Thursday 27 June 2013


And Lowdham in Nottinghamshire tonight. Link here.

Last night, in Portsmouth, I was told of the word yinkle. A yinkle is, apparently, a bald man who has carefully trailed one strand of hair across his bare scalp. Anyway, I came home and checked the OED and Jonathon Green's big slang dictionary. Nothing. Although it is there in the Urban Dictionary.

Anybody else heard of it?

Wednesday 26 June 2013


Just a quick reminder that I'm talking in Portsmouth at six this evening. Link here.

Monday 24 June 2013

Calories in the Cauldron

A calorie is the amount of energy required to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. Or at least, that's the small calorie. The large calorie is the one that raises a whole kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. The point of all this is that calorie comes from the Latin calor meaning heat.

Calor was closely related to calidus, which meant hot. And that's why the Romans called a cooking pot a caldaria. And that's why the French called a cooking pot a cauderon. And that's why the English called a cooking pot a caudron. And then, in the fifteenth century, some Latin scholar pointed out that, etymologically, there should be an L in it, and that's why we call it a cauldron.

A cauldron full of calories.

Which is a long way round of reminding you that I'm talking at the Cauldron in North London tonight.

Friday 21 June 2013

Futterneid and Groke

The unchangeable tragedy of all human life is that, however long you study the restaurant menu, when the food arrives everybody else's dishes will look better than your own. Next to this suffering and being alone in an absurd universe are mere hors d'oeuvres.

The Germans have a word for it. Futterneid.

Futterneid is literally food envy and is the feeling you get when somebody's else meal looks and smells better than your own. So far as I can tell (and I'm not at all German) the word can also be used figuratively.

It makes a lovely pair with the old Scots verb to groke, which, as those of you who've read The Horologicon will know, means to stare at somebody while they're eating in the hope that they'll give you some of their food.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

London, Lowdham and Portsmouth

Just a few notices today. First, there's a tumblr account for the Etymologicon and Horologicon and you can tumble to it here.

Second, I'm going to be talking at The Cauldron in London on Monday. Here's a link to the event.

Third, next Wednesday I'll be talking at the Portsmouth Literary Festival. And here's a link to that.

Fourth, next Thursday I'll be talking at the Lowdham Festival, which is near Nottingham, and here's a link to that.

And finally, here's some more of me on Australian TV.

Monday 17 June 2013

Anthea's Anthologies

Anthos was the Greek for flower. Thus Antheios meant flowery. And thus the goddess Hera, who was often associated with flowers, got the byname Antheia. This name was revived in the seventeenth century by the poet Robert Herrick who wanted a nice classical sounding name for a love poem. So he wrote To Anthea, who may Command Him Anything. It begins:

Bid me to live, and I will live
    Thy Protestant to be;
Or bid me love, and I will give
    A loving heart to thee.

(Protestant there means one who vows or protests his loyalty).

Anyway, anthos has found its way into the language in other words. Chrysanthemums are golden flowers. Acanthuses are thorny flowers. And anthologies are books of flowers.

Sometimes anthologies are actual bouquets of flowers. Sometimes anthologies are literal books of flowers. And sometimes anthologies are books of the flowers of literature, the finest poems plucked from the muses' field and collected into one volume. A flower book.

And an anthomaniac is somebody who's mad about flowers, or girls called Anthea.

Poor Anthea.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Words and Vision

File:Special Broadcasting Service logo.svgFor those of you intent upon seeing my ugly face there is a feed of me talking about some strange words on SBS, the Australian television network. You can have a look at it by following this link.

I think this is feed in sense 3b in the OED: An allowance or meal (of corn, oats, etc.) given to a horse, etc.

Monday 10 June 2013

Geeks and Nerds

Just a link today to this excellent article on the difference between geeks and nerds. What's interesting here is that the author has used proper statistical analysis to work out how people use the terms on Twitter.

Friday 7 June 2013

Paperbacks and Retronyms

The paperback of The Etymologicon is released today in Britain. I don't really know why it's a paperback and not a paperfront. In fact, like me, it's soft all round. In the USA they have, occasionally, paperbounds, which make a lot more sense.

Paperbacks were introduced in the 1840s to supply the newly literate lower classes with something on which to expend their literacy. They were sometimes called penny-dreadfuls (cost and quality) and sometimes called yellow-backs because they were printed in bright colours (often, as you may have guessed, yellow).

Paperback is first recorded in 1843, but hardback isn't recorded until 1954. Well, to be fair hardback was recorded in 1750 as the name of a kind of West Indian coleopterous insect, and in 1883 as the name of a central American fish. But hardback as a kind of book doesn't appear until over a century after paperback, despite the fact that hardbacks were there first.

This is a classic example of the retronym. Organic food, live music and acoustic guitars were all there first. However, the introduction of pesticides, records and electric guitars meant that you then had to start specifying. It's something I always consider when travelling on the London Overground.

Anyway, if you found your hardback Etymologicon too cruelly granite-like, or if you once had a bad experience with a coleopterous West Indian, you can now rush to the bookshop and ask for something softer.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Fancy Mancy

There are an awful lot of ways of predicting the future. You can, for example, follow the ancient Roman method of observing birds. The Latin for bird was avis, and this, with the V changed to G, appears to be the origin of the augur, the official soothsayer. The augur was summoned whenever a new project was begun, and thus you get inaugurations.

However, you can also use fish (ichtiomancy), mirrors (catoptromancy), or fig leaves (sicomancy). Anything you want, really, so long as you know the name. And the best way to learn the names is to read the Mancy chapter in Thomas Urquhart's translation of Rabelais. And the best way to do that is on the fantastic Six Degrees of Sir Thomas Urquhart blog, where the whole chapter has been annotated so you can click on a mancy and get the meaning.

The chapter also contains the word sercroupierizing, which means having sex with several people in succession. A must for any CV.

Monday 3 June 2013

Jet Lag

Flotsam is stuff that just floats about, jetsam is stuff that has been jettisoned from a boat, i.e. thrown over board. That's because it comes from the Latin iacare meaning to throw. That's why, when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and led his troops into Italy, he said Alea iacta est. It means The dice have been thrown.

If you throw out liquid or vapour, it forms a jet of water or steam. (If you throw out a wooden structure from the shore, it forms a jetty). Newtonian physics insists that if you throw out a jet in one direction you will be pushed in the other. This is the principle of the jet engine.

The first commercial jet liner was the de Havilland Comet, which first flew in 1949, but didn't start doing business until 1952. It's therefore a trifle surprising that the jet set was first recorded in 1949. However, that's because the jet set was originally just young people who lived fast. As fast as jets.

The inevitable result of real, literal jet-setting is jet lag, which was first recorded in 1965. It popped up in the New York Herald Tribune and is described thuslyly:

Jet lag strikes suddenly. The victim disembarks from the..plane feeling gay as a sprite, dashes through customs, checks into home or a hotel, .. greets friends and in the course of the next few hours falls into a light coma.

Which is why I was up at 5am this morning. Australia was wonderful.

Decisions, decisions.