Wednesday 25 December 2013

Hrodulf the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Courtesy of Etymonline, here is splendid little Christmas present: Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer translated into Anglo-Saxon. It appears to be by a chap called Philip Chapman-Bell. Even if you don't understand Old English, you ought to be able to make it out vaguely be looking at the translation. The odd-looking letters are both pronounced TH.

Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor --
Næfde þæt nieten unsciende næsðyrlas!
Glitenode and gladode godlice nosgrisele.

[Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer --
That beast didn't have unshiny nostrils!
The goodly nose-cartilage glittered and glowed.]

 Ða hofberendas mid huscwordum hine gehefigodon;
Nolden þa geneatas Hrodulf næftig
To gomene hraniscum geador ætsomne.

[The hoof-bearers taunted him with proud words;
The comrades wouldn't allow wretched Hrodulf
To join the reindeer games.]

 Þa in Cristesmæsseæfne stormigum clommum,
Halga Claus þæt gemunde to him maðelode:
"Neahfreond nihteage nosubeorhtende!
Min hroden hrædwæn gelæd ðu, Hrodulf!"

[Then, on Christmas Eve bound in storms
Santa Claus remembered that, spoke formally to him:
"Dear night-sighted friend, nose-bright one!
You, Hrodulf, shall lead my adorned rapid-wagon!"]

 Ða gelufodon hira laddeor þa lyftflogan --
Wæs glædnes and gliwdream; hornede sum gegieddode
"Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor,
Brad springð þin blæd: breme eart þu!"

[Then the sky-flyers praised their lead-deer --
There was gladness and music; one of the horned ones sang
"Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer,
Your fame spreads broadly, you are renowned!"]

Merry Christmas.

Friday 20 December 2013

Christmas Words

Christmas is coming, obesity is endemic in the goose population, The Elements of Eloquence is on a special deal on Amazon Kindle, and here's me talking about some Christmas words.

Thursday 19 December 2013


I shall, weather etc permitting, be doing an online interview on Reddit this afternoon from four until seven British time, which is 11am-2pm New York time and so on and so forth. The idea is that you, dearest reader, can ask questions. Whether I can answer is another matter entirely.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

The Christmas Beetle

Whilst we all revel in our wintery wonderland, ice-skating, lighting log fires, and catching pneumonia, spare a thought for the poor Australians who suffer Christmas under a merciless sun. Their Christmas is spent overrun by  flying Christmas beetles which swarm between their dangling corks.

The fun verbal aspect of this, is that we have Christmas beetles in the Northern Hemisphere too, or as close as dammit. We don't call them Christmas beetles. The British version is called a May bug, and the American version is called a June bug.

They're all approximately the same thing (and remember I'm an etymologist, not an entomologist), and the names are essentially the same, it is merely the hemisphere and climate that vary.

The May bug is also known as the May beetle, May chafer, billy witch, spang beetle, furze owl, humbuzz, cockchafer and lamellicorn.

So bad are the Christmas beetles this year that the Australians have become quite maddened and started reporting cricket scores that are wildly improbable and obviously the results of sun-struck fantasy and delusion.

They should be pitied.

When they should have been keeping score

Monday 16 December 2013

Christmas Drinking

As the season of office Christmas parties is upon us, it's probably time to pull out this old roasted chestnut, a video of me explaining where the names of drinks come from.

Merry Christmas.

And all the drinks were real.

Monday 9 December 2013


Last night I went to see the pantomime at the Hackney Empire: a tragic and moving story of a puss and his boots. But I couldn't help wondering (when I wasn't warning of the dangers behind the hero) where pantomime came from.

Once upon a time, in Ancient Greece, it was observed that actors were mimics (mimos) of everything (pan, as in a panacea or cure-all). Thus an actor was a pantomimos. This was taken into Latin as pantomimus. Some sense of the original meaning survived, as you can see from these lines from 1615:

In time
No question but he'll prove true Pantomime,
To imitate all forms, shapes, habits, 'tires
Suiting the Court.

There seems to have been a sense that the pantomime actor mimicked things in clumsy gestures. Anyway, the pantomime then became a kind of play, usually rather sneered at. And in the C19th became the Christmas thingyummyjig we British know and love.

Now turn around from your computer screen.

It's behind you.

I'm giving a talk in Blackwells in Oxford tonight at seven, if any one wants to come along. Tomorrow is Steyning and Wednesday is historic, thelyphthoric Warwick.

Thursday 5 December 2013


I'll be signing at Waterstones Piccadilly in London tonight from 6:30.

My apologies. I've been bouncing around like a pinball and neglecting to blog. In case you've been wondering what I'm up to here's me on Channel 4 on Sunday (at about the half hour mark). And here's me interviewed by Natalie Laurence. And I'll be on Monocle Radio at noon on Sunday. And on the Graeme Hill show in New Zealand. And on Final Draft on 2SR in Australia. And radio Scotland this morning. And...

I'm terribly tired, you know.

But I shall get back to blogging.

Monday 2 December 2013


I was given a copy of Picturesque Word Origins by the lovely people at Barter Books. One of the many etymologies I'd never noticed before is that of neighbour. It comes from neah-gebur, which means, essentially, nearby farmer. Neah as in modern English nigh or near, and gebur, which was Old English for farmer, or dweller. In its Dutch form, that's the origin of the Boers - the farmers in South Africa - and also of boor and boorish, which is the way that peasants behave.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Eierlegende-wollmilchsau: The Perfect Animal

Just a brief post as I'm running round the country giving talks (Booka Books in Oswestry tonight). I met a German-speaking lady in Edinburgh who told me about the lovely compound word:


That's pronounced roughly I-er-lay-gend-er-vol-milk-sow, and it means egg-laying-wool-milk-pig. The idea of this fabulous animal is that it is perfect. It provides eggs, wool, milk and, finally, bacon. It is therefore the German term for a jack of all trades. Something, or someone, who can do absolutely everything.

