Monday 30 September 2013

Bonny and Buxom

Just a repost today, as I went to a wedding at the weekend, and am still deep in finishing The Book.

In Medieval wedding services the wife would promise the following:

I take thee, John, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and health, to be bonny and buxom, in bed and at board, till death do us part, and thereto I plight thee my troth.

Now, this seems to our modern eyes to be a strange sort of promise. How could a wife guarantee that she would be buxom? Were thin women unable to marry in church? However, the word buxom has changed in meaning over the years. The first citation of buxom in the OED comes from the twelfth century and is defined as: Obedient; pliant; compliant, tractable. The sense then changed to happy, then to healthy, and thence to plump.

Meanwhile bonny comes from the French bon and the Latin bonus, both of which mean good. So a bonny and buxom wife was a good and obedient one, which is why it was eventually replaced by loving, honouring and obeying. There's even a sixteenth century reference to being "bonnaire and buxome to the Pope".

Anyway, this form of the service is still occasionally used. There's a story about it here.


Monday 23 September 2013

Sluts, Slags and Pantaloni

It seems that semantic shifts are now headline news. For those of you not in the UK, politics now rests upon the shifting usage of the word "slut". This is because a politician by the name of Godfrey Bloom decided to call some ladies "sluts". He was then rather astonished when the press picked up on this and even went so far as to ask my poor dear sister-in-law (who's a journalist) "Hasn't your mother ever called you a slut?"

His explanation for all this is that he was using slut to mean untidy woman as opposed to lascivious woman, and that this was the True Meaning. As his press secretary put it, journalists "don't understand the difference between 'slut' and 'slag'. That's a lack of grammar school education."

Before we go any further, we should get some facts straight:

1) Slut did once mean untidy woman. That's the first recorded meaning back in 1402. In fact, I've even written about the old meaning before.

2) Slut is first recorded as lascivious woman in 1450. This does not count as a peculiarly modern usage, even by my standards.

3) Both usages were still going strong in the C19th.

4) The OED has no citations of slut in either sense later than 1894, which is jolly unhelpful, but see below.

5) There is no recorded usage of the word slag as lascivious lady until 1958.

I shan't make any jokes about the perils of a grammar school education, although it is rather tempting.

Now, as I understand it (and I rarely understand anything in the news), Mr Bloom is saying that back when he was a lad slut meant untidy woman almost exclusively. That you could happily go up to a strange lady and call her a slut and no sexual inference would be taken. Her husband, if he were standing by, would say something like "Well you don't dust nearly as much as you could". Or something like that.

This is checkable. Mr Bloom was born in November 1949. Assuming usual child development he wouldn't have started talking until the 1950s. So I scuttled off to Google Book search, where you can search to see how a particular word was used in any given year.

So I searched for slut in 1953, 63, 73, 83, 93 and 2003, miserably aware of what it would do to my Google Suggested Pages*. Then I went through the first few pages of search results for each year, noting down any usage whose meaning was clear. I ignored, of course, reprints, historical novels et cetera. This isn't exhaustive, but it gives a good representative sample.

Every single damned one was sexual.

Here are some samples:

"what do I care for the fornications of a slut?"

"But that wasn't enough punishment for that lewd slut ! I am sure she bedded with Tong, even after that fool of a Kou had made her his second lady."

"Your mother's not a slut? That truck comes at night to honk the horn, eh? Not a whore?"
"the boys around here say l'm a slut, but l'm not — I'm really a virgin."

 There is something other than a difference in the cognitive content between the word pairs: slut and daughter of joy

She would have intercourse with men in a rather indiscriminate way and then would hate herself for this, saying that she was just a "slut" and "should be dead."

And so on and so forth. The one and only exception I found was in 1993, in a book called Good Girls Don't Wear Trousers.

Before I go any further, let me tell you the local definition of a slut; it isn't a woman who sells her body to a rich, demanding man. Here, a slut is any woman who doesn't dress of behave in the way that is considered proper. Not that women like this are, by definition, promiscuous - in fact they hardly ever have a chance.

I thought, when I found that, that I had exonerated Mr Bloom, and could write a reassuring letter to my sister-in-law. But, Alas! It's not in English. Good Girls Don't Wear Trousers is the English translation of Volevo I Pantaloni, and the village slut is... well I can't be bothered to buy the original book and find out... it's something in Italian. There may have been untidy sluts in the last sixty years, but I didn't find them.

So... well... I 'm afraid that Mr Bloom must have been brought up in a rather eccentric home, if he was brought up at all. He must also have lived an almost monastic life of solitude and retreat from the world, as if you do go around cheerily using the word slut to all and sundry, you tend to get your face punched in.

It's rather like... actually, that's a fantastic idea. I'm going to buy a newspaper and then print a massive front page headline:


And then underneath, the small-print article will say.

David Cameron is feeling carefree. A Downing Street spokesman confirmed last night that the Prime Minister was filled with joie de vivre and bonhomie...

There is, though, an old word for an untidy room - a sluttery. The OED has one citation from 1841.

A pre-1958 slag

*I was once researching some local history. I found an old map on which the King's Cross Road was marked as "Black Mary's Hole". Curious, I decided to Google it. I actually crossed myself before clicking Search. As it turned out, the very first search result was an article about the history of the Kings Cross Road.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

The Inky Fool Also Rises

My apologies for the aposiopesis. An aposiopesis is a breaking off in mid...

