Tuesday 10 December 2019

Opinion Polls and Tadpoles

Image result for tadpole old printThe question 'Who's ahead in the polls?' is a delicious and savoury pun, because a poll is a head. Or it was. Shakespeare used poll to mean a head and it was still going strong in the C19th. But now it's mainly used about horses.

Nonetheless a poll was a head and from this you get:

Tadpoles - which are literally toad-heads. Little heads swimming around waiting to grow their bodies.

Poleaxe - an axe with a specialised and rather brutal looking head. See the illustration.

Image result for poleaxePoll tax - a tax per person. Think of it like a head-count, or the phrase 'a hundred head of cattle' (try not to think of poleaxes at the same time).

Polling station/booth/going to the polls etc - This gives you the head count of an entire nation.

Opinion poll - a headcount of people's opinions

Straw poll - Nobody's quite sure about this one. It's either a poll that is so weak that it may as well have been made of straw. Or it derives from the practice of throwing some straw in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. As Bob Dylan correctly observed "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows". You do not. You need straw.

Sometimes the poll was just the top of the head, just the bit that your hair grows out of. From this you got the sense of a poll as a haircut. ("Nice poll." "Oh, do you like it? Thank you."). So, in Hamlet, Ophelia sings:

He never will come again.
His beard was as white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll:
He is gone, he is gone...

This meaning was still around when D.H. Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers in 1913:

The child—cropped like a sheep, with such an odd round poll.

This is because a poll was usually a short, even haircut. And from that you get poll as a verb, meaning to cut short and evenly. If you do that to a tree, then the tree has been pollarded.

Moreover, the paper on which a legal deed is written can be cut evenly at the bottom, in which case poll becomes a postpositive adjective (like attorney general, or astronomer royal) and the legal deed is a deed poll.

But the two most important variants of poll are doddypoll, which is an old word for an idiot, and poll-sickness, which was helpfully defined in 1899:

Poll-sickness..is a kind of sore or abscess which horses get from knocking their heads against low door-ways and is commonly supposed to be incurable.

I fear it is.

Image result for poleaxe old print
Two doddypolls arguing about the polls with poleaxes

P.S. Something really important will be happening on Thursday evening, and it truly is your civic duty, and the duty of everyone, to tune in to BBC2 at 9pm where I will be making a brief appearance on Inside the Factory, discussing the history of kissing under the mistletoe.

This could change Britain forever. I hope for the worse. I just wanted to sell a few copies of Christmas Cornucopia, which, I happen to notice, is available to buy and would make a wonderful Christmas present. 

Thursday 5 December 2019

Covers, Discoveries, Handkerchiefs and Curfews

I have been considering the word cover. This is partly because The Etymologicon, The Horologicon and The Elements of Eloquence have been reprinted in a beautiful new edition, just in time for Christmas; and partly because I am an extraordinarily dull and lonely fellow.

I also have a cold, which is putting great strain on my collection of handkerchiefs. Now a handkerchief is obviously a kerchief that you hold in your hand. That much is obvious. But it leaves the throbbing question of What is a kerchief?

Well a chief is a head. That's true in English, is true in French (where the head cook is the chef), and it was true in medieval French where your chief was your head. If, for some French reason, you wished to cover your chief you used a piece of cloth called a cover-chief or, in French a couvrechief.

This was what we would call a headscarf, but that's just a square of cloth really. So a couvrechief came into English as a kerchief and hence a handkerchief is, literally, a handheld-cover-head. But I employ mine to blow my nose.

(Incidentally, the more obscure word for blowing your nose is emunction. This may come in useful. 'Tis the season and all that. The Anglo-Saxon word for the practice was sniting, but I digress down needless nostrils).

The other thing that Medieval French people liked to cover were their fires. They did this at the end of the day to make the fire burn down to a smoulder. Then they would toddle off to bed. In the morning, they would stir the fire up to a blaze and have a nice French breakfast.

