Saturday 29 December 2018


I like precision in all things, even in cloudiness. It's therefore terribly useful to know the word okta, which is the standard unit of measurement of cloud cover. It goes from 0 oktas (clear blue sky) to 8 oktas (completely overcast). I think we can all guess the etymology. Unusually, there is an occasional 9 okta measurement, which means something like too cloudy to see the clouds, although I'm a bit hazy on the subject.

It's curious that this should come to mind while I'm staying in the Lake District.

In the Lake District all of these are possible simultaneously.

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Operating Amphitheatres

When you cut open, it's usually in one of two places: a dark alley, or a theatre; or, to be more precise, an operating theatre. The reason that it's called an operating theatre is quite simple, medical students used to sit in rows and watch. It was a spectator sport to such an extent that it was, until the 1820s just called a theatre without the need of the prefix operating.

In 1823, for example, The Lancet reported that:

At half-past Seven this Theatre was crowded in every part, by upwards of four hundred Students, of the most respectable description; in fact we never before witnessed so genteel a Surgical class.

Which is a pleasant thought for the diseased snob who doesn't want to be cut open by the working classes.

A theatre, of course, has two sides that face each other: the stage and the spectators. There can be no spectators behind the stage as, if there were, the actors wouldn't know in which direction to shout. However, if you don't have actors, but instead gladiators or delicious Christians, then you can have the spectators on both sides. This theatre-of-cruelty-in-the-round, where the the audience is 360 degrees instead of 180, is called an amphitheatre. Amphi just means around, or on both sides, and that is the reason that that something that lives (Greek bios) both on land and in water is called an amphibian. It's also the reason that one of those big old wine jars with a handle on both sides is called an amphora.

Phora there just means carry, and that is the reason that in Greece today a removals man, who carries your furniture from one place to another, is called a metaphor.

We tend to use the word metaphor a little more metaphorically.

Image result for operation old print
The Inky Fool spying on his neighbours

Thursday 8 November 2018

Dublin and the World

I'm going to Ireland, to Dublin, to take part in a brunchtime debate about drink and othersuch fun on Sunday 18th of November. It's part of the Temple Bar Festival of Politics. I find this terribly exciting as I have never been to Ireland before and thus imagine it to be a land of rain and mystery, when in fact it's probably only one of the two.

For the record, my favourite Irish-derived word in the English language is slogan. I wrote about it before in 2010, but shall reprint it here.

Once upon a time a slogan was a battle-cry. When ancient Gaelic warriors raised their kilts and ran into battle they would shout the name of their tribe or their capital before rushing like wolves to the slaughter. If you imagine the modern football hooligan screaming the name of his club, you probably have some idea.

Their army-shouts or sluagh-gairms did not have the desired effect and the English language spread by spear-point and sword into all but the boggiest parts of these rainy islands. Sluagh-gairm was anglicised to slogan and taken up by politicians and plutocrats, cabinet ministers and corporations. Yet, I still like to think of the advertising executives and PR girls girding up their kilts, shrieking their slogans, and running to their brave and selfless deaths.

Meanwhile, A Short History of Drunkenness has been sold (the translation rights that is) to about fifteen countries. It is now translated and available in bookshops in:

Poland - with a postscript by Roberta Makłowicz

And I think:


Which is to say that this tweet must say something, I just don't know what.

Editions are forthcoming in everything from Korean to Spanish via German and Chinese.

I find it all terribly confusing. But I do know what a free brunch is, and that's what you get for your ticket to the Dublin event at Gallagher's Boxty House on Sunday 18th.

Also, if you have any dear friends in one of the above-mentioned countries, I would much appreciate your spreading the good word.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

A Quick Guide to Decoding English Place Names

Image result for newcastle road signIt's generally quite easy to guess the etymology of an English place name, and quite pleasant too, as you get to sound clever. The system is not in the slightest bit infallible, but it generally works. So long as nobody has The Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names to hand, nobody will be able to contradict you, and that's the important thing.

So, here is a quick cheat sheet, and I shall explain at the end why it doesn't always work.


English place names tend to have two elements, perhaps three if they're feeling important. The last element is the important one because it tells you what the place actually was. For example, ton meant farm in Old English. So if the place name ends ton, then way back in the fogs of time it was a farm.

