Tuesday 19 December 2017

Losing your Rag in Rag Week in America

Image result for postman patI've been going through A Short History of Drunkenness for the American edition, changing those words and phrases that would be incomprehensible on the farther shores of the Atlantic. It's a process that I find utterly fascinating.

Some of the phrases are expected: "Does exactly what it says on the tin" comes from a British advertising campaign of the 1990s. I was surprised that rumpy-pumpy doesn't exist in America, but it was easily replaced with hanky-panky. But I became particularly curious about "lost his rag". This phrase not only doesn't exist in America, but I didn't really know why it existed in Britain.

The phrase is first recorded in 1928:

Finally, losing his rag completely, he extended his fingers to his nose and challenged any three men in the audience to come up on the platform and fight him.

This goes back to an old Yorkshire term "to get somebody's rag out", and that in turn appears to go back to the use of rag to mean tease, torment, scold etc. That's the same rag that you have in Rag-Week at University: the first week when everybody chases each other around rather boisterously. And it's also the origin of the American phrase to rag on sombody as in this line from 1979:

Critics all over the country..for years and years have been ragging on Joyce Carol Oates.

So Americans, it turns out, can be ragged on, but their rag cannot be gotten out, and nor can it ever be lost; they're just too good tempered.

The other problematic differences were the absence of Postman Pat on those distant shores (the British version points out that a Sumerian drinking song can be sung to the theme music), and finding a precise American equivalent of Maidstone.

Anyhow, A Short History of Drunkenness is already available in Britain, indeed the Spectator says that:

My favourite book of this and possibly any other Christmas is Mark Forsyth's A Short History of Drunkenness

And as it would make the perfect present for just about anybody, it should immediately be bought from a bookshop or one of these people:

Book Depository

And for all who don't know or remember here is the original Ronseal advertisement that changed our language, followed by the original Postman Pat theme.

(American readers should note that the majority of British English is now based on this one advertisement)

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Why British Singers Sound American

An American asked me the other day why so many English pop stars sing with American accents. Actually, that's not true. An American at the next table in the pub was asking loudly why English pop stars sing with American accents and I thought it would be a bit weird to lean across and explain. But if I had, I'd have said the following.

From here on in, when I say "American" I mean the Mid-West accent, and when I say English I mean BBC English - this is largely because no pop stars sound Cornish. There are a bunch of differences between these two accents, but a lot of them involve vowels and are hard to write about, so, for the moment, let's concentrate on a nice simple one. In American, when a T-sound appears between two vowels it turns into a D. So butter in American is pronounced budder; pity is pronounced piddy; and little is liddle. An English soldier has a medal made out of metal; an American soldier has a medal made out of medal. The English say better, the Americans say bedder.

The American pronunciation is actually a lot easier on the tongue. Try it. To pronounce the T in the middle of better you need to flick your tongue all the forward to touch your upper teeth and then pull it back in time for the vowel. In American all you have to do to make that D-sound is tap your tongue against the roof of your mouth.

In fact, most of the standard differences in the American accent are easier to pronounce than their English counterparts. You could even, if you were so minded, say that they were lazier. This may make English people feel superior. We proud Brits take the time to pronounce things properly, unlike those lackadaisical Yanks. Huzzah!

But we shouldn't think that, because sometimes the English pronunciation is the lazier/easier one. The English, for example, do not bother to pronounce the R on the end of words. Instead, we just say Uh. So singer in English becomes sing-uh and don't bother is don't both-uh. The Americans, with their strong work ethic and can-do attitude make sure that they say singerr and botherr.

So, when, just now, I said that the English say better and the Americans say bedder, I lied. In fact:

The English say bettuh (proper T, lazy R).

The Americans say bedderr (lazy T, proper R)

By proper here, I don't mean right and wrong. In fact, I've just been sitting here trying to say betterr, and it sounds very odd. I think I may be Welsh. It doesn't matter.

The important thing is what happens when you pronounce both sounds the lazy way. You end up with bedduh - a sort of strange, hybrid, transatlantic mongrel of a word. But who would be so lazy as say it that way?

