Saturday 26 December 2015

Today Is Not Boxing Day

A little repost from 2010:

Today is not boxing day.

Once upon a time, there was a thing called a Christmas box. A Christmas box was a box with a small hole cut in it, like a piggy bank, through which coins could be dropped. It was kept in a church and, like a piggy bank, it could not be opened, only smashed. The smashing was done at Christmas, hence the name: Christmas box.

Christmas boxes were used by servants, apprentices, bloggers and other impoverished fools to save up some money for the frosty and festive season. In gambling dens there would be a Christmas box of tips for the benefit of the butler. As one chap put it in 1634:

It is a shame, for a rich Christian to be like a Christmas boxe, that receives all, and nothing can be got out, till it be broken in peeces.

Anyway, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the idea of the Christmas box shifted. There were lots of chaps like postmen and milkmen and butchers' boys and bloggers who didn't have loose change to be stowing away all year. Yet they still felt they deserved a little something at Christmas. So generous Victorians would make a little box of presents which they would present to all the delivery boys on the first weekday after Christmas, thus insisteth the OED.

The first weekday after Christmas therefore became known as Boxing Day. And today?

Today is a Saturday.

All those pleading postmen, beggarly bloggers and other assorted lazzaroni will arrive at your door on Monday morning, their usual truculence usurped by a poor smile and rich words. As Mr Weller remarks of his son's attempt at a Valentine's card in The Pickwick Papers:

''Tain't in poetry, is it?' interposed his father.

'No, no,' replied Sam.

'Wery glad to hear it,' said Mr. Weller. 'Poetry's unnat'ral; no man ever talked poetry 'cept a beadle on boxin'-day, or Warren's blackin', or Rowland's oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy.'

You have, dear poetic reader, been warned.

(A beadle, by the way, was a sort of policeman paid for by the parish).

Friday 4 December 2015

Forcing Back the F Word

I should probably warn readers that there may be swear words in this post, and they may come very soon. If you are of a delicate temperament, now is the time to reach for your smelling salts.

I said in The Etymologicon that the word fuck was first recorded in the late fifteenth century, but the word has now been found all the way back in 1310. A historian called Paul Booth was happily leafing through the archives of Chester County Court when he came across (if that is the right expression), a defendant called Roger Fuckbythenavel.

Now, Roger is, of course, a funny name, and I've always thought it appropriate that James Bond was played by a double entendre; but it's the surname here that is new and a trifle surprising. I've spent a little while trying to see if there could be any other meaning at all. And I can't. It's...

How do you get a name like that?

Here I could hypothesise until the home-coming of the cows, but I assume that it must have been a nickname based on poor Roger's poor rogering, or perhaps on some misconception bred from the lack of sex education classes in Chester.

Anyway, it didn't have a good effect on him. Roger Fuckbythenavel was summoned to court three times over the next two years, and it all ended with him being outlawed, which isn't as romantic as it sounds. It probably just meant that he was hanged. And if the hangman did his job properly Roger was...

Dear reader, forgive me, a never saw a pun I didn't like...

Roger was well hung.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Capital Geezers of Iceland

Few things are as tedious as other people's holiday photos. That's why facebook exists: it allows people to show their photographs without anyone bothering to look. With that in mind, would you like to see my holiday photographs? You would? Splendid. I've just got back from Iceland.

That's a sign for the Hotel Geysir*. I didn't actually stay there. Just took a photo of the sign because Geysir is a place in Iceland and all of the other geysers in the world, all of those big, spurty things are named after that place.

The Icelandic word for geyser isn't geyser or even geysir (with a funny comma on it). They call them either laug, which means bath, or hverr, which means cauldron. But European travellers didn't know that, and so they took the place name and carried it off around the world.

To be fair though, the place name is related. Geysir basically means, and is cognate with, gusher.

Anyway, would you like to see another photo of Geysir? No? What if I told you the photo was utterly hilarious?

Now, the reason that photo is hilarious is that there's a sign in the foreground saying NO SMOKING but in the background there's what looks like smoke. So it looks as though the ground is breaking the law!!!!! How we did laugh.

They've even got the sign in Icelandic REYKINGAR BANNABAR: Smoking Banned.

Of course it's not smoke. It's steam. But it looks like smoke. All of which explains Reykjavik (the name Reykjavik, that is, not the bus system or the price of a beer).