I'm afraid I've been terribly busy finishing off my new book, which I've completed in a furious shturmovshchina. It's all about the flowers of rhetoric and should be out in November.

Anyway, I'm exhausted so I shall merely post a link to this article on authors and their favourite words. I'd never noticed quite how much Shakespeare used the word sweet.

A little point that I'd to add the article is that writers also have words that they absolutely hate. Shakespeare hated the word also. He did use it, but only 36 times in his complete works. That's less than once per play. To give a little comparison, Francis Bacon would sometimes use the word that many times in a single essay. Also, Shakespeare usually puts also in the mouths of low and foolish characters: five of those alsos are said by Fluellen, in Henry V, four by Falstaff, three by Sir Hugh Evans, and two by Dogberry also.

I don't have any idea why Shakespeare didn't like also. But if the hatred was good enough for him, it's good enough for me. Or, as the Katherine of Valois puts it in her mangled English in Henry V:

Den it sall also content me.

Also, I've just checked in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. It's a big, thick dictionary with over 17,000 famous lines. It also has an index at the back so you can look them up by word. Only two quotations contain the word also. That's a pretty astonishing result. Shakespeare must have been on to something.

Update: It's occurred to me that they also serve who only stand and wait [tables]. For some reason that's not listed in the ODQ's index. Hmm.

Well he shouldn't have done.

Friday 6 September 2013

The Owl Jacket

Back when I was writing The Horologicon, there was one word that I desperately wanted to include. But I couldn't because I didn't remember what it was. I could only remember what it meant.

Years ago, I was chatting to an Italian lady and she told me a strange story of Italy. She told me that sometimes, when Italian men bought a suit, they would buy two jackets. One of these jackets was for wearing as you stroll around town drinking delicious espressos and wooing beautiful women and generally being Italian. Meanwhile the other jacket was hanging over the back of your chair at work, so that it looked as though you were in the office.

I loved this tale. I adored the idea of putting such thought into shirking. I dreamed of doing the same sort of thing in rainy London. But what I loved most of all was that there was a particular word for that jacket. There was a word meaning the-jacket-left-hanging-over-the-back-of-your-chair-in-the-office-while-you're-gallivanting-around-town.

That's a good word.

That's a word that I wanted to include in The Horologicon. There's a whole chapter of that book devoted to sneaking out of the office and that word was going to be the centrepiece.

But I couldn't remember what it was.

I went mad. I racked my brain until I could rack no more. I e-mailed every Italian I knew and asked them about it. Every single one of them had heard of the practice of leaving-a-jacket-hanging-over-the-back-of-your-chair-in-the-office-while-you're-gallivanting-around-town. But they all said they'd never heard of a word for it. It was just a thing you did.

And in the end - miserable and humiliated - I was forced to give up.

And then, a couple of days ago, a year after The Horologicon went off to the printers, I got an e-mail from the Inky Fool's correspondent in Rome.

Dear Mark,
Yesterday I was watching a very old fun&depressing-at-the-same-time Italian film and the protagonist suddenly mentioned that jacket you had asked me about a year ago. The famous jacket the Italians leave on the chair in order to pretend to be working while they are out of the office doing all sorts of things. And the name of that jacket is lovely, in my opinion. It is "Giacca civetta" which means "Owl jacket" I believe that generally "civetta" in Italian means, amongst other things, something which can attract and deceive too. But you are the expert of this kind of things, I am only trying to guess. So, after one year, here is your answer.

I don't think I really am an expert on the subtle symbolism of Italian birds, and my correspondent is a native of that fair peninsula, so she should know. However, I will add that it works beautifully in English because owls perch silently in corners. So the jacket perched on your chair is - I pronounce this ex cathedra linguae Anglorum - the Owl Jacket.

I don't know how effective this is if you work at home.

Monday 2 September 2013

Kubla Khan

Coleridge always claimed that Kubla Khan came to him as a dream-vision, and that he never put any conscious thought into it. He also claimed that there was a lot more of it in the dream, but that he was interrupted halfway through writing it by a businessman from Porlock, and that as a result it was unfinished. This is clearly a bunch of nonsense. For a start, the ending is definitely an ending. And secondly the poem contains so many intricate details that the idea that anybody dreams like that is, frankly, preposterous. Fifty-four lines of  perfect rhymes would be astonishing by anybody's standards.

But what I happened to notice today was the alliteration. It's all over the poem, of course, "A mighty fountain momently was forced" and "Five miles meandering with a mazy motion". But I noticed that, usually, it's concentrated on the last two words of the line. Take the opening:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-Dome Decree:
Where Alph, the sacred River, Ran
Through caverns Measureless to Man
Down to a Sunless Sea.

It's regular enough that it's almost part of the verse form: the iambic tetrameter with alliterative ending. Then it disappears for the next twenty lines before starting again in the second half of the poem. In total 15 of the 54 lines end alliteratively. This can't be coincidence. A quick look at Recantation, which is the next poem in my edition of Coleridge, doesn't have a single one in the first thirty lines.

To work thus did the Khan commute.