Thursday 30 May 2013

Petrichor and Inyinnyi

File:Uluru1 2003-11-21.jpgThe Sydney Writers' Festival is over and done. They are not long, the days of wine and roses. But if you want to know what they're like you can listen to the delightful and erudite David Astle chatting to me by following this link.

After leaving Sydney I went through the old Australian ritual of flyabout and ended up in a gorge in Uluru (or Ayers Rock depending on your persuasion) where I met a delightful novelist called Lia Hills. We immediately fell to talking about strange words. She asked me if I knew the distinctive smell of rain falling on dry ground. I said "Petrichor" and started to explain that the word was thought up by two scientists in 1964. They even explained the etymology of the name in an article in Nature:

The diverse nature of the host materials has led us to propose the name ‘petrichor’ for this apparently unique odour which can be regarded as an ‘ichor’ or ‘tenuous essence’ derived from rock or stone. This name, unlike the general term ‘argillaceous odour’, avoids the unwarranted implication that the phenomenon is restricted to clays or argillaceous materials; it does not imply that petrichor is necessarily a fixed chemical entity but rather it denotes an integral odour.

But it turns out, as with most things in Australia, that the Aborigines got there first. Lia Hills told me the Pitjantjatjara language, which is the local language around the rock, contains the word Inyinnyi (pronounced in-yin-nyi), which means the smell you get when water lands on dry earth.

Apparently the elders all know this word, but it is now dying out.

File:Uluru Panorama.jpg
Q: How much does Uluru weigh?
A: One stone.

Wednesday 22 May 2013


For anyone in the area, I'm talking to the delightful cruciverbialist David Astle about dictionaries tomorrow (Thursday) at one pm. On Friday, I'm doing a panel on writers who blog at 10 am, and then a quiz on ABC Radio at 7 pm. Then Saturday is the big talk on around the world in 80 Etymologies introduced by the splendid Sunil Badami. Do come along.

Monday 20 May 2013


This afternoon I climbed a pylon of Sydney Harbour Bridge, and thus this repost on what a pylon is. I shall remind everybody once again that the reason for my upsidedownity and eccentric idea of when this afternoon was is the Sydney Writer's Festival. Do come along if you can.

What, dear reader, do these two photographs have in common?

Give up? So soon? Ah well, dear reader, you were never one to make an effort, were you? They are both pictures of pylons, for strange and gradual reasons that I shall explain as gently as possible.

Once upon a time there was a Greek word pylon that meant gate. It was a dull Greek word that might have died in obscurity were it not for the fine classical education of Egyptologists. They took pylon and decided to use it for the gateways of Egyptian temples. They had already decided to call the entrance to Greek temples the propylaeum.

Egyptian temples tend to have the same kinds of gateways. You have two big towers on either side and then a cross-beam between them, as in the illustration that I have so solicitously provided.

Things might have stopped there were it not for bridges. In the late nineteenth century people liked to put towers at either end of a bridge: not for any practical purpose, you understand, just because they looked nice. Such pylons can be found on the Pont Alexandre III in Paris.

You see the towers at either end? You see how they could be considered like the towers of the Egyptian temples with a crossbeam between? It's tenuous. Almost the first reference that I can find to pylons in this sense comes from the 1901 Baedeker guide to Paris, which describes these very pylons and the statues that perched atop them. The same volume of Baedeker also refers to the obelisk in Paris, and to how it had been taken from the temple of Ramses II at Thebes where it had stood "in front of a 'pylon', or gateway".

From here, things become a trifle muddied. It is certain that in suspension bridges, which had been around for a century, these pylons were used to hold the cables that held the bridge. However, the OED is extraordinarily unhelpful on this front. I found an architectural dictionary of 1912 that said they were purely decorative. Nonetheless, observe the wonders of Bristol.

A pylon if ever I saw one

What is certain is that seven years after that Baedeker was written, on the far side of the Atlantic, in North Carolina (near Buncombe country about which I have blogged), the Wright brothers were trying to make their new-fangled airplanes take off. This was troublesome as planes have to gather speed terribly quickly. So they came up with a cunning plan. They built a metal frame tower. At the top of it they had a heavy weight attached by rope to a pulley and thence to the land-loving aircraft. When they dropped the weight the aircraft would be yanked forward giving it the speed required for take off. Here is a picture:

The tower was rather useful. It was light and easy to build and terribly importantly it marked where the runway was. Early aviators found this aspect so useful that they would have a line of pylons marking the approach to the runway. Then they got used as markers in airplane races. You would take off, head for a pylon, perform a pylon turn around it and return to the runway.

I can't work out whether the Wright Brothers were the first to call this a pylon, but it was in use by 1909 and here's a lovely illustration from a 1912 edition of Popular Mechanics:

So now you have lines of frame towers running across the countryside. And from there, dear reader, you get the modern sense, which pops up in 1923 in a novel by Edward Shanks, and by 1930 we finally arrive at the poetry:

Power-stations locked, deserted, since they drew the boiler fires
Pylons falling or subsiding, trailing dead high-tension wires;*

