Sunday, 2 August 2020

Epigram 7

(Actually, the Oranges-and-Lemons church - St Clement Danes - is the next one down, but it doesn't photograph so well).

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

London Epigrams

A new series, just because it amuses me: London Epigrams.

Feel free to reply, so long as it's in verse.

Friday, 22 May 2020

English Verse, Lesson 12: The Trimeter

In case it is of interest to anybody, I have also joined Instagram (which I had erroneously believed to be a unit of weight) as #markforsythauthor .

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

English Verse, Lesson 11: The Wombat

Incidentally, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a beautiful poem about a wombat. He'd ordered one as a pet, and, while waiting for it to arrive he said:

Oh how the family affections combat
Within this heart, and each hour flings a bomb at
My burning soul! Neither from owl nor from bat
Can peace be gained until I clasp my wombat.

More information here.

Monday, 27 April 2020

English Verse, Lesson 10: The Donkey

This is a very long, slow lesson that's just meant to clear up any lingering confusions.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

English Verse, Lesson 9: Limericks

There was a slight delay on this one. Unfortunately God noticed that the only pleasant thing about lockdown was peace and quiet, and so He organised roadworks right outside my window.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

English Verse, Lesson 8: Trochaic Substitution

As a bonus point, which I forgot to mention, the speech from Richard II uses both deposéd and deposed.

Friday, 10 April 2020

English Verse, Lesson 5: Dactyls

Here's lesson number five. I completely fluffed the lines from Charge of the Light Brigade - it's "do and die" - but I couldn't be bothered to re-record the whole thing. I am terribly lazy.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Thursday, 2 April 2020

English Verse, Lesson 1: Iambic Pentameters

Having nothing to do, I've done a video tutorial on how to write iambic pentameters.

Incidentally, I know my delivery is terrible. There's a reason I'm a writer and not a TV presenter.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Isolation, Insualtion, Islands and Insulin

Image result for island antique printNo man is an island, although I confess I am becoming a peninsula.

The Latin for island was insula, and something that was almost an island was a peninsula. Therefore when people needed a posh word for turning something into an island (these necessities arise), the English word insulation was invented. Originally, it literally meant turning into an island. In 1854 you could, with a straight face, write:

The insulation of peninsulas by the destruction of the isthmus which previously connected them with the mainland.

Then insulation started to mean anything that cut something off from the outside, and started to be applied to electricity and central heating. You could also talk about people being insular, if they lived on islands and were a tad unfriendly.

In the 19th century there was a German fellow called Paul Langerhans. Paul started cutting people open and discovering things. He discovered the Langerhan cells in the skin, and then the Langerhan layer (also in the skin), and then he looked in the pancreas and found little islands of cells that are called the islets of Langerhans. Then he moved to Madeira, became insular, wrote a guidebook and developed an unhealthy interest in sea worms.

Anyhow, the islets of Langerhans also have a technical Latin name: insulae pancreaticae. And the important chemical that they produce is therefore called insulin

All of these words were invented by clever fellows who knew Proper Latin. But in Italy, when the Roman Empire declined and fell, they forgot Proper Latin and started to speak Sloppy Latin or Italian as it is now known.

In Sloppy Latin they stopped pronouncing the N in insula and so insulatus became isolato, and the French nicked that and got isolé, and the insular English nicked that and got isolated. Later we decided that this adjective needed a verb and noun so we invented isolate and isolation. These are just the Sloppy Latin version of insulate and insulation.

The very odd thing is that none of these words are etymologically related to island. Island isn't Latin at all. It comes from Middle English yland, and that comes from Old English igland. The silent S got added a lot later, presumably in confusion.

Anyhow, back in the day (by which I mean Medieval and Early Modern times) whenever a reasonably well-off fellow died, his family would run down to the church with a bit of money and pay to have the bell toll. Other reasonably well-off people would hear this and they would send a servant to see who had gone to join the majority.

Which brings us to lovely and lamentable prose of John Donne's Devotions on Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

So go and wash your hands.

Paul Langerhans contemplating sea-worms.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Loo Roll and Role Play

Image result for bum fodder and absorbing historyAs an important piece of public information in these time of panic and brouhaha, I want to let everybody know that the role that an actor plays and the loo roll or toilet roll that have become so inexplicably fashionable of late, are exactly the same word spelt differently (or spelled differently).

