Wednesday 27 February 2013

The Mythical Mountains of Paris

An odd thing about place names is that the etymology can be utterly obvious, it's just that you never think about it. Oxford is a ford for oxen, Cambridge is a bridge over the Cam. New York, New Jersey and New Orleans are simply brighter shinier versions of the old ones. New South Wales is just perverse.

This counts doubly if you put it into a foreign language with which you are passingly familiar. You can buy things in the Elysian Fields. You can drive up them. You can sing songs about them. The Elysian Fields are the Champs Elysées.

I actually used to live on Mount Parnassus. Mount Parnassus, since you ask, is the mountain in Greece sacred to the muses who live on the summit. But I lived there too. I lived in Montparnasse in Paris for a couple of months. And all the time I was there, I never noticed.

Monday 25 February 2013

Thunder Theft

Once upon a time, there was a playwright called John Dennis (well, from 1658 to 1734 to be precise). In 1709 he wrote a play called Appius and Virginia. I can't find out much about that play, but I assume that it was just a reworking of John Webster's one of a century before. Anyway, the important points are first that the play was rubbish, and second that it had a storm scene in it and required thunder, or at least the sound of it.

Now, thunder used to be simulated by rolling iron balls around in a big bowl (the same method used to make mustard). Here's a footnote from a 1750s edition of the Dunciad:

The old way of making Thunder and Mustard were the same; but since, it is more advantageously performed by trough of wood with stops in them. Whether Mr. Dennis was the inventor of that improvement, I know not;

By all accounts he must have been. Because there are three versions of the same story. That footnote continues:

but it is certain, that being once at a Tragedy of a new author, he fell into such a great passion at hearing some, and cried, "'Sdeath! that is my Thunder."

You see, Dennis invented a brand new method of making thunder for his production of Appius and Virginia. But though the acoustic method was good, the play was a bunch of crap. Appius and Virginia closed very quickly. This hurt. But when Dennis went to the same theatre the next week to watch Macbeth (by most accounts), damn it all if they hadn't kept his brand new method while cancelling his play.

But the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has:

Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they will steal my thunder!

And that, my dears, is where stealing somebody's thunder comes from.

The Inky Fool's mobile was acting up again.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

I Could Eat A Horse

What with the news that almost every snack in Europe is actually my little pony, and the jokes about spaghetti bologneighs, I keep being asked about the origin of the phrase I could eat a horse. Specifically, does it mean:

1) I am so hungry that I could eat something as large as a horse, an elephant or a blue whale.


2) I am so hungry that I would be prepared eat something unusual, like horse, squirrel or cockroach.

So I set off to trace the phrase back. It turned out to be popular all the way through the nineteenth century. But once you get far enough, the phrase changes to I could eat a horse behind the saddle. This version pops up in the stage-play of Guy Mannering (1816) where it seems to be proverbial. The earliest reference I could find was in a book called The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves written by Tobias Smollett in 1760.

A chap is lying ill in bed and complaining about the medical treatment he has been receiving. I've highlighted the bits that I think are relevant:

"What do you chiefly complain of?"—"The doctor."—"Does your head ache?"—"Yea, with impertinence." "Have you a pain in your back?"—"Yes, where the blister lies."—"Are you sick at stomach?"—"Yes, with hunger."—"Do you feel any shiverings?"—"Always at sight of the apothecary."—"Do you perceive any load in your bowels?"—"I would the apothecary's conscience was as clear."—"Are you thirsty?"—"Not thirsty enough to drink barley-water." —"Be pleased to look into his fauces," said the apothecary; "he has got a rough tongue, and a very foul mouth, I'll assure you."—"I have known that the case with some limbs of the faculty, where they stood more in need of correction than of physic.—Well, my honest friend, since you have already undergone the proper purgations in due form, and say you have no other disease than the doctor, we will set you on your legs again without further question. Here, nurse, open that window, and throw these phials into the street. Now lower the curtain, without shutting the casement, that the man may not be stifled in his own steam. In the next place, take off two-thirds of these coals, and one-third of these blankets.—How dost feel now, my heart?" "I should feel heart-whole, if so be as yow would throw the noorse a'ter the bottles, and the 'pothecary a'ter the noorse, and oorder me a pound of chops for my dinner, for I be so hoongry, I could eat a horse behind the saddle."