So wrote W.H. Auden and three years later Stephen Spender wrote a whole poem called simply "The Pylons". So fond were these thirties poets of Egyptian gateways that they were later known as the Pylon School of poetry.
Betjeman, who was not of the Pylon School, reacted thus:
Encase your legs in nylons
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul
For myself, I have always been rather fond of pylons. The discipline of structural necessity gives them elegance. They seem like great elegant giants striding single-file across the countryside. If Don Quixote were alive today, I am certain that he would charge them and not windmills.
It is a frailty of the aesthetic sense that people rarely appreciate beauty when it is necessary. The Roman aqueducts that tourists now gawp at would have been eyesores in their time. A hideous necessity cutting across the pastoral valleys. Windmills were once no more picturesque than windfarms, because they were necessary structures.
I was once being talked at by a terrible bore who was explaining how he had done up his horrid little house in the countryside. He had preserved at great expense some old contraption for grinding corn. I was not interested. I was gazing at the line of pylons that waddled magnificently from one horizon to the other. He noticed my inattention, noticed the pylons and said "Yes, they're horribly ugly, aren't they? Completely ruin the view. But anyway, the corn would have gone in here and then this handle...."
Which only goes to prove what I have always believed: beauty is utility plus a few hundred years.
The march of the giants
P.S. A pylon can also be an artificial limb, or a prologue.
*The opening chorus of The Dog Beneath the Skin

Friday 17 May 2013

The End of the Wombat

As I explained in Wednesday's post, Dante Gabriel Rossetti ordered a mail-order wombat. When it arrived he was ecstatic. He wrote to his brother saying that the wombat was "a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness".

But the wombat died. So Rossetti wrote another poem:

I never reared the young wombat
To glad me with his pinhole eye
But when he was most sweet and fat
And tailless he was sure to die!

He even painted two memorial paintings. One is of the wombat ascending to heaven alongside Jane Morris (William Morris's wife).

The wombat has a halo.

The other illustrates the poem above and is a self-portrait of the poet in mourning. 

 The wombat never actually got a tomb like this. Instead, he had it stuffed. I'm off to Australia now and whether I blog or not before my return on June 2nd is a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

The Horologicon as a Song (and Wombats and Apples)

File:Rossetti's Wombat Seated in his Master's Lap (William Bell Scott).jpg
Exciting musical developments below. But first more things antipodean.

The climax of the Sydney Writer's Festival will fall on the 175-and-a-halfth anniversary of the arrival of Maria Ann Smith in Sydney. Maria lived at Kissing Point in Sydney (well then it was near Sydney, now it's in), where she found an apple growing. The apple had seeded itself from a barrel of crab apples from Tasmania, and it turned out to be rather delicious. Also, its oily skin meant that it would keep longer than most apples. It was cultivated and named after its discoverer. And that is where we get Granny Smith apples from.

And now for today's wombat poem. The Victorian poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti ordered a mail-order wombat. You could do that sort of thing in those days. They were heady times for the wombat lover. However, the mail was slow and poor Dante had to wait in impatient expectation for his pet to arrive. This must have been a difficult time for him and he set down his emotions in a poem that went like this:

O how the family affections combat
Within this heart, and each hour flings a bomb at
My burning soul! Neither from owl nor from bat
Can peace be gained until I clasp my wombat.

I'm not making that up.

But most importantly, the wonderful Bookshop Band have turned the Horologicon into a song. I was there at the premiere in Bath last November, but it is now up on you tube. You can watch it here, or follow this link to see it with the lyrics next door. I'm gloriously happy.

Monday 13 May 2013

Australia and Wombats

I'm toddling down to the Sydney Writer's Festival next week. For anybody who is around and about at that end of the world I'll be doing a talk with David Astle on Thursday (NOT WEDNESDAY AS I JUST ERRONEOUSLY WROTE) on Why People Should Read Dictionaries. Then on Saturday I'll be giving a talk called Around The World in 80 Etymologies. I should point out beforehand that the actual number of etymologies may vary and that your statutory rights are affected.

In the meantime, I thought you should have a video about Australian English vs British (based on cricket). And a poem about the wombat. In fact, there's an awful lot of beautiful wombat poetry and I might make it a theme of this week.

Wombat comes from the aboriginal Dharuk language, which was spoken in Sydney before Sydney existed. So it's appropriately local. The first reference to the word (1798) has several slightly different pronunciations and spellings.

Called by the natives, womat, wombat, or womback, according to the different dialects, or perhaps to the different rendering of the wood rangers who brought the information.

And if we hadn't picked the right one, this week's poems would be unwritten, and the world a sadder and less beautiful place. This by Ogden Nash (from whom I derive all my knowledge of the natural world):

The wombat lives across the seas,
Among the far Antipodes.
He may exist on nuts and berries,
Or then again, on missionaries;
His distant habitat precludes
Conclusive knowledge of his moods,
But I would not engage the wombat
In any form of mortal combat.

Friday 3 May 2013

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Plumbing with Aplomb

The Latin for lead (the metal, not the advantage) was plumbum, and so there is an obscure English word plumbous, which means leaden or heavy. But the uses of lead are various and so, therefore, are the words that derive from it.

The main thing about lead is that it is heavy. If you attach it to a piece of string, the piece of string will hang down perfectly vertically. It takes a strong wind to move lead. What you therefore get is a plumb line, which, combined with a right angle, was terribly useful in building until the spirit level came and took its job away.

It's also useful in working out the depth of water, as currents will not sway it much. Therefore one can plumb the depths using a plumb line. The weight will plunge into the water (from Latin plumbicare) and then plummet to the very bottom. The line will remain perfectly upright, or as the French would put it à plomb. If a person were to remain so upright in the currents and whirlpools of life, they would therefore display perfect aplomb.

But the other use of lead is that it's wonderfully soft for a metal. You can work it with your hands and it was this advantage that meant that it was used in roofing and then in Victorian water pipes. So universal was the use of lead, that by the 1870s piping was simply known as plumbing. Those who worked in lead had been known as plumbers for centuries, but now they became the people who fixed your taps.

The other thing about lead is that it's poisonous.

The Inky Fool wanted to be alone in his bathroom.