There's even a Wikipedia page on this best of beasts, but it's in German.

And if that's not enough for you, you can have a look at my article in yesterday's New York Times.

Friday 22 November 2013

Britten, Auden and Advertisements

Today is Benjamin Britten's one-hundredth birthday, which is much more important than words. Mind you, Britten was a very poetical composer. I even have an anthology (did you know that anthology means bouquet of flowers in Greek?) purely of poems that Britten set to music.

When Britten was sixteen he was ill at school and therefore confined to the sickroom. He took with him a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse, that he had won as a school prize. They wouldn't allow him anything musical as that would only encourage him. So he ruled out staves on a sheet of blank paper and set a medieval poem to music.

In his diary he wrote "Write... "Hymn to the Virgin" & a set of variations (1/4 of it) for organ, which are rather rubbish - I rather like the hymn tho'."

They played it at his funeral.

Later on Britten got together with Auden and they wrote an advertising jingle together for the new-fangled telephone (the monopoly on which was owned by the Post Office). Here is what happens when two of the greatest geniuses of the C20th get into catchy advertising.

I love the rhyme of "Moscow" with "Phone kiosk-o".

Thursday 21 November 2013

Poetry Please

Icon Books are running a poetry competition, but one where you have to use elements from The Elements of Eloquence. It's all rather fun and explained here.

And here's me being interviewed by The Spectator.

That's all for today, I'm afraid.

Monday 18 November 2013


Telegraph is one of those etymological crossroads. The graph bit, from the Greek for writing, links you to an epi-graph (something written on), a photo-graph (something written by light), or graphic (something written, originally).

Tele takes you to telescope (seeing from afar), teleport (carrying afar), and telephone (speak from afar). Tele is Greek for distant, and some people, strange people, therefore get angry about teleporting and television because portering and vision are both Latin and therefore shouldn't be mongreled up with Greek.

According to these people a televangelist is fine, but a television is Just Awful. But a telegraph (written from afar) is just fine.

All of which is a long way round of saying read this review by Charles Moore in today's Telegraph of my brand new book.

P.S. I'm giving a talk at Brendon Books in Taunton tonight, and in Hungerford tomorrow. The remainder of my book peregrination looks like this:

Taunton Literary Festival on 18th of November
The Hungerford Bookshop on 19th of November
Barter Books in Alnwick on 25th of November
The Edinburgh Bookshop on 26th of November
Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye on the 27th of November
Booka Bookshop in Oswestry on 28th of November
Blackwells Oxford on 9th of December
Steyning Bookshop in West Sussex on 10th of December
Warwick Books on 11th of December
The Idler Academy in London on 12th of December

I've always imagined that this is what it's like in the offices of The Telegraph

Friday 15 November 2013

Etymology Maps

Just a link today to this excellent article in the Guardian. It takes common words and shows all their etymological relatives around Europe. Click upon the link and it'll all become clear.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Hungover in Hampstead

Well, that's been an odd week. I actually got up to number 4 on the Amazon bestseller list. This has involved ale passion (the old word for hangover). So, just a reminder to any Londoners that I'm doing a talk at West End Books in West Hampstead tonight at 7:30.

I think you need to contact them first. Just to give them an idea of numbers.

Monday 11 November 2013

Today's Today

I was on the Today Programme this morning talking about The Elements of Eloquence with Evan Davis and the lovely Camilla Long. You can listen to it by clicking upon this link.

Incidentally, the post title is an example of both polyptoton and epizeuxis, which are thoroughly explained in the book.

Thursday 7 November 2013

The Elements of Eloquence is Here

Go, litel book.

The Elements of Eloquence is officially released in Britain today. Would you like to read it? No? Oh. Well, if you change your mind, dear reader, there is a widget just to the right. Do you see it? The lovely green and gold cover. Click on that and you can read the first 34 pages for nothing. Then, if you think page 35 worth it, you can dash out the door and run whooping to the nearest bookshop and get yourself a copy of the real thing in all its hardbound glory.

Or, if the notion of running to the bookshop is too much for you, you can simply sit at your computer, sherry in one hand and mouse in the other, and order it from there people:

The Book Depository

Or, if you're a rugged traditionalist, you can confront me face to face, look me in the eye with one of your commanding stares, and tell me to give you a copy right now and sign it too. I'll probably capitulate, being a capitulatory sort of chap. The way to do this is to come along to one of these places:

West End Lane books in London on 14th of November
Taunton Literary Festival on 18th of November
The Hungerford Bookshop on 19th of November
Barter Books in Alnwick on 25th of November
The Edinburgh Bookshop on 26th of November
Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye on the 27th of November
Booka Bookshop in Oswestry on 28th of November
Blackwells Oxford on 9th of December
Steyning Bookshop in West Sussex on 10th of December
Warwick Books on 11th of December

Or you can just come to the launch party in London on the 12th. But to do that you have to enter a raffle. You do this using the widget below. I think. I'm new to all this, you understand. You give them your name and at midnight on Monday it's picked out of an electronic hat. Something like that anyway.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And finally, if you're still wondering what it's all about, here's a silly chap with a silly voice to explain.

Do you see the tankards on the window-sill? They're antique.

Oh, and there'll be an interview with me in The Sunday Times, this Sunday, I think.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Good, Best, Well

A while ago I wrote a little post about the verb go and its past participle wentI go. I went. I have gone. It looks like a highly irregular verb, but it's not. It's two different verbs - wend and go - that have been forced together. There's an even more complex and more common example.

