About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Saturday, 20 October 2012

Dear Doctor, please, don't


If some remedies from about two hundred years ago are mildly amusing or faintly worrying, this one is wholly terrifying:

Swelling in the generative parts: First the patient should be bled in the arm, or leeches may be applied to the inflamed parts, afterwards take a handful of green rue, bruise it, and put it tp the part affected; or take marshmallows a handful, camomile a handful, make a decocotion in a pint of water, pour the liquor from the herbs, add two drams of the tincture of opium, bathe the part, afterwards apply the herbs as a poultice, or make a poultice of oatmeal and vinegar with a little sweet oil in it. Warts and chancres may be destroyed, by touching the warts with a  blue stone vitriol, or a caustic; the other by washing them with a solution of corrosive sublimate.

The Family Physician, Edward Bullman, 1789

How simple it is to write ‘leeches may be applied to the inflamed parts’. Did he know what he was writing? Honestly? I wince whenever I write these words; I’ve copied them in pencil from the original, I’ve transcribed them to computer, and I’ve written them again in this paragraph. I’m still wincing.

Blue stone vitriol was a solution of copper sulphate, effective as an antiseptic, but can burn skin, especially in sensitive areas. Whether it would be preferable to leeches is a difficult call. And 'a solution of corrosive sublimate'? It's mercuric chloride; when you thought things couldn't get any worse, you'll be pleased to know this was formerly used to dissolve corns. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A seventeenth-century sticking plaster


I rather like this recipe for a plaster, from Nicholas Culpeper’s A Physical Directory, 1651.

Emplastrum nigrumTake of Colophonia Rozin, Ship-pitch, white Wax, Roman Vitriol, Ceruss, Olibanum, Mirrh, of each eight ounces; Oyl of Juniper berries three ounces; Oyl of roses seven ounces; Oyl of Egs two ounces; Oyl of Spike one ounce; white Vitriol, red Corral, Mummy, of each two ounces; earth of Lemnos, Mastich, Dragons blood of each an ounce; the Fat of an Heron one ounce; the Fat of Timullus (a kind of Fish) three ounces; Loadstone prepared two ounces; Earthworms prepared, Camphire, of each one ounce; make them into a plaister, according to art.

It is very good (say they) in green wounds and pricks.

Dragons blood was the resin from a palm, Calamus draco, which was imported from South America and the East Indies; loadstone was magnetic iron oxide; and Roman Vitriol was copper sulphate. None of these would have done much good, as Culpeper implies in his dismissive aside. Perhaps he was aware of a curious recipe in Langham’s The Garden of Health, 1578, which ascribed to earthworms an extraordinary power:
‘Stampe earthwormes, and put thereto the juyce of radish rootes, and quench therein any knife, sworde, or other toole to make it cut Iron as it were Lead.’

Snails and earthworms appear in many medicinal remedies of the time; were people fascinated by their shapeshifting abilities and the muxture of slime and hardness in the snail’s shell?

In 1778 William Lewis’s The New Dispensatory proposed that
'Both these [worms and snails] are supposed to cool and cleanse the viscera. The latter, from their abounding with a viscid glutinous juice, are recommended as a restorative in consumptions; for this purpose they are directed to be boiled in milk [a longstanding recipe]; and thus managed they may possibly be of some service.'

There is a definite doubt expressed here, and Lewis has in any case nothing to say about earthworms. Current research in the west and medical applications in the east suggest that earthworms may have interesting antibacterial properties, and may help in the treatment of thrombosis. Snail mucus may have an application in antispasmodic treatment of the bronchial tree.

Nobody seems to have had a good word for slugs. I have not come across a single medical use for them, though Isaac Walton (The Compleat Angler, 1654) reckoned black slugs were good bait for catching chub. 

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Status and source in sporting terms


I'm reposting this, because I enjoy the theme so much, but mainly for the groups I've recently been working with at the British Library. For those who are tired of football - sorry it's about football.

What is the difference in status between the language the football manager uses, and that used by the footballers he manages (still ‘he’, despite everything)?  I have never heard a manager call himself anything but a ‘manager’, while I have often heard interviewed footballers call their manager ‘the gaffer’.  ‘Manager’ is a word which arrived in English in the sixteenth century from Latin, as a term to describe handling or directing a horse (it is still used, as ‘manege’, for this), while ‘gaffer’ is an abbreviation of ‘godfather’, both of the constituents of that word being derived from Old English words.

In a sense this directs some questioning towards the ‘etymological fallacy’, which states that despite the attractions of the idea, the etymological root of a word is not its ‘deep’ or ‘real’ meaning. But the difference in usage between ‘manager’ and ‘gaffer’ indicates that the etymological root of a word may give clear indicators of its sociolinguistic status, usage, and thus part of what it ‘means’. 

The status between the two words, ‘manager’ and ‘gaffer’, is directly related to their historical origins.  In this case status differentials derive from the different statuses of Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Old English, in the post-Norman Conquest period, where Latin was the language of government and church, Anglo-Norman French was the language of the wealthy and powerful, and Old English was the language of the dispossessed.  Thus Latin- or French-based words sound to us still more formal, more serious, more authoritative than old English-based words.

To push it a little further: popular ‘football’ comes from Old English fot, and bal, almost definitely Germanic, while rather more posh ‘soccer’ comes from Association Football, ‘association’ being adopted from Latin in the fifteenth century.  The title of the ‘referee’ comes from Old French or directly from Latin, while his or her ‘linesman’, rather lower in status but still with a position of authority, developed from line, from Middle English via a mix of Old English, Old French and Latin, and from the Old English man.  The ‘players’, at the bottom of this linguistic ladder, and with the least authority, derive their name from Old English plega, meaning ‘play’, though their intermediary with authority is their ‘captain’, from Late Latin capitaneus via Old French capitain (though in conversation they might call him 'skipper', from Middle-Dutch scipper) .  Their roles are: ‘strikers’, from Old English strican; ‘forwards’, from Old English foreweard; ‘halves’, from Old English halb; and ‘backs’, from Old English bæc; with behind them a reassuring ‘goalkeeper’, from Old English gælan (probably) and cepan. 

To raise their statuses they may wish to be called ‘attack’, from French attaquer, and ‘defence’, from Old French defens.  Both of these are abstract nouns, while the corresponding term for the middle area, ‘midfield’, describing a place, is from Old English mid  and feld.  I would be wary of pushing this much further; but then it’s only a ‘game’, from Old English gamen (‘sport’, far