The answer is, somebody who's concentrating on breathing, and hitting the right note, and getting the right emotion in, whilst simultaneously playing the piano. Here is a video of Paul McCartney pronouncing the word better. (And, yes, that's why I chose the word. Clever, aren't I?)

Bedduh, bedduh, bedduh, BEDDUH.

Here, on the other hand, is Mr Wilson Pickett, an American, singing the same song, and pronouncing better as bedduh. The lazy way on both sounds.

And if you want a few others, here's Elvis, Katy Perry, Elton John (for one verse), and a Chinese lady called Yao Si Ting. They all sing Bedduh.

They aren't trying to sing in an American accent or in a British accent; they're just trying to sing.

Singing is difficult so both Americans and Brits default to the easier pronunciation of the consonants. With most consonants the easier pronunciation is American, so both Brits and Americans tend to sound pretty American. Or to be more precise their accent comes from somewhere about 150 nautical miles east of New York.

Of course, there are some exceptions to this. First, classically trained singers spend a lot of time on training to get their words just right: fully pronounced consonants and nice clear vowels. They have to spend a lot of time on this because it's very, very difficult.

Second, some English singers do try to sound American. Michael Jagger is definitely putting it on.

Third, some English singers do pronounce their Ts. Roger Waters springs to mind.

But most of the times they're just taking the route of least resistance. D-ing their Ts, unrounding their Os and dropping their yods.

And if you're wondering what that last term means, English people put a sort of Y sound in words like tune and new, which we pronounce t-yune and n-yoo (to exaggerate it slightly), but which Americans often pronounce as toon and noo. This is called yod-dropping.

And I shall leave you with mystery:based on her yods, what nationality is the female singer of A Whole New World?

That's right, she's from the Philippines.

Anyhow, there are lots of other differences between American English and British English. I spent yesterday going through my new book, A Short History of Drunkenness, changing incomprehensible Britishisms so that they would be comprehensible for the American edition (out in May). This is troublesome when it comes to the drink that Scotsmen call whisky and Americans call whiskey.

The Spectator said this week that:

My favourite book of this and possibly any other Christmas is Mark Forsyth's A Short History of Drunkenness

Which means that you should almost certainly buy it immediately and thus solve all your Christmas-present-buying problems in one. You can get it in any good bookshop, or from these people.

Book Depository

Sunday 10 December 2017

Snow and Snew

A repost from 2010:

Eskimos have no more words for snow than we do. The notion that they do is a myth, a mirage, and a cold white lie. They certainly don't have fifty of the damned things.

We have a few words of our own: snowblizzardsleetslushpowder and neve (a field of even snow). And if we feel this isn't enough, we simply invent compounds: snowstormsnow-flake, snow-flurry, snow drift, snowfall and snowperson.

It is exactly the same in your average igloo. The Eskimo-Aleut languages (of which there are several) have a few bases and many compounds. So the next time somebody repeats this porkie to you, cudgel him.

The urban myth of the Eskimo's verbosity did give rise to the young and useful word snowclone. A snowclone is hackneyed sentence structure. X is the new rock'n'roll. What do you get if you cross an X with a Y?*

The reason it's called a snowclone is that so many hackneyed hacks have written something along the lines of:

If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.

Snowclone was invented by a language blog called Language Log, which goes to show something, but I don't know what.

The past tense of snow used to be snew, on the same pattern as grow and grew or know and knew. So it snew in the night.

This from Froissart's Chronicles (1525):

Also it rayned, blewe, & snewe, that it was a mervaylouse yvell wether.

And this from Holinshed's describing special effects in a theatrical production of Dido in 1583:

It hailed small confects, rained rosewater, and snew an artificiall kind of snow.

*I imagine that the answer would be that you'd get back together with her.

Thursday 7 December 2017


Sometimes an etymology is so obvious, once you see it, that you can't think why you never saw it at all. A dumbbell was, originally, a bell that didn't ring.

