Wednesday 31 December 2014

The Words of 1914

As 2014 puts on his hat and overcoat and prepares to trudge off down the foggy lane to Lethe, it is usual for a blog like this to list its Words of 2014. There's usually something technological and a couple of portmanteaus that will never survive: Bralking! It's breathing and walking at the same time! Trampomeerschauming! It's bouncing on a trampoline whilst smoking a pipe! The problem with such lists is exactly the same as the Problem of Autobiography.

Pretty much every autobiography I've ever read goes really flat towards the end. And there's a good reason for this: the author doesn't know where the narrative is going any more. He doesn't know how it ends. Or, to put it another way, every autobiography should end like this:

And that, dear reader, is how I came to be sitting at this desk writing the words The End.

The early chapters, the childhood section is easy, because, after all these years, we know what's important. So we know what to describe. The first time Eric Clapton picked up a guitar was a Big Moment. The first time Gordon Ramsay picked up a guitar was not a big moment. He put it down again and moved on. But the first time Eric Clapton cooked an omelette was Not Important.

They, Eric and Gordon, know that now, but they didn't necessarily know it then. It is only What Happens Next that makes things important. And that's why autobiographies collapse in the last chapter. Because the writer doesn't know how he will die.

It's also a sobering thought to think that yesterday might have been the most important day of your life, you just don't know it yet.

All of which is a very long way round of recommending this article on all the new words that were first recorded in 1914. Blurb, Chunnel, air-raid, nit-wit, backpack, sociopath, postmodern. That's about as up-to-date as I like to be.

Mind you, the word debag hasn't actually fallen out of use. Or at least it hadn't at my school.

And that, dear reader, is how I came to write the words The

Monday 29 December 2014

Some Words of the Roaring Twenties

Just a link today to this list of slang terms of the 1920s. I rather liked the exclamation "Banana oil" to mean "that's doubtful". We seem to have so many terms for "definitely" and "definitely not" that we needed something in-betweenish beyond Hmmm.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

The Box Set

Just to say, that for any of you still struggling with what to buy for Christmas, there is a box set of The Etymologicon, The Horologicon and The Elements of Eloquence in hardback. It's called the Ternion Set, not because it turns you on (though it may), but because ternion is an old word for a set of three.

You may obtain it from all good bookshops (and, no doubt, some sinful ones). You may also order it online from:



The Book Depository


Thursday 11 December 2014

The Servant

cover_131214_issueI am, occasionally, accused of making everything I write up as I go along. Usually I weep; but I am now in the happy position of being able to confirm that it's absolutely true.

The Christmas Edition of The Spectator (out today), contains a short story called The Servant, by I. And it's fiction. It's a tragical-comical-pastoral rip-roarer about a man and his bottom.

You, dear reader, can read it in one of three ways:

1) You can sprint to the newsagent and buy a copy of The Spectator (the big Christmas one with Father Christmas on the cover). It's on pages 64-67. The rest of the magazine's rather good as well.

2) You can go on over to The Spectator's website but there's some sort of paywall.

3) The Servant will be available on Amazon as a Kindle Single in a month's time and I shall add a link here when it's up for pre-order.

I suppose there may be other ways involving theft or telescopes, but those are the conventional three. The story, since you ask, was inspired by an old Czech folktale (although it ended up very different).

Fiction! Glorious fiction! With no fact-checking. No having go over every sentence up in the British Library. The joy, the guilty joy, of making it all up as you go along.

This is relevant.

Monday 8 December 2014

Et In Amusement Arcades Ego

Note the arches
I'm terribly distressed to find that the above pun doesn't quite work. Arcadia - the Greek realm of shepherds and nymphs and rural loveliness - is, perhaps, named after Arkas, son of Zeus, who was allegedly its first king.

Shopping arcades and amusement arcades are from the Italian word for arch: arcata. The idea is that an avenue covered with arcati* is therefore an arcade. Hence the Burlington Arcade, amusement arcades and arcade games.

The reason I was wondering about this at all was that I was reading More Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith (which is unutterably beautiful). In it, he talks of how, when he's out in the countryside he doesn't feel all free and liberated and back-to-nature, as a Romantic Poet should. Instead he longs for the city.

