Wednesday 21 December 2016

Spengler and the Christmas Tree

A new Age of Miracles is upon us. For those not familiar with the works of Spengler, he had an idea that civilizations work in cycles. You have an Age of Miracles when all is wonderful, the woods are full of elves and it wouldn't surprise you in the slightest to meet a god on the way home.

Then you have the Age of Theology, during which all the sightings of the gods from the Age of Miracles are categorised and analysed and formalised and explained, and generally have all the magic taken out of them. And thus theology leads you to logic and logic leads you to an Age of Science.

In the Age of Science everything is logical and nothing is magical and this, according to Spengler, creates a great human thirst for something divine, which is why the Age of Science suddenly cracks, and the world is plunged back into an Age of Miracles, and the whole jolly cycle can start again.

Spengler used to be terribly fashionable, back during the World Wars when it looked as though civilization was really ending. And then even more so during the Sixties when it looked as though something completely new was starting up. But then the 1980s happened, and it was generally agreed that there would be no new miracles and that Mr Spengler had been wrong.

But now it turns out that Spengler was right. You see, I wrote in A Christmas Cornucopia that all true Christmas trees should contain a snake, because of the Christmas Tree's origin in the Paradise Plays of Medieval Germany. I even mentioned one Mrs Coulson of Swindon, who in the year 2000 found an adder in her tree. I even referred to it as a miracle, but as the last miracle.

Well, I was wrong and Spengler was right. The BBC reports that a lady in Australia has found a highly venomous tiger snake hiding in her Christmas Tree. Clearly a new Age of Miracles has begun. Why it should have begun in Australia, I don't know. Clearly God has a sense of humour.

And in case you were wondering what Christmas in Australia normally looks like, here's an illustration from 1881.

Riddled with kangaroos

N.B. Before anyone else points it out, that was a very, very, very rough summary of Spengler's ideas.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Myrrh, Myra and Father Christmas

Image result for christmas cornucopiaIt's surprising the number of people who ask me what myrrh is. It's partly to do with having written a book on Christmas, and partly that people just like saying the word.

The answer is that it's a kind of aromatic resin that you get out little thorny trees in the Middle East. The reason that the Magi turned up with a bunch of the stuff is partly that myrrh was just a nice standard gift. It smells good. You can rub it on yourself, or even use it to freshen your breath (in the sad old days before toothpaste). But in Matthew's Gospel, it almost certainly has a more precise meaning.

Gold was a gift for a king, as it symbolizes worldly wealth and power. Frankincense was often used in religious rituals praising God and therefore points out that Jesus is both King and God. And myrrh was used to embalm the dead. This practice goes back to Ancient Egypt, but it continues in the New Testament where, in John's Gospel, Jesus is finally embalmed thus:

And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. 19v39

So the gift of the Magi was there to signify the little baby's ultimate painful death, which must have been lovely for Mary. Imagine turning up to a baby shower with a shroud.

Anyhow, one place that was very good for harvesting myrrh was in what's now southern Turkey. Indeed, there was a whole city there that was named after its most famous export: Myra. The Bishop of Myra in the early third century AD was called Nicholas, and later he was called Saint Nicholas and later still he was called Sinterklaas, and nowadays we know him as Santa Claus.

That's complete coincidence, of course, but I rather like it. I like the fact that the full proper title of Santa Claus would be Saint Nicholas of Myrrh.

Anyhow, for more such Christmassy curiousities, you can of course snaffle a copy of A Christmas Cornucopia. It's around and about and terribly available from AmazonBlackwell'sBook DepositoryFoyles and Waterstones.

Image result for christmas cornucopia
That's the ticket

Saturday 10 December 2016

Santa Claus Ate Father Christmas

Image result for father christmas seventeenth centuryChristmas is coming, the geese are getting distinctly plump, and I've written a piece for the Spectator on the origins of Santa Claus and how he devoured the English Father Christmas. You can read the whole thing here.

Also, of course, you can buy my whole book A Christmas Cornucopia: The curious origins of our yuletide traditions from AmazonBlackwell'sBook DepositoryFoyles and Waterstones, or indeed from any good bookshop (and some evil ones).

And for those wondering what the illustration is, that's Father Christmas in 1653.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Referendums and the English Gerundive

Those who are obsessed with current affairs may have noticed that we had a referendum in June; incurable political junkies probably even know what the result was. I was rather intrigued to see a gerundive in the news.

A gerundive is a rather funny thing, and it's easiest to explain it by analogy.

