Monday 31 December 2012

French Hogmanay

Hogmanay, the Scots New Year, is one of those words that sounds irretrievably non-Latinate, unless you remove the hogm, in which case it sounds exactly like the French word année, or year.

Hogmanay is a mysterious word and nobody really knows where the hog bit comes from. But it somehow seems to have been added to the Medieval French aguillanneuf, which breaks down in to aguill (mysterious), an (year), and neuf (new).

Also, hogmanay - or at least hagnonayse - is recorded in England long before it was recorded in Scotland (1443 v. 1604). The original meaning of the word was as a demand for a new year's gift, rather like trick or treat at Halloween.

Happy new year, sundry and all.

Start where you mean to end up.

Monday 24 December 2012

Christmas Drinking

The time of the incarnation is upon us. So here is a brief but edifying video on the subject of getting sloshed at this joyous time.

And a final venal reminder to rush out and buy The Horologicon.

Merry Yule.

Friday 21 December 2012

Christmas Words

For those of you who tire of text and yearn for nothing more than the sound of a rather nasal voice, here's a video of me talking about some Christmas words.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Two Bitter Ends

I'm afraid this post will be somewhat inconclusive. If you want something definitive then follow this link for yet another review of The Horologicon.

Once upon a time there was the word bit. But not in the sense of a small piece of something. This bit meant bucket, and was cognate with bucket and with a water butt. Somebody who was in charge of a bucket of water was therefore a bitter. So this became a term for a fireman. As in this line from 1467.

That the bitters be ready with hur horses and bittes to bring water.

But then a bit also came to mean a sturdy thing on a dockside that you could tie a rope to. And the end of the rope that was around the bit? Here's a quote from Captain Smith's Seaman's Grammar of 1627 (that's the same Captain Smith that had a thingy with Pocahontas).

A Bitter is but the turne of a Cable about the Bits, and veare it out by little and little. And the Bitters end is that part of the Cable doth stay within boord.

This remains in every dictionary to this day. Here's one from 1725:

BITTER, any Turn of a Cable about the Bitts is called a Bitter; and 'tis used that the Cable' may be let out by little and little. And when a Ship is so stopp'd by a Cable, they say she is brought up to a Bitter. Also that End of the Cable which is used to be wound or belayed about the Bitts,' they call the Bitter End of the Cable.

And that's what's in the OED. So the bitter end is simply the end of the rope. Right? Nothing whatever to do with bitter as in acrid and sour-tasting.

Well, that's what I wanted to say, but then I found this from a poem by George Wither published in 1622:

With hunger parched, and consum'd with heat,
I will enforce them to a bitter end;
The teeth of beasts I will upon them set,
And will the poisonous dust-fed serpent send.

Now it's possible that George Wither was just being nautical. But in the poem that's God speaking and so it's much more likely that he was remembering the fifth chapter of the Book of Proverbs:

For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.

So now, well, I just don't know any more. All the authorities say that working to the bitter end is just getting to the very end of the rope. But it also seems to have combined with the more usual sense of bitter to make poor bloggers like me not have a proper conclusion.

The reason that I was researching this all in the first place, is that I've been reading Bum Fodder, an Absorbing History of Toilet Paper by Richard Smyth. It's a great little book and ideal for reading on the... yep. Anyway, he says that the bitter end was placed in a bit (or bucket) and was used by sailors for wiping. The OED says that the bitter end was sometimes used as a whip, which seems downright unhygienic. Frustratingly, neither provides a quotation.

Anyway, back to that review.

Everyday life with a dictionary writer.

Monday 17 December 2012


The single most surprising word I came across when writing The Horologicon was feague. It's the rudest word in the book by quite some way, so I put it in the preface. Here for your delectation and disgust is a simple, extended quotation from the fourth page of the book.

There is a single eighteenth-century English word for shoving live eels up a horse’s arse. Here is the definition given in Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

FEAGUE. To feague a horse; to put ginger up a horse’s fundament, and formerly, as it is said, a live eel, to make him lively and carry his tail well; it is said, a forfeit is incurred by any horse-dealer’s servant, who shall show a horse without first feaguing him. Feague is used, figuratively, for encouraging or spiriting one up. 

There are three instructive points to be taken from that definition. First, you should never trust an eighteenth-century horse dealer. Especially if you’re a horse. Or an eel.

 Second, the English language is ready for anything. If you were to surprise a Frenchman in the act of putting a conger up a mare’s bottom he would probably have to splutter his way through several sentences of explanation, filled with circumlocutory verbocinations. However, ask an English-speaker why they are sodomising a horse with a creature from the deep and they can simply raise a casual eyebrow and ask: ‘Can’t you see I’m feaguing?’