I am incongruously beset by longings of which the Lake Poets never sang. Echoes and images of the abandoned city discompose my arcadizings; I hear, I the babbling of brooks, the atrocious sound of London gossip, and newsboys' voices in the cries of birds.

Aracadizings (meaning, I suppose, wanderings in Arcadia) is a beautiful word nonetheless. I intend to use it when I scamper off to the Lake District for Christmas. And I suppose it could as usefully be used to describe shopping off Piccadilly. It is not, though, in the OED, which does have the verb to arcade but that only means to furnish with, or form into, an arcade, something that I have no intention of doing.

Incidentally, Smith's book is the origin of the modern meaning of trivia, but I shall explain that some other time.

The Inky Fool was always writing on tombs

*I'm guessing this is the plural.

Wednesday 26 November 2014


I was reading the excellent Twelve Curious Deaths in France by John Goldsmith, when I found that one of the characters was described as having:

…what I always thought was an excessive veneration of The Blessed Virgin, at time almost amounting to Collyridianism.

You see, Collyridianism is one of my favourite words, but it’s very hard to drop it into conversation. Unless the conversation happens to be about the heretical belief that the Virgin Mary is herself a goddess, which the conversation very rarely is.

Partially, I like it because of it sounds a bit like collywobbles and a bit like Collyweston (an old word for nonsense). But it’s related to neither of them. Etymologically, comes from the Greek kollurida, which meant little cakes. This is because the original Collyridians would bake little cakes and sacrifice them to Mary. Actually, that’s another reason I like the word. I like the fact that there’s a heresy named after cake.

Anyway, I thoroughly recommend Twelve Curious Deaths in France, if you like mysterious, funny short stories.


Friday 14 November 2014

Rhetorical Advertising

Just a link today to this article that I wrote for the New York Times on the rhetoric of advertising slogans.

Be all you can be.
To be or not to be.
Et c.
Et c.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Collins Dictionary and Me

Collins English DictionaryThe 12th edition of the Collins English Dictionary is published today, and I'm terribly proud to say that I wrote the introduction. It's beautiful and sleek and black, and it's the largest single-volume English dictionary there is. It's got 50,000 new entries in this edition, something they've managed by clever expedient of making the paper thinner.

So now you can look up the word slumbersome (meaning sleepy), or dreamwhile (the duration of a dream), or eyesome (meaning beautiful), or twerk.

You can read a BBC article all about it by following this link. And as they've included the opening of the introduction, I think I shall as well:

There are few pastimes in life as pleasurable and profitable as reading the dictionary. The plot is, of course, rather weak, and the moral of the whole thing slightly elusive; but for my money there isn't another book that comes close to it. In any case, all other books are simply rearrangements of this one, and partial rearrangements at that.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Katy Perry, Shakespeare, and the Bible

Just a link today to this article that I wrote for the Huffington Post. It's about progressio and diacope and the Beatles and other such fun stuff. It is, of course, a further reminder that The Elements of Eloquence is now out in the U.S. of A.

Also, on Thursday I'm going to be in Oxford, at Blackwells on a panel discussing whether bookshops will exist one hundred years from now. Do come along if you're in Oxford.
Charles Dickens writing Tale of Two Cities

Friday 10 October 2014

Eloquent Americans Elements of Eloquence is out in the USA. The greatest thing about the United States of America is that anybody can grow up to be president, so long as they can use chiasmus.

What is chiasmus, I hear you ask? Well, let's ask the presidents.

You stood up for America, now America must stand up for you.
         - Barack Obama (44th President) addressing U.S. veterans.

Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
         - George Bush the Younger (43rd President)

People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example that by the example of our power.
         - William Clinton (42nd President)

The difference between them and us is that we want to check government spending and they want to spend government checks.
         - Ronald Reagan (40th President)

America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.
          - Jimmy Carter (39th President)

And so on and so forth. Ask not what Your President can do for chiasmus, but what chiasmus can do for your President. Even if you're just a presidential hopeful, you need to have a chiasmus up your sleeve just to apply. Mitt Romney said "Freedom require religion, just as religion requires freedom." Hilary Clinton said "In the end, the true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it's whether the president delivers on the speeches." Sarah Palin opined that "In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change." And Mae West said "It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men."