An actor used to be given a roll of paper on which his lines were written. That roll was his role.

In Shakespeare's time, when everything was being hand-copied before production, each actor would be given a roll that had only his lines and cues on. So the roll only contained the role, and if you were given a particular roll then...

Well, you get the point.

And before anybody objects, all Shakespeare's actors were male (apart from the ones that weren't).

Incidentally, if anybody is really keen on loo roll, you should read Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper by Richard Smyth. Can't recommend it highly enough. I keep my copy handy.

In days of old
When knights were bold
And paper not invented,
They used a little bit of grass
And went away contented.

Image result for dr syntax rowlandson
The Inky Fool panic-dreaming.

Friday, 13 March 2020

Pangolins and Idle Orangutans

Image result for pangolin old printI was sautéing some pangolin the other day, when it occurred to me that there are several Malay animals in the menagerie of etymology. (It also occurred to me that the I was filled with a vast apocalyptic dread as to how to spell sautéing).

Pangolin comes from the Malay pen-goling, which means the roller. This is because of the pangolin's endearing habit of rolling up into a scaly ball when it's frightened, and nothing to do with the delicious twizzlers you can make out of its rump.

Gecko is Malay, and is said to be imitative of that creature's cry. Anybody who has heard the melancholy cry of the distant gecko wandering in moonlit woods, mourning his lost love, will know the sound of true sadness. I have not.

Cockatoo means elder sibling. I don't know why. I have an elder sister, but she is featherless, to my knowledge.

Orangutan is Malay for man of the forest. Orang is man and hutan is forest. The name was recorded by a Dutch explorer called Jacobus Bontius in 1611. The locals told him that the orangutan was actually able to talk, but preferred not to, in case somebody asked it to do some work. This seems perfectly sensible to me, and nobody has proved otherwise.

Some historians even think that the orangutan recorded by Bontius wasn't an ape at all, but a a tribe of unfriendly and idle forest-dwellers. Some historians have no sense of fun.

The important thing about these animals - the pangolin, the gecko, the cockatoo, and the orangutan - is that, when you put them all together, you find that you have a delicious casserole.

I recommend panic-buying tins of all of them.

Incidentally, the Germans have a lovely word for panic-buying: hamsterkauf. Kauf means shopping and hamster means just what you think it does. The idea is that hamsters store food in their little cheeks, and that panic-buyers are doing something equally sweet.

Panic not, though, dear reader. If you're wondering what it's like to sit all alone for weeks at a time with only a tin of soup to tell your troubles to; I can report that it's not that bad. I've been doing it for years. It all depends on the soup.

Image result for orangutan atique print
The Inky Fool hears the call to work.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Macbeth, Pilate and the Washing of Hands

Image result for lady macbethThere has been much chitter and chatter of late about the washing of hands. A central question is what you should sing or recite to yourself while you do it. This is all down to a little virus that encases itself in a protective layer of fat, fat that is destroyed by twenty seconds contact with soap. Thus the virus may be killed (rather than washed off).

Nobody seems to have suggested the very obvious, greatest hand-washing speech in literature. Lady Macbeth:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!--One: two: why, then, 'tis time to do't.--Hell is murky!--Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?--Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

The way I read that, it's almost exactly twenty seconds. Of course, Lady Macbeth only believes that she's washing her hands as she's mad and haunted by guilt, but most of modern Britain is too, or so I hear.

You could also take her husbands earlier hand-washing efforts, when he's still got the king's blood on his hands.

Whence is that knocking?
How is't with me, when every noise appals me?
What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

That's also pretty much bang on twenty seconds. Incarnadine, by the way, is a verb meaning to make bloody.

Oddly enough, the term red-handed, as in caught red-handed. Comes from medieval Scottish law, presumably on the basis that a murderer caught red-handed still has blood on his (or her) hands.

The other great hand-washing scene is altogether too short. Pontius Pilate in Matthew, chapter 27:

When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.

Apparently, in France Camus' novel The Plague has been selling rather well. I'm glad of this as La Peste is a much better book that Sartre's Les Mains Sales.

Image result for pontius pilate
The Inky Fool whiles away twenty seconds

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Diners, Restaurants, Automats and Flats

I've been asked (in this twittering world), about the difference between diners and restaurants. The distinction is simple, diners come from trains.

