Wednesday 24 April 2013

Catachretic Love

There's a rhetorical term called catachresis, which is rather hard to define. That is to say that like most rhetorical terms it has several different definitions that have amassed over a couple of millennia. Some authorities just say that is the misuse of a word - a malapropism. But others have the more interesting definition that it is a word wrenched out of its normal usage in a surprising, impossible metaphor.

The classic example of this is Hamlet's "I will look daggers at her". This was, of course, the origin of the phrase. Look daggers is the catachresis because... well how can you look daggers. Look isn't even a transistive verb - you look at the cat, you don't look the cat. So shouldn't it really be an adverb like look angrily? Of course it works. It works very well. Indeed it works because it's so damned surprising.

Another Shakespearean example is "Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon's pockets". That means Timon's broke. But it's a metaphor that sort of doesn't work, and therefore works really well. It's a use of language that's so wrong it's right.

Anyway, yesterday, in an e-mail conversation with The Antipodean, I was making a joke about song titles that contained the word love, when I realised how many of them were catachretic. For example, there's Leonard Cohen's Dance Me to the End of Love. That's a perfect catchresis. You would expect the sentence to end with a noun of space or time - Dance Me to the End of the Night or Dance Me to the End of the Street - and instead you get love, which isn't a place, unless you believe the Doors line "She lives on Love Street", which is another love-catachresis.

Robert Palmer has a catachretic amour: Doctor, Doctor, give me the news. I've got a bad case of loving you; but I don't think Addicted To Love is a catachresis, that's just a metaphor.

Love Minus Zero by Dylan is a definitely a catachresis. Dr Love by Bobby Sheen probably counts. Love Me Tender is a catachresis, because it should be Love Me Tenderly. And I'm pretty sure Crazy In Love is a catachresis. But...

Well, you can probably see that catachresis is a question of judgement. Rhetoricians will argue forever about how it exactly it differs from enallage (the substitution of one part of speech for another, so Love Me Tender counts). But if you can think of another catachretic love, please put it in the comments.

P.S.  Before someone points it out, I know Bad Case of Loving You is by Moon Martin.

Monday 22 April 2013

Punctuation and Punctures

Just a link today to this brief history of punctuation. Punctuation comes from the Latin for point or prick. The verb was pungere, but the little hole made was a punctum (it's a little complicated, more here). Thus the little dots in text were, in Medieval times, called punctuation. Somebody concerned with fine points of behaviour is punctilious. And if you arrive at exactly the point you were meant to, you are punctual. Somebody who doesn't feel the little pricks of conscience when he sticks a knife into your car's tyres has no compunction about puncturing.

And somebody who punctures your body without compunction is practicing acupuncture.

The Inky Fool trying to cure his pins and needles

Friday 19 April 2013

Sydney Writers' Festival

Just to let any Australian readers know that I shall be heading to the Sydney Writers' Festival in May. Once there I shall be doing all sorts of amusing events and the like.

Incidentally, Australia was first called New Holland, by Dutch explorers who were clearly tired with the old one. Then it was called Terra Australis by the British, which is Latin for Southern Land. It wasn't until 1814 that a chap called Matthew Flinders suggested Australia as "as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the name of the other great portions of the earth."

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Thou and You

A repost:

Here's some lovely poetry courtesy of Andrew Marvell. Notice the words in bold.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.

Once upon a time English was nice and simple. There was the second person singular thou and the second person plural you. Then in 1066 everything went wrong. The Normans arrived bringing with them the royal plural. "We are not amused," said Queen Victoria. "We are Henry the Eighth, we are," said Henry the Eighth. This pluralisation of royals was not simply I becoming we, they also had to be addressed as though they were plural. So the top of society started to demand that they were addressed plurally as you.
This spread. You became a simple reverential form. Through the sixteenth century it got more and more complicated. People would call others you in the way that junk mail tends to add an esquire to my name. You was everywhere. Thou was familar or condescending. You used it to your servants.
So what do you call the girl you love? What do you say when you are trying to be familiar with the queen of your heart. Do you wish for worship or intimacy? Can you be intimate with your deity? Does it depend whether, like Marvell, you're in Hull or London?
None of these questions bothered William Tyndale as he sat down in the early sixteenth century to translate the Bible. Not for him the shallow flirtations and flattery of society, nor the intricacies of adoration: he wanted accuracy.