That's what chiasmus is; and that sort of thing is what The Elements of Eloquence is all about. Chiasmus is one of the figures of rhetoric, and The Elements of Eloquence goes through the figures showing what they are, how they work, and how to write them.

I even kept American readers in mind whilst writing it. I was going to quote my namesake (but no relation) Bruce Forsyth saying "Nice to see you, to see you nice." But nobody beyond the Atlantic would have heard of that line.

So rush out and buy The Elements of Eloquence. Or, if you like, buy it from Barnes & Noble, Amazon or Indie Bound. It is your free right and your right freedom. Meanwhile, I shall wait for the election to the White House of Mr Billy Ocean.

Monday 6 October 2014

Soak The Rich

The British news at the moment is full of talk of "soaking the rich". I forget which party is meant to be doing it, as I have no interest in parties not of the birthday variety. But the rich, it appears, are to be soaked sodden. This is rather odd when you think about it. Who are these soaking rich, and why are they so very, very moist?

The answer, it appears, is that they aren't wet at all. Soaking the rich goes back to 1935 when F.D. Roosevelt was accused of soaking the rich with his taxes. The OED has:

He thought he was being ‘clever’ when he tried to steal Huey Long's thunder by suddenly coming out with his ‘soak the rich’ tax message.

The Americans had been using the word soak to mean overcharge or extort money since at least 1895. But it has nothing to do with moisture. It's to do with hitting people.

Ever since 1699 people have been using the word sock to mean hit, beat, pummel, punch or bash. Often a mysterious it is inserted as in "sock it to him". The Americans, for some reason best known to the Americans, decided to start using soak for sock. So in 1892 they could say:

To-day's Washington Post ‘soaks’ it to the Southern Democrats in the House

And just as you can be hit for money, or stung for money, so you can be soaked, or socked, for money. So they're soaking [it to] the rich.

There's even a lovely Mark Twain line from 1883 where you can see the word just tipping over. In The Art of Inhumation a salesman says:

Why, just look at it. A rich man won’t have anything but your very best; and you can just pile it on, too—pile it on and sock it to him—he won’t ever holler.

And that, dear reader, proves that a chap can be soaked dry.

By taxing umbrellas

Wednesday 17 September 2014

New Books and Snipes

Just to let everyone know, The Elements of Eloquence is out in paperback (at least in the UK), and The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the delights of not getting what you wanted is now available in all bookshops, not just independent ones, for only £1.99.

Anyway, there's a seabird called a snipe. It wades around and eats crustaceans, and of course it flies. It flies though in a very erratic way, changing direction all the time, and it's also rather well camouflaged. This makes it very hard to shoot.

I don't really know why you'd want to shoot a snipe, maybe they're delicious, never tried. The point is that it's only the very sharpest of sharp-shooters who can manage it. They are therefore called snipers.

I'd never seen the connection before.

I shall be giving a lunchtime talk (or talk with lunch included) at the Sevenoaks Literary Festival next Tuesday (the 23rd). Do come along if you can, but you'll need a ticket.

The Inky Fool searching for lunch
And I've just found an 1840 description of sniping in India. It's from a book called Scenes and Sports in Foreign Lands by Edward Napier
Now cast we a glance at what is allowed to be the best and one of the most exciting sports of the East—I mean, snipe shooting. In its effects it is also the most fatal to the British sportsman. A burning sun over head, whilst for hours immersed above the ankles in water, together with being exposed to the noxious marshy exhalations, have, alas! proved fatal to many, and have probably added more greatly to the numerous cases of fever, liver complaint, and dysentery, than anything else in the treacherous climate of India. Still with this hand-post of " high road to the other world" full in view, such are the attractions of this pursuit, that few who are fairly engaged in it can ever leave it off, until brought suddenly up by one of the above stumbling-blocks. It becomes a sort of infatuation. With his brandy-flask by his side, and his wellfilled bag, the sniper still wanders through his old haunts, the well-known Paddyfields, until at last brought down himself by the unerring aim of the grim Azrael —the angel of death.

