Wednesday 30 January 2013

You Div

I've been asked to explain the origin of div. That's the British slang term div, meaning idiot. I'm afraid there will be no explanation. Or to be more precise, there'll be many of them.

Now the OED lists two divs. One is an evil spirit in Persian mythology, the other is a mathematicians shortening of divergence. But the OED has nothing to say on the cries of "You div", and doesn't acknowledge its existence. It does have divvy, of which more later.

Chambers Dictionary of Slang does record the word as being in use since the 1970s. But it says that the etymology is unknown, unless it has something to do with Duh, which seems unlikely.

This shortfall, though is thoroughly made up for by the Urban Dictionary, which confidently gives three etymologies, which all contradict each other.

Div is a scouse word for idiot. It is short for divvy which in turn is a corruption of Deva. The Deva Hospital was a well known mental hospital (since renamed the West Cheshire Hospital) on the outskirts of Chester. Chester was founded by the Romans who named it Deva. 

Actually originates from prison slang in the UK. A job often given to the lowest inmates was to put cardboard dividers into boxes. Someone given this job was a 'divider' or a 'div'. Now used as an insult to those who display stupidity.

Derived from "individual needs child", a cruel schoolyard insult. Not at all politically correct. Someone who's "not quite normal", an idiot, spaz, etc.

I'm not quite sure that I understand the last one. The Deva Hospital did indeed exist at about the right time (it was so named from 1953 till 1970). However, the OED does have divvy, meaning daft. This is first recorded in 1975 as market traders' slang in Boston, Lincolnshire on the other side of the country from Chester.

Then there was a writer in The Guardian in 1987 who said "I first started using the term ‘divvy’ some 20 years ago... When I was growing up in Liverpool in the 1960's it was commonly assumed to be derived from the word ‘individual’", which would seem to support the Urban Dictionary's third attempt. #

So the short and the long of it is that I'm rather stumped. Does anybody remember div before 1975?

Short for this?

Monday 28 January 2013

American Imperialist Bastards

I've been reading a fantastic book called Only Beautiful, Please. This is not about the dress code at Inky Fool Mansions, instead it's about life in North Korea*. I was rather struck by a linguistic point that the author makes about the North Korean term for Americans.

Americans are routinely described as "American Imperialist Bastards," shortened in Korean to michenom. But this word had been used so often that by now it has all but lost its initial venom. A Korean friend once smilingly told me that she had worked with American Imperialist Bastards during the time of the Agreed Framework and found they were very friendly, very generous people. She hoped they would come back, she said.

This seems to be the most extreme case I've ever heard of a term losing all meaning, and I suppose that it could only happen in a state where vocabulary can get you locked up. I rather enjoy it when a rude phrase has lost all meaning to the speaker. I always snigger quietly when a respectable and polite American tells me that something sucks.

*Though North Korea and my flat do have some things in common: a furiously enforced cult of personality and a paranoid fear of our neighbours.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Etymological Europe

In honour of whatever's going on in the news, here is a link to an etymological map of Europe. You can zoom in and out just by clicking.

I don't guarantee all their etymologies - my Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names has London down as place by an unfordable river - but most of them look right to me, and it's all rather fun.

In the spirit of hands-across-the-North-Sea and cuddling up to our continental brethren, I would like to direct you to this review of The Horologicon in Dutch. There is much that confuses me.

As they approached the T-junction, the Inky Fool explained the advantages and deficiencies of his map to the driver.

Monday 21 January 2013

Five Minutes

There's no mention of the noun minute anywhere in the Bible.

That's not at all surprising really, because they didn't have clocks. Well, they did have some water clocks; but these weren't common. The point is that if you rang on Jesus' doorbell and asked Him if He could spare ten minutes of His time to talk about Jesus, He wouldn't have known what you meant. Well, he might if he were omniscient, but that's beside the point.

Now minutes did exist back then. It was the ancient Babylonians who started dividing angles up by sixty.  If you then do a second division by sixty you get down to a second. That's where it comes from, folks, secunda pars minuta, although St Augustine in his Mathematici was still calling them minutae minutarum or minutes of minutes.

However, these were abstract mathematical and astronomical terms that nobody would have used in everyday life. They wouldn't have been used, because they were useless, because there were no clocks.