The first element is basically an adjective. Often it's just a physical description. So Norton is North Farm.

Sutton = South Farm
Easton = East Farm
Weston = West Farm.

Not insanely complex.

So, here is a quick and incomplete list of final elements.

Borough = Fortification

Burn/Bourne = Stream

Bury = Manor or estate, i.e. a big farm

By = Viking town (that's why they're only in the North in the old Danelaw)

Chester/caster/cester = Roman fort

Cot/coates = Cottages

Ley/leigh/ly = Clearing in a forest

Don = Hill

Den = Woodland or valley (or, sometimes, a wooded valley)

Ham = Home (or sometimes it means land that stretches out into a river)

Hurst = Wooded hill

Ing = Family land (-ing means that the first element is definitely someone's name. It's often compounded to -ington or -ingham or somesuch. So Birmingham is Beorm's family's home)

Sea = Island, or a bit of dry ground in the middle of a marsh

Ton = Farm

Ware = Weir

Wick/wich = Market. To be more precise wick is a market or a very specialised farm. It means that an industry was concentrated there. Whether Chiswick was a cheese factory or a cheese farm or a cheese market is hard to say. But we do know that Chiswick was cheesy, as was Keswick, and that Gatwick contained many goats.

Worth = Enclosure i.e. there was a fence up to keep out the wolves and the Welsh and other furry creatures of the night.

First Elements

The first element is a description.

The first element can be physical. I hope that Up- is self-explanatory. Or there's chal/chil, which means cold. Sometimes it refers to a nearby physical feature. Underhill or Exmouth should both be clear, provided you've heard of the river Exe.

Often, the first element an animal or a plant. Shepton is obviously a sheep farm. But often the animal can be a little hidden. For example Swin = Swine = Pig. So Swinton is Pig FarmHoun Hound DogCraw Crow. So when you see a first element just wonder vaguely to yourself whether it sounds roughly like a common animal.

Musbury, Musgrave, Muscoates and Muston were all infested with mice.

The same thing happens with the plants. The Old English for Oak was Ac, so Acton is Oak Farm. Lind is Linden tree (or lime tree as we usually call it). Poplar is poplar.

But the main thing to remember about the etymology of English place names is that they're mostly very, very boring, because they are named after people. These are not important people. It's just that once upon a time there was a guy who owned that farm or that clearing or that weir. So people called it after him. And so some Anglo-Saxon lives on forever. This accounts for most place names.

Well, to be honest, I've never done a full study. But I just opened the Dictionary of Place Names at a random page and found that of the 22 entries, 11 were called after people, including Chilbolton which was a farm that belonged to Ceolbeald.

So, to dash around North London: Finchley is a clearing in a forest (a ley) that was once filled with finches, but Wembley? Well, there isn't any animal or plant that sounds much like Wemb, so you could guess that it was Wemb's clearing, and you'd be pretty much spot on. It was Wemba's clearing, which means that those football supporters who sing about Wemb-a-ley, are etymologically correct.

And there you have it. Look at the last element. Ask yourself whether the first element sounds like a plant or an animal or some physical description. Otherwise assume that it's the name of some Anglo-Saxon chap. You'll be right about three quarters of the time.

It is time for the destruction of error

I'm afraid that even a medium sized blog post like this cannot make you immediately infallible.
You may well be wrong. There are three main reasons for this.

1) Sometimes names just change over time for no good reason. There's a place in London called Aldgate. Anybody who knows anything about Old English can tell you that that means Old Gate. But it doesn't. Originally it was called Alegate (beer gate, presumably because beer was sold there). And then in the late Medieval period a D somehow insinuated itself and took up residence.

2) What looks like on thing is in fact another. There's a place in London called Brixton, which, using this method would come out as something like Mr Brix's Farm. In fact, the older records have it down as Brigga's Stone.

3) Sometimes something completely different comes in. A property developer can think up a nice sounding name. Baron's Court in West London is precisely that. The developer just wanted it to sound as posh as Earl's Court, which is the area next door. Further out, there's Richmond. It's only called that because the Duke of Richmond built a palace there. So really it's named after Richmond in Yorkshire, which is hundreds of miles away. (Since you ask, Richmond in Yorkshire is Rich Mount from the Norman French).