Friday 5 September 2014

Guardians, Wardens and Gages

The British newspaper industry is looking up
I'm giving a Guardian Masterclass on grammar tomorrow (I think there are still tickets available). And it reminded me of mortgages and wardens.

Back in the dear old Dark Ages when all was umbrous, the French used to borrow words from the Germans. Some of these words began with a W, which the French, being French, found hard to pronounce and changed them to a G.

But not all the French. The northern Frenchmen could say their Ws and so French would end up with two forms of the word, one beginning with G and the other with a W. And then we English would import both.

I don't know if you've ever wondered what the difference is between a guarantee and a warranty, but really there isn't one. It's the same word one via Southern French and one via the Northern.

Similarly, when medieval chaps wanted to challenge somebody they would throw down their gage as a challenge. This sense still survives in en-gage (for marriage is really a long duel) and mort-gage, which, as I explained in The Etymologicon is really a death-challenge. Or, to be more precise, a death-wager, because gage gave use wage and wager, which both involve putting down items of value.

And the third of these doubles is guard vs ward. Same words, pronounced differently. And the same thing goes for a warden and a guardian. Hence my long train of thought.

The Inky Fool delivering his lecture

Friday 29 August 2014


Whilst in Berlin I discovered a word, a German compound word to be exact. Now, usually I'm rather suspicious of these, but zettelwirtschaft seems to me admirably useful. Zettelwirtschaft means disorder or chaos amongst pieces of paper.

That's a very useful word, especially in the way that Germans seem to usually use it - ein zettelwirtschaft haben - to have a zettelwirtschaft going on. But it can just be a noun used to describe top of my desk.

It's also rather mysterious etymologically. Zettel is plain enough, it means paper. And schaft is just the German equivalent of -ness or -ship or -hood. It makes it a state of being. But wirt...

Well here I must admit that my German is rather basic, but so far as my dictionaries tell me, wirt is either a verb meaning to host, or it's a noun meaning innkeeper. And wirtschaft means pub or tavern (or sometimes economy, for some weird reason). So zettel-wirt-schaft means paper-tavern-ness.

I suppose that works, the slips of paper cavorting like drunks in a bar at midnight. Indeed, I hope that's the explanation, but it does seem rather odd. Are there any German experts out there who can come up with something better?

The Inky Fool opens a savings account

Monday 11 August 2014

Penetralia and Berlin

Shakespeare and Sons Bookstore and CafeI rather like a word that sounds as though it should be rude and isn't. And vice versa. I like jumentous because it sounds like a mixture of jubilant and tremendous and actually means smelling of horse urine. But I also like penetralia because it sounds like well... something awful, when, in fact, it means the innermost rooms of a building. So you go through the halls and foyers and public ballrooms until you reach the penetralia.

The singular is either penetralium or penetral. Keats preferred the former and said of Coleridge that he:

...would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge

Which almost makes sense if you read it a few times. Penetral is the older form, though, and is stressed on the first syllable. It may not have Keats' seal, but it does have the advantage of sounding like entrail.

My favourite use of penetralia is the first citation in the OED:

From the penetralia—the secret chambers of the soul.

Anyway, I shall be going to Berlin the weekend after next and shall be giving a talk on August 23rd at the wonderful Shakespeare & Sons on Warschauerstrasse. Do come along if you can. There'll be a film screening too and all sorts of lovely stuff.

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge portrait.jpg
Contemplating the penetralia

Thursday 31 July 2014


I have a strange fondness for frequentatives, frequentative being verbs that happen frequently. So if you spark once, you spark. But if you spark frequently, you sparkle. If you crack once, you crack. But if you crack frequently you crackle. If you charge into somebody once wearing full armour and carrying a lance, you joust. If you do it all the time, you jostle. Burst, bustle. Jog, joggle. Tramp, trample. Scuff, scuffle. Prate, prattle. Wade, waddle.