Now, Greek (in which the Gospels are written) has a second person singular and a second person plural. So he translated the singular as thou and the plural as you. That is why God is thou: not because He is your friend (He isn't, He thinks you're bad), but because God is singular. Jesus thous (it can be a verb like tutoyer) individuals and yous crowds.

And here is an oddity, here is a bit of the screenplay for scene 57 of that delicate, lyrical work The Return of the Jedi:

Darth Vader, standing with other members of the Imperial council, cautiously approaches his master. The ruler's back is to Vader. After several tense moments, the Emperor's chair rotates around to face him.

VADER What is thy bidding, my Master?

Thou was the singular, then it was the familiar, then it was the condescending, then it was left only in the Bible often used to address God, and thus thou became reverential again.

Well I say that thou has survived only in the Bible. I believe that there are still a couple of people in Yorkshire who thou each other (I'll believe anything about Yorkshire). A popular beat combo from Leeds called (slightly tautologically) the Kaiser Chiefs recorded a song alarmingly titled I Predict A Riot with the lines:

Watching the people get lairy
It's not very pretty I tell thee
Walking through town is quite scary
It's not very sensible either

Which is thou's proof of life, or at least life Yorkshire.

Friday 12 April 2013

Stalinist Thatcher, or The Steel Man and the Iron Lady

The Inky Fool bids for power.
I once read that Stalin and Trotsky had two things in common: neither of them spoke Russian as a first language and neither of them was called either Stalin or Trotsky.

Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein and was brought up speaking Ukrainian. In 1902 he adopted the code name, or nom de guerre, of Trotsky, which he seems to have nicked from one of his gaolers. 

Stalin was born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili and was brought up speaking Georgian. After training as a priest he got into communism and adopted the code name, or nom de guerre, of Stalin, which means Man of Steel.

Margaret Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts, and was brought up speaking English, or as close as they get to that in Lincolnshire. She married Denis Thatcher and adopted the married name, or nom de guerre domestique, of Margaret Thatcher.

On January 24th 1976, a Soviet military propaganda outlet called Krasnaya Zvezda reported on the new leader of the British Conservative Party under the headline Zheleznaya Dama Ugrozhayet, which means Iron Lady Wields Threats. Zheleznaya means Iron and Dama means Lady.

The article claimed (utterly falsely, so far as anybody can tell) that this was how she was referred to in Britain. The article would have died a death, but it was seen by Robert Evans, who was the Reuters Bureau Chief in Moscow. So Evans wrote an article saying that: "British Tory leader Margaret Thatcher was today dubbed ‘the Iron Lady’ by the Soviet Defense Ministry newspaper Red Star." The name caught on in the West, but it was invented in Russia.

What's interesting is that, though the Russian story was hogwash, it would have made perfect sense to a Russian. The Soviet Union had, after all, been ruled for thirty years by The Steel Man, and this, I suspect, was what prompted the (baseless) story. If I'm correct in this reasoning (and it all looks pretty reasonable to me), then the Iron Lady was, essentially, named after Stalin.

Margaret Thatcher was delighted. Here is her reaction a week later.

Wednesday 10 April 2013


All this talk of Thatcherism got me wondering. So I went to the OED and searched for the names of post-war Prime Ministers. Here are the results. Definitions are taken from the OED.

David Cameron

Nothing yet. Although cameroon is pretty popular in the papers.

Gordon Brown

Nothing. Although Brownite used to be everywhere.

Tony Blair

Blairism, Blairist, Blairite. The OED's etymology helpfully explains "the name of Anthony Charles Lynton (‘Tony’) Blair (b. 1953)".

John Major

Majorism, Majorite

Margaret Thatcher

Handbag (verb) To batter with a handbag. Only fig., to subject to a forthright verbal assault or to strident criticism; to coerce in this way. Cf. sandbag Orig. and predominantly with reference to Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister 1979–1990 [This one was invented by The Economist]
Leaderene Orig., a jocular or ironic name for Margaret Thatcher while Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister; hence gen., any female leader, esp. a formidable one.

Thatcher's Britain n. (also Mrs. Thatcher's Britain) Britain under the premiership of Mrs. Thatcher; (the condition of) British society as an alleged result of policies implemented by her governments. Freq. with negative connotations.

Thatcher's Child n. a person for whom the premiership and policies of Margaret Thatcher are regarded as formative influences



Wet [specific meaning] n. A ‘wet’ person; spec. a politician with liberal or middle-of-the-road views on controversial issues (often applied to members of the Conservative Party opposed to the monetarist policies of Margaret Thatcher).