Barley water was a standard medicine in the eighteenth century, and I can't find any reference to people drinking it for fun. I assume therefore that it tasted bad (and that it's rather different from the modern stuff).

Now, I don't know much about horses, but I'm going to assume that one that is saddled is sweating, and that the bit behind it is the backside. Not even in France do they eat sweaty horse poo. Not even in Verona.

So I'm going to say that the phrase I could eat a horse refers not to the size of the horse, but to its unusualness; and that it's roughly the equivalent of the American I could eat the tail end of a skunk.

I would be particularly amused if all the horse butchers in Verona were really selling beef.

Friday 15 February 2013


There are all sorts of silent letters tiptoeing around the English language. There's the P in pterodactyl, the G in gnaw, and, when Jean Harlow pronounced the T in Margot Asquith's first name, Mrs Asquith corrected her by saying that "The T is silent, as in Harlow."

There are a bunch of silent Bs in the middle of words like debt and lamb, but rarely, oh so rarely do you find one at the beginning of a word. But over at the ever-enchanting Six Degrees of Sir Thomas Urquhart, there is one. And it's rather useful. The word is bdelygmia, which means a long series of insults. So when you say to a chap that he's a bounder, a rogue, a scoundrel, a scallywag and a dog-fondler, that's bdelygmia, which a silent B.

Or as Shakespeare put it:

A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave; a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service; and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.

For those interested in the silence of the second letter, The Oxford English Dictionary also has:

Bdellatomy - The name given to the practice of cutting leeches to empty them of blood while they still continue to suck.

Bdellium - The name given to several trees or shrubs of the family Amyridace√¶, chiefly of the genus Balsamodendron, from which exudes a kind of gum-resin resembling impure myrrh, of pungent taste and agreeable odour, used in medicine and as a perfume.

Bdellometer A surgical instrument proposed as a substitute for leeches, and fitted to show the amount of blood drawn.

I remember being shown this video as school when I was about seven. It was my first introduction to Tom Lehrer.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Chaucer's Valentine

Another repost:

Valentine's Day was invented by Chaucer. It's his fault. Whether you are planning to spend this evening paying five times the normal price for a corner of a crowded restaurant, or whether you are looking forward to a night of solitary sobbing, blame Geoffrey and ornithology.

You see, it's around this time of year that birds start to mate. (I've just conducted a brief field trip and didn't see any feathered fornication, but there was a frisky looking pigeon flapping about in a suggestive way.) How does this connect to Chaucer? Because he wrote a poem about birds falling in love. It's called the Parliament of Fowls, and if you like you can read it here.

Essentially, Chaucer dreams that he goes to the garden of love and witnesses a bunch of birds choosing their spouses.

For this was on Saint Valentines day,
When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate,
Of every kind that men thinke may
And that so huge a noise 'gan they make
That earth, and air, and tree, and every lake
So full was that unethe [hardly] was there space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.

And that is the first ever reference to Valentine's Day being the day on which creatures choose their sweethearts. Slowly the idea was transferred from birds to people, and that's the cause of all the trouble.

The Parliament of Fowls opens with some great lines on Love:

The life so short, the craft so long to learn,
Th'assay so hard, so sharp the conquering,
The dreadful joy alway that slit so yerne [slides away]
All this mean I by Love, that my feeling
Astonyeth [is astonished] with his wonderful working
So sore, iwis, that when I on him think
Nat wot I well wher [I don't know whether] I float or sink.

And then these bookish and lonely lines:

For all be that I know not Love in deed,
Nor wot how that he quitteth [pays] folk their hire,
Yet happeth me full oft in books read
Of his miracles and his cruel ire.

So unruffle your feathers, get your hackles up and find yourself a bird.

Monday 11 February 2013

Three Equine Etymologies

What with all the horses in the news at the moment, I thought we could have a repost from March 2010. Incidentally, a horse walks into a pub and the landlord says, "Sorry, we don't serve food."