You could, of course, divide the day up into rough hours by the position of the sun. So there are hours in the Bible:

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

But it's probably significant that these references to numbered hours don't pop up until the New Testament, which was written in Greek.

Incidentally, the Romans had twelve hours from dawn till dusk, whatever the season. (Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world.) This meant that at midwinter the hours were shorter during daylight and longer at night. This is not, though, the origin of the phrase the small hours, which are so called just because they have low numbers (one o'clock, two o'clock).

Anyway, there are also no minutes anywhere in the Canterbury Tales (C14th). Chaucer did know about hours and minutes. He wrote about them in his Treatise on the Astrolabe:

These degres of signes ben everich of hem considered of 60 mynutes, and every mynute of 60 secundes.

But outside of treatises on astrolabes you just wouldn't use these measurements. There were clocks (just) but there weren't that many of them and most people would never have seen one. The hour was still the system of reckoning.

Shakespeare has minutes. He has 63 of them. That's because there were clocks, usually in churches. As Falstaff says:

The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute draws on.

But though Shakespeare often mentions minutes, I think he does so in the way that I might mention nanoseconds or hemidemisemiquavers. I've heard of nanoseconds, but I'd have to Google them to find out what they actually are. And it takes me a bit of calculation before I can work out that a hemidemisemiquaver is a sixteenth of a crotchet. They're cool-sounding units of measurement that I might refer to without understanding them properly.

Shakespeare almost always mentions minutes in relation to hours:

O God! methinks it were a happy life, 
To be no better than a homely swain; 
To sit upon a hill, as I do now, 
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point, 
Thereby to see the minutes how they run, 
How many make the hour full complete; 
How many hours bring about the day; 
How many days will finish up the year; 
How many years a mortal man may live. 
When this is known, then to divide the times: 
So many hours must I tend my flock; 
So many hours must I take my rest; 
So many hours must I contemplate; 
So many hours must I sport myself; 
So many days my ewes have been with young; 
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean: 
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece: 
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years, 
Pass'd over to the end they were created, 
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave. 

Now a home-carved sundial won't actually give you accurate measurement of minutes. It's just Shakespeare showing off that he knows the clever word. Shakespeare almost always uses minute in this sort of hour-minute comparison, or just to mean a very short period of time (better three hours too soon than a minute too late). Unless you were actually in front of the church, time was still measured in the tolling of the bell. I'm pretty sure that if you asked Shakespeare whether he could spare ten minutes of his time, he would look rather puzzled as he tried to make a mental calculation of what that meant.

Shakespeare never mentions ten minues or five minutes. There's only one play where he uses minute to mean anything precise. That's Midsummer Night's Dream, where Puck says that:

I'll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

Which means that Puck can travel at 37,000 mph. Titania also refers to "the third part of a minute", but I don't think that this really shows that Shakespeare knew what he was talking about, any more than I know offhand what a nanosecond is. Twenty seconds is fairy stuff. Shakespeare is just Falstaff, hearing the bell and talking nonsense. If you arranged to meet Shakespeare at twenty to four, he wouldn't be there.

It's the pocket watch that brought the minute and then the second into every day speech. You want to know when they became widely available? Just click on this lovely little chart I made.

All of this has really been a very long and tedious way round of trying to explain what a miracle it is that we use the phrase five minutes in such an carefree don't-even-think-about-it manner. For us to know what that means requires all of us to have an intricate device attached to our wrists. With our forty-minute commutes, twenty-minute lunch breaks and meetings at twenty past three, we understand time in a way that was unavailable to people a few hundred years ago.

We imagine the world in a different way. As of 1980, English fiction contains more references to minutes than to hours. Clockmakers have changed the language.

File:Garden sundial MN 2007.JPG
I am a sundial and I make a botch
Of what is done much better by a watch.

N.B. It should be noted that throughout this I've been talking about what was generally known and generally available. There have been all sorts of cunning devices for measuring time. I'm only talking about the ones that were widespread enough to influence common discourse. The definition of minutes has also varied. This is not a history of clock-making or astronomy, it's a history of how clock making and astronomy have influenced language and popular conceptions of time.

Wednesday 16 January 2013


A sottisier is a collection of foolish or stupid remarks. I may need to rename this blog.