The first man ever to arrive in Iceland and want to stay for the winter was a chap called Ingolfr Arnarson (and his wife). He (and his wife) had taken the high seats from a temple to Thor and he decided to toss them (and his wife) off the side of his boat to see where they washed up. (That's not true about his wife, although she probably did occasionally wash up).

The seats washed up in a bay that had lots of geothermal vents a bit like the ones inland at Geysir, and because they looked like smoke rather than steam, and because the Icelandic** for smoke was reykja and the Icelandic for bay was vik, he called it Reykjavik***.

Meanwhile, the Cockney geezer has nothing to do with geysers at all, it comes from the Nothern word guiser, which means someone in fancy dress (like dis-guise), which means someone who looks a bit foolish.

And here's a photo of me with a dominatrix puffin.

*I'm afraid I have less than no idea how to type Icelandic diacriticals.
** Yes, yes, I know.
*** It was initially Reykjarvik, but the point stands.

P.S. I've changed this post slightly as there was a mistake in my Icelandic kindly pointed out by Torkirra on Twitter.

Monday 1 June 2015

Tin Pots Bells and McDonald's

I've been reading a novel called A Lady From The South, which is a peculiar little adventure novel so little known that I had to find it in the Rare Books room of the British Library (the copy I'm reading is NOT TO BE INTRODUCED INTO THE BRITISH EMPIRE). Anyway, it contains this little passage:

"In the ordinary way," pursued Miss Milligan, "a tin-pot President's job doesn't amount to anything, but in Guayacuador it's different. There are the tin mines, for one thing..."

And it made me wonder where the term tin-pot came from. I realised that I had been quite casually referring all my life to tin-pot dictators without ever wondering why a dictator would be in a pot at all, and why that pot would be made of tin.

In fact, tin-pot, in origin, has nothing to do with dictators at all. It's a kind of bell.

If you can afford it, you should have your bell cast in iron at a great big bell foundry, and you'll get a lovely resonant sound. If you can't afford it you can always find an old tin can and add a little clapper with a piece of string. This is a tin-pot bell and seems to have been common practice, especially among Australian shepherds who would attach such things to the necks of their flocks, as in the lovely poem I Don't Go Shearing Now by Walter Alan Woods:

Then with saddle for a breakwind and your oilcloth tucked in well,
You will listen for the tinkling of the little tin-pot bell

You'll find similar references to tin-pot bells in England in the C19th, and the important thing is that such bells are always emblematic of cheapness. They have no beautiful ding dong. Instead the sound is... well... tinny.

(I'm willing to bet, but have been unable to prove, that this is where the adjective tinny comes from. The chronology certainly works, and I can think of no other explanation for associating sound and metal).

Thus tin-pot became a universal adjective to mean cheap and inferior. It was applied to all things from bells to music to billiards, and finally, like all insults, to politicians, particularly those of the dictatorial type.

It struck me that this is roughly the same process as the Mc prefix that derives from McDonald's the ubiquitous beef bunners. First McDonald's, then the McJob, the McMansion and now a whole entry in the OED under the prefix Mc-.

Oddly enough, there were real McJobs in 1985, advertised by McDonalds, before the term became the subject of scorn. The LA Times reported that

... the McDonald's fast-food chain recently began a training program for the handicapped in the San Fernando Valley called McJobs. McDonald's has hired a dozen people after the two 10-week training programs held so far.

That's what you get for being nice.

The Inky Fool's manifesto

P.S. Another rather odd usage from A Lady From The South (1926). Mysogynist here clearly means not a skirt-chaser:

George, like all reasonably impressionable young men, liked to think of himself as something of a misogynist, an aloof, interesting, slightly sinister figure, courteous always to the Sex, but sheathed in cynicism against the shafts of Eros.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Louche and Louching

The other day, I was lying in bed, sipping a Campari, when it occurred to me to wonder where the word louche came from. I imagined that it had something to do with luxury, and fell back to sleep. Which didn't help the Campari.

I was very wrong, because louche means cross-eyed. Or it did once. To be precise there was a Latin word luscus, which meant one-eyed. The feminine was lusca, from which the French got lousche, which meant cross-eyed or squinting. And then louche.

Louche came into English in 1819, but it didn't mean what it means now. It had nothing to do with Camparis in bed. Instead it meant oblique, asquint, Not Straight-Forward. So the first usage is:

There is some~thing louche about him, which does not accord with the abandon of careless, intimate intercourse.