There used to be a word boot. It meant profit, use, advantage. It could be a verb:

What boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely, slighted shepherd's trade?

Or it could be an adjective:

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries...

It's not that Shakespeare's cries lacked footwear, it's just that they were profitless, useless and brought no advantage.

Anyway, the comparative of boot the adjective was bettra (more advantageous) and the superlative was betst (most advantageous/useful etc). Do you see where this is going?

Meanwhile, there was the Old English word gōd (which had nothing to do with the word god). It meant... well it meant good. And now we spell it good. It meant virtuous or valid or desirable.

Meanwhile, there was another Old English word: will. It meant to desire or want. When things turned out as you had willed them, they turned out well.

So now English has a thoroughly weird looking adjective: good, better, best; with the adverb well. We call it irregular, but in a way it's not. It's just three different words that all meant roughly the same thing. Some day, a thousand years from now it may be cool, finer, ok. And people may say to themselves 'That's strange. I wonder how it goed from one to the other."

In other news, I shall be giving a talk in Abingdon tomorrow. More information here. If you're around, do come along. And, did I mention that The Elements of Eloquence will be in the shops on Thursday?

Nearly here.

Friday 1 November 2013

Trailers First

When people put the cart before the horse, that's preposterous, or, more precisely pre-post-erous. It's upside down and vice versa and, peculiarly, head over heels (which is a strange re-ordering of the original heels over head).

But why do movie trailers not trail after the film? Why do they trail first?

Well, this article seems to have the answer. They used to come after the film. It's the old trick of the series. At the end of one episode you have a trailer for the next one. Here is the cliffhanger, and here the promise of resolution. Here's a description of how it worked in 1912:

One of the concessions hung up a white sheet and showed the serial "The Adventures of Kathlyn." At the end of the reel Kathlyn was thrown in the lion's den. After this "trailed" a piece of film asking Does she escape the lion's pit? See next week's thrilling chapter! Hence, the word "trailer," an advertisement for a coming picture.

But before and after became blurred. Cinemas would show a film, then the trailers, then another film, then the trailers, then another film. So whether you considered them to be before or after simply depended on when you happened to wander into the cinema.

Monday 28 October 2013

Gone, In My Fashion

I took a stroll this morning to survey the scene of waste and desolation that was once London. The lush forests of Exmouth Market are no more. There was even a bin blown over. Yet amid all this I kept thinking about the connection between Cole Porter and "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Let us start with Cole Porter and his song Always True To You (In My Fashion). It's a funny song about a girl who will sleep with any rich man, and yet assures her boyfriend that she is always sort of true to him in her fashion. A typical verse goes:

There's an oil man known as Tex
Who is keen to give me checks,
And his checks, I fear, mean that sex is here to stay!
But I'm always true to you, darlin', in my fashion,
Yes, I'm always true to you, darlin', in my way.

Those last two lines end each verse. Where did Cole Porter get this idea? There was an 1890s poet called Ernest Dowson, who wrote a much sadder and more serious poem called Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae*. In it he describes spending a night with a prostitute in order to try and forget the girl he loves who has left him. Here are the first two verses:

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
    Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
    When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Cole Porter's song is essentially a parody of this poem. Poor Dowson! Dead at 33. His most famous line "The days of wine and roses" is best known as the title of a 1962 film. And his sad refrain is best known as a jolly comedy.

But how does this relate to the windswept remains of London? Well, here's the second half of the poem. I shall simply put the relevant words in bold.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind,
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
    Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
    Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion

Ernest Dowson also invented the word soccer.

The end is upon us.

*Since you ask, this is a line from Horace. It means I am not what I was in the reign of good Cynara, and the context is that he's too old for love. Cynara is some ex-girlfriend. Mind you, cynara is also Greek for artichoke. So it may be about fruit and veg.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Time, Twitter, and Printers

Just some links today. First of all, to a lovely article by Katy Steinmetz in Time Magazine about The Horologicon. Did I mention that it's been released in the United States? Did I? I did? Splendid.

The Etymologicon is out in the US of A too. And to prove it, here is a link to Keith Urban's twitter feed. As the only country-music-loving etymologist in England, my work is now complete.

And now I'm going to fret and wait for the first copy of The Elements of Eloquence, which should be arriving this afternoon from the printers.

Monday 21 October 2013

Eloping in Brighton

"If one could but go to Brighton!" observed Mrs. Bennet.
"Oh, yes!—if one could but go to Brighton! But papa is so disagreeable."
"A little sea-bathing would set me up for ever."
"And my aunt Philips is sure it would do me a great deal of good," added Kitty.

Thus Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. Well, I am going to Brighton on Friday to give a talk on The Elements of Eloquence, after which I shall probably elope with someone unsuitable.

Elope is a lovely word, especially if you leap into an elopement with an interloper. There are a whole bunch of lope-words spread around the languages of Northern Europe and they all mean pretty much the same thing: a stride, a run, a jump, a leap, a bound. There was Old English hleapan, and Dutch lopen, and Gothic hlaupan etc. It's therefore very hard to tell where exactly elope comes from, but aloper is first found in French. Meanwhile, somebody who runs in where he's not wanted is an interloper. He probably lopes along, and then leaps.

There used to be a punishment in the Swedish army for Very Naughty Soldiers. Basically, all the other soldiers would form two rows, leaving a long narrow passage between them. The Very Naughty Soldier would then have to run down the passage, or gata, whilst all the other soldier tried to hit him as hard as they could.