One that I'd never noticed before was that if you push once then you shove, and if you push repeatedly into the earth with a spade, you shovel. It comes from the Old High German scioban.

But there is a second shove frequentative. If you shove one foot forward, and then the other and so on and so forth, you shuffle.

Which is a long way round of saying that I'll be speaking at the Shuffle Festival in East London on Sunday at 3pm about death, sex and toilets.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Harrogate and Moby Dick

I'm going to Harrogate this Sunday to do an event with the splendid Simon Garfield. It's at 5:30, and tickets are available here. In honour of this occasion I shall repeat this old post on how Harrogate gave the world coffee.

So what does the opening of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Keats have to do with the world's largest chain of coffee shops?

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither'd from the lake.
And no birds sing.

Give up? I thought so. You never were one for hard work, were you, dear reader? The connection is in the sedge.

Sedge is any kind of plant that grows on the banks of a lake or stream. More recently its meaning has dwindled to refer to plants of the cyperaceae family; and, really, unless you're a water-vole, the only place that you'll have heard of it is in the Keats poem.

This takes us to a suburb of Harrogate in Yorkshire with a small stream flowing through it. Here is a picture of that stream*:

You will notice the depressing lack of sedge. It must have wither'd, for there was sedge there once, as the suburb's name is Sedge-stream, except it's not. Yorkshire was, a thousand and bit years ago, overrun by Vikings, so most of their place names are Scandinavian, and the Viking word for Sedge-stream is Star-beck.

Starbeck is only recorded from 1817 but it must have been around before because a) It has a Viking name and b) there were people there who had sex as early as 1379. This sex produced families, and those families were called, by a slight alteration in the name, Starbuck. Since 1379 two things have happened: the Quaker movement was founded and America was discovered.

The result of this double-catastrophe was that among the first settlers on Nantucket Island was a Quaker family called Starbuck. Nantucket was a centre of the whaling industry and the Starbucks took up their harpoons and set off to seek their oily fortunes at sea. Valentine Starbuck met the King and Queen of Hawaii and took them to London where they got measles and died. Obed Starbuck sighted a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific which was later named Starbuck Island in Valentine's honour. The point is that the Starbucks were famous whalers, which brings us to Moby Dick.

Moby Dick is about a bunch of sailors having a whale of a time (whale, in case you were wondering, was early C20th American slang for a lot - whale of a job etc). The first mate of the whaling ship Pequod is called Starbuck, because the Starbucks were such prominent whalers. Moby Dick, aside from having a vaguely amusing name, is a favourite with American schoolteachers, which brings us to Jerry Baldwin.

Jerry Baldwin was an English teacher from Seattle, who in 1971, along with a couple of friends, decided to start a coffee shop. He wanted to name it Pequod, after the ship in Moby Dick but was shouted down by his partners who pointed out that Pee is not a good syllable to have in a shop selling liquids.

So the others cast around for a local name and found that there was an abandoned mining town near Mount Ranier called Camp Starbo. At this point Jerry Baldwin piped up and suggested a compromise. If he couldn't have Pequod, what about Starbucks,which sounds a little like Starbo and is a character in Moby Dick. They decided that this was a good name, and the rest is bad coffee.

And it all goes back to a sedge-covered stream in Yorkshire.

Gone fishin'

*Stolen from Flickr without a flicker of conscience.

Monday 30 June 2014

Leatherbound Hidebound Competition

The Elements of EloquenceJust  a link today to this article what I wroted in the Independent on Sunday, summarising my views on bookshops.

Also and moreover, there is a competition on to win a leatherbound copy of The Elements of Eloquence. There are only twelve of these in the world, and I have two of them. If that weren't enough you also get £20 of book tokens. All you have to do is to tweet a photograph of The Unknown Unknown in front of an independent bookshop and add the hashtag #IBW2014. You may do this any time until the end of August.

By the way, the origin of the word hidebound is that if cattle (or humans) are underfed, their flesh becomes very tight on them, so tight that they have difficulty moving. Thus a cramped and unmoving mind has hidebound attitudes.

