Thursday 28 November 2013

Eierlegende-wollmilchsau: The Perfect Animal

Just a brief post as I'm running round the country giving talks (Booka Books in Oswestry tonight). I met a German-speaking lady in Edinburgh who told me about the lovely compound word:


That's pronounced roughly I-er-lay-gend-er-vol-milk-sow, and it means egg-laying-wool-milk-pig. The idea of this fabulous animal is that it is perfect. It provides eggs, wool, milk and, finally, bacon. It is therefore the German term for a jack of all trades. Something, or someone, who can do absolutely everything.

There's even a Wikipedia page on this best of beasts, but it's in German.

And if that's not enough for you, you can have a look at my article in yesterday's New York Times.

Friday 22 November 2013

Britten, Auden and Advertisements

Today is Benjamin Britten's one-hundredth birthday, which is much more important than words. Mind you, Britten was a very poetical composer. I even have an anthology (did you know that anthology means bouquet of flowers in Greek?) purely of poems that Britten set to music.

When Britten was sixteen he was ill at school and therefore confined to the sickroom. He took with him a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse, that he had won as a school prize. They wouldn't allow him anything musical as that would only encourage him. So he ruled out staves on a sheet of blank paper and set a medieval poem to music.

In his diary he wrote "Write... "Hymn to the Virgin" & a set of variations (1/4 of it) for organ, which are rather rubbish - I rather like the hymn tho'."

They played it at his funeral.

Later on Britten got together with Auden and they wrote an advertising jingle together for the new-fangled telephone (the monopoly on which was owned by the Post Office). Here is what happens when two of the greatest geniuses of the C20th get into catchy advertising.

I love the rhyme of "Moscow" with "Phone kiosk-o".

Thursday 21 November 2013

Poetry Please

Icon Books are running a poetry competition, but one where you have to use elements from The Elements of Eloquence. It's all rather fun and explained here.

And here's me being interviewed by The Spectator.

That's all for today, I'm afraid.

Monday 18 November 2013


Telegraph is one of those etymological crossroads. The graph bit, from the Greek for writing, links you to an epi-graph (something written on), a photo-graph (something written by light), or graphic (something written, originally).

Tele takes you to telescope (seeing from afar), teleport (carrying afar), and telephone (speak from afar). Tele is Greek for distant, and some people, strange people, therefore get angry about teleporting and television because portering and vision are both Latin and therefore shouldn't be mongreled up with Greek.

According to these people a televangelist is fine, but a television is Just Awful. But a telegraph (written from afar) is just fine.

All of which is a long way round of saying read this review by Charles Moore in today's Telegraph of my brand new book.

P.S. I'm giving a talk at Brendon Books in Taunton tonight, and in Hungerford tomorrow. The remainder of my book peregrination looks like this:

Taunton Literary Festival on 18th of November
The Hungerford Bookshop on 19th of November
Barter Books in Alnwick on 25th of November
The Edinburgh Bookshop on 26th of November
Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye on the 27th of November
Booka Bookshop in Oswestry on 28th of November
Blackwells Oxford on 9th of December
Steyning Bookshop in West Sussex on 10th of December
Warwick Books on 11th of December
The Idler Academy in London on 12th of December

I've always imagined that this is what it's like in the offices of The Telegraph

Friday 15 November 2013

Etymology Maps

Just a link today to this excellent article in the Guardian. It takes common words and shows all their etymological relatives around Europe. Click upon the link and it'll all become clear.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Hungover in Hampstead

Well, that's been an odd week. I actually got up to number 4 on the Amazon bestseller list. This has involved ale passion (the old word for hangover). So, just a reminder to any Londoners that I'm doing a talk at West End Books in West Hampstead tonight at 7:30.

I think you need to contact them first. Just to give them an idea of numbers.

Monday 11 November 2013

Today's Today

I was on the Today Programme this morning talking about The Elements of Eloquence with Evan Davis and the lovely Camilla Long. You can listen to it by clicking upon this link.

Incidentally, the post title is an example of both polyptoton and epizeuxis, which are thoroughly explained in the book.

