Friday 30 August 2013

True American

I've always like The Atlas of True Names, which produces etymological maps, each place marked with the original meaning of the name. I have the British Isles blu-tacked to the wall above my lavatory, so I can relive history as I relieve myself.

Anyway, they've just released their map of the United States. Here is the link. And here is a link to a BBC article on it, although I'm not sure about their version of Yucatan.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Majorcan Pluck

I've just got back from Majorca, where, as I don't speak Spanish, I spent much time attempting to read menus by guessing the etymological roots. This is a dangerous way to order your meal, although scorpion fish turns out to be delicious.

Some restaurants, of course, had menus in English for linguistically incapable people like me. But these can be just as mysterious. The Es Turo restaurant had a starter which was called, in English, Marjorcan Pluck.

This puzzled me for a while. Was it Majorcan bravery that I would get? Or left over chicken feathers? So I ordered it on the basis that daring is the better part of gastronomy. When it arrived I suddenly realised that English etymology would have told me what it was. I really had got a plate of Marjorcan bravery, or, more precisely, Marjorcan guts.

Pluck is an old term for the innards, which are plucked out of an animal when it's butchered. Some brave people have heart, some have balls, but most have guts, or to use a synonym pluck. Thus people who are brave are gutsy, or plucky.

So next time you read of a plucky hero, remember he's delicious.

It was offally good.

The Inky Fool knows how to deal with waiters

Monday 26 August 2013

St Lubbock's Day

Just a very quick link to The Virtual Linguist who informs us that today (a Bank Holiday in England) is St Lubbock's Day. So known because the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 was pushed through by the Liberal Politician Sir John Lubbock.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

This Is Getting Silly

It appears that what I consider an annoying Monday afternoon, a frustrating hour that can be forgotten after a good sherry, is now international news. French, Germans, Czechs and Turks, have thrown away their wines, steins, dumplings and delight, and are now concerned only with der Buchautor Mark Forsyth and his whinges.

For the record (if there is such a thing), I do not believe that the British Library is involved in a vast conspiracy to cover up goings on at the top of the Danish government. I simply thought that it was as amusing as it was annoying. It certainly shows the silliness of web-filtering, but, to be honest, I was more motivated by the constant failures of the British Library wifi, which have been driving all who work there to distraction for a couple of years, and of which this seemed a particularly preposterous example.

So I shall do nothing more etymological today than to mention that, according to the OED, the silly season was first recorded in 1861. And then I shall run away to my secret island hideaway. There I shall live a life of anonymity, and, I suspect, isolation from the Internet. I shall return to blogging on around the 24th.

Monday 12 August 2013


I've just come back from the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I had a lovely Scottish time drinking whisky and balancing books on my head. If you like, you can hear me on the Guardian Books Podcast chatting to the lovely Claire Armitstead. Yet what intrigued me most was a lady at the book signing who told me about the word flype.

Flype, she said, was a Scots word meaning to roll back a sock or stocking prior to putting it on one's foot.

Well, I have to say, that I didn't quite know whether to believe her. It sounded too good to be true, and I was away from my dictionaries. So the first thing I did upon hurtling back down to London was to look it up. And yes: flype (or flipe) means just that.

Merriam Webster has this:

chiefly Scot : to strip off by or as if by peeling
chiefly Scot : to turn or fold back (as a stocking)
The OED, though, shows that, though flyping is now chiefly Scots, its earliest citations are English. We fools south of the border threw away a jewel.
You've no idea how elated I felt.

Friday 9 August 2013

Don't Feed the Troll Fishers

I've been reading Netymology by Tom Chatfield. It's all about the etymology of computer terms. Thus I have discovered that trolls do not come from Scandinavia and lurk under bridges. They come from almost everywhere else. Sort of.

The verb troller first appears in Medieval French. It meant going out hunting without having any specific animal in mind. Imagine, if you will, a medieval Frenchman wandering through a wood with a bow and arrow and shooting any animal he felt like.

That verb came straight into English as to troll. So Piers Plowman has:

And þus hath he trolled forth þis two & thretty winter.

And Bryan Ferry has:

Aggravated. Spare for days.
I troll down-town, the red light place

In fact, the OED specifically mentions that troll became gay slang for cruising. But trolling also kept its non-metaphorical hunting sense with troll fishing. This is when you just attach a baited line to the back of your boat and sail around in the vague hope that something will bite.

This is one of those classic cases where the word could have come from trolling, and could have come from trailing, and probably came from both. It's just so convenient that the words sound alike.

So whether a trollnet was really a trawl net or a troll net is hard to say:

No Person..withe any..Crele, Rawe, Fagnett, Trollnett..shall take..Spawne or Frye of Eeles, Salmon, Pyke or Pyckerell. (1558)

But it does seem to be that sense of throwing out bait and seeing who'll take it that gave us the original Internet trolls.

Ask anybody techie and they'll insist that a troll is somebody who posts deliberately provocative comments in an online forum, not because they believe them, but because they want to see who'll get angry, who'll bite. This was the original meaning back in the early nineties. Thus the Toronto Star reported in 1995 that:

Posts that are designed to encourage angry responses are called ‘trolls’ because the purpose is to fish for flames.

