Monday, 30 September 2019

Cosmic Cosmetics and Una Borrachera Cósmica

The ancient Greeks had the peculiar idea that the universe was very well ordered. How they came to this conclusion is unclear, but it involves Pythagoras and togas. Anyway, they therefore called the universe the kosmos because kosmos just meant orderly arrangement.

From that we get cosmos in English, and from that we get cosmic, which (to some extent) has now come to mean spiritual and airy-fairy. This is a bit odd, because when the word kosmos comes up in the New Testament it means the physical world, as opposed to heaven and the kingdom of God etc.

Anyway, in their occasional breaks from philosophising the Greeks would do what normal people do and try and look nice. For example, they would comb their hair, which they called kosmokomes or hair-ordering. And the whole art of looking good was called kosmetike. It's a contraction of kosmo-tekhne, so etymologically it's cosmos-technique, but in English it has simply become cosmetics.

Which is why your lipstick is cosmic.

All this occurs to me because my book A Short History of Drunkenness has been renamed Una Borrachera Cósmica for its release in Spain, an earth-wobbling event that will occur on Thursday. I think there's also going to be an interview with me in El Mundo on Tuesday. It's all very pleasing because I've been learning Spanish for nearly two years now, but I still don't quite understand the name-change, but my a Madrileña friend of mine says it's a splendid name, and tried to explain it all to me over a tinto de verano last month.

Anyhow, you can learn lots more about Una Borrachera Cósmica by following this link. And you can also (and really should) tell all your Spanish friends and relations about it.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

The Real Inky Fool

I had a friend called Andrea who couldn’t go within fifty yards of a fountain pen without getting ink all over her fingers. She’d wipe her fingers on her face and then I would call her the Inky Fool.

Ten years ago, Andrea had an idea for a blog about the English language that we could write together. It was all her idea and we named the blog after her: Inky Fool. Back then she wrote as Mrs Malaprop and I as Dogberry. Andrea had a full-time job and I didn’t, so gradually she stopped posting and I continued, always under her watching eye.

The blog became popular and then it became famous and then I got a deal to write The Etymologicon. I wrote it, Andrea read all the proofs. She did that for all my books. When it was first published the name on the cover was


But I was never the Inky Fool. The Inky Fool was always Andrea.

Here is a picture of us at the book launch for The Etymologicon. She was so kind and so clever, and she was my dearest friend, and she died on the seventh of July from auto-immune hepatitis. It’s a cruel disease and it isn’t studied enough. Please, if you have ever enjoyed any of my books or my blog, give a little something to the fund set up in her memory to study the disease. It doesn’t matter how little.

Friday, 25 January 2019


There is a German word, schnapsidee, for an idea that seems great when you're drunk but which wilts and withers when considered under the stern gaze of sobriety.

This is a useful word, at least for me.

The etymology is almost too obvious to point out: schnapps is German for strong drink, liquor might be the best English translation; and idee is idea.

This should not be confused with a Schnapszahl, which is a number composed of a repeated digit, like 77, or 666. This latter seems (merely seems) to be down to the idea that in certain games, if your score ends up as a Schnapszahl, you have to buy everybody a schnapps.

This explanation seems convincing to me, if only because of the Nelson in cricket: which is the idea that it's very bad luck to be on a score of 111 (or, indeed, 222) if you make it that far. This bad luck can only be remedied by raising one leg off the ground, obviously.

Anyhow, this post seemed a lot more interesting last night.

By the way, I am going to Kerala (etymology uncertain, but probably to do with coconuts) next week to speak at the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters. Anybody who finds themselves in god's own country should toddle along.

The Inky Fool's journey to India took just as long as expected.