Originally, in 1890, the diner was the carriage of a railway train where food was served. It was what we would now probably call the dining car (that's what Johnny Cash called it in Folsom Prison Blues), or in Britain the buffet car (because you're buffeted by nastiness and expense). The way that the old-style dining car worked was that there was a counter down one side of the carriage, behind which was a grill etc; on the other side there were tables for the passengers to sit at and munch.

This proved an important point: it proved that it was possible to make a restaurant so thin that it could be transported by rail, or even by road. This meant that diner-like restaurants could be prefabricated* and then driven to wherever they were needed. As diners are mainly needed beside roads to serve hungry motorists, this led to a lot of business and a lot of burgers.

The original diners, therefore, were long and thin and looked rather like railway carriages, because they were built to be transported by road. Here's a picture of a typical diner from 1941:

Diners could be dumped anywhere. By coincidence I was reading a James Thurber short story the other day that has a husband and wife driving along and arguing about which diner to stop at:

'I think I know the one you mean,' she said, after a moment. 'It's right in the town and it sits at an angle from the road. They're never so good, for some reason.'

The husband explodes in angry hunger. She continues:

'I've noticed the ones that sit at an angle. They're cheaper, because they fitted them into funny little pieces of ground. The big ones parallel to the road are best.'

And she was probably right.

The diner is therefore a transportable form of the restaurant. A restaurant restores you. That's because it sells restoratives. It all derives from soup and Parisian law.

There was a Frenchman called Boulanger and in 1765 he opened a little place beside the Louvre that sold soup. The soup was of the bouillon style that we would normally call consommé, but the standard French term of the time was to call it a restorative or restaurant. Boulanger even put up a sign in the window saying:

Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego vos restaurabo

Which is a sort of parody of the Sermon on the Mount. It means Come to me all whose stomachs are distressed, and I will restore you.

So far, so very normal. What was odd about all this was simply that Boulanger also served leg of lamb, and that was illegal. Only members of the caterers' guild were allowed to serve cooked solids, it seems, so the caterers' guild sued Boulanger.

To everybody's surprise, they lost. I don't know the reason. I know nothing of Parisian bylaws of the C18th and I'm not about to start studying them. As far as I can tell, though, this created a legal precedent for a new kind of eating establishment outside of guild control. These new establishments became known as restaurants.

Finally, as this post has been going on a long while now, there's the automat. I never realised that an automat was a kind of American restaurant until I watched the film Easy Living recently. Essentially, an automat was a self-service place. There were lots of meals but they were kept behind glass in little boxes. You had to insert some coins to open the window. Then you took your food to the table to eat. Here's one of the automat scenes from Easy Living:

It was the cheap and cheerful place for a hard-up New York girl to go and get a bite to eat. And that goes to explain the line in Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend

A kiss may be grand but it won't pay the rental
On your humble flat, or help you at the automat
Men grow cold as girls grow old
And we all lose our charms in the end
But square cut or pear shaped
These rocks don't lose their shape
Diamonds are a girl's best friend.

A single line therefore contains an incomprehensible Americanism - automat - and a Britishism - humble flat - where the Americans would usually say apartment. That's probably because the song was co-written by Leo Robin (American) and Jule Styne (British).

Mind you, the fully British Flanders and Swann wrote the lines:

When they whispered Napoleon paid Josephine's rent
"That's nonsense," said Bonaparte.
"She lives on her own, apart.
In her own apart-

*Like a sprout.

P.S. The ever-excellent 99% Invisible did an episode on automats. You can read or hear it here.

P.P.S. I thoroughly recommend Easy Living, or any film with Carole Lombard. My Man Godfrey is the best, but Easy Living, it seems, is on Youtube.

P.P.P.S. I wouldn't normally recommend that, but you can't buy the DVD for some reason.

P.P.P.P.S. The Thurber story, since you ask, was called A Couple of Hamburgers.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Quarantine Comes Home

Image result for rich man and lazarusQuarantine just means forty. It's a shortening of the Italian phrase quarantina giorni, which meant (and means) forty days. This was because of a policy implemented by the Most Serene Republic of Venice to protect itself from the plague. Any ship that was suspected of possibly having the plague on board would have to wait offshore for forty days before docking. The idea was that any hidden cases would present themselves.

Presumably, if the plague was on board then everybody was in a lot of trouble. I suppose that they just sailed back to where they had come from. An alternative was that suspect people could stay on a small island to see just how plaguey they were. The island was known as a lazaretto.