In French this was called the couvre-feu, or cover-fire. There used to be a bell that was rung to tell everybody that it was time to cover their fire and go to bed. This tolling bell became known in English as the curfew. And hence a curfew is any requirement to go to bed, whether ding-donged or not.

[A foolish error has been removed. See below]

Anyway, the word cover has various other meanings and variations of varying mysteriousness. You can cover more ground by moving fast, you can cover for a colleague, a journalist can cover a subject (presumably in ink), and a gunman can have you covered. No amount of research has explained to me why a cover version is called that. But my favourite cover lingers in plain sight. It is the word discover.

To dis-cover something is to remove its cover. Once upon a time this could be used for anything. So a strong wind could discover a house, i.e. blow its roof off. A chef could discover a bowl. One could discover one's Christmas presents by unwrapping them. It is the sense of something that was once covered having its cover removed. This is rather beautiful when you think about it in its modern sense. The discovery of America, for example, suggests that there was a whole veiled continent , until Mr Columbus pulled the curtain away and discovered it.

You should not discover these books.

I've removed a digression that I made on the subject of being "in full swing", for the simple reason that I was wrong. I looked at the OED entry for "full swing", but hadn't noticed that they had another for "in full swing" that takes the phrase back to 1570 with no mention of bells.

(Incidentally, a church bell turns on an axle. If it's being rung in a slow dong... dong... dong... then that requires the bell-ringer to balance the bell at the the top of its turn in order to get the pause. The alternative is to let ring the bells like crazy and let them do their full swing. Hence the phrase in full swing. It's a bellringer's term*).

*The OED only has it from 1843 without any bells. But I found an "in full swing" from 1802: "The bell being in full swing, no alteration whatever was perceptible. The instant that the clapper was loosed the mercury leaped up, and continued that sort of springing motion, at every stroke of the clapper".

Friday 29 November 2019

The Origin of the Christmas Tree

Image result for victoria albert christmas tree 1848You are probably about to buy a dead tree and put it up in your living room. This is, if you ponder it, odd behaviour on your part. What's odder is that the tree you're buying is the Tree of Knowledge that was planted in the Garden of Eden and brought sin into the world, and the baubles you'll hang on it are the forbidden fruit. But the explanation is pretty simple.

Adam and Eve were a lot more popular in Medieval Christianity than they are today. There were even quite a lot of continuation stories - The Further Adventures of Adam and Eve, as it were - which was pretty common practice before the Reformation. The First Couple were even treated as semi-saints. They had a name-day like proper saints do, and that name day was December 24th.

This made a lot of sense theologically. Adam (via Eve) brought sin into the world, and Jesus (via Mary) brought salvation from sin. So the fall of man and the birth of Christ were a natural pairing, like blue cheese and sherry.

What Medieval people liked to do to celebrate religious events was to put on plays. Am-dram is fun, and it was a good way to tell a Bible story to a population that mostly couldn't read. Bible plays got so popular that in 1210 the Pope had to actually issue and edict banning priests from acting on stage as it was starting to look undignified.

Adam and Eve were a popular subject, so popular that "Paradise Plays" about the Garden of Eden was a whole sub-genre of the religious theatre. And very often they would be acted on Adam and Eve's name day: December 24th.

The set would be pretty minimalist, but if you're going to put on a play about people picking an apple from a tree and eating it, you do absolutely need to have a tree.

And they did. There's even a description of one in the script of a paradise play called Le Jeu d'Adam performed in Arras in Northern France (this is very lucky for historians as usually medieval play-scripts don't have stage directions).

Then shall a serpent, cunningly contrived, climb up the trunk of the forbidden tree; Eve shall put her ear up to it as if listening to its advice. Then Eve shall take the apple and offer it to Adam.

But, of course, trees are hard to come by in late December, and fruit trees are all leafless and bare. So the only solution was to cut down an evergreen, bring it indoors on Christmas Eve and hang it with fake fruit. This may sound familiar. That's what you're about to do. That's what your Christmas tree is: it's the Tree of Knowledge hung with the forbidden fruit.