The idea is pretty simple really, bell-ringing is a form of exercise. Church bells are big heavy things and a bell-ringer must really tug on that rope. I once wrote a post explaining that to ring a full peal of bells takes several hours and a huge amount of energy (was that seven years ago? I've been doing this for much too long). The problem is that, as a form of regular keep-fit, it's a trifle noisy and will get on your neighbours' nerves.

Hence the dumb-bell. The first reference is from Joseph Addison writing in The Spectator in 1711:

For my own part, when I am in town, for want of these opportunities, I exercise my self an hour every morning upon a dumb bell, that is placed in a corner of my room, and pleases me the more because it does every thing I require in the most profound silence.  My landlady and her daughters are so well acquainted with my hours of exercise, that they never come into my room to disturb me while I am ringing.

So what exactly did such a mute piece of gym equipment look like? Well, here's one from the Seventeenth Century that survives (I think) at Knole House in Kent:

Basically, the sticky-out bits have weights on them. When you pull on the rope (from below) they rotate, as a bell does, and then, through momentum, wind the rope up again. You now give another pull and so on and so forth. There's a little more information to be had by following this link to a modern dumb bell manufacturer.

At some point somebody seems to have taken those sticks with the weights on the end off the dumb bell and started using them on their own. Thus the modern dumbbell.

In other news, tonight I shall be at Waterstones Piccadilly from seven until nine signing A Short History of Drunkenness, other books by me, cheques, Czechs and off.

On Monday, I shall be doing my Dickens show in Clapham.

Next Saturday (the 16th) I shall be at Libreria bookshop in Shoreditch doing a reading at seven. 

The Inky Fool's new alternative to Uber

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Dickens Explained in Clapham

Image result for dickensAnybody who's read The Merry Wives of Windsor (written in about 1598) will have been surprised to see a reference in it to Charles Dickens (born 1812). It's in Act II scene 2 and goes like this:

I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my
husband had him of. What do you call your knight's
name, sirrah?

Sir John Falstaff.

The reason for this is feat of anachronism is that the Dickens in what the dickens has nothing to do with the surname; it is, instead, a euphemism for the Devil. It may be that there was the Devil, and then there was a little devil or devilkins. Kin is common English diminutive as in lambkin or bunnykins or napkin (a nap used to be a tablecloth).

The diminutive kin is also the source of the English surname Dickens which is Little Richard (if you're into rock'n'roll) or Little Dick (if you're a puerile giggler, as I am). And the surname Dickens is the source of Charles Dickens and Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which is the best Christmas story ever written, and there's an actor called Martin Prest who can recite the whole thing, and he's going to be doing so on Monday in Clapham at Bar Humbug, and I'm going to be interrupting him to explain the origins of Christmas Traditions and it ought to be a great show, so you should come along if you're in London.

More information and tickets and the like can be found by following this link. 

Meanwhile I'm doing a talk at Hungerford Books tomorrow (Wednesday 5th), and on Thursday Evening I shall be sitting in Waterstones Piccadilly with a pen ready to sign any and all books that are thrown at me*.

*In all seriousness, I was once doing a signing in Waterstones Piccadilly and a foreign gentleman came up to me, put a book in front of me, and asked me to sign it. I had a good look at it and explained to him that it wasn't my book. "No," he said. "You sign it."
"But I can't really sign it," I replied, "if I didn't write it."
"You are author, yes?"
"Well, yes, but not..."
"You sign it. It's for my daughter."
"But this is by..." I had a look, and the book didn't actually have an author, or not one who'd been prepared to put their name to it, which was surprising as it was a self-help book, and the cover said it was all about feeling "self-worth".
"It's for my daughter. You sign it."
He seemed irked by my recalcitrance, and so I gave in and I signed it E.L. James.
He seemed very happy.

Friday 1 December 2017


I've just discovered that there is a Finnish word for "getting drunk at home in your underwear with no intention of doing anything else". The word is kalsarikännit. This is important news.

At first, I didn't believe it. There are a lot of amazing-foreign-words-with-sentence-long-definitions that either don't exist, or only exist in a very theoretical sense. Yes, a German might be able to put all those words together in the same way that I might be able to say snow-gobbling-day, it doesn't mean that there's such a word in common English usage.