The only way to be sure, is to consult a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names. The writers of that have gone back to the Doomsday book etc and actually checked. But as very few people carry one around, you can always get away with a bit of specious speculation using the above method. Plus, it makes road signs mildly more interesting.

P.S. I've used the term "English" here because, obviously, none of this works for a Celtic place name. It would have confused things. The prefix Kil- means calf in English and Church in Celtic. Mind you, there are English place names all over the British Isles, and lots of Celtic place names in England. The Celts survived here, and where they lived the preface is Wal-, which was the Old English word for foreigner.

P.P.S. Through all this I'm missing out words that are the same in modern English like Church or Ford or Bridge. You should have worked out what Newton means by now. And if you can't work out what Newcastle is then you're either very silly or very clever.

Image result for john bull bombarding the bum boats
This map should now make sense

Wednesday 12 September 2018

Time is of the Essence or at Large

Image result for clock antique  printI've used the phrase time is of the essence all my life without realising that it has a quite precise legal meaning. I just thought that it meant something like get your skates on or show a leg or hurry up. But it is much stronger than that. Time is of the essence because it's essential to the contract.

Contracts usually have a deadline in them, but it's not that important. If I have a contract to write a book and I hand it in a month late nobody particularly cares. The world remains quite extraordinarily calm.

Some contracts, like building ones have a deadline where the supplier is penalised a bit if they're late. But the contract itself still stands (and has usually taken all this into account).

But sometimes the whole contract is based on the deadline, and if the deadlines is missed the contract is null and void. If I'm delivering perishable goods, like milk, to you, and it arrives three weeks late and very sour: then the goods are worthless. The deadline is broken and with it the whole contract. You pay me nothing.

A wedding cake that arrives too late is no longer a wedding cake. It is mere cake. The essence of the task, the central part of it, has been destroyed.

In cases like this the contract stipulates that time is of the essence, which means that failure to meet the deadline renders the contract defunct.

The opposite of time is of the essence is the much rarer, but rather beautiful time at large. Time at large, in a contract, means that the task must be done, but it really doesn't matter when. Take your time. Have cup of tea. Go for a stroll. Wander around like a lazy outlaw who is at large.

You can find out more from these two articles on construction contracts.

A grand tip of the hat to the Antipodean for pointing this out to me. And for those who like a little light swearing:

P.S. For anybody interested. My book A Short History of Drunkenness is now out in Polish, Italian, Estonian, Romanian and Portuguese (for the Brazilian market).

Thursday 6 September 2018

A Measure of Rudeness

Image result for dr syntax rowlandsonI've found something beautiful. The British television regulator, Ofcom, whose job it is to see that we are shocked politely, commissioned a study of exactly how rude rude words were. The poll was carried out by Ipsos Mori who went off and quite earnestly asked a representative sample of the Great British public what they thought about the word tits.

This is therefore the official British list of naughty words.

The results, in all their muddied glory, are available online here. They're rather fascinating, and very usefully arranged by subject. So if you were trying to mildly insult an old man, but couldn't think of anything to say, you could consult the survey and find:

Coffin Dodger: Mild language, generally of little concern. Seen as humorous, including by older participants. Some said that more aggression or specific intent to hurt would heighten impact, but not common enough for this to be based on experience.

Some of the words in the survey were previously unknown to me. I had never in my life heard of a bloodclaat or a chi-chi man, which shows that I am an essentially innocent person. I'd also not heard the term Iberian Salute, although a quick check on the Internet shows what it is (bend your right elbow, clench your right fist with the knuckles facing away from you, put your left hand on your right bicep. The French call it the bras d'honneur).

Anyhow, it's a fascinating read, and you can measure your opinion of a word's rudeness against that of the general public. My favourite line in it, though, came under Discriminatory Language, subsection Race and Ethnicity.

Taff: Medium language, potentially unacceptable. Some uncertainty outside Wales about how offensive it is to Welsh people.

It is time to end this uncertainty. I'm off on a research trip to Offa's Dyke with a megaphone and a pair of binoculars.