There are records of paradise plays still being performed on Christmas Eve right into the 19th century, though they were very rare. There are even some parts of Germany where the Christmas tree is still called the paradeisbaum, though tannenbaum is now much more common.

All that remained was for Prince Albert and the royal family to make the Tree of Knowledge popular in Britain, which they did via a famous illustration in the Illustrated London News in 1848.

But this leaves two questions:

1) Who played the snake? It seems that somebody must have stood behind the tree with a long sock of something over their arm, tempting dear old Eve. It must have looked a little like the muppets.

2) At the beginning of the play, were Adam and Eve naked? And how can we obtain tickets? The disappointing answer is No. That same play, the Jeu d'Adam, has also has this stage direction:

Adam shall wear a red tunic, but Eve a woman's garment in white with a white silk scarf.

Thus making the plays utterly historically inaccurate.

All of the above (with some extra facts) and many many more explanations of Christmas traditions can be found in my book A Christmas Cornucopia: the hidden stories behind our Yuletide traditions, published by Penguin. It's filled with stories that allow you to be insufferably know-it-all about everything from now until the end of December.

It can be bought in all good bookshops or from Amazon here.

Also, Raymond Briggs said it was "Blooming brilliant!", which made me very proud.

Thursday 28 November 2019

Fatal Nostalgia

Image result for basel old printNostalgia was once a very serious disease. It could be fatal, especially to the Swiss.

Nostalgia is a Greek term and literally translates as home-sickness: nostos + algia. Indeed, the two terms are first recorded in English in the same sentence written in 1756. Before that it was unknown in Britain.

At least it is thus Scheuchzer endeavours to vindicate the nostalgia, pathopatridalgia, or the heimweh, i.e. home-sickness, with which those of Bern are especially afflicted.

Heimweh is German for the same thing and pathoptridalgia is, so far as I can tell, just disease-homeland-disease. The term had been around before, you see, but only in German, because only Swiss people ever suffered from homesickness. The rest of the world was fine and dandy, but the Swiss yearned for watches and fondue, fell ill and died.

It was a serious problem, first identified by a Swiss scholar at the University of Basel in 1688. And importantly it was considered not a light and fluffy emotion, but a real and serious disease; albeit one that only Swiss people could catch.

But then it spread beyond those neutral borders. People started to suffer from it in Britain, where, again, it was treated as a serious medical condition. The great botanist Joseph Banks whilst sailing around the South Seas in 1770 noted that the ship's crew had a case of "the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia."

It crossed the Atlantic to America, where it took an active and serious role in the Civil War. An official report by the US Sanitary Commission recorded that:

In the first two years of the war, there were reported 2588 cases of nostalgia, and 13 deaths from this cause. These numbers scarcely express the real extent to which nostalgia influenced the sickness and mortality of the army. To the depressing influence of home-sickness must be attributed the fatal result in many cases which might otherwise have terminated favorably.

And that was just on the Union side.

It could get even worse, though. The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine (1835) has an entry for Nostomania "the same morbid desire aggravated to madness", and hence, of course, there were nostomaniacs.

And then as strangely as it had arisen, it petered out. As with so many once-serious psychological terms - neurosis, narcissism, hysteria - it became just a feeling, a vague longing for what has gone before, a sentiment, a whimsy; felt for a moment and then blown away by a pufflet of wind.

Perhaps, we decided that home simply wasn't as we remembered it. The other English term that comes from nostos is nostos. It's a usually literary term to describe a homecoming scene. Usually it's Odysseus' return home to Ithaca, where he finds all the suitors drinking his wine and wooing his wife. But it can also apply to other homecomings, other nostoi, usually miserable, like Agamemnon and Bilbo Baggins.

And nobody dies of it any more, not even the Swiss.