But kalsarikännit is real. The etymology is quite simple: kalsarit means underpants, and känni means to be drunk. So it's underpants-getting-drunk. I don't quite know where the with no intention of doing anything else comes from: it may be poetic license, but I suspect that if you are drunk and in your underpants it would be hard to attempt any task of merit and importance, especially outdoors, especially in Finland.

Tolkien taught himself Finnish as a child in order to read the epic poem Kalevala. I, on the other hand, didn't. So I'm a little unclear on the grammar, but so far as I can tell kalsarikännit is the verb and kalsarikänni is the noun, though I may have that wrong, the sources vary. It's pronounced CARL-sarri-KAN-nit. [See video below, and top comment for greater detail]

Naked drinking has been quite a thing, historically speaking. In the London Gin Craze or the early 18th Century, poor people took to selling their clothes to buy spirits, resulting in mass public nudity. In Ancient Egypt at the Festival of Drunkenness all clothes were removed at around midnight when the sex began, and in early colonial Australia people got drunk and gambled:

To such excess was this pursuit carried among the convicts, that some had been known, after losing provisions, money, and all their spare clothing, to have staked and lost the very clothes on their wretched backs, standing in the midst of their associates as naked, and as indifferent about it, as the unconscious natives of the country.

There are also accounts of naked drinking in Russia and Ancient China, and of course there was Noah in his tent. That however was unintentional self-exposure. It's something of a theme in the Bible. Here is Isaiah describing (in a roundabout way) Egyptian foreign policy. Egypt is like someone:

...who gives drink to his neighbours, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies!
You will be filled with shame instead of glory.
Now it is your turn! Drink and let your nakedness be exposed!

All of these fascinating facts are of course mentioned and enlarged upon in A Short History of Drunkenness, which is a book by me. It can be bought from these lovely people, or in a real bookshop.

Book Depository

In other news, I'll be doing a talk at Hungerford Books on the 6th, a signing at Waterstones Piccadilly on the 7th, and a show about Dickens' Christmas Carol in Clapham on the 11th.

Incidentally, a tip of the hat should go to the Spectator's review of Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North, where I discovered this.

Thursday 30 November 2017

Some More Spanish Place Names

Image result for dan snow history hit
Explained below
My Spanish studies continue with all the alacrity and promise of an armada. I was idly flicking through the Psalms (or Salmos, which is the strange Spanish spelling) when I came across this:

Hasme puesto en el hoyo profundo, En tinieblas, en honduras.

Which seemed, to my ignorant eye, to say:

You have put me in a deep pit, in darkness, in Honduras. 

Which seemed an odd thing to happen to a chap in Jerusalem, and also to be rather rude about Hondurans. However I should have read it as:

You have laid me in the lowest pit,
In darkness, in the depths.

Because that's what Honduras means: The Depths. It was, apparently, named after the adjacent sea, which is rather profound.

Anyhow, here are a few more of greater or lesser obviousness:

El Salvador = The Saviour

Nevada = Snowy (because of the mountains)

Costa Rica = Rich Coast

Puerto Rico = Rich Port (because Spanish adjectives are agreeable)

Florida = Was discovered on Palm Sunday, which, in Spanish, is Pascua Florida or Flowering Easter. It's therefore named in almost exactly the same was as Easter Island. It's also cognate with Florence (blooming city), florid and floral. Also, the Florin was the coin of Florence, so called because it had a lily - the symbol of the city - stamped on one side.

And those who've read The Etymologicon will already know that:

Ecuador = Equator

Venezuela = Little Venice (because the natives lived on little huts on poles out in the water)

I am sad to report, though, that Quito does not mean removed.

None of which has anything to do with this the historian Dan Snow, but I did do a long interview with him for his podcast about the new and wonderful book A Short History of Drunkenness. You can listen to it by clicking on this link. He's a lovely fellow, and very, very tall. I'm serious. I'm 6'2" and it takes quite a lot to make me feel like a midget, which is how I felt throughout.

