Monday 29 July 2013


I happened to read the word shebang yesterday and, perhaps it was seeing it in print, I suddenly realised that I had no idea what it really meant or where it came from. The whole shebang. A shebang was a nineteenth century American word for a log cabin and then for a tavern.

Then it came to mean a kind of cart in which you could hire a seat. Of course, you could hire the whole shebang. So in a story of 1880 a traveller is told that he has a seat specially reserved for him:

"...the box seat was purchased by that other gentleman in Sacramento. He paid extra for it, and his name's on your way-bill!"

"That," said Yuba Bill, scornfully, "don't fetch me even ef he'd chartered the whole shebang. Look yar, do you reckon I'm goin' to spile my temper by setting next to a man with a game eye? And such an eye! Gewhillikins!"

And so the whole shebang came to mean the entirety of something usually only dealt with in parts, and thus the modern usage.

Mind you, nobody really knows where the original word came from: perhaps Irish shebeen for tavern, or French char-a-banc for cart.

Part of the shebang

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Sun-Bathing and Philosophy

Just a repost.

There's a rather strange work by Thomas Nashe called Summer's Last Will and Testament. It is about the handover of seasons in the changing year. In it, Winter describes how writing was invented for the warmer seasons, and that writing is a Bad Thing. Its first evil result was poetry.

There grew up certain drunken parasites, 
Termed Poets, which for a meal's meat or two 
Would promise monarchs immortality;
They vomited in verse all that they knew, 
Found causes and beginnings of the world...

But even worse than that poets were the resulting philosophers:

Next them, a company of ragged knaves,
Sun-bathing beggars, lazy hedge-creepers,
Sleeping face upwards in the fields all night,
Dreamed strange devices of the Sun and Moon;
And they, like Gypsies, wand'ring up and down,
Told fortunes, juggled, nicknamed all the stars,
And were of idiots termed Philosophers:

And that is the first ever recorded reference in English to sun-bathing. It beats the posher aprication by 31 years.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a hedge into which I must lazily creep.

Friday 19 July 2013

Terms of Engagement

Rob Colvile gave the Inky Fool a mention in his Telegraph column yesterday. He was referring to a post from 2009 by Mrs Malaprop and how it had influenced his proposal of marriage. So I may as well repost it now.

Saturday's Times carried a letter in which some "matrons in the Shires" took issue with Giles Coren's references to his "girlfriend", when the pair had already announced their engagement. "Esther is rather more than a "girlfriend" now," they chided, the inference being that her future husband ought to acknowledge her instead as his fiancée . Mr Coren's response was short and eloquent: "Yes, but 'fiancée' is such a horrid word...".

The word "fiancé(e)" is one which evokes strong emotions, not all of them romantic. As long ago as 1949, the novelist Angela Thirkell wrote testily about "the dreadful word fiancée...what we can do about it we really do not know".

What can we do about it? Some people, like the columnist above, avoid it altogether and refer to their girlfriend or boyfriend as just that until they are married. Some accommodate it through feats of mispronunciation - like my colleague who pronounces it to rhyme with séance - while others reach for the thesaurus and dust off alternatives such as betrothed or intended.

What puzzles me is why it causes such awkwardness. I have seen it accused of being pretentious and of sounding like a "middle manager at a high street bank". But the most probable explanation is that, as a French loan word which has not been anglicised* in any way, it sounds strained and unnatural in English. It may also carry a whiff of genteelism, if the example of other French borrowings like "serviette" is anything to go by.

* One of the posters here refers to her father, who in "inimitable West Virginia fashion" pronounced the word as “fi-ancy” ("fi" as in hi-fi). To me, this sounds much better.

In other, unrelated news, Mrs Malaprop is now engaged.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

George Eliot and Lady Novelists

J.K. Rowling, it turns out, is Robert Galbraith. Or vice versa, I'm bad at keeping up with such things. And so people keep repeating the old canard that Mary Anne Evans had to change her name to George Eliot in order to be published.

I was told about this at school, and I've heard it since, and it's complete nonsense. If you want to know why Mary Anne Evans changed her name the best thing to do is to read an essay by a woman called Mary Anne Evans, which was published, importantly, under her real name.