Saturday 28 June 2014

The Unknown Unknown

The Unknown Unknown is out today. So scamper down to your nearest independent bookshop and buy a copy. It's only £1.99.

For myself, I'm off to give a talk in Wisley in Surrey at 3pm.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

On Tour with George Villiers Duke of Buckingham

To business. The Unknown Unknown comes out in independent bookshops at the end of next week, enticingly priced at £1.99. I think it comes out in other bookshops and things in September. To celebrate I shall be doing a little tour. The dates are as follows:

Saturday 28th June - RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey
Tuesday 1st July - JaffĂ© & Neale, Chipping Norton
Wednesday 2nd - Foyles Charing Cross Road for the Great Bookshop Debate
Thursday 3rd - Mostly Books, Abingdon
Friday 4th - Red Lion Books, Colchester
Saturday 5th - David's Bookshop, Letchworth

Do come along and say hello.

Last week I did a small, private tour of my own commemorating my favourite London street namer: George Villiers Duke of Buckingham.

George Villiers Duke of Buckingham owned a very valuable bit of land just off the strand next to Charing Cross. In 1672 he sold it to developers, but he made a condition of the sale that his name be commemorated for ever in the streets.

So there was George Street. The name has since been treacherously changed to York Buildings, but George Court remains. Here's proof.

But that wasn't enough for George Villiers Duke of Buckingham. He wanted his surname out there too. And so, running from Charing Cross to Embankment:

Which all Londoners know to be the home of Gordon's wine bar. But that wasn't enough for him, he wanted the Duke bit out there too. So the made Duke Street. Unfortunately this is now called York Buildings, but it was there once. And then he wanted Buckingham Street, and he got it.

But none of this is what makes me love the chap. So far, it's just been a little bit egotistical. That's all. Nothing really fun. George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street. I can almost see him pointing out to the urban planners that his name was not, absolutely not, George Villiers Duke Buckingham.

Oh no.

His name, and the world had better remember this, was George Villiers Duke OF Buckingham, goddammit. Never forget the Of. And hence the best street name in London. A name so good, that even though the philistines at Westminster Council have changed it, they still have to keep the original mentioned on the sign.

Here is a photo of me at the end of my pilgrimage, my tribute to a man who cared enough to preserve his own prepositions. Here is me in Of Alley.

Those tour dates again:

Tuesday 10 June 2014


Intergalactic hollandaise
Just one of those very simple ones I'd never noticed: saucers were originally meant to contain sauce. It's so obvious once you see it, but I had never seen it before.

They've been used to support cups only since the early eighteenth century.

This also means that flying saucers are for huge, alien foodstuffs to be dipped into.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

School - Holiday

School means holiday. Or, at least, it used to.

Back in Ancient Greece, the Ancient Greeks divided their ancient days between work and leisure. Work meant war-fighting, olive-oil-making, and pederasty. Leisure meant reading philosophy, discussing poetry, and pederasty. And the Ancient Greek word for leisure was skhole.

The Romans took up the word schola, which again meant a break from work, and again therefore implied a lecture or a bit of reading or something... well scholarly. And by the time the word had got into Old English as scol, it meant nothing else.

So school meant holiday.

A school of fish, by the way, is unrelated to the scholarly school, but closely related to shoal.

I shall be in Salisbury a week on Saturday (31st) talking to the wonderful David Marsh as part of the Salisbury Festival. More details and tickets are to be found here.

A plaice at a good school

Wednesday 30 April 2014

Deliberately Weighed

I'll say one thing for astrology, it means that absolutely everybody knows a little bit of Latin. Gemini are the twins, Capricorn is the goat, and Libra is the scales.

This means that when things are in equilibrium (or equi - librium) the scales are perfectly balanced. And it also means that when you have carefully weighed up an action, that action is therefore deLIBERate.

By extension, this ought to mean that anyone born between September 23rd and October 23rd was born deliberately.

Monday 14 April 2014

The Unknown Unknown

The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the Delight of Not Getting What You Wanted, by Mark Forsyth, exclusively for Independent Booksellers WeekI've written another book! Well, I say book, it's an essay for the Independent Booksellers Association on why bookshops are a Good Thing. It will be on sale in June, but only in independent bookshops.