James Callaghan


Harold Wilson


Edward Heath


Alec Douglas-Home


Harold Macmillan

Wind c. spec. in phr. wind (also winds) of change. Harold Macmillan (Lord Stockton) delivered his celebrated ‘wind of change’ address to the South African parliament in Cape Town on 3 Feb. 1960 (see quot.). Our records show a marked increase in the frequency of the phrase after this date.

Anthony Eden

Anthony Eden A black Homburg hat of the type often worn by Sir Anthony Eden (later Lord Avon).

Clement Attlee


Winston Churchill

I wrote a whole chapter of The Etymologicon on this.  

Anthony Eden being supported by Anthony Eden

Monday 8 April 2013

Bob's Your Uncle

Just a repost today on why Bob is your uncle.

It should be noted that there are several theories for this, and a new one is invented every week, but the standard line* is that it refers to the political career of Arthur Balfour. Balfour was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1902 to 1905, which, given the size of the British Empire, made him pretty much the most powerful man in the world. However, it was not always thus. When he was first elected to parliament in 1874 he was considered a bit of a joke; and when he was suddenly made Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887, everybody thought that it was rampant nepotism because the prime minister who promoted him was his uncle, Robert Cecil.

So, Balfour's easy success was down to the fact that Bob [Cecil] was his uncle.

As I said, there are a bunch of other theories, partially because the earliest written reference comes in 1931. However, if you wanted to know what Uncle Bob looked like, you should (probably) see the picture below.
*Despite what a citationless Wikipedia article may tell you.

Friday 5 April 2013

Prefixed Ports

Sometimes it's pleasant just to look at a Latin verb and all its different prefixes. It is, I imagine, the same sort of pleasure you get from dressing a Barbie doll up in all her different costumes.

Take portare, which meant to carry. It came via French into English with all sorts of prefixes. There import, meaning to bring in. Originally the thing brought in was information (the foreign trade sense is only from 1500) and such information was important. Then there is of course export, to carry out, and deport, to carry away, and if you get a bit carried away with yourself, you disport yourself. You might even end up transported, or carried across. There's comportment, which is carrying yourself together. There's reporting, which is carrying information back. But there was also the French re-apporter, or carry back to, which gives us rapport meaning relationship. Similarly, the B got lost in sub-port or carry from below, and now it's just support. And pro-port became purport.

There are portfolios for carrying folios, but it's easier to just get someone to carry your folios for you, perhaps a porter. When you wear clothes you carry them on your body, hence the modern French porter, to wear, and hence pret-a-porter, or ready to wear.

Just about every prefix is portable. But there is no modern English verb to port. And moreover, it's only very distantly related to the thing that ships sail into.

Odd that.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Byron at 36

File:George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron by Richard Westall (2).jpgLord Byron died in Greece, where he was planning to lead a band of revolutionaries against the Ottoman forces, as you do. Though he died in April (always the cruellest month, the month of pilgrimages), his last poem was written in January on the occasion of his 36th birthday.

It's general theme is that life, or the good bits of it, are over the moment you hit the big three-six, and that nobody will ever love you any more. Quite dispiriting, really.

Incidentally, Byron was the first person to be described as mad, bad and dangerous to know, and he invented the phrase 'mental masturbation', which I discussed in this old post.

On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year

'Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!

My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief,
Are mine alone!

The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze -
A funeral pile!

The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
The exalted portion of the pain
And power of love, I cannot share,
But wear the chain.

But 'tis not thus -and 'tis not here -
Such thoughts should shake my soul, nor now,
Where glory decks the hero's bier,
Or binds his brow.

The sword, the banner, and the field,
Glory and Greece, around me see!
The Spartan, borne upon his shield,
Was not more free.

Awake! (not Greece -she is awake!)
Awake, my spirit! Think through whom
Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake,
And then strike home!

Tread those reviving passions down,
Unworthy manhood! -unto thee
Indifferent should the smile or frown
Of beauty be.

If thou regret'st thy youth, why live?
The land of honourable death
Is here: -up to the field, and give
Away thy breath!

Seek out -less often sought than found -
A soldier's grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest.

I shall now search for a birthday drink, and a soldier's grave.
File:Lord Byron on his Death-bed c. 1826.jpg
The Inky Fool takes a birthday nap