But, of course, far fewer people have heard of troll fishing, or indeed of aimless Frenchmen, that have heard of the nasty Scandinavian creatures that hide under bridges. People soon forgot the original precise meaning of trailing a bait, and that is why, under the influence of the Scandy creature, we now use troll to mean anybody on the Internet who's nasty.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Hamlet is Banned

File:Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix 018.jpg
Because of all the attention this post is getting, I ought to point out that I was not intending to disclose some outrageous Orwellian conspiracy, merely incompetence and inertia. I wrote the post because of 1) The amusing absurdity of the greatest work of British literature being blocked by the British Library. 2) The evident silliness of filtering systems, particularly one that blocks but not facebook. 3) The frustration of dealing with institutions that disown their own Internet provider. 4) The miserable truth that over the last couple of years the failures of the BL's wifi - whether broken, slow or filtered - has forced researchers to choose, reluctantly, between books and the Internet.

On Monday, I was sitting in the British Library frantically trying to write my new book in a shturmovshchina. I had to quickly check a particular line in Hamlet, so I Googled Hamlet MIT, because the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put the entire works of Shakespeare up on the Internet. (It takes 70 mins to order a physical book). I clicked on the link and...

A message came up from the British Library telling me that access to site was blocked due to "violent content".

Now, Hamlet is a violent play. I see that. When the curtain comes down there's a lot of bodies on the boards. But...


I tried it again. It told me that my attempts to access this violent content were being logged.

I took my computer over to the information desk, and after I had explained to them what MIT stood for (really), they called the IT department and told them about the webpage that I had been blocked from.

They had to spell out Shakespeare letter by letter. Really. Ess. Aitch. Ay. Kay...

I asked them if they were surprised that Hamlet was now banned in the British Library. They shrugged. I asked them how it was that I could still access youtube, facebook and twitter. I asked why the girl at the next desk to me had been able to spend the last half hour on Guardian Soulmates, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's website was banned. They shrugged.

I asked if they saw the problem, perhaps just the symbolism, of Hamlet being banned in the British Library. They shrugged.

The IT department said there was nothing to be done, as it was only the British Library's wifi service that was blocking Hamlet, and the British Library's wifi service, they seemed sure, had nothing to do with the British Library. They were merely ships that passed in the night. Children crying to each other from either bank of an uncrossable river.

'But,' I said. It's one of those points where you just want somebody to understand the central point. 'The British Library has banned Hamlet for being too violent.'

And the lady behind the desk nodded and smiled.

It's one of those points where I don't know whether they're insane, or if it's me. Maybe Hamlet should be banned. I wrote an angry e-mail, and this morning I got one back saying they're looking into it. But maybe I should give all this up and get a job as a lighthouse keeper. But I fear I'd still have those dreams, those dreams about that man with poison sword and the people fighting in the grave and the venom being poured down my throat. O God! God!

UPDATE: The British Library has just tweeted to say that Hamlet is now unbanned.

Ess Aitch Ay Kay Eee Ess Pee Eee Ay Ar Eee

This content has been blocked because it does not comply with the acceptable usage policy.

The request was logged.

Education and Reference [BETA], Web Content, News, Safe Content Filetypes, Violence, Web Content
Registered Users
Content of type Violence blocked: Content filtering

Monday 5 August 2013

Magazines and Time and Time Magazine

I'm feeling all uppity today, thanks to Time Magazine's lists of the 25 bloggers of 2013, which for some reason contains me. As a result, it seems appropriate to explain why magazines are called magazines, or more specifically, why they are named after part of a rifle.

I turned on the television the other day and in that split second between the sound coming on and the screen warming up I heard a male voice say with the utmost despair "The magazine! It's empty!"

Now I know a chap who works in the magazine business which probably messed with my mind on the subject, but my immediate understanding of the line was that too many journalists had missed their deadlines and that they weren't going to put the issue to bed (lovely phrase) in time for the printers. The voice sounded approximately as panicked as my acquaintance would be in these circumstances.  

Then the screen warmed up and I saw an actor inspecting his gun.

So what was the connection? Once upon a time there was an Arabic word khazana meaning to store up. From that they got makhzan meaning storehouse and its plural makhazin. That word sailed northward across the Mediterranean (the middle of the earth) and became the Italian magazzino, which then proceeded by foot to France and magasin, before jumping into the back of a lorry and getting into Britain as magazine, still retaining its original meaning of storehouse, usually military. Then along came Edward Cave.

Edward Cave wanted to print something periodically that would contain stuff on any subject that might be of interest to the educated of London, whether it be politics or gardening or the price of corn. He cast around for a name for his new idea and decided to call it the Gentleman's Magazine: or, Trader's monthly intelligencer. So far as anyone can tell (and in the absence of a seance we can only guess at Mr Cave's thought process) he wanted to imply that this the information in his publication would arm the gentleman intellectually, or perhaps he wanted to imply that it was a storehouse of information. Anyway, he dropped the monthly intelligencer bit and by 1759 he was publishing this:

Cave's arms depot of information was a great success, not least because he employed a young and penniless chap called Samuel Johnson. But if, dear reader, Cave had decided instead to drop the magazine bit instead, we might all now be buying intelligencers. Thus Cave's caprice altered English. Porn mags might have been called carnal intelligencers and that, I am sure, would make the world a Better Place. And my acquaintance wouldn't be working for part of a gun.

Friday 2 August 2013

Bob Dylan and Slutbags

Just a couple of links today. One to the stifling world of right-on political correctness that is Liverpool FC, and the other to the foul-mouthed world of twats and slutbags that is the US Democrat Party. The only connection is that within the space of an hour I was asked to comment on both stories. Something is awry.

The only thing I could think of to say about slutbag was slightly tangential and pretty damned yucky and not quoted in the article. It's the word scumbag, which is thrown around as though it's not at all obscene. People seem to have forgotten rather quickly that scum is semen and a scumbag is a condom.

On that basis a slutbag should really be a femidom, although I'm not sure that's true. A douchebag, incidentally, is the bag used to collect the fluids in a douche, or vaginal rinse.