It's largely about Donald Rumsfeld, but it also involves a discussion of theology, First UK Bus employees, and naughty French photographs from the nineteenth century.

Thursday 10 April 2014

Hungry Rhetoric

When Joyce is too simplistic, Tolstoy too brief, Kafka too jolly and Lautreamont too bourgeois, it's time to read The Hunger Games. I've just finished.

The third volume has as its catchphrase the rather catchy line "If we burn, you burn with us", and it occurred to me to wonder why the line is so... memorable, catchy, what you will. And when you inspect it, it's rhetorically rather interesting.

The following will all make more sense to those who have read The Elements of Eloquence, but there we go.

Firstly, there's the antithesis: we burn, you burn. Nice simple trick "East is East and West is West", "Man proposes, God disposes", "You say potato and I say potato". But there's more.

There's the pleasant little repetition of burn. Indeed, it's repeated with one word in between, which is a buried diacope. "Bond, James Bond" "Run, Forest, run", "burn, you burn", "Burn, baby, burn"


Sorry, I became rather carried away there.

But finally, there is the chiasmus, the symmetry. You start with:


Then you put a burn on either side:

Burn, you burn

Then you put "we" on one side and "with us" on the other:

We burn, you burn with us

And then you add an "If".

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. One for all and all for one. Nice to see you, to see you nice.

So that's three pretty sure-fire rhetorical tricks - antithesis, diacope and chiasmus, hidden in one sentence, combined with remarkable dexterity, and thoroughly memorable.

The Inky Fool made his own cinema version

Thursday 3 April 2014

I Rare To Go

The other day, I was writing a text message in which I said that I was raring to go; and it struck me that rare is one of those odd verbs that you only see as a participle. Nobody ever says "I have rared to go", or "I plan to rare a lot on Thursday". It struck me that maybe you couldn't rare; maybe rare wasn't even a verb at all, as with sidling.

But it turns out that you can rare, and indeed often do. You just spell it slightly differently. Rare is a variant pronunciation of rear. Rear is an Old English word meaning raise (indeed if you go back even further in time rear and raise come from the same root). So you can rear a child, for example, without it being rude, or having anything to do with the rear end (which comes from the French).

Moreover, a horse can rear up on its hind legs. Horses do not do this simply in order to get things down from high shelves, they do it because they are impatient to get somewhere. They are rearing to go, or much more commonly raring to go.

Indeed, the first recorded use of the phrase in the OED has a significant apostrophe. It's from a book called Cabin Fever from 1918

‘Yuh ready?’ Foster's voice hissed in Bud's ear. ‘R'aring to go.

Of course, horses only rear children when they are in a stable relationship.

The first of the Inky Fool's equine kan-kan group was in training

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Adults and Adultery

You don't have to commit adultery to be an adult, but you do need to have been an adolescent.

I was rather surprised to find that the words adult and adultery have nothing to do with each other, apart from the prefix ad-, which hardly counts.

Adultery comes from the Latin ad-altarare, where the second half is where we got the English word alter. Originally, it just meant that something had been changed and therefore falsified. From that you got the idea of corruption, to which was added (by the French) the notion of corrupting the marriage bed. Mind you, it's important to remember that the marriage bed can be corrupted by husband and wife having sex simply because they enjoy it. This is a sin. Even Chaucer says so in the Parson's Tale.

The thridde spece of Auowtrie is som tyme bitwixe a man and his wyf..whan they take no reward in hire assemblynge but oonly to hire flesshly delit.

I am confident that none of the readers of this pure blog would ever be so evil as to make sex enjoyable for themselves or others.

Meanwhile, there was another Latin verb alescere, which meant to be nourished. By putting an ad- on the beginning you got adolescere, which meant to grow up, and that meant that somebody in the process of growing up was adolescent. The past participle of the verb was adultus, which just means having grown up.

You can also, according to the OED, commit adultery by being a bishop when you shouldn't be. This means that I now have plans for this afternoon.