The perils of life in Oswestry

Thursday 5 July 2018

Emojis and Emoticons

Image result for smiley faceThe etymology of emoji ought to be obvious. It's a little digital picture: hence e- like e-mail. And it expresses emotion: hence emo-. Except that that's not it at all.

First, the OED mentions that the word dates, in Japanese, back to at least 1928, when computer graphics were not up to much. That also means that it's got little to do with e-things or emo-things. E here means picture in Japanese and moji means character. So it's a pictograph, indeed emoji may have originally been a straight Japanese translation of the English word.

Emoji is therefore closely related to Kanji, which is the Japanese writing system that uses Chinese characters. Kan = Chinese and ji = letter. 

(So far as I can tell moji and ji are the same, but I don't speak a word of Japanese, I am simply relying on the clever people at the OED, who, I suspect, do.)

Emoticons, on the other hand, are emotion-icons and have been recorded since 1988. They are therefore utterly unrelated to emojis.

Image result for Choju Jinbutsu Giga
And this is from a Japanese picture scroll, or e-makimono, or emaki.

Thursday 31 May 2018

Booze, Glorious American Booze

Image result for american flagMuch has happened since A Short History of Drunkenness came out in America a couple of weeks ago. First, there's a lovely review in the New York Times. I believe it will be in the print edition on Sunday, but, like an insomniac spider, it's already on the web and you can read it by following this link. I never thought that I picture I drew would end up in the NYT.

Second, there's a review the Wall Street Journal, which you can read here.

Third, I did an interview for the lovely folks at Big Blend Radio Hour that you can listen to by following this link.

Fourth, I wrote an article for Read It Forward, that, if you are forward, you can read here. It's about great fictional drunkards.

All of which leaves no excuse for any whisk[e]y drinker. A Short History of Drunkenness is officially a "refreshingly guilt-free account of getting sloshed through the ages".

Incidentally, in case you wanted to see the original Pubai seal, here it is. The beer drinkers are at the top centre, using straws to avoid all the horrid sediment that you got in Sumerian beer.

Tuesday 22 May 2018

The Moon May Be Made of Green Cheese

As a child I was confident that the moon wasn't made of green cheese, because, even at an early age, I could see that the moon was not green. I considered myself quite precocious in this, and imagined that my parents were proud of me.

But now that I am of man's estate, I discover that green cheese isn't green either. It's merely new, unripened, unmatured cheese. Green cheese is only green in the sense that a raw recruit is said to be green. This the original sense of green cheese recorded from the C14th century onwards.

Of course, if a cheese is physically green, you can call it "green cheese". Nobody is going to stop you. I have neither the time nor the weaponry.

And anyhow, the OED records that sense too. This quotation is from 1673:

They [the Dutch] have four or five sorts of Cheese... Green Cheese, said to be so coloured with the juice of Sheep's Dung.

But the original green cheese was usually white. Moreover, cheeses, traditionally, were usually round. This makes it a near certainty that the moon is made of green cheese; and that that's why you have a new moon every month, to keep it green. That's science.

So I was wrong as a boy, those were, as Cleopatra put it:

My salad days,
When I was green in judgement, cold in blood

Cheese, of course, goes with wine and sherry, which for some reason reminds me that my new and beautiful book A Short History of Drunkenness How, Why, Where, and When Humankind has gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present is out in America, and should be bought at once by all American readers.

The Inky Fool reached a melancholy 67%, but there was nothing more at the shop.

Monday 14 May 2018

Some Concealed Pigs

The wart is below the eye.
The pig is a curious creature. We all think we know what it is: that dear old, rather intelligent thing, rootling around in the mud and stuffed with lovely bacon.

And then one considers the guinea pig, which contains no bacon at all.

Then one thinks further and you realise that there's the hedge-hog. And the groundhog and the warthog and the road hog and that none of them, except maybe the last, contains bacon. And of course a wart-hog is just that. It's a hog with what appear to be warts. But a guinea pig doesn't look like a pig at all. Nor does a hedgehog. A hedgehog looks a bit like a porcupine.

