the Welsh word for head, thus Penzance in Cornwall is the Holy Headland. Gwyn is the Welsh word for white, as in Gwendolyn, which just means white in the same where that Candida does in Latin. So when Welsh sailors first saw the Newfoundland Auk, with a white patch on his head, they decided to call it a whitehead or penguin

The Newfoundland Auk promptly became extinct. The name would have died with it, were it not for the fact that the auk looks very like the unnamed birds that were pottering around at the south end of the planet. That picture on the left is an auk, so you can see the similarity. 

Thus the Welsh for white head managed to make it to the other side of the world. Berkley, on the other hand, means clearing in a birch forest - leah was the old English for clearing, and beorc was birch. So Berkley Penguin is, etymologically speaking, a great auk standing in a birch forest.

I've searched, but can find no illustration for this. 

Anyway, run to the shops and order your copy now. Or click on this link and buy it from Amazon.com

So stylish

*The following is all best theory, but sometimes disputed.

Wednesday 3 October 2012


Just a link today to this fascinating article on the BBC website about how Britishisms are invading America, with Harry Potter as the main mode of transport. I for one had no idea that Americans didn't chat each other up.

Meanwhile, I'm going to jump on a train for Lichfield Literature festival where I'm giving a talk at 3:45.

Monday 1 October 2012

Lichfield and The Horologicon

I'm going to be talking at the Lichfield Literature Festival on Wednesday at 3:45 - lots more details here. Also, by a strange quirk of chronology it will be the first place in Britain that you'll be able to buy The Horologicon, my lovely new book about strange words and phrases hidden in the dictionary. The rest of the nation will have to wait another four weeks, but in the home town of Dr Johnson time runs faster.

I shall do my best in my hour-long talk to cause oscitancy, which Johnson defined as "yawning or unusual sleepiness". There'll be lots of other words from The Horologicon including micher which Johnson called "A lazy loiterer, who skulks about in corners and by-places, and keeps out of sight; a hedge creeper", and describes me perfectly.

Click here for more details.

A harmless drudge.