This was called the street-run or gat-lopp. But gatlopp sounds strange in English so we twisted it around and called it running the gauntlet.

Finally, there was once a proper bit of a proper wedding in Old English called the Brydlop, which literally means Bride-Run, where the wife hurried off to her new home.

If you're in Brighton, do come along.

The Inky Fool was reluctant to give his speech

Wednesday 16 October 2013

The Elements of Eloquence

My new book, The Elements of Eloquence, is currently being printed somewhere in darkest, deepest Sussex and will arrive in the bookshops in early November.

It's not about etymology, and it's not about strange words. It's about the figures of rhetoric.

The figures of rhetoric were a series of formulas devised by the Ancient Greeks for writing beautiful, memorable lines. They weren't plucked out of nothing, of course. They started out by looking at lines that were already famous and seeing what they had in common. So you take:

Bond, James Bond.

And you wonder to yourself why it's such a famous line. It is, after all, just a chap's name. It doesn't actually say anything more than "My name is Mr James Bond". It just says it better. Why?

Well, then you take:

To be or not to be

And you wonder why Shakespeare didn't say "Whether or not to be". Would have said the same thing. And then you take:

O captain! My captain!
Crisis? What crisis?
Zed's dead, baby, Zed's dead.
Yeah, baby, yeah!
Events, dear boy. Events.
Fly, my pretties! Fly!

And you start to see a pattern. In fact, you can't believe that you never noticed the pattern before. But that's only because the phrases were never stacked up next to each other like that. The Ancient Greeks noticed that pattern: this-that-this. They called it diacope.

Unfortunately, the figures of rhetoric don't get taught in schools any more. They used to be. Shakespeare would have had to learn them all by heart. But now, they're largely unknown. So I wrote a book.

The Elements of Eloquence has one chapter on each figure, showing how it works, what effects it can have, and what lines it has made famous. It'll be in the shops on the 7th of November (in Britain that is).

I hope you like it, dear reader, I hope you like it.

And such a pretty cover.

Friday 11 October 2013

A Scintillating Scintilla

Once upon a time, there was a Latin noun scintilla and it meant spark. We all know what a spark is: it's the tiny little point of light that flies out of fire or fusebox. And because sparks are so tiny we got the English word scintilla, meaning tiny little thing, which is usually used in phrases like not a scintilla of doubt.

But the Romans also made a verb of scintilla: scintillare, which meant to sparkle. And the past participle of scintillare was scintillatus. And because things that sparkle are bright and interesting and attract our attention, we got the verb scintillate.

So one word came from the size of a spark, and the other from its brightness.

But scintilla has one third child who's not nearly as obvious. As the Roman Empire fell and declined, people forgot how to spell properly and some people changed scintilla to stincilla. That's why the French ended up with a verb estenceler meaning to decorate something with lots of sparkly things. And so Medieval English got the verb stencellen meaning to decorate with bright colours. And that's why the pattern that you use to apply decorations is called a stencil.

Not a scintilla of scintillation.

Sorry for the lacunose blogging. The new book has now finally been sent to the printers. Of which much, much more soon.

And hence, of course, Banksy

Wednesday 2 October 2013

The American Horologicon

The Horologicon is coming! Wearing a fifteen gallon hat and playing a steel guitar, The Horologicon is published in America today. Thus many great words will be returned to the land of their origin: from snollygoster, a C19th American term for a dishonest politician, to nurdle, the industry name for the little bit of toothpaste you squeeze onto your toothbrush in the morning.

For those of you who don't know, The Horologicon is about all of the strangest and most useful words in the English language that nobody knows. All of them exist in the dictionary, but for some reason they've fallen out of use. And they must be brought back.

Moreover, they're arranged by the hour of the day when they might come in useful. So nurdle is in the chapter for seven a.m. when you're busy scrubbing yourself in the bathroom. It sits next to duffifie, an old Scots term for leaving a [shampoo] bottle on its side to get the last bit out, and go to siege, a Medieval term for taking a crap.

Each chapter has its words and subject. There's commuting, and office life and lunch and shopping and drinking getting ready for bed (again there's an American word ecdysiast)

America and Britain have long been united by a common language. Now they can be united by an uncommon language; an extraordinary one.

All of the finest words in the language are hidden away in The Horologicon. So run out and buy it! Or stay in and buy it! Here are some links:

The Horologicon at Amazon
The Horologicon at Barnes &Noble
The Horologicon at Indie Bound

And look at the pretty, pretty cover provided by the lovely folks at Berkley Penguin.

And for The Etymologicon:

Monday 30 September 2013

Bonny and Buxom

Just a repost today, as I went to a wedding at the weekend, and am still deep in finishing The Book.

In Medieval wedding services the wife would promise the following:

I take thee, John, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and health, to be bonny and buxom, in bed and at board, till death do us part, and thereto I plight thee my troth.

Now, this seems to our modern eyes to be a strange sort of promise. How could a wife guarantee that she would be buxom? Were thin women unable to marry in church? However, the word buxom has changed in meaning over the years. The first citation of buxom in the OED comes from the twelfth century and is defined as: Obedient; pliant; compliant, tractable. The sense then changed to happy, then to healthy, and thence to plump.

Meanwhile bonny comes from the French bon and the Latin bonus, both of which mean good. So a bonny and buxom wife was a good and obedient one, which is why it was eventually replaced by loving, honouring and obeying. There's even a sixteenth century reference to being "bonnaire and buxome to the Pope".

Anyway, this form of the service is still occasionally used. There's a story about it here.