A few weeks ago I was playing poker. My opponent raised, I saw, he put his hand down on the table. I put my (better) hand down on the table and announced that I had won hands down. And at that moment a little lightbulb flashed on above my head, although it would only have been visible to a trained cartoonist. Also, the idea I was having was utterly wrong.

Winning hands down has nothing to do with poker and everything to do with horses; for though horses have no hands, jockeys do. In the final sprint of a close-run race a jockey forces his horse to run faster and faster by raising his hands and whipping his steed. If, though, there is no final sprint, if one horse is so far ahead that he can win at a canter, then the jockey is able to win hands down.

Another etymology I once thought that I knew was that of a dead ringer. There was (really) a craze in eighteenth century England for bells in gravestones. The bell would be attached to a rope the other end of which would be in the coffin beneath. This meant that if you had been buried alive accidentally (or even deliberately) you could simply ring for assistance. From this developed the idea that a dead ringer was someone who so resembled a deceased acquaintance that one would believe that rope and bell had been put to use. This etymology is beautiful and bollocks.

The term dead ringer emerged in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. It's to do with horses. It does, I admit, have an etymological connection to bells. Bell ringers in churches like to ring out a series of patterns each one of which is called a "change". Therefore you got the phrase "ring the changes" and from that you got the false idea that ringing was to do with changing and from that you got the term ringer for something that had been swapped for something else. You go down to the bookies, place a bet on a slow horse, sneak into the stable at night and substitute a fast horse as a ringer. Then you collect your winnings and squander it all on etymological dictionaries. Dead just means accurate, as in dead centre.

Yet if those two origins seem disappointing, if you think me a joy-killing sport-spoiler for debunking such lovely myths, then I have a wonderful wonderful treat for you. Do you know what a flying fuck is? Have you ever wondered or considered what this rarely donated thing could be?

Although I once nearly convinced my brother that this was to do with swifts mating in mid-air, a flying fuck has nothing to do with birds and everything to do with having sex with somebody whilst riding a horse. This may sound difficult and indeed it probably is, although I suspect that the bouncing motion of a horse may help in some ways. The phrase was first recorded in around 1800 as part of a poem by Thomas Rowlandson called New Feats Of Horsemanship:

Well mounted on a mettled steed
Famed for his strength as well as speed
Corinna and her favorite buck
Are pleas’d to have a flying fuck.

Luckily for us, Thomas Rowlandson was a cartoonist and so this earliest citation comes complete with an illustration. The illustration is, of course, pornographic so I have decided to place it discreetly after the jump break. If you have a coarse and depraved soul, click on "Read More".

WARNING TO CHILDREN: Don't click on "Read More" or you'll go blind.
WARNING TO THE BLIND: No point clicking on "Read More", it's a damn picture.

Friday 8 February 2013

Dictionary of Interjections

Just a link today (courtesy of the Antipodean) to a Dictionary of Interjections. Somebody has take the trouble to distinguish between Aah, Ahh and Argh. It's rather fun.

Wednesday 6 February 2013


 is a lovely word. It means bashful or modest, but it's so much fun to say aloud. "Don't be pudibund, old boy, you've done splendidly." There's even an extra word pudibundery which means prudery, so Ezra Pound could observe that:

Darwin, truckling to the religiose pudibundery of his race, has almost wholly neglected the actual facts of sex.

Happens to us all.

The bund bit at the end of pudibund is a suffix forming verbal adjectives (so saith the OED) and is the same thing you get in moribund or about to die.

The pudi bit comes from the Latin pudere meaning to be ashamed. So if you're impudent, you are without shame (and incapable of pudibundery).

Now, propaganda are things to be propagated, and agenda are things to get done, and Amanda is a girl to love (literally) and Miranda is a girl to marvel at (literally), and by this pattern and this exact etymology your pudenda are those bits of you of which you should be horribly ashamed, in a fit of pudibundery.

Got to love her.

Friday 1 February 2013

Knowing Your Onions

Just a link today to this article on all of the European words for onion, which I got from Etymonline's facebook page. Or, if you only want the map, here it is. Click to embiggen.