Thursday 7 November 2013

The Elements of Eloquence is Here

Go, litel book.

The Elements of Eloquence is officially released in Britain today. Would you like to read it? No? Oh. Well, if you change your mind, dear reader, there is a widget just to the right. Do you see it? The lovely green and gold cover. Click on that and you can read the first 34 pages for nothing. Then, if you think page 35 worth it, you can dash out the door and run whooping to the nearest bookshop and get yourself a copy of the real thing in all its hardbound glory.

Or, if the notion of running to the bookshop is too much for you, you can simply sit at your computer, sherry in one hand and mouse in the other, and order it from there people:

The Book Depository

Or, if you're a rugged traditionalist, you can confront me face to face, look me in the eye with one of your commanding stares, and tell me to give you a copy right now and sign it too. I'll probably capitulate, being a capitulatory sort of chap. The way to do this is to come along to one of these places:

West End Lane books in London on 14th of November
Taunton Literary Festival on 18th of November
The Hungerford Bookshop on 19th of November
Barter Books in Alnwick on 25th of November
The Edinburgh Bookshop on 26th of November
Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye on the 27th of November
Booka Bookshop in Oswestry on 28th of November
Blackwells Oxford on 9th of December
Steyning Bookshop in West Sussex on 10th of December
Warwick Books on 11th of December

Or you can just come to the launch party in London on the 12th. But to do that you have to enter a raffle. You do this using the widget below. I think. I'm new to all this, you understand. You give them your name and at midnight on Monday it's picked out of an electronic hat. Something like that anyway.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And finally, if you're still wondering what it's all about, here's a silly chap with a silly voice to explain.

Do you see the tankards on the window-sill? They're antique.

Oh, and there'll be an interview with me in The Sunday Times, this Sunday, I think.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Good, Best, Well

A while ago I wrote a little post about the verb go and its past participle wentI go. I went. I have gone. It looks like a highly irregular verb, but it's not. It's two different verbs - wend and go - that have been forced together. There's an even more complex and more common example.

There used to be a word boot. It meant profit, use, advantage. It could be a verb:

What boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely, slighted shepherd's trade?

Or it could be an adjective:

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries...

It's not that Shakespeare's cries lacked footwear, it's just that they were profitless, useless and brought no advantage.

Anyway, the comparative of boot the adjective was bettra (more advantageous) and the superlative was betst (most advantageous/useful etc). Do you see where this is going?

Meanwhile, there was the Old English word gōd (which had nothing to do with the word god). It meant... well it meant good. And now we spell it good. It meant virtuous or valid or desirable.

Meanwhile, there was another Old English word: will. It meant to desire or want. When things turned out as you had willed them, they turned out well.

So now English has a thoroughly weird looking adjective: good, better, best; with the adverb well. We call it irregular, but in a way it's not. It's just three different words that all meant roughly the same thing. Some day, a thousand years from now it may be cool, finer, ok. And people may say to themselves 'That's strange. I wonder how it goed from one to the other."

In other news, I shall be giving a talk in Abingdon tomorrow. More information here. If you're around, do come along. And, did I mention that The Elements of Eloquence will be in the shops on Thursday?

Nearly here.

Friday 1 November 2013

Trailers First

When people put the cart before the horse, that's preposterous, or, more precisely pre-post-erous. It's upside down and vice versa and, peculiarly, head over heels (which is a strange re-ordering of the original heels over head).

But why do movie trailers not trail after the film? Why do they trail first?

Well, this article seems to have the answer. They used to come after the film. It's the old trick of the series. At the end of one episode you have a trailer for the next one. Here is the cliffhanger, and here the promise of resolution. Here's a description of how it worked in 1912:

One of the concessions hung up a white sheet and showed the serial "The Adventures of Kathlyn." At the end of the reel Kathlyn was thrown in the lion's den. After this "trailed" a piece of film asking Does she escape the lion's pit? See next week's thrilling chapter! Hence, the word "trailer," an advertisement for a coming picture.

But before and after became blurred. Cinemas would show a film, then the trailers, then another film, then the trailers, then another film. So whether you considered them to be before or after simply depended on when you happened to wander into the cinema.