Image result for fondue
O true apothecary, thy drugs are quick.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Unimportant Huckleberries

Image result for huckleberry finnI was listening to Moon River and noticed the lines:

Waiting round the bend
My huckleberry friend

And it occurred to me that I didn't know what a huckleberry was. The word, it turns out, has several meanings, one of which, astonishingly, is a kind of berry. But it also means, and has meant since 1835, a person of little consequence. Somebody unimportant.

This seems rather important to the naming of Mark Twain's character: Person of Little Consequence Finn, star of two books. Nobody seems to mention it.

Even the one essay on how Twain named the character - Huckleberries and Humans: On the naming of Huckleberry Finn - doesn't seem to mention it*. Instead, it suggests that the name comes from the fact that huckleberries, that's to say plants of the species Gaylussacia, can't be domesticated.

It also occurs to me that Huckleberry Finn obeys my rule that characters names should be half very boring and half very interesting: Huckleberry Finn, Indiana Jones, David Copperfield, Luke Skywalker, which I wrote about in an old blog post here.

There is another meaning of Huckleberry, though. As of the 1930s, it could mean sweetheart. So, I would imagine that the huckleberry friend, is just that.

All of these meanings, of course, are rural and Southern, but that fits with the fact that Audrey Hepburn is meant to be a secret hick.

*Well, the abstract doesn't mention it at all. I'd walk over to the British Library and read the whole thing, but it's raining.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Of the Gibbon, the Jockey, and the Womble

Image result for gibbon old printThe post will be about rude words. Well, rude compound words to be precise, but they're still very rude. If you are an infant or heavily pregnant, or lightly pregnant, or if you are easily offended (as so many are in these offended times) you should stop reading now, leave the Internet, and go and sit beneath a sycamore tree and weep at what the world has come to. Otherwise, read on.

Still here?

I was once driving in Wiltshire, doing just a smidgen over the speed-limit (which was 50mph, as I recall) and being tailgated at a distance of, I would estimate, two or three inches. It was remarkably dangerous as I couldn't even have dabbed the brakes without causing an accident. One of the other chaps in the car referred to the driver behind us as a "fucking knob-jockey".

I like this term. It amused me. But I did not at the time think that much about its structure.

Sometime later, I came across the term "cock-womble", this also amused me, but I did not think that much about its structure.

Lately, clever people have started thinking about such phrases, and a new technical term has emerged, and I mean technical, it's the term that you use in academic papers and the like. The term is Shitgibbon. 

A shitgibbon is formed when you take a one-syllable rude word, be it shit, fuck, cock or whatever, and then add a non-offensive trochee. A trochee is a two-syllable word with the stress on the first syllable. The resulting compound - knob-jockey, cock-womble or etc - is a shitgibbon.

The shitgibbon is the subject of a recent paper entitled Vowel but not consonant identity and the very informal English lexicon, which was written by Anne-Michelle Tessier and Michael Becker of
Simon Fraser University and University of Michigan and Stony Brook University. And these two have thought a lot about the shitgibbon's structure.

You can read the whole thing here. But the big point that I had never noticed was that a shitgibbon works best when the vowel of the rude word is the same as the first vowel of the trochee.

Shit-gibbon has two short i's.

it ib

Shit-monkey doesn't, and doesn't sound nearly as good.

Knob-jockey has two O's

So does cock-womble.

Meanwhile, dick-womble, doesn't sound nearly as good.

The paper's authors did an awful lot of research, which you can read in the original paper. They did surveys asking people how funny and satisfying any particular shitgibbon was and the compared it to a null hypothesis etc etc etc etc.

What's weird is that alliteration had no effect. Only assonance makes a shitgibbon work.

So, if you want to make your own shitgibbon (I now feel like a degenerate Blue Peter presenter), just pick a rude word. Identify the vowel. Then pick a trochee that has that vowel in the first syllable. Et voila:


Image result for gibbon old print
I cannot quite tell what the gibbon on the right is holding, but I hope it's fruit.

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 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. https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/andreacolvile

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.