In Venice the Lazaretto Vecchio still exists. It's a small island just off the Lido. I'm not sure whether you can visit it, or whether you'd want to. Archaeologists have found 1,500 skeletons there so far, and they're rather hopeful that there are some more.

The word lazaretto as a place for the plagued comes from Luke's Gospel, chapter 16:

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 

It turns out that Lazarus goes to Heaven and the rich man goes to Hell. History does not relate what happened to the dog. Or, to put it another way, God knows what happened to the dog.

Anyway, you should have been able to work out that God would help Lazarus in the end, as Lazarus comes from the Hebrew El'azar, which means He whom God has helped. It's rather odd really, as Lazarus became, in many European languages a synonym for leper or plague-victim, which seems unhelpful even by God's standards.

Oddly enough, when quarantine first appeared in the English language, it had nothing to do with plague. It was the place where Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. It first pops up in a travel guide for pilgrims to the Holy Land written in 1470:

Beyond is a wilderness of quarantine, where Christ with fasting his body did pine.

Although the author, William Wey had got to Jerusalem via Venice, so he might have picked up the word there.

Today we remember Christ fasting and pining by giving stuff up for Lent. Pancake day is today and Lent begins tomorrow. I shall abstain from rhubarb and women, for the sake of continuity; but an old word for Lent was - you have guessed it, dear reader - quarantine. Forty days of fasting.

Then quarantine started to mean the period of forty days that a widow was allowed to remain living in her dead husband's house. And finally, in the seventeenth century we started using it for its proper purpose of plague. However, the word had already become rather imprecise. The second citation in the OED is from Samuel Pepys' diary in 1663, where he suddenly veers off into etymology:

The plague, it seems, grows more and more at Amsterdam; and we are going upon making of all ships coming from thence and Hambrough, or any other infected places, to perform their Quarantine (for thirty days as Sir Rd. Browne expressed it in the order of the Council, contrary to the import of the word, though in the general acceptation it signifies now the thing, not the time spent in doing it) in Holehaven, a thing never done by us before.

But the original quarantine, first enforced in 1377, was Venetian. And so, by such divigations and tergiversations, quarantine has finally come home.

Enjoy your pancakes while you can. Quarantine begins tomorrow.

Image result for lazzaretto vecchio
The Inky Fool arrives at his Venetian hotel

Monday, 24 February 2020


There's an Icelandic word, gluggaveður, that means "weather that looks really nice through the window when you're snug and warm inside, but would freeze your eyelids off if you actually went out in it".

Well, literally it means "window-weather", but that's the more general meaning. Just because the sky is blue and the sun is shining doesn't meant that the weather won't hurt you, especially in Iceland.

The ð is an eth. It's an Icelandic way of making the TH sound, but it seems that the word is usually anglicised as gluggavedur.

Anyway, the word is utterly useless in London at the moment as the weather looks crap and is crap, and the wind has been howling like a bereaved wolf for the last fortnight.

For the rain it raineth every day.

(Which is an example of polyptoton: one word - rain - being used in two different forms, like Arthur O'Shaughnessy's "We are the dreamers of dreams".)

Image result for for the rain it raineth every day heath robinson
The Inky Fool pops to the shops

Friday, 31 January 2020

The Taxman and the Farmer

Today I have been paying the farmer. Because farmers aren't farmers, they're tax-gatherers.

Some people have trade surnames: Mr Baker, Mr Butcher, Mr Farmer etc. And these people happily imagine that in some way off medieval time they had an ancestor who was a baker or a butcher or a farmer. The first two are right, but the Farmers are wrong. Because a farmer is a taxman. Or was.

The name has nothing to do with farms.

Once upon a time, there was the Medieval Latin word firma, which meant a fixed [payment]. (It's related in this to firm, firmament, affirm etc). From this you got the Old French fermier and the English farmer all meaning tax collector, or one who collects a fixed payment.

So Chaucer wrote (with his mind on the taxman):

Him ought not be... cruel As is a farmer to do the harm he can.

This meaning of farmer actually survived all the way to the C19th, although by that time it had become rather odd.

But, feudally, rich landowners used to collect taxes on the land they owned, and they would have middle-men who were responsible for collecting the tax from a particular area. These tax farmers were responsible for a single farm from a single piece of land. They often had responsibility for making sure that it was cultivated its most profitable extent. Often they lived there as a tenant farmer.