And then, if you mull of the word porcupine enough:




You suddenly realise that a porcupine is merely a pork with spines, from the Old French porc-espin. It's enough to make a strictly kosher chap run screaming for the ocean, where of course there are no pigs at all. Unless a sea-pig existed. And there may be sea-lions and sea-horses but, surely there is no pigfish. Not even in Old French. That would be a porc peis - from the Latin pisces. Or porpais as it was by the twelfth century.

And then you realise your true porpoise in life.

The only possible way to relax is to visit the provinces and read poetry. So you quietly retreat to Swindon with a copy of Swinburne. And you know that don means hill and that burn means stream, but don't whatever you do think any further.

Incidentally, the Dutch don't say pearls before swine, they say roses before swine*, which I somehow think is prettier.

None of this has anything much to do with my new book A Short History of Drunkenness, which has just been released in America. But, if you're American and interested in history, or drunkenness, or if you're simply short, you should immediately buy a copy. You can do so by the simple expedient of following this link.

The Inky Fool found he'd been talking at crossed porpoises

*Or that's what I read, but see the comments.

Tuesday 8 May 2018

American Wino

Today is a day that will live in revelry: A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where and When Humankind has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present is released in the good ol' US of A. It's published by Three Rivers Press and you can read all about it, or even purchase it by following this link, or by toddling down to a bookstore.

The book should feel at home on that continent, as it has two chapters devoted to American drinking: one on the Wild West saloon and what it was actually like; and one on the subject of Prohibition and how, contrary to myth, it actually pretty much worked.

So in celebratory spirit, and in no particular order, here are some facts about drinking in America taken from the book.

1) In 1797 the largest distillery in America produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year. It was owned by the great distiller of early America, a man called George Washington.

2) The Pilgrim Fathers weren’t meant to land at Plymouth Rock, but the Mayflower had run out of beer. So they had to stop there.

3) American settlers, unless they lived very close to a brewery, drank spirits because they were easily transportable. A Kentucky breakfast was defined (in 1822) as ‘three cocktails
and a chaw of terbacker’.

A cocktail here is in essence exactly what it sounds like: a ‘Cock tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters’ (1806). Whiskey for breakfast could be considered a challenge even then, so by mixing in a little fruit juice, or whatever came to hand, you
could take in all the health-giving benefits of an alcoholic breakfast (which were still believed in) and not vomit.

4) A lot of the booze sold in Old West saloons was fake. Here is a contemporary recipe for making something apparently indistinguishable from rye whiskey.

Neutral spirit, four gallons; alcoholic solution of starch, one gallon; decoction of tea, one pint; infusion of almonds, one pint; color with one ounce of the tincture of cochineal, and of burnt sugar, four ounces; flavor with oil of wintergreen, three drops, dissolved in one ounce of alcohol.

5) Prohibition didn't fully end until 1966 when alcohol became legal in Oklahoma.

6) Prohibition is a major reason that Italian food became popular in America, but to find out why, you will have to buy the book.

A Short History of Drunkenness can be bought from all good bookstores, and, I suspect, some bad ones. And purchased at all the usual sites on the World Wide Web. Follow this link for much more information.

And remember that Americans have always liked a tipple. There was a man called Frederick Marryat who travelled the USA in the 1830s and wrote a book trying to describe this new country to old Europe. He records that in the USA:

If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain, you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink.

Friday 4 May 2018

German Names

Image resultI've always liked foreign surnames. They're just so foreign. So exotic. And then you learn the language and you find that the names have a translation and that the translation is so dull, so very dull.

And that amuses me.

As a little boy, like most little boys, I loved Ferraris. The name seemed to encapsulate speed and glamour and whatnot. And when I became a man and found out that Ferrari is the Italian for Smith, and the most common surname in that doubtful peninsula, it made me giggle.