(Intercourse didn't mean what it does now either, lest you misunderstand Wordsworth's "The dreary intercourse of daily life").

For a good century, it seems louche kept its French meaning, but added to it the idea of being opaque, unclear and therefore dishonest. Only slowly, very slowly did it start to mean raffish, rakish, dissolute and bedbound Campari. This is recent enough, that the OED still doesn't mention that meaning.

But there is another meaning of louche, and this I didn't know at all until I was checking all this up. Louche can be a verb.

I don't know if you drink much pastis. Or ouzo? Or raki? Or absinthe? Or anything flavoured with aniseed. If you do, you should know of the strange thing that happens when you add water, for the beautiful clear liquid suddenly turns cloudy, and milky, and opaque. This is known as louching.

It can be known as the ouzo effect, but louching is a much better word, and it allows you to louchely louche your louche drink.

Next time it won't be Campari.

By the way, another term for louching is "spontaneous emulsification", which reminds me of this song, because I really don't think he does know what emulsified means.

Thursday 29 January 2015

Farm Tax

Today I have been paying the farmer. Because, of course, farmers aren't farmers.

Some people have trade surnames: Mr Baker, Mr Butcher, Mr Farmer etc. And these people happily imagine that in some way off medieval time they had an ancestor who was a baker or a butcher or a farmer. The first two are right, but the Farmers are wrong. Because a farmer is a taxman. Or was.

The name has nothing to do with farms.

Once upon a time, there was the Medieval Latin word firma, which meant a fixed payment. (It's related in this to firm, firmament, affirm etc). From this you got the Old French fermier and the English farmer all meaning tax collector, or one who collects a fixed payment.

So Chaucer wrote (with his mind on what I'm doing today):

Him ought not be... cruel As is a farmer to do the harm he can.

This meaning of farmer actually survived all the way to the C19th, although by that time it had become rather odd.

But, feudally, rich landowners used to collect taxes on the land they owned, and they would have middle-men who were responsible for collecting the tax from a particular area. These tax farmers were responsible for a single farm from a single piece of land. They often had responsibility for making sure that it was cultivated its most profitable extent. Often they lived there as a tenant farmer.

People these days buy time-share apartments, which are often just referred to as time-shares. In the same way, the method of payment slowly came to be associated with the activity of agriculture. So the old words husbandman and churl were slowly replaced. And by the late C16th, farmer had become the standard word for somebody who simply owned a farm.

But the surname dates from the C13th. And that's why I've been paying the farmer.

Thursday 15 January 2015

Moors and Marrakech

The weather in England is, frankly, deplorable. So I've booked a ticket to Marrakech in Morocco, only to find that they're the same place, etymologically speaking.

Algeria is named after the city of Algiers (from the Arabic Al-Jazair "the islands"). Tunisia is named after the city of Tunis (which probably means something, but nobody can decide what). And Morocco is named after Marrakech (from the Arabic Maghrib-Al-Aqsa "the far west").

But wait (I hear you shriek), why did the As in Marrakech turn to the Os in Morocco? And why wasn't it named after Tangiers? And...

Very well, Tangiers had already given its name to a fruit called the tangerine, and anyway Marrakech used to be the capital. As for the As to Os, they're much more fun and will get you straight to the Steve Miller Band.

The French keep the As. They call it Maroc. And the Germans call it Marokko. But the English got terribly confused by Othello, and other Moors.

You see for years in English, the inhabitants of North Africa have been known as Moors, who were Moorish. So when a country got called Morocco, the English (who had just been watching some Shakespeare) decided that it must be named after the Moors and altered the spelling to make it look a little more like Moor-occo, which is what we blithely assumed it was.

But where does Moor come from? Well, once upon a time, during the Roman Empire, there was a province called Mauritania, and a chap from that province was called a Maurus, and hence Moor. And the odd thing is that even though Roman Mauritania was almost exactly where modern Morocco is, the words have nothing to do with each other (except in the English hybrid Morocco).

But it goes further! You see the English thought, for some reason, that their traditional folk dancing had originated amongst the Moors, hence Morris Dancing, which is really Moorish Dancing.

Moreover, there's a common first name meaning From Mauritania. Just as Adrian means from the Adriatic Sea, so all Maurices (and Morrises) should come from Mauritania.