The Inky Fool gives in to temptation

P.S. There's a very kind review of The Horologicon here.

Friday 14 February 2014

Valentines Again

Just a little repost today of this video of me explaining why Geoffrey Chaucer is responsible for your restaurant bill this evening.

And I should mention that I'm terribly grateful to Macmillan who have nominated Inky Fool in their Love English blog awards. You can vote on the subject until midnight tonight.

Monday 3 February 2014

Less Fewers

I have been asked to pronounce on the explosive question of 10 Items or Less vs 10 Items or Fewer.

Just in case anyone is unaware of this Great Issue of the Day, there is a rule that appears in every English style guide: less amount and fewer numbers. So if I drink fewer pints, I have drunk less beer. That's because pints are something you can count, whereas beer is just frothy liquid.

Fewer children are less trouble.

I have less hair, because I have fewer hairs.

I have less shopping because I bought fewer items; fewer, in fact, than ten.

That's the rule. But, as with most rules, it's worth checking whether it's correct. After all, all that you need to get a book out on the English language is a willing publisher and a high opinion of yourself. I am living proof.

So, first let's check if you can use fewer for amount.

I like him fewer.

I am fewer happy today than yesterday.

I am fewer tall than you.

These are just plain wrong. And importantly they're not wrong because a style guide says so. They just Sound Wrong to A Native Speaker (SWANS). If a foreign friend were to talk like that you would giggle or gently correct them. This is not some rule known only to an elite few. It's SWANS, and SWANS is the most important rule of all.

So, what happens if you use less for numbers? Can you get the same effect?

I've drunk less pints than you.

There are less than five children here.

The answer must be less than five.

10 items or less.

Now, the thing about these is that though I know that the style guide tells me they're wrong, they aren't wrong in a SWANS way. They don't make you jump out of your skin. You would never be so rude as to correct a foreigner on this. The style guide says it's wrong, but it doesn't feel wrong.

I spent an awful lot of time trying to think of an example that sounded Properly Wrong, and I couldn't. I retreated into the desert and meditated on the subject* and I just couldn't think of anything that really sounded bad.

And then something really strange happened.

That's one fewer mouth to feed.

Sounds wrong. Properly SWANS wrong.

If we go this route, the journey will be twenty minutes fewer.

That's SWANS.

I have a hundred pounds. He has fewer.

That grates.

I started to find loads of examples where fewer sounded wrong when applied to a number, and less sounded right. I became confused and frightened and decided to try a different tack.

After style guides and SWANS, you can use God And Shakespeare (GAS) to decide what's correct. So I looked up fewer in the Shakespeare concordance.

He used the word 3 times. 3 times in 39 plays. That's really odd. That's less than he used also. The word only appears in Henry IV 2 once and Henry V twice. That's it. However, it is always applied to number.

Less, on the other hand, appears 225 times. And... and... I barely know how to tell you this:

Thou, why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou.

Shakespeare happily applies less to number as well as amount. Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

So after a strong drink and a lie-down, I decided to proceed to the King James Bible. There, at least, I would find the eternal certainties on which I need to rely.

The KJV uses less 30 times. And it uses fewer once. Here's the line:

And ye shall divide the land by lot for an inheritance among your families: and to the more ye shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer ye shall give the less inheritance: every man's inheritance shall be in the place where his lot falleth; according to the tribes of your fathers ye shall inherit. Numbers 33v54

That's it. God uses fewer even fewer times than Shakespeare.

So, where are we? Common usage, Shakespeare and God all seem to work the same way and have the same rule hanging around in the background. You can't use fewer for amount. But you can use less for number if you feel like it. And you can get away with not using fewer at all.

I realise that this is a surprising conclusion and that governments may fall, riots break out in the deserts and the earth fall from its orbit into the sun. But I couldn't care fewer. I hereby pronounce ex cathedra linguae anglorum that "10 Items or Less" is Absolutely Fine.

And for those of you interested either in the philosophy of mathematics or the works of Brett Easton Ellis, consider this: Fewer than Zero.

*Seriously. I was in a car that broke down somewhere near Abu Dhabi, and there wasn't much else to do.