And then you find that Giuseppe Verdi is just Joe Green and that Giacomo Casanova is Jacob Newhouse and so on and so forth. But whereas Italians names all sound romantic (at least to the ears of Albion), Germans all sound austere and imposing. So just to ruin everything, here are a few Germans composers (or at least composers with German surnames):

Johann Sebastian Bach = John Sebastian Creek (I've no idea how this may relate to the British TV show Jonathan Creek)
Leonard Bernstein = Leo Amber
Robert Zimmerman (real name of Bob Dylan) = Bob Carpenter
Richard Wagner = Ricky Wainwright

And here are a few more Germans for good measure:

Richter Scale = Judge Scale
Schneider = Tailor
Schumacher = Shoemaker
Muller = Miller
Claudia Schiffer = Claudia Skipper (as in ship's captain)
Albert Einstein = Bertie One-stone (Technically the surname here originally meant "place surrounded by a stone wall")
Boris Becker = Boris the Baker
Max Weber = Max Weaver
Carl Jung = Charles Young
Sigmund Freud = Sigmund Joy

As James Joyce one wrote somewhere in the middle of Finnegan's Wake "they were yung and easily freudened".

Not that I'm an expert in German, or course. As Jerome K. Jerome put it somewhere in the middle of Three Men in a Boat: "I don’t understand German myself.  I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since."

This is Mr Joy

P.S. I know some of these people are Austrian, but the names are German.

P.P.S. Only four days until A Short History of Drunkenness is released in America.

Tuesday 1 May 2018


Illustration Hordeum vulgare0B.jpgAs I get older (which I keep, for some reason, doing), I find that I'm the only one of my friends not furiously procreating and getting married. Sometimes, (and you may be shocked to hear this) they even do it in that order.

There is therefore much demand in our modern and sinful world, for the old Shropshire dialect term barley-child. A barley-child is a baby born within six months of the wedding. This seems to be because your average farmer plants barley and reaps it six months later.

Anyway, barley-child is a useful term in these fallen times, and so I've been using it. Sternly.

It also shows that, though we of the modern world may be going to hell on a sex-crazed handcart, Shropshire has always been bad.

Shropshire within England
A heat-map showing fornication in the UK

P.S. Barley-child first pops up in Shropshire Word-Book, a Glossary of Archaic and Provincial Words Etc (1879). It's a cracking read.

P.P.S. Only one week until A Short History of Drunkenness is published in the U.S. of A.

Monday 30 April 2018

Why There Are No Bears In The Antarctic

Image result for polar bear old printThere are no polar bears at the South Pole because it's etymologically impossible.

If you look to the north on a clear night (an idea that seems extraordinary in Britain at the moment), you will see the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Ursa Minor is so far North that it even contains the Pole Star.

Ursa is just the Latin word for bear (and constellation is Latin for together stars (con-stella)). That's why louche English astronomers will call these constellations the Great Bear and the Little Bear.

But Greek astronomers, being Greek, didn't use either the Latin ursa or English bear, they used the Greek work Arctos, which also just means bear.

So the Arctic is, literally, the bear-place. And the opposite end of the world is the Antarctic or Anti-Arctic or No-Bears-Here-Place.

And that's why polar bears don't move to the Antarctic. They feel unwelcome, etymologically speaking. This may be a ploy on the part of the penguins.

Mind you, polar bears are etymologically impossible, because bear come from the Proto-Germanic *bero, which means brown.

So brown bears are brown browns.

Oh, and grizzly bears are etymologically grey browns (from French gris), which is why I only use the Latin name Ursus Horribilis.

And some bears have no fur at all. I despise them. I can't bear bare bears.

The Inky Fool defending the etymological purity of Antarctica

P.S. Only a week until Short History of Drunkenness comes out in the USA

Thursday 8 February 2018

Chile, not Chili

I'm off to Chile for a fortnight's holiday. The main thing about Chile, etymologically speaking, is that it is not the origin of the word chili meaning spicy stuff in food. That word comes from the Aztecs who lived all the way up in Mexico. Oddly enough, our standard word for the Aztec equivalent of beer - pulque - is from a language spoken in what's now Chile: Araucanian to be precise. This language also gave us gaucho, meaning wanderer, and poncho, meaning woolen cloth.

So where does the name Chile come from? Nobody is very certain. But one theory is that it comes from a lost native language and means cold place or land's end. In which case it would be appropriate as the tip of Chile - Tierra del Fuego, or land of fire - is very cold even now, in their midsummer.

Santiago, though, is rather warm, which is why I'm going.

For more information about words of Chilean origin have a look at this old post about mamihlapinatapai.

The hotel was not as described