In English we can take a verb, add -able to the end, and make an adjective. Doable, watchable readable, desirable etc. It's an adjective that means this-verb-can-potentially-be-done-to this task, this film, this book, this goat etc. You can even make a noun out of it and talk about the expendables, the undesirables, or, I suppose, the watchables*.

In Latin you could take a verb, add -endum to the end, and make an adjective that meant "this verb absolutely must be done to it". The most obvious example surviving in English is agenda, which in Latin means "the things that have to be done". But there's also referendum which is the thing that has to be referred [to the people]. And there's a memorandum which is the thing that has to be remembered. And there's Amanda, the girl that you absolutely have to love (not to mention Miranda, the girl that you have to wonder about). That's a gerundive.

There are a few more obscure gerundives skulking in the OED, like the corrigendum (that which must be corrected) and the explandandum (the thing that must be explained). There are also a few disguised ones. A dividend is the thing that must be divided [between the shareholders], and a legend was originally a legendum, a lesson that had to be read in church on a particular day. That then shifted to mean anything that was read, and ended up as a jolly good story.

And of course there are a few in actual Latin. If I challenge you to prove a particular thing, you can set off on a line of logic until you've got to the desired result at which point you can say QED, quod erat demonstrandum, which (quod) was (erat) the-thing-that-must-be-demonstrated (demonstrandum). There's mutatis mutandis, which means when you've changed (mutatis) the things that must be changed (mutandis). And then there's dear old Carthago delenda est, which means Carthage is must-be-destroyed.

But as anybody will tell you there's no gerundive in English. Well, to be honest, not anybody will tell you that. There are probably whole droves of people who don't think about gerundives from one week to the next. But any classicist will tell you that there's no gerundive in English. But they're wrong. There is, and there has been for about thirty years now.

A quick consultation with Mr Google shows that in the last 24 hours the news has referred to "a must-have Christmas gift", a "must-read response", and "must-have sexy essentials for holiday fun"**.

Now, that formation looks to me exactly like a gerundive. It's formed with the prefix must- followed by the verb, but it's doing precisely and exactly the same job. You could even form a noun and talk about "this season's must-haves". And a quick consultation with Mrs Ngram shows that the usage only took off in the 1980s. Here's a graph.

So English does have a gerundive, and has had this new grammatical form for thirty years now. After lying dormant like a grammatical King Arthur for a thousand years, it has arisen.

Speaking of this season's must-reads. A Christmas Cornucopia remains out. It's been out and proud for five whole days now and remains the perfect Christmas gift. Also I'll be doing talks and readings on:

November 15th at Hungerford Bookshops
17th at The Bookcase in Lowdham Nottinghamshire
25th at Rossiter Books, Ross-on-Wye
26th Hay Winter Festival
December 3rd Blackwells Oxford
8th Waterstones Gower Street

As a little post script. The word referendum isn't recorded in classical Latin, it was invented to describe Swiss political processes; it can also mean "a memo that must be referred to a superior", and Fowler says that the plural should be referendums as referenda is ambiguous and could mean "several things that are referred to the people" or "one thing referred to the people several times".

*I'm am not for a second suggesting that The Expendables is watchable. It's a crime against the great glories of late 80s action movies.

**Very well, here's the link. Although I should warn you that I don't believe you could actually pass that off as a relaxation aid, even in South Africa.

Thursday 3 November 2016

A Christmas Cornucopia

My new book, A Christmas Cornucopia, is out today. Run to the bookshop, run!

It is about the origins of our Christmas traditions: why we have Christmas trees, why Santa comes down chimneys, and why we it all happens on December 25th and not (as once thought) on March 28th.

It's a beautiful little hardback and it's only £9.99 and, most importantly of all, Raymond Briggs says it's "Blooming brilliant", which ought to be enough for any sane book-buyer. It will allow you to impress your friends and bore your enemies with detailed knowledge of who Good King Wenceslas was and why he wasn't a king and wasn't called Wenceslas and absolutely didn't look out.

To the bookshop!

Look at the shiny gold bits.

Monday 31 October 2016

The Egyptian Flu

A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide TraditionsI've obtained a copy of Jackspeak: A Guide to British Naval Slang and Usage, which is quite as filthy as one might have hoped. The terms listed in it tend to combine those two occupants of the naval mind: faraway places and carnal embrace. It's terribly good fun, but as I like to imagine all readers of this blog to be delicate flowers I shall reproduce three of the more printable.

A pregnant woman is said to be suffering from the Egyptian flu. I have no idea why, but I shall use that term forever.

