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.