The word comes from the French, but was imported into the English language like good brie by Ezra Pound in a letter of 1929. Pound advised Charles Henri Ford to include a sottisier in his new poetry magazine (everybody Pound knew seemed to run magazines). Here's the relevant moment:

You shd. look at all the other poetry reviews and attack idiocy when it appears in them. The simplest and briefest form of attack is by a sottisier. As has been done by Mercure de France, New Age, Egoist and Am. Mercury. The only thing is that instead of Mencken's 'Americana' you shd. run sottisier confined to literary criticism. It is no longer my place to point out the idiocies that appear in Poetry, for example. The older boy shd. not stick pins into the younger. It is courageous of the young to stick pins into 
the pompous. 

Make your sottisier from Poetry and the main literary reviews, Sunday supplements, etc. 

These sottisiers are often the first parts of a live mag that people read. Let everyone collect 'em. 

There are very few (deliberate) sottisiers today. Private Eye has a few of them in Colemanballs and Pseuds Corner. However, the comments section of most political websites keep the tradition well and alive.

Available in all good bookshops

Monday 14 January 2013

Job Application

Once upon a time (1910-89), there was a chap called Robert Pirosh. He was an American chap and in 1934 he decided that he wanted to become a screenwriter. So he went to Hollywood and sent the following application letter to all the studios. Needless to say, he got a job, and later won an Oscar.

Probably the most famous films he worked on were Night at the Opera and Day at the Races. 

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave "V" words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land's-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Robert Pirosh
385 Madison Avenue
Room 610
New York
Eldorado 5-6024

Friday 11 January 2013


I was reading this fascinating interview with Damian O'Brien about his new book If Houses, Why Not Mouses? In it, he mentions that ancient Sanskrit had the word ayoni which means (and I've checked this up) anywhere other than the vagina.

The usefulness of this word should be self-evident. But I'm particularly proud that I've managed to work it into conversation twice this week. You see, if you say it dismissively and with a wave of the hand, it kind of does mean anywhere other than the vagina.

Where shall I put my umbrella?


But I've no idea whether I'm pronouncing it correctly.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Metro and Annoying Words

I'm too lazy to post today. But you can always have a look at this article in Monday's Metro which has various contributions from myself. It's on the world's most annoying words.

Friday 4 January 2013


A friend of mine pointed out recently that a terrier is so called simply because it chases animals into the burrows in the earth or terre (or terrain). It is an earth dog - in roughly the same way that poodles were once pudelhunds in German, or water dogs, or in English puddle-hounds.

If you have two terriers bred for fighting that can be pitted against each other, they are pit-bull terriers. And there really was a Jack Russell. He was a parson who, while at university, bought a white terrier with dark tips to its ears from a milkman.

A terrier's feet are, etymologically, subterranean.

Not him.

Wednesday 2 January 2013


It is a source of constant New Year's shame to me that my computer screen has more resolution than I do. Mysteries are more often resolved than I am.

If you solve something, you get a solution. That's because of the Latin word solvere, which meant to loosen or dissolve. So, if you have a knotty mathematical problem, you loosen it - or solve it - and thus get the solution. If you put a sugar lump in hot water it dissolves and you are left with a solution containing sugar.

Re- usually means to do something again, but it can just be an intensive prefix, a bit like super-. Thus, resolution arrived in the English language as a chemical term meaning:

The reduction or separation of an object or substance into constituent parts or elements; decomposition, disintegration, dispersion. Formerly also: †a material result of this, spec. a smoke or vapour (obs.). Now rare. [OED]

Now, imagine looking at a distant nebula or galaxy. To the nude eye, the Milky Way looks rather like a milky way running across the night sky. But if you look at it with a telescope this long smudge is broken up into lots of little stars. It is, like a chemical, resolved. The telescope thus gives you a resolution. And better telescopes have higher resolutions. Similarly, your digital camera breaks up, or resolves, a picture into lots of little pixels. The number of pixels representing the resolution.

But the New Year's resolution? Well, that seems to come from the idea of resolving a mystery. Once you've broken something down into its parts, resolution has been achieved. Thus you might resolve a mathematical puzzle. This transfers easily to the idea that your doubts and confusions have been resolved. This transfers nicely to the idea that you are no longer baffled and have now made a decision. You are resolute. You have (and the dread phrase isn't recorded until 1850) a New Year's resolution.

Mine is to be dissolute.