Monday 23 September 2013

Sluts, Slags and Pantaloni

It seems that semantic shifts are now headline news. For those of you not in the UK, politics now rests upon the shifting usage of the word "slut". This is because a politician by the name of Godfrey Bloom decided to call some ladies "sluts". He was then rather astonished when the press picked up on this and even went so far as to ask my poor dear sister-in-law (who's a journalist) "Hasn't your mother ever called you a slut?"

His explanation for all this is that he was using slut to mean untidy woman as opposed to lascivious woman, and that this was the True Meaning. As his press secretary put it, journalists "don't understand the difference between 'slut' and 'slag'. That's a lack of grammar school education."

Before we go any further, we should get some facts straight:

1) Slut did once mean untidy woman. That's the first recorded meaning back in 1402. In fact, I've even written about the old meaning before.

2) Slut is first recorded as lascivious woman in 1450. This does not count as a peculiarly modern usage, even by my standards.

3) Both usages were still going strong in the C19th.

4) The OED has no citations of slut in either sense later than 1894, which is jolly unhelpful, but see below.

5) There is no recorded usage of the word slag as lascivious lady until 1958.

I shan't make any jokes about the perils of a grammar school education, although it is rather tempting.

Now, as I understand it (and I rarely understand anything in the news), Mr Bloom is saying that back when he was a lad slut meant untidy woman almost exclusively. That you could happily go up to a strange lady and call her a slut and no sexual inference would be taken. Her husband, if he were standing by, would say something like "Well you don't dust nearly as much as you could". Or something like that.

This is checkable. Mr Bloom was born in November 1949. Assuming usual child development he wouldn't have started talking until the 1950s. So I scuttled off to Google Book search, where you can search to see how a particular word was used in any given year.

So I searched for slut in 1953, 63, 73, 83, 93 and 2003, miserably aware of what it would do to my Google Suggested Pages*. Then I went through the first few pages of search results for each year, noting down any usage whose meaning was clear. I ignored, of course, reprints, historical novels et cetera. This isn't exhaustive, but it gives a good representative sample.

Every single damned one was sexual.

Here are some samples:

"what do I care for the fornications of a slut?"

"But that wasn't enough punishment for that lewd slut ! I am sure she bedded with Tong, even after that fool of a Kou had made her his second lady."

"Your mother's not a slut? That truck comes at night to honk the horn, eh? Not a whore?"
"the boys around here say l'm a slut, but l'm not — I'm really a virgin."

 There is something other than a difference in the cognitive content between the word pairs: slut and daughter of joy

She would have intercourse with men in a rather indiscriminate way and then would hate herself for this, saying that she was just a "slut" and "should be dead."

And so on and so forth. The one and only exception I found was in 1993, in a book called Good Girls Don't Wear Trousers.

Before I go any further, let me tell you the local definition of a slut; it isn't a woman who sells her body to a rich, demanding man. Here, a slut is any woman who doesn't dress of behave in the way that is considered proper. Not that women like this are, by definition, promiscuous - in fact they hardly ever have a chance.

I thought, when I found that, that I had exonerated Mr Bloom, and could write a reassuring letter to my sister-in-law. But, Alas! It's not in English. Good Girls Don't Wear Trousers is the English translation of Volevo I Pantaloni, and the village slut is... well I can't be bothered to buy the original book and find out... it's something in Italian. There may have been untidy sluts in the last sixty years, but I didn't find them.

So... well... I 'm afraid that Mr Bloom must have been brought up in a rather eccentric home, if he was brought up at all. He must also have lived an almost monastic life of solitude and retreat from the world, as if you do go around cheerily using the word slut to all and sundry, you tend to get your face punched in.

It's rather like... actually, that's a fantastic idea. I'm going to buy a newspaper and then print a massive front page headline:


And then underneath, the small-print article will say.

David Cameron is feeling carefree. A Downing Street spokesman confirmed last night that the Prime Minister was filled with joie de vivre and bonhomie...

There is, though, an old word for an untidy room - a sluttery. The OED has one citation from 1841.

A pre-1958 slag

*I was once researching some local history. I found an old map on which the King's Cross Road was marked as "Black Mary's Hole". Curious, I decided to Google it. I actually crossed myself before clicking Search. As it turned out, the very first search result was an article about the history of the Kings Cross Road.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

The Inky Fool Also Rises

My apologies for the aposiopesis. An aposiopesis is a breaking off in mid...

I'm afraid I've been terribly busy finishing off my new book, which I've completed in a furious shturmovshchina. It's all about the flowers of rhetoric and should be out in November.

Anyway, I'm exhausted so I shall merely post a link to this article on authors and their favourite words. I'd never noticed quite how much Shakespeare used the word sweet.

A little point that I'd to add the article is that writers also have words that they absolutely hate. Shakespeare hated the word also. He did use it, but only 36 times in his complete works. That's less than once per play. To give a little comparison, Francis Bacon would sometimes use the word that many times in a single essay. Also, Shakespeare usually puts also in the mouths of low and foolish characters: five of those alsos are said by Fluellen, in Henry V, four by Falstaff, three by Sir Hugh Evans, and two by Dogberry also.

I don't have any idea why Shakespeare didn't like also. But if the hatred was good enough for him, it's good enough for me. Or, as the Katherine of Valois puts it in her mangled English in Henry V:

Den it sall also content me.

Also, I've just checked in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. It's a big, thick dictionary with over 17,000 famous lines. It also has an index at the back so you can look them up by word. Only two quotations contain the word also. That's a pretty astonishing result. Shakespeare must have been on to something.

Update: It's occurred to me that they also serve who only stand and wait [tables]. For some reason that's not listed in the ODQ's index. Hmm.

Well he shouldn't have done.