As ever, A Short History of Drunkenness can be obtained in all reasonably good bookshops, or over the Internet from these people:

Book Depository

And, as Margaret Atwood says, it's "Highly suitable for Xmas!"

This place is the pits

Monday 20 November 2017

Tutus, Cul-de-Sacs and French Bottoms

A tutu (the thing that ballerinas wear) is a bum-bum, or an arse-arse if you prefer. Or, if you are of the American persuasion, I suppose it's an ass-ass. It's an alteration of cucu, which is itself a shortening of cul-cul, which is French for arse-arse. The French are terribly relaxed about such things, the British, thank God, are uptight and anxious. The very first mention of the tutu in 1910 said:

She wished to exhibit what in technical slang is called le tutu, a term descriptive of the abbreviated costume and possessed also of a secondary meaning.

And that secondary meaning was arse. (If, by the way, you were wondering what a tutu was called in Britain before 1910, it was a parasol-skirt).

The French are always inserting their arses into the English language. There is, for example, the cul-de-sac which literally means arse of a bag and which sneaks onto English street signs without anybody noticing. Before this disgusting French term was introduced, the English had a much better, cleaner native term for a dead end; we called it a butt-hole. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary's butt-hole entry lists this as the only meaning.

butt-hole  n. a blind hole, a cul-de-sac.

1905   Westm. Gaz. 3 Mar. 3/2   The old dog's got him [sc. a badger] in a butt hole.

I have never managed to get a badger into a butt-hole, because I don't have a dog.

The reason for all this Gallic hideousness is probably a thing called the French Revolution. What happened was that French aristocrats wore knee-breeches, but the French poor didn't and were forced to wear unfashionable trousers. This infuriated the poor. There was a big fight and it was won by the without-breeches, or, in French the sans-culottes.

To be fair, though, even occasional Frenchmen sometimes have enough decency to look at their language and decide that Something Must Be Done. Voltaire wrote a letter To The Men of Paris, and signed it with a fake name and address. The address is given as:

l'impasse de St Thomas du Louvre; car j'appelle impasse, Messieurs, ce que vous appelez cul-de-sac: je trouve qu'une rue ne ressemble ni à un cul ni à un sac: je vous prie de vous servir du mot d'impasse, qui est noble, sonore, intelligible, nécessaire, au lieu de celui de cul

Which translates roughly as:

The Impasse of St Thomas du Louvre; what I call an "Impasse", gentlemen, is what you would call a "cul-de-sac": I find that a street resembles neither an arse or a bag: I would like to give you the word "Impasse", which is noble, sonorous, intelligible, and necessary, in place of the word "arse".

Many, many streets in France are now called impasse, and the word seems to have been invented by Voltaire.

And if this whole horrid subject has made you recoil like Voltaire, you should remember that recoil comes from the French reculer meaning to go back. 

You could also read less bottom-fixated writing such as, for example, the new book A Short History of Drunkenness. It's by me but, as I recall, it only contains one bottom and that's Odin's (it's to do with a legend about mead).

A Have-Not (left) and a Have (right). Both are revolting.

Thursday 16 November 2017

The Unhelpful Alphabet

Image result for alpha bravo charlieI spent my schooldays being asked whether I was related to Bruce Forsyth or Frederick Forsyth. It therefore bothers me that, now I have come to man's estate, nobody knows how to spell my name. But I can also never bring myself to say "Like Bruce".

Anyhow, I spend a lot of time on the phone feeling slightly peeved as I say "F for forest, O for oligarch, R for Rabelaisian..."

Your mind tends to go blank unless you happen to know the NATO phonetic alphabet - Alpha, Bravo, Charlie etc. And I do sometimes find myself, in a fit of intolerable cruelty, throwing odd words in there. "S for sesquipedalianism".

But then it occurred to me to wonder what the least helpful phonetic alphabet would be, on the basis that if you're going to be unfair to be people in customer service who are just doing their job, you should be unfair properly, methodically and with malice aforethought.

The result is this. The Phorsighth Phonetic Alphabet. It's a bit weak in places. L is a cop-out. If you have any improvements, please leave them in the comments. It, of course, works best when read aloud.