People these days buy time-share apartments, which are often just referred to as time-shares. In the same way, the method of payment slowly came to be associated with the activity of agriculture. So the old words husbandman and churl were slowly replaced. And by the late C16th, farmer had become the standard word for somebody who simply owned a farm.

But the surname dates from the C13th. And that's why I've been paying the farmer.

P.S. Terra Firma is not, I'm afraid, related. It was originally the Venetian holding on the mainland.

P.P.S. This is a repost from 2015.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Hypocrites and Horse-Power

Image result for hippocratesThe English word hypocrite has a terribly simple etymology. It comes straight from the Ancient Greek hypokrites, which means actor, the kind you get on a stage, because hypocrites act all pious.

I was wondering what extra formations this might produce e.g. a fear of actors, if there is such a thing, ought to be hypocritephobia. And then a strange thought occurred to me: Hippocrates.

Hippocrates was the Father of Medicine. It is from him that we get the Hippocratic oath that doctors have to swear. Of course, it's got nothing to do with hypocrites. The hippo there is usually a horse - that's why a hippopotamus is a river-horse and a horse-racing arena is a hippodrome. And crat is usually power as in plutocrat, aristocrat, theocrat etc.

So, I thought, if my calculations are correct, Hippocrates was really Dr Horsepower.

This seemed hideously unlikely. But I have a cheat for all things classical. My next-door neighbour is a professor emeritus of classics. This is terribly useful to me as I get to pass off his wisdom as my own. So yesterday I seized m neighbour by the buttonhole and asked him straight out: Does Hippocrates mean horsepower?

'I don't see why not,' he replied. 'Yes. Go for it.'

Too good to be true.

'Although,' he added, 'it's more likely to mean horse-controller. But it could mean horsepower. Greek, Mark, is a very flexible language.'

So there it is: Hippocrates, Father of Medicine, was really Dr Horsepower.

Incidentally, the bit of the brain called the hippocampus is not, as is usually believed, a university for hippos. In fact, it's named after the seahorse because it sort-of-vaguely resembles one.

Image result for hippocampus

Hippo is horse and kampos means sea-monster. The original hippocampus was a horse-sea-monster that drew Neptune's chariot across the waves. Here is a rare photograph:

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The Inky Fool decides not to take the train

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Exercise and the Ark of the Covenant

Image result for antique print  runningWe are in that beautiful season of the year known as January, or to give it its full technical name the-season-of-plump-people-jogging. Luckily for all of us, it will be over in a few days, and we may return to our restful cakes and our crumpets of calm.

Originally, exercise was something that Romans did to horses (and soldiers). It was too cruel for proper people. Most of the time horses (and soldiers) were kept penned up so that they couldn't run away. The Latin word for penning up or enclosing was arcere. Occasionally, they would be let out to go and canter freely in the paddock or take up horsey-pilates or whatever it was. To do this was to ex-arcere them, and from that you got exercere, and modern exercise.

The word arcere also gave us the adjective arcane, because arcane knowledge is knowledge that is enclosed and shut away and locked up in a big box. Indeed, arcere itself comes from the noun arca which means box or chest or ark.

The Ark of the Covenant was simply a very fancy chest. We refer to it as an ark because the Latin Bible called it an arca. The Ten Commandments contained therein were therefore the original arcane knowledge. And when, as it saith in the book of Indiana Jones, all those spirits jumped out and killed the nasty Nazis, they were simply exercising.

Image result for raiders of the lost ark last scene warehouse
The Inky Fool's filing system was becoming ever more efficient.

Friday, 3 January 2020

The Two-Faced Janitors of January


Welcome, dear reader, to January. January is a time to look back upon the dunghill of a year that has passed, and to look forward to the miseries to come. However, it is impossible to look both backwards and forwards unless you have two faces and you only have one, I hope. Otherwise you suffer from the horrid genetic disorder known as diprosopus, or you are the Roman god Janus [see picture].

Because Janus had two faces and was able to look in two directions he was the god of boundaries. The first month of the year, being the boundary between the old and the new, was therefore sacred to him and was named Januarius or January.

Janus was also, of course, the god of gates and passages and doorways and portals of all sorts, and that is why doorkeepers are called janitors.

Leonato: You will never run mad, niece.
Beatrice: No, not till a hot January.

I am told that these lines from Much Ado About Nothing sound rather odd when performed in Australia.

Sacred to Janus