Friday 6 September 2013

The Owl Jacket

Back when I was writing The Horologicon, there was one word that I desperately wanted to include. But I couldn't because I didn't remember what it was. I could only remember what it meant.

Years ago, I was chatting to an Italian lady and she told me a strange story of Italy. She told me that sometimes, when Italian men bought a suit, they would buy two jackets. One of these jackets was for wearing as you stroll around town drinking delicious espressos and wooing beautiful women and generally being Italian. Meanwhile the other jacket was hanging over the back of your chair at work, so that it looked as though you were in the office.

I loved this tale. I adored the idea of putting such thought into shirking. I dreamed of doing the same sort of thing in rainy London. But what I loved most of all was that there was a particular word for that jacket. There was a word meaning the-jacket-left-hanging-over-the-back-of-your-chair-in-the-office-while-you're-gallivanting-around-town.

That's a good word.

That's a word that I wanted to include in The Horologicon. There's a whole chapter of that book devoted to sneaking out of the office and that word was going to be the centrepiece.

But I couldn't remember what it was.

I went mad. I racked my brain until I could rack no more. I e-mailed every Italian I knew and asked them about it. Every single one of them had heard of the practice of leaving-a-jacket-hanging-over-the-back-of-your-chair-in-the-office-while-you're-gallivanting-around-town. But they all said they'd never heard of a word for it. It was just a thing you did.

And in the end - miserable and humiliated - I was forced to give up.

And then, a couple of days ago, a year after The Horologicon went off to the printers, I got an e-mail from the Inky Fool's correspondent in Rome.

Dear Mark,
Yesterday I was watching a very old fun&depressing-at-the-same-time Italian film and the protagonist suddenly mentioned that jacket you had asked me about a year ago. The famous jacket the Italians leave on the chair in order to pretend to be working while they are out of the office doing all sorts of things. And the name of that jacket is lovely, in my opinion. It is "Giacca civetta" which means "Owl jacket" I believe that generally "civetta" in Italian means, amongst other things, something which can attract and deceive too. But you are the expert of this kind of things, I am only trying to guess. So, after one year, here is your answer.

I don't think I really am an expert on the subtle symbolism of Italian birds, and my correspondent is a native of that fair peninsula, so she should know. However, I will add that it works beautifully in English because owls perch silently in corners. So the jacket perched on your chair is - I pronounce this ex cathedra linguae Anglorum - the Owl Jacket.

I don't know how effective this is if you work at home.

Monday 2 September 2013

Kubla Khan

Coleridge always claimed that Kubla Khan came to him as a dream-vision, and that he never put any conscious thought into it. He also claimed that there was a lot more of it in the dream, but that he was interrupted halfway through writing it by a businessman from Porlock, and that as a result it was unfinished. This is clearly a bunch of nonsense. For a start, the ending is definitely an ending. And secondly the poem contains so many intricate details that the idea that anybody dreams like that is, frankly, preposterous. Fifty-four lines of  perfect rhymes would be astonishing by anybody's standards.

But what I happened to notice today was the alliteration. It's all over the poem, of course, "A mighty fountain momently was forced" and "Five miles meandering with a mazy motion". But I noticed that, usually, it's concentrated on the last two words of the line. Take the opening:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-Dome Decree:
Where Alph, the sacred River, Ran
Through caverns Measureless to Man
Down to a Sunless Sea.

It's regular enough that it's almost part of the verse form: the iambic tetrameter with alliterative ending. Then it disappears for the next twenty lines before starting again in the second half of the poem. In total 15 of the 54 lines end alliteratively. This can't be coincidence. A quick look at Recantation, which is the next poem in my edition of Coleridge, doesn't have a single one in the first thirty lines.

To work thus did the Khan commute.

Friday 30 August 2013

True American

I've always like The Atlas of True Names, which produces etymological maps, each place marked with the original meaning of the name. I have the British Isles blu-tacked to the wall above my lavatory, so I can relive history as I relieve myself.

Anyway, they've just released their map of the United States. Here is the link. And here is a link to a BBC article on it, although I'm not sure about their version of Yucatan.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Majorcan Pluck

I've just got back from Majorca, where, as I don't speak Spanish, I spent much time attempting to read menus by guessing the etymological roots. This is a dangerous way to order your meal, although scorpion fish turns out to be delicious.

Some restaurants, of course, had menus in English for linguistically incapable people like me. But these can be just as mysterious. The Es Turo restaurant had a starter which was called, in English, Marjorcan Pluck.

This puzzled me for a while. Was it Majorcan bravery that I would get? Or left over chicken feathers? So I ordered it on the basis that daring is the better part of gastronomy. When it arrived I suddenly realised that English etymology would have told me what it was. I really had got a plate of Marjorcan bravery, or, more precisely, Marjorcan guts.

Pluck is an old term for the innards, which are plucked out of an animal when it's butchered. Some brave people have heart, some have balls, but most have guts, or to use a synonym pluck. Thus people who are brave are gutsy, or plucky.

So next time you read of a plucky hero, remember he's delicious.

It was offally good.

The Inky Fool knows how to deal with waiters

Monday 26 August 2013

St Lubbock's Day

Just a very quick link to The Virtual Linguist who informs us that today (a Bank Holiday in England) is St Lubbock's Day. So known because the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 was pushed through by the Liberal Politician Sir John Lubbock.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

This Is Getting Silly

It appears that what I consider an annoying Monday afternoon, a frustrating hour that can be forgotten after a good sherry, is now international news. French, Germans, Czechs and Turks, have thrown away their wines, steins, dumplings and delight, and are now concerned only with der Buchautor Mark Forsyth and his whinges.

