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