Of course, they don't. For example, Maurice Prince of Orange was born in Dillenburg in Germany, and became Stadtholder of the Netherlands. That's why when Dutch sailors arrived at a little island in the Indian Ocean previously called Dina Arobi, they renamed it, in their prince's honour, Mauritius.

So, that's how you link Morocco, Marrakech, Mauritania, Moors, Morris Dancing, Mauritius, a novel by E.M. Forster and a song by the Steve Miller Band.

Of course, the second I'd booked my ticket to Marrakech, the weather forecast was changed and next week looks cold there too. Will we never be set free?

As a final titbit, the phrase "in Morocco" used to be a euphemism for naked.

Thursday 8 January 2015

The Servant Is Out Today Servant is out today: published and made public in the form of a Kindle Single. It is the strange story of a man who loses his identity. Also, it contains the line

It is much harder than you might think to show people your bottom.

Of which I am proud.

It's only £1.19 on the Kindle store. So, click this here link and give it a buy.

Wednesday 7 January 2015


The long-term tsunkdoku
I fear that the Japanese have been peeking into my bedroom. I can think of no other explanation for tsundoku, which is their word for a pile of books that you've bought and haven't got round to reading yet.

In fact, I'm not entirely clear whether tsundoku is the act of buying a book and not reading it, or the pile of books thusly abandoned on a bedside table. Or maybe it's both. Either way, it's a portmanteau of tsumu (to pile up) and doku (to read), and the verb is tsundeoku.

I actually have two tsundokus: one long-term tsundoku on the table in the corner, from which a book may, if it works very hard, graduate to the short-term tsundoku on my bedside table.

I suspect that those nosy Japanese have only seen the first one, as it's right by the window.

In other news, my short story The Servant will be available from tomorrow as a Kindle Single. It's a mystery story about a chap coming to terms with his own bottom, and you can order it now by following this link. As it only costs £1.19 it won't even matter that much if you consign forever to a virtual, ethereal, invisible tsundoku.

The short-term tsundoku

Friday 2 January 2015

Gotham City and Ladies' Underwear

Herman Knickerbocker
Once upon a time, there were some goats (trust me, this is leading somewhere). These particular goats lived on a farm in Nottinghamshire a thousand years or so ago. This farm was therefore known as the Goat-Homestead or Gat-Ham. This later changed to Gotham. And the village of Gotham is still there to this day, just off the A453. There's a fish and chip shop there called Frydays.

Now, in the Medieval period, the people of Gotham gained a reputation for being fools. One much later account records them:

...some of the inhabitants engaged in endeavouring to drown an eel in a pool of water; some were employed in dragging carts upon a large barn, to shade the wood from the sun; others were tumbling their cheeses down a hill, that they might find their way to Nottingham for sale; and some were employed in hedging in a cuckoo which had perched upon an old bush which stood where the present one now stands.

This may all have been a subtle ruse, because madness was once considered contagious. So the people of Gotham just wanted to be left alone. But, either way, Gotham became a byword for foolishness, and the people of Gotham became a byword for Fools.

Now, we must journey forwards a few centuries, past the accidental discovery of a continent named America, to a chap called Washington Irving.

Washington Irving was living in New York (which has fewer castles than the old one) and was working for a satirical magazine called Salmagundi. Salmagundi had the sole porpoise of making fun of the good people of New York, and so, in 1807, in the 17th issue, Mr Irving referred to New York as "Gotham". This was nothing to do with Goths or anything like that. It was merely to imply that New Yorkers were all as foolish as the people from the goat farm.

Anyhow, Washington Irving was a New Yorker (who have few castles than Old Yorkers). He was thus and therefore acquainted with Herman Knickerbocker who represented New York in Congress. They were good friends and Irving said that they were like family. Mr Irving also had a plan to write a parodical history of New York under a pseudonym. As New York had originally been New Amsterdam, the pseudonym he chose was a Dutch one, based on his friend.

A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker came out in 1809. And, for our purposes, the important thing about it was that it fixed Knickerbocker as the stereotypical Dutch name. From then on, the original Dutch settlers of New York were called the knickerbockers, and the funny trousers (or pants) that they wore were called knickerbockers too.

Popularised by Mr Irving, and by George Cruickshank's illustrations, knickerbockers became a generalised term for odd bits of clothing worn beneath the waist. And thus and therefore, though American ladies wear panties, Englishwomen to this day wear knickers, which is just short for knickerbockers.