Wednesday 25 December 2013

Hrodulf the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Courtesy of Etymonline, here is splendid little Christmas present: Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer translated into Anglo-Saxon. It appears to be by a chap called Philip Chapman-Bell. Even if you don't understand Old English, you ought to be able to make it out vaguely be looking at the translation. The odd-looking letters are both pronounced TH.

Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor --
Næfde þæt nieten unsciende næsðyrlas!
Glitenode and gladode godlice nosgrisele.

[Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer --
That beast didn't have unshiny nostrils!
The goodly nose-cartilage glittered and glowed.]

 Ða hofberendas mid huscwordum hine gehefigodon;
Nolden þa geneatas Hrodulf næftig
To gomene hraniscum geador ætsomne.

[The hoof-bearers taunted him with proud words;
The comrades wouldn't allow wretched Hrodulf
To join the reindeer games.]

 Þa in Cristesmæsseæfne stormigum clommum,
Halga Claus þæt gemunde to him maðelode:
"Neahfreond nihteage nosubeorhtende!
Min hroden hrædwæn gelæd ðu, Hrodulf!"

[Then, on Christmas Eve bound in storms
Santa Claus remembered that, spoke formally to him:
"Dear night-sighted friend, nose-bright one!
You, Hrodulf, shall lead my adorned rapid-wagon!"]

 Ða gelufodon hira laddeor þa lyftflogan --
Wæs glædnes and gliwdream; hornede sum gegieddode
"Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor,
Brad springð þin blæd: breme eart þu!"

[Then the sky-flyers praised their lead-deer --
There was gladness and music; one of the horned ones sang
"Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer,
Your fame spreads broadly, you are renowned!"]

Merry Christmas.

Friday 20 December 2013

Christmas Words

Christmas is coming, obesity is endemic in the goose population, The Elements of Eloquence is on a special deal on Amazon Kindle, and here's me talking about some Christmas words.

Thursday 19 December 2013


I shall, weather etc permitting, be doing an online interview on Reddit this afternoon from four until seven British time, which is 11am-2pm New York time and so on and so forth. The idea is that you, dearest reader, can ask questions. Whether I can answer is another matter entirely.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

The Christmas Beetle

Whilst we all revel in our wintery wonderland, ice-skating, lighting log fires, and catching pneumonia, spare a thought for the poor Australians who suffer Christmas under a merciless sun. Their Christmas is spent overrun by  flying Christmas beetles which swarm between their dangling corks.

The fun verbal aspect of this, is that we have Christmas beetles in the Northern Hemisphere too, or as close as dammit. We don't call them Christmas beetles. The British version is called a May bug, and the American version is called a June bug.

They're all approximately the same thing (and remember I'm an etymologist, not an entomologist), and the names are essentially the same, it is merely the hemisphere and climate that vary.

The May bug is also known as the May beetle, May chafer, billy witch, spang beetle, furze owl, humbuzz, cockchafer and lamellicorn.

So bad are the Christmas beetles this year that the Australians have become quite maddened and started reporting cricket scores that are wildly improbable and obviously the results of sun-struck fantasy and delusion.

They should be pitied.

When they should have been keeping score

Monday 16 December 2013

Christmas Drinking

As the season of office Christmas parties is upon us, it's probably time to pull out this old roasted chestnut, a video of me explaining where the names of drinks come from.

Merry Christmas.

And all the drinks were real.

Monday 9 December 2013


Last night I went to see the pantomime at the Hackney Empire: a tragic and moving story of a puss and his boots. But I couldn't help wondering (when I wasn't warning of the dangers behind the hero) where pantomime came from.

Once upon a time, in Ancient Greece, it was observed that actors were mimics (mimos) of everything (pan, as in a panacea or cure-all). Thus an actor was a pantomimos. This was taken into Latin as pantomimus. Some sense of the original meaning survived, as you can see from these lines from 1615:

In time
No question but he'll prove true Pantomime,
To imitate all forms, shapes, habits, 'tires
Suiting the Court.

There seems to have been a sense that the pantomime actor mimicked things in clumsy gestures. Anyway, the pantomime then became a kind of play, usually rather sneered at. And in the C19th became the Christmas thingyummyjig we British know and love.

Now turn around from your computer screen.

It's behind you.

I'm giving a talk in Blackwells in Oxford tonight at seven, if any one wants to come along. Tomorrow is Steyning and Wednesday is historic, thelyphthoric Warwick.

Thursday 5 December 2013


I'll be signing at Waterstones Piccadilly in London tonight from 6:30.

My apologies. I've been bouncing around like a pinball and neglecting to blog. In case you've been wondering what I'm up to here's me on Channel 4 on Sunday (at about the half hour mark). And here's me interviewed by Natalie Laurence. And I'll be on Monocle Radio at noon on Sunday. And on the Graeme Hill show in New Zealand. And on Final Draft on 2SR in Australia. And radio Scotland this morning. And...

I'm terribly tired, you know.

But I shall get back to blogging.

Monday 2 December 2013


I was given a copy of Picturesque Word Origins by the lovely people at Barter Books. One of the many etymologies I'd never noticed before is that of neighbour. It comes from neah-gebur, which means, essentially, nearby farmer. Neah as in modern English nigh or near, and gebur, which was Old English for farmer, or dweller. In its Dutch form, that's the origin of the Boers - the farmers in South Africa - and also of boor and boorish, which is the way that peasants behave.