A for Aitch (or Are, or Aye)

B for Bdelygmia

C for Cue (or Chute or Chthonic)

D for Double-U (or Djinn)

E for Ewe (or Ex or Eye)

F for Fill (to confuse Philips)

G for Gnaw

H for Heir

I for Itself

J for Jägermeister

K for Knight

L for Lwei (an Angolan monetary unit. One hundred lweis make a kwanza) Apparently, the Polish town of Lodz is pronounced Wodge, but that may be cheating.

M for Mnemonic

N for Night

O for Our

P for Phew

Q for Quay

R for Rwanda

S for See

T for Tmesis (or Tsar)

U for… um [long pause and then continue suddenly]

V for Vroom (although I was thinking of vrbaite, “A sulphide of thallium, mercury, arsenic, and antimony”, from the Czech, of course).

W for Why

X for Xenagogue (a tour guide)

Y for You

Z for Zloty

[Edit: improvements are already being made C for Cue, Lodz/Wodge for L, and T for Tsar]

As I say, if you have improvements, I'd love to hear them. In other news, Djinn sounds like gin, which leads me back to my new book A Short History of Drunkenness blah, blah, blah. There's a cartoon about it on page 34 of the new Private Eye, and you can as ever buy it from these people.

Oh, and in other news, I shall be doing an event in Clapham on Monday the 11th of November about Dickens' Christmas Carol. Well, it will actually be Dickens' Christmas Carol performed by the wonderful Martin Prest, and I shall provide explanations of where the Christmas traditions come from. More information here.

And I shall be talking about A Short History of Drunkenness at the Hungerford Bookshop on December the sixth.

I may be Forsyth, but this is forsythia

Monday 13 November 2017

From the Angels to the Foothills

A few weeks ago I decided to learn Spanish, for no reason whatsoever (I'd say that it was to talk to Spaniards, but I haven't done that yet). One of the amusing results is that I now understand some place names, especially in the New World.

Everybody, I think, knows that Los Angeles means The Angels, but it's therefore rather fun to read Psalms 8v5, where we are told of God's creation of man:

Le has hecho poco menor que los ángeles

Which translates roughly as

Thou hast made him a little lower than Los Angeles

As an English speaker, I just wasn't expecting it, and it made me giggle. Nor was I expecting 2 Chronicles 26v10 where I found:

Porque tuvo muchos ganados, así en la Sefela como en las vegas

Which I puzzled over because I thought, with my limited Spanish, that he has won (ganado) something in Las Vegas, whereas he had, in fact, much livestock in the foothills, which is what las vegas are.

The Bible, by the way, is rather a good way of picking up a language as the vocabulary is quite simple, the story is straightforward and often familiar, and there's lots of repetition. I'm only up to Proverbs, but I can't wait for the Nativity and the shepherds looking up to the sky to see Los Angeles.

Anyhow, here is a brief list of the place names that now make sense to me:

Antigua means old (cognate with antique), because Christopher Columbus named the island after a church in Seville, the Church of Santa Maria Antigua.

Amarillo means yellow, probably because of the colour of the banks of a stream nearby.

La Paz means the peace.

El Paso means the pass, or the way

Paraguay does not mean umbrella, despite the fact that the Spanish for umbrella is paraguas. This is an immense disappointment to me, as I'd love to visit a country called Umbrella.

Rio de la Plata means silver river, which is appropriate as it passes Argentina which comes from the Latin for silver land.

The Alamo is the poplar tree

Los Alamos is/are the poplars. Do Spanish speakers treat it as singular or plural? I do not yet know.

I visited Los Alamos once and my main memory of the place is that you couldn't get a drink anywhere in town on a Sunday afternoon, which is a long way round of reminding you, dear reader, that my new book A Short History of Drunkenness: How why, where and when humankind has got merry from the Stone Age to the present is out and just waiting to be bought.

The Sunday Times had a lovely review that you can read here (though it's behind a paywall). Alternatively you can just buy it from these places.

Book Depository

This tree is beautiful, according to poplar opinion.