The essay is called Silly Novels by Lady Novelists and you can read the whole thing here. I recommend it. It's a good essay (for a woman, you understand). But for those of you who can't be bothered I shall summarise.

1) Female novelists are almost all crap. (Remember these are George Eliot's thoughts, not mine. I love a bit of Muriel Spark). The novels they produce are almost all idiotic.

2) The reason for this is that the literary world is too kind to lady novelists. They let them write any old drivel and then review it well, just because they're women.

3) If people were nastier to lady novelists, maybe lady novelists would improve.

4) The greatest compliment that can be paid to a lady novelist is to be harshly reviewed (as Gaskell was).

The essay was published in 1856, when Mary Anne Evans was working on the Westminster Review. It was published under her own name. Three years later she published Adam Bede under the name George Eliot.

There were other reasons for a name change. Mary's private life was odd even by today's standards and pretty bloody freaky by Victorian ones. She therefore didn't want to draw attention to herself. But the reason for picking a male pseudonym is very clearly explained in Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.

No. It's by Mary Anne Evans.

Monday 15 July 2013

Much Ado and the Missing Duel

I went to see Joss Whedon’s (excellent) film of Much Ado about Nothing recently, and when we left the cinema everybody starting making the same comments everybody makes after seeing Much Ado: Benedick and Beatrice are great, Dogberry’s funny, Hero and Claudio are really dull and should probably be cut.

The second complaint (always voiced by girls) is that Claudio doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. General female opinion seems to be that if a chap promises to marry you and then gets to the altar, calls you a whore and storms out, he has to do rather more to be forgiven than sing a bloody song. I have a theory that explains all this.

My theory is that Much Ado is an artistic failure. I mean, I love the play. I adore it but… let me explain.

First, you’ve got to understand the basic structure of Much Ado. The plot is about Hero and Claudio. They meet. They fall in love. He thinks she’s betrayed him. They split up. He finds he’s wrong. They get back together. That is the fundamental story of the play.

There is a sub-plot about Benedick and Beatrice. But it is only a sub-plot. You could take both characters out and the play would still be complete. By which I mean it would have a beginning, a middle and an end, and make sense. Of course, any director who did cut them would be crazy, as they have all the best lines. But from a narrative point of view you could. The sub-plot doesn’t even feed into the main Claudio-Hero story.

There is Dogberry. From a narrative point of view he’s almost irrelevant. Two lines would suffice. “You’re under arrest” and “My Lord, this man traduced you daughter. He can explain how.” In fact, he doesn’t even need those two. You could do a performance where the watch simply leapt out and grabbed the baddies. Then later they could lead Borachio in in silence, point a sword at him and let him explain. You could cut all Dogberry’s lines. Of course, any director who did cut them would be crazy, they’re comedy gold. But from a narrative point of view Dogberry is a near-irrelevance.

Now, Shakespeare knew about plots and story-telling. Shakespeare knew that Hero and Claudio were the main story, but he got so interested in Beatrice and Benedick that he lost interest in his main characters. They get good lines. Hero and Claudio get passed over. You can even see this happening plotwise. The whole he-wooed-her-in-his-name-not-mine story is set up very carefully and then… just kind of forgotten about and tied up in a couple of lines of “No I didn’t. She’s yours.” Shakespeare had something more planned there. He just couldn’t be bothered to write it. He was having much too much fun with Beatrice and Benedick.

And then comes Dogberry. The second Dogberry appears two thirds of the way through the play, Beatrice and Benedick don’t get any more good lines. Shakespeare lost interest in them. Suddenly you get (wonderful) extended comic scenes of Dogberry’s foolishness.

Getting so interested in subplots and minor characters that you forget about your main plot and main characters is an artistic mistake. But that’s what Shakespeare did. He wrote for B&B and then for Dogberry and forgot about everything else. Indeed, I think he forgot to write the main scene of the play.

Remember the duel that Benedick and Claudio were going to fight? It doesn’t happen. It’s carefully set up. Right from the beginning. We establish that Benedick and Claudio are both soldiers. We establish that they’re best friends. Then the two friends fall in love with two girls. All is good until one of them falls out with his girl. The friends are now turned to enemies. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel. And…

In the climactic scene of the play they meet and fight the duel. Beatrice watches with heart in mouth. Hero watches secretly from a window. Benedick does well at first but then Claudio beats him, knocks away his sword and is about to kill his best friend. But he can’t do it.