 The ability to explain why you’re putting an eel up a horse with such holophrastic precision is the birthright of every English-speaking man and woman, and we must reclaim it.

Thirdly, and finally, you will notice that that definition is not from the Oxford English Dictionary. Though the OED is the greatest and heaviest reference work yet devised by man, it does not necessarily touch the sides of the English language. In the case of feaguing, the OED does actually quote Grose, but rather coyly only mentions only the stuff about ginger.

And if that is not enough to make you scamper to the bookshop and buy, here is a lovely review from John Lloyd at The Book Bag.

And here is another review by virtue of video:

Friday 14 December 2012


There's a splendidly useful little word hidden away in The Dialect of South Lancashire, or Tim Bobbin's Tummus and Meary (1850), kicklety.

Kicklety means likely to fall over, and can therefore describe Christmas trees (Hmm, looks a bit kicklety for me), and anybody stumbling out of a pub this weekend (Are you sure you want another? You're looking a bit kicklety).

I should remind you all that The Horologicon is filled with such words, and here's a review to prove it.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

A Cheap Chap in Chepstow

EDIT: BIRMINGHAM IS NO MORE! Although I will pop in and sign some books at about two thirty or three.

I'll be giving a talk in Chepstow this evening, in the Drill Hall at 7:30. Details here.

Chepstow is a cheap place, etymologically speaking. Well, in fact, Chepstow means market place. And to explain why that is, and why chep is the same as cheap and chap I shall reproduce a post from a couple of years ago.

Before I do, though, I'm also talking in Birmingham tomorrow and Warwick on Friday. Click for details.

dear chap is a bad thing, etymologically speaking.

Once upon a time, markets were calledcheaps. That's why there's Cheapside and East Cheap in London. Cheapmeant any sort of trade or bargaining or financial push-me-pull-you. If prices were low, it was a good cheap, just as with the French bon marché. If prices were high, it was a dear cheap, as in thePromptorium Parvulorum's:

He byeth in tyme and at hour, so that he hath not of the dere chepe 

So a market man, a buyer or a seller, became a chapman. Thenchapman dwindled to chap so that in The Beggar's Opera (1728) Peachum can say:

Wife, rip out the Coronets and Marks of these Dozen of Cambric Handkerchiefs, for I can dispose of them this Afternoon to a Chap in the City

By which he does not mean fellow, but customer. However, trade and humanity are woven fine. It is in the nature of Economic Man to view all his fellow fellows through the distorting lens of a shop window. Thus we talk today about a tough customer, even though the tough in question may have no intention of buying.

Similarly, chap drifted from meaning a potential purchaser and, sometime in the Eighteenth Century, became a word for any old fellow. And if you like the chap, he's a dear chap and that's now a Good Thing.

The Inky Fool felt let down by the roofers

Monday 10 December 2012

Don't Be Nesh

The Inky Fool in Oswestry
I was in Shropshire over the weekend and came across a lovely little dialect term: nesh. It's one of those words with a very precise meaning, which is, according to several Shropshirerians "afraid of the cold". It's used only in the phrase "Don't be nesh" which means something along the lines of "Stop worrying about getting your scarf, we're going for a long walk anyway."

And then you end up fair clemmed, or frozen.

Tomorrow, I'll be doing a talk in Blackwells Charing Cross at six thirty.

Friday 7 December 2012

Oswestry and Out

The last episode of Book of the Week came out today, and here it is.

Tomorrow, I shall be giving a talk in the Booka Bookshop in Oswestry. More details here.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Kensington and Charing Cross

Just a reminder that I shall be loitering around tonight at the Waterstones in Kensington ready to sign books. And next Tuesday I shall be giving a whole talk and reading at Blackwell's in Charing Cross, which will be the only actual talk I do in central London.

Anyway, here's a link to the fourth episode of The Horologicon on Book of the Week.

Monday 3 December 2012

Book of the Week

It begins. The Horologicon is being serialised as book of the week on Radio 4 and you can listen to the first 15 minute episode by clicking on this link.

That is all, except to mention that I'm going to be talking at West End Lane Books in West Hampstead on Wednesday at 7:30. I'm going to be at Waterstones Kensington at six on Thursday signing copies. And I'm going to Booka Bookshop in Oswestry on Saturday at 7pm.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Deansgate and Radio 4

Just a little reminder that I shall be in the Waterstones in Deansgate Manchester from noon until one today (that's Saturday) to sign copies of The Horologicon. And The Horologicon will then, on Monday, become book of the week on Radio 4. Hugh Dennis will commence at a quarter to ten in the morning.