In the Navy a welsh rarebit is, apparently called a Cardiff Virgin. It's a pun, but you have to think about it.

Finally, the word Nagasaki is used to refer to anywhere strange and distant, in roughly the way we lubbers of land talk about Timbuktu (as in "It's the best thing this side of Nagasaki/Timbuktu"). Oddly, it seems to have nothing to do with nuclear weapons. So a particularly thin sailor can be called a Nagasaki greyhound, and a chap with particularly large wedding tackle is said to be rigged like a Nagasaki donkey.

Oh, and sea salt is called Neptune's dandruff.

In other news, my new book A Christmas Cornucopia is coming out on Thursday and can already be pre-ordered from Amazon, Blackwell's, Book Depository, Foyles and Waterstones. It's all about the origins of Christmas traditions and will therefore (unless I've miscalculated) make the perfect Christmas present. And it has a very pretty cover.

Friday 21 October 2016


HoratioNelson1.jpgI've just noticed that it's Trafalgar Day. So, in the interests of something or another, I feel I should comment on the great debate of whether the dying Nelson said "Kiss me, Hardy" or "Kismet, Hardy". The latter seems preposterously unlikely as kismet is a Turkish word that isn't recorded in English until 1849, 44 years after Nelson's demise. Unless he was secretly a Turk.

On another note, the great signal sent at the Battle of Trafalgar "England expects that every man will do his duty", was originally meant to be "England confides". Confide here means is confident that, rather than the usual modern meaning of telling you a secret and thereby taking you into my confidence. Anyhow, confide wasn't in the signal book and would have to be spelled out letter by letter, so expects was picked as we might pick a word for predictive texting. It was faster.

Aren't mobile phones wonderful?

Tuesday 12 July 2016

My TEDx Talk on Rhetoric

Concerned and solicitous people have been asking what I've been up to for the last few months. One of things up to which I have been was giving this TEDx talk at the University of Pennsylvania.

You can also watch it on YouTube here.

Pennsylvania, incidentally, was originally called New Wales until it was renamed in honour of William Penn. So it just means Penn's Woodland. Mr Penn didn't do the renaming himself, Charles II did. Penn thought, quite correctly, that people would assume that he'd done the renaming and would think that he was a terribly self-important bighead. He was rather embarrassed about the whole thing.

Other than that, I have been finishing my little book on the history of Christmas, which ought to be out in November.

A self-important bighead.

Friday 5 February 2016

Mr Kowalski's Ferrari

I thought I'd post this lovely map that was made by Marcin Ciura. I hope it's big enough to read. If not, click upon it and it ought to expand. It's simple really, it's a map of the most common surname in each European country that designates a job. So there are a lot of smiths, and a lot of millers. But most of them are ones that I had never thought about. I've known the word Ferrari since I was a small boy, but it never occurred to me that the Fer meant iron and that the famous red car is simply a Smith. The same goes for all those Kowalskis. Anyway, click and have a look.

Incidentally, though I don't like to cavil, Murphy doesn't seem to belong here. It's from O Murchadha, a tribal name meaning the descendants of  Murchadh. Murchadh was a chap and his name meant sea-warrior. But that doesn't make it an occupational surname in the way that this map maps so wonderfully, as it doesn't map the most common occupation merely the tribe that bred the most. Murdoch, on the other hand, which is etymologically related, does mean sailor.

For another hidden Smith, see this old post of mine.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Another Book, Trullibubs and Kallithumpian Bands

As I have been terribly lazy about updating the dear old Inky Fool, I think I should inform you all (if you're still there) that I have signed a contract with Penguin to write another book that will come out a little before Christmas this year.

But whereas before I've written about etymology for Christmas, words for Christmas, and rhetoric for Christmas; this time I'm writing about Christmas. For Christmas. A whole book upon the origins of Christmas traditions, rituals and Brussels sprouts (which first appeared in an English recipe book in 1845).

I've been reading A Dissertation on Mistletoe and The Department Store: A Social History and the original poem of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and I currently know more about Santa Claus than can possibly be healthy.

In my researches I have come across a couple of lovely words. Trullibubs means entrails, but can also be a "jeering term for a fat man". And a kallithumpian band is one composed of a bunch of drunk people banging pots and pans and blowing whistles.

I also know, for absolute certain, that Coca Cola did not invent the modern Father Christmas with their advertising campaign in the 1930s.

December 12, 1923 - Click for high resolution image
This is from 1923, and it's an advertisement for White Rock ginger ale.