Friday 3 November 2017

Post and Mail

I was sneaking around the new Postal Museum at Mount Pleasant when I discovered that, technically, there's a difference between post and mail, something that in my innocence I had never suspected.

The word post in the sense of letters sent in envelopes is actually the same word that you have in post in the sense of job, or guard post, or indeed leaving your post. They all come from the Latin postum, which meant put in place. When a soldier is posted somewhere, he is positioned there by an officer.

Back in the sixteenth century the a system was set up allowing the king to communicate quickly with all parts of England. To do this horses and riders were posted at various intervals along the main roads. When the king wanted to send a letter it was given to a rider who would gallop along to the next post where new horses were posted, the letter could be handed over and thus the whole system of posts ended up being called the post.

This leads to the interesting question of what has actually happened when a postman abandons his post, or how uncomfortable it is for a high-flying executive to be posted to New York.

Obviously, horses can't swim and so the whole postal system was just within Britain. If you wanted to send a letter overseas, to far-flung exotic places like Holland or Guernsey, you had to put it on a ship. A ship would carry a bag of letters, and as an old word for a bag was mail, these were the mail ships and the letters they carried were in the mail, and eventually they were just called the mail.

So domestic letters were post, and letters sent abroad were mail. This distinction has now fallen into the well of forgetfulness, and it's probably not helped by the existence of e-mail and blog posts.

Anyway, it does lead us forward to Alfred Harmsworth and the education acts of the 1880s. These brought in universal literacy in Britain, which meant everybody was able to read newspapers. This led to a boom in newspapers and the newspapers needed names. Alfred Harmsworth founded the Daily Mirror in 1904 and explained that "I intend it to be really a mirror of feminine life as well on its grave as on its lighter sides". The Mirror, you see, was originally aimed solely at women.

Alfred Harmsworth also founded the Daily Mail in 1896, and if you buy a copy today, and turn to page 60 you'll find a review of A Short History of Drunkenness: How, why, where and when humankind has got merry from the Stone Age to the present. It's by a chap called Mark Forsyth and is available in all good bookshops for a mere £12.99. Apparently it's very good. According to the review it's "astonishing" and "a book of some brilliance".

I think you probably ought to buy it.

You can read the review online here. And you can buy the book online from these people:

Book Depository
The Inky Fool makes an important delivery.

Thursday 2 November 2017

A Short History of Drunkenness is Out Today

Quick, run to the bookshops! A Short History of Drunkenness is out today. And it's got a beautiful cover. And it tells you about ancient Sumerian pubs and Chinese lakes filled with wine and Viking mead-halls and Wild West Saloons and Egyptian orgies and mechanical cats that sell gin.

It's now available: available in all good bookshops, probably available in some evil bookshops. Or you can buy it over the internet from these lovely people:

Book Depository

Or you can request it for Christmas, which is coming, or you can buy it for Christmas for all your friends and relations. For that matter you can buy it for your enemies. Margaret Atwood says that A Short History of Drunkenness is "Highly suitable for Xmas!" But it can be obtained now, in November, and it would probably work very well for Guy Fawkes Night or Thanksgiving or The Feast of Winefride, which is tomorrow.

So you'd better hurry.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints the life of St Winefride was a "tissue of improbabilities", by which they mean it's untrue. But A Short History of Drunkenness: How, why, where and when humankind has got merry from the Stone Age to the present, is a tissue of improbabilities that are true. It's all been thoroughly researched and fact checked. So when I talk about 150 drunken elephants going on the rampage in India in the 1980s, it actually happened.

So off to the bookshops. They're lovely places.

The Inky Fool offices this morning

Tuesday 31 October 2017

Wine Names, West Hampstead and Hubris

A little etymology, a little drink, a little bit of self-aggrandisement. The names of wine are always a little magical and mysterious, and as the job of etymology is to remove all magic and mystery from the world, I thought I would go through the names of some of the most common grapes and explain them.

For example, sauvignon blanc has a certain je ne sais quoi to it, or it does until you realise the sauvignon just means wild. It's cognate with savage, you see. They were just grapes that grew wild and so sauvignon blanc just means wild white.