Or maybe Beatrice shouts stop. Or a messenger runs in with the news about Borachio. I’m a bit sketchy here. Claudio is redeemed. The marriages are back on. And the Benedick-Beatrice plot actually gets connected to, and becomes a vital part of, the whole story. Either way, Claudio suffers and is redeemed and Benedick fights and is connected to the story.

There was even a duel in the source material. In Orlando Furioso Canto V, from which Shakespeare nabbed most of the plot, they pull out their swords and have a fight. I’m utterly convinced that that was where Shakespeare was going. Everything leads up to it. All the ground has been prepared. But then poor Will got so distracted writing great lines for Dogberry that he couldn’t be bothered anymore and decided to clear it all up with a song and a second wedding.

The result is a play that is great fun to watch because Dogberry and B&B have such good lines. But it’s an artistic mess and a structural failure.

I still love it, of course, and would thoroughly recommend Mr Whedon’s film*.

The Inky Fool still didn't tip the waiter.
Odd thing I discovered: Joss Whedon went to Winchester College. To be precise he was in Trants (boarding house). That's the same house as Lord Alfred Douglas, Oswald Mosely, Hugh Gaitskell, and me.

Wednesday 10 July 2013


Sometimes words fall into my lap, as it were. I was just reading this article on why testicles are on the outside, and came across the line:

How can a trait such as scrotality (to use the scientific term for possessing a scrotum), with all the obvious handicaps it confers, fit into this framework?

I'm never using either masculinity or manhood again.

I don't think I shall add a picture to this post. It'd be nuts.

Monday 8 July 2013

Not Tennis, Sphairistike

As much of today's conversation will be about tennis, my annual Wimbledon repost.

You should point out to anyone who'll listen that they were not playing tennis. They were playing sphairistike.

Tennis is an old French game named after the command Tenez or Hold that you would shout when you served the ball. It's played in an enclosed court and is nowadays usually referred to as Real Tennis.

The game that they are playing at Wimbledon was invented by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield* in 1873, and he named his new sport Sphairistike, which is Ancient Greek for ball skill (sphere-tech).

The only reason that it isn't called the Wimbledon Sphairistike Championship is that nobody had the faintest idea how to pronounce sphairistike, and so they quickly gave up and started referring to it as Lawn Tennis.

Sphairistike is easy to pronounce, though. It rhymes with sticky.

So go forth, dear reader, and every time somebody mentions the tennis, tut and shake your head.
No, of sphairistike.
*Londoners can see his blue plaque just round the corner from Pimlico Tube Station.

Friday 5 July 2013


Front CoverThe British press has been having much fun with the introduction of shitstorm into the German dictionary. In German it apparently has the rather precise meaning of uncontrollable public outrage.


What's even odder is that the Germans felt the need for it. They have scheiße and they have sturm and they have a remarkable habit of making compound nouns. Why import?

Anyway, I now look forward to a scheißesturm und drang novel, and when suffering from diarrhoea they could dash for a blitzscheiße, or lightning shit.

Monday 1 July 2013

Twairtling Idle Jacks

Last Thursday the lovely people at the Bookcase bookshop in Lowdham gave me a wonderful dictionary of Derbyshire slang called Ey Up Mi Duck. I have, of course, devoured like a dipso with a crate of Armagnac. It's filled with delights like scrawk (scratch frantically), scroddy (puny), and scrozzle (grope along).

But my two favourites were idle jacks and twairtle. Idle jacks are the little bits of loose skin around your finger nails: something that I've often had, but never before named. And to twairtle is to fiddle with something. This means that in Derbyshire it must be possible to twairtle with your idle jacks.

One curious thing about the book is that it talks of a "well-known ditty" that goes:

Ah'm a Derbyshire man born and bred,
Strong i'th'arm and wick in the head.

The book explains that wick here is a variant of quick. Now, I do know that ditty. I've heard it for years. But I've always heard it as:

Derbyshire born, Derbyshire bred,
Thick in the arm and thick in the head.

And that version I learnt in Derbyshire.