For the record (if there is such a thing), I do not believe that the British Library is involved in a vast conspiracy to cover up goings on at the top of the Danish government. I simply thought that it was as amusing as it was annoying. It certainly shows the silliness of web-filtering, but, to be honest, I was more motivated by the constant failures of the British Library wifi, which have been driving all who work there to distraction for a couple of years, and of which this seemed a particularly preposterous example.

So I shall do nothing more etymological today than to mention that, according to the OED, the silly season was first recorded in 1861. And then I shall run away to my secret island hideaway. There I shall live a life of anonymity, and, I suspect, isolation from the Internet. I shall return to blogging on around the 24th.

Monday 12 August 2013


I've just come back from the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I had a lovely Scottish time drinking whisky and balancing books on my head. If you like, you can hear me on the Guardian Books Podcast chatting to the lovely Claire Armitstead. Yet what intrigued me most was a lady at the book signing who told me about the word flype.

Flype, she said, was a Scots word meaning to roll back a sock or stocking prior to putting it on one's foot.

Well, I have to say, that I didn't quite know whether to believe her. It sounded too good to be true, and I was away from my dictionaries. So the first thing I did upon hurtling back down to London was to look it up. And yes: flype (or flipe) means just that.

Merriam Webster has this:

chiefly Scot : to strip off by or as if by peeling
chiefly Scot : to turn or fold back (as a stocking)
The OED, though, shows that, though flyping is now chiefly Scots, its earliest citations are English. We fools south of the border threw away a jewel.
You've no idea how elated I felt.

Friday 9 August 2013

Don't Feed the Troll Fishers

I've been reading Netymology by Tom Chatfield. It's all about the etymology of computer terms. Thus I have discovered that trolls do not come from Scandinavia and lurk under bridges. They come from almost everywhere else. Sort of.

The verb troller first appears in Medieval French. It meant going out hunting without having any specific animal in mind. Imagine, if you will, a medieval Frenchman wandering through a wood with a bow and arrow and shooting any animal he felt like.

That verb came straight into English as to troll. So Piers Plowman has:

And þus hath he trolled forth þis two & thretty winter.

And Bryan Ferry has:

Aggravated. Spare for days.
I troll down-town, the red light place

In fact, the OED specifically mentions that troll became gay slang for cruising. But trolling also kept its non-metaphorical hunting sense with troll fishing. This is when you just attach a baited line to the back of your boat and sail around in the vague hope that something will bite.

This is one of those classic cases where the word could have come from trolling, and could have come from trailing, and probably came from both. It's just so convenient that the words sound alike.

So whether a trollnet was really a trawl net or a troll net is hard to say:

No Person..withe any..Crele, Rawe, Fagnett, Trollnett..shall take..Spawne or Frye of Eeles, Salmon, Pyke or Pyckerell. (1558)

But it does seem to be that sense of throwing out bait and seeing who'll take it that gave us the original Internet trolls.

Ask anybody techie and they'll insist that a troll is somebody who posts deliberately provocative comments in an online forum, not because they believe them, but because they want to see who'll get angry, who'll bite. This was the original meaning back in the early nineties. Thus the Toronto Star reported in 1995 that:

Posts that are designed to encourage angry responses are called ‘trolls’ because the purpose is to fish for flames.

But, of course, far fewer people have heard of troll fishing, or indeed of aimless Frenchmen, that have heard of the nasty Scandinavian creatures that hide under bridges. People soon forgot the original precise meaning of trailing a bait, and that is why, under the influence of the Scandy creature, we now use troll to mean anybody on the Internet who's nasty.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Hamlet is Banned

File:Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix 018.jpg
Because of all the attention this post is getting, I ought to point out that I was not intending to disclose some outrageous Orwellian conspiracy, merely incompetence and inertia. I wrote the post because of 1) The amusing absurdity of the greatest work of British literature being blocked by the British Library. 2) The evident silliness of filtering systems, particularly one that blocks but not facebook. 3) The frustration of dealing with institutions that disown their own Internet provider. 4) The miserable truth that over the last couple of years the failures of the BL's wifi - whether broken, slow or filtered - has forced researchers to choose, reluctantly, between books and the Internet.

On Monday, I was sitting in the British Library frantically trying to write my new book in a shturmovshchina. I had to quickly check a particular line in Hamlet, so I Googled Hamlet MIT, because the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put the entire works of Shakespeare up on the Internet. (It takes 70 mins to order a physical book). I clicked on the link and...

A message came up from the British Library telling me that access to site was blocked due to "violent content".

Now, Hamlet is a violent play. I see that. When the curtain comes down there's a lot of bodies on the boards. But...


I tried it again. It told me that my attempts to access this violent content were being logged.

I took my computer over to the information desk, and after I had explained to them what MIT stood for (really), they called the IT department and told them about the webpage that I had been blocked from.

They had to spell out Shakespeare letter by letter. Really. Ess. Aitch. Ay. Kay...

I asked them if they were surprised that Hamlet was now banned in the British Library. They shrugged. I asked them how it was that I could still access youtube, facebook and twitter. I asked why the girl at the next desk to me had been able to spend the last half hour on Guardian Soulmates, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's website was banned. They shrugged.

I asked if they saw the problem, perhaps just the symbolism, of Hamlet being banned in the British Library. They shrugged.

The IT department said there was nothing to be done, as it was only the British Library's wifi service that was blocking Hamlet, and the British Library's wifi service, they seemed sure, had nothing to do with the British Library. They were merely ships that passed in the night. Children crying to each other from either bank of an uncrossable river.

'But,' I said. It's one of those points where you just want somebody to understand the central point. 'The British Library has banned Hamlet for being too violent.'