A pinot is a pine tree, and so pinot noir is black pine and pinot grigio is grey pine.

Chablis means deadwood. However, the name is not direct. There's a town in South Dakota called Deadwood, and there's a town in France called Deadwood, except the French, being French, call it Chablis, because that's the French for Deadwood. The grapes simply come from near there.

The French word for blackbird is merle, and the French word for a little blackbird is merlot. This may be because blackbirds liked to feed on this variety of grape as it grew. Or it could be down to the colour.

Grenache comes from the Spanish Garnacha which in turn is comes from the Italian Vernaccio, which just means common. It's exactly the same root as vernacular, because the vernacular is the common tongue.

Temperanillo means the little early one, because it ripens early.

Muscat just means musky. Oddly enough, it's cognate with nutmeg which is, or was, the nut muscada. It has nothing to do with the capital of Oman, where Muscat means hidden (the city is in the hills). Also, I'm afraid, Shiraz has nothing to do with the Iranian city of Shiraz (even though there are several books that claim it does). Nobody knows where the name shiraz comes from.

There is an Italian town of Montepulciano, but they don't grow montepulciano anywhere nearby. This is a mystery.

However, my location tomorrow evening (Wednesday 1st of November) is not a mystery and never shall be. I shall be giving a talk at West End Lane Books in West Hampstead at 7:30. The talk will be about my new book A Short History of Drunkenness: How, why, where and when humankind has got merry from the Stone Age to the present.

So if you're in North London come along.

You may be wondering whether or not to buy the book. I would refer the confused to the Cambridge historian Professor Peter Frankopan who says:

'Sparkling, erudite and laugh out loud funny. Mark Forsyth is the kind of guide that drunks, teetotallers and light drinkers dream of to explain the ins and outs of alcohol use and abuse since the beginning of time. One of my books of the year. Immensely enjoyable.’

That ought to clear that up. The book is officially released on Thursday. You may buy it in a shop, or you may buy over the Internet from these people:

Book Depository

Saturday 30 September 2017

Plonk and a Short History of Drunkenness

Plonk, as in "a bottle of plonk", as in "the cheapest wine on the menu", was, originally, a bottle of plinketty-plonk. And plinketty-plonk was, originally, just a humorous English way of pronouncing the French term vin blanc.

Well, I say English, but I mean Australian. The term is first recorded in that inverted land in 1927. It doesn't pop up in Britain until 1967, when the Daily Telegraph said that:

Surely the word ‘plonk’ is onomatopoeic, being the noise made when a cork is withdrawn from the bottle?

Which tells you something about the Daily Telegraph and perhaps about our post-truth world (did you know that that term post-truth was first recorded in 1992?).

The Australian line makes sense as they have something of a history of wine-making, albeit a stuttering one. The early British settlers (voluntary and otherwise) didn't know much about planting vines, so in 1803 the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Almanac printed some helpful guidelines that they had translated from a French manual. They included lots of instructions about what month to plant in, what month to prune in and so forth, which was was disastrous, as they had forgotten to adjust the French manual for the Southern Hemisphere and the eccentric Australian habit of holding summer in December.

I know all this because I have written a whole book on the history of drunkenness called A Short History of Drunkenness, which will be released in Britain on November the second. It's a tour through the ages looking at how people went about getting drunk in different times and places. If you were in Ancient Egypt and wanted to get stinko where did you go? Who did you go with? What did you drink? How much did you drink? And how did drunkenness fit in to the culture and the mythology and all that sort of stuff.

What was a Wild West Saloon actually like? Or a Viking feast? Or a medieval alehouse?

Anyhow, you should definitely buy it, not because I say so, but because Margaret Atwood says so. So there. She has tweeted of my little book:

Reading: A Short History of Drunkenness, @Inkyfool:Sulphuric acid in the gin? Highly suitable for Xmas! Many synonyms for "drunk."

When greatness descends upon the earth and comes anywhere near me, I come over all giddy, and need a drink.

A Short History of Drunkenness may, can, should and shall be purchased here.