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".