And the lady behind the desk nodded and smiled.

It's one of those points where I don't know whether they're insane, or if it's me. Maybe Hamlet should be banned. I wrote an angry e-mail, and this morning I got one back saying they're looking into it. But maybe I should give all this up and get a job as a lighthouse keeper. But I fear I'd still have those dreams, those dreams about that man with poison sword and the people fighting in the grave and the venom being poured down my throat. O God! God!

UPDATE: The British Library has just tweeted to say that Hamlet is now unbanned.

Ess Aitch Ay Kay Eee Ess Pee Eee Ay Ar Eee

This content has been blocked because it does not comply with the acceptable usage policy.

The request was logged.

Education and Reference [BETA], Web Content, News, Safe Content Filetypes, Violence, Web Content
Registered Users
Content of type Violence blocked: Content filtering

Monday 5 August 2013

Magazines and Time and Time Magazine

I'm feeling all uppity today, thanks to Time Magazine's lists of the 25 bloggers of 2013, which for some reason contains me. As a result, it seems appropriate to explain why magazines are called magazines, or more specifically, why they are named after part of a rifle.

I turned on the television the other day and in that split second between the sound coming on and the screen warming up I heard a male voice say with the utmost despair "The magazine! It's empty!"

Now I know a chap who works in the magazine business which probably messed with my mind on the subject, but my immediate understanding of the line was that too many journalists had missed their deadlines and that they weren't going to put the issue to bed (lovely phrase) in time for the printers. The voice sounded approximately as panicked as my acquaintance would be in these circumstances.  

Then the screen warmed up and I saw an actor inspecting his gun.

So what was the connection? Once upon a time there was an Arabic word khazana meaning to store up. From that they got makhzan meaning storehouse and its plural makhazin. That word sailed northward across the Mediterranean (the middle of the earth) and became the Italian magazzino, which then proceeded by foot to France and magasin, before jumping into the back of a lorry and getting into Britain as magazine, still retaining its original meaning of storehouse, usually military. Then along came Edward Cave.

Edward Cave wanted to print something periodically that would contain stuff on any subject that might be of interest to the educated of London, whether it be politics or gardening or the price of corn. He cast around for a name for his new idea and decided to call it the Gentleman's Magazine: or, Trader's monthly intelligencer. So far as anyone can tell (and in the absence of a seance we can only guess at Mr Cave's thought process) he wanted to imply that this the information in his publication would arm the gentleman intellectually, or perhaps he wanted to imply that it was a storehouse of information. Anyway, he dropped the monthly intelligencer bit and by 1759 he was publishing this:

Cave's arms depot of information was a great success, not least because he employed a young and penniless chap called Samuel Johnson. But if, dear reader, Cave had decided instead to drop the magazine bit instead, we might all now be buying intelligencers. Thus Cave's caprice altered English. Porn mags might have been called carnal intelligencers and that, I am sure, would make the world a Better Place. And my acquaintance wouldn't be working for part of a gun.

Friday 2 August 2013

Bob Dylan and Slutbags

Just a couple of links today. One to the stifling world of right-on political correctness that is Liverpool FC, and the other to the foul-mouthed world of twats and slutbags that is the US Democrat Party. The only connection is that within the space of an hour I was asked to comment on both stories. Something is awry.

The only thing I could think of to say about slutbag was slightly tangential and pretty damned yucky and not quoted in the article. It's the word scumbag, which is thrown around as though it's not at all obscene. People seem to have forgotten rather quickly that scum is semen and a scumbag is a condom.

On that basis a slutbag should really be a femidom, although I'm not sure that's true. A douchebag, incidentally, is the bag used to collect the fluids in a douche, or vaginal rinse.

Monday 29 July 2013


I happened to read the word shebang yesterday and, perhaps it was seeing it in print, I suddenly realised that I had no idea what it really meant or where it came from. The whole shebang. A shebang was a nineteenth century American word for a log cabin and then for a tavern.

Then it came to mean a kind of cart in which you could hire a seat. Of course, you could hire the whole shebang. So in a story of 1880 a traveller is told that he has a seat specially reserved for him:

"...the box seat was purchased by that other gentleman in Sacramento. He paid extra for it, and his name's on your way-bill!"

"That," said Yuba Bill, scornfully, "don't fetch me even ef he'd chartered the whole shebang. Look yar, do you reckon I'm goin' to spile my temper by setting next to a man with a game eye? And such an eye! Gewhillikins!"

And so the whole shebang came to mean the entirety of something usually only dealt with in parts, and thus the modern usage.

Mind you, nobody really knows where the original word came from: perhaps Irish shebeen for tavern, or French char-a-banc for cart.

Part of the shebang

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Sun-Bathing and Philosophy

Just a repost.

There's a rather strange work by Thomas Nashe called Summer's Last Will and Testament. It is about the handover of seasons in the changing year. In it, Winter describes how writing was invented for the warmer seasons, and that writing is a Bad Thing. Its first evil result was poetry.

There grew up certain drunken parasites, 
Termed Poets, which for a meal's meat or two 
Would promise monarchs immortality;
They vomited in verse all that they knew, 
Found causes and beginnings of the world...

But even worse than that poets were the resulting philosophers:

Next them, a company of ragged knaves,
Sun-bathing beggars, lazy hedge-creepers,
Sleeping face upwards in the fields all night,
Dreamed strange devices of the Sun and Moon;
And they, like Gypsies, wand'ring up and down,
Told fortunes, juggled, nicknamed all the stars,
And were of idiots termed Philosophers:

And that is the first ever recorded reference in English to sun-bathing. It beats the posher aprication by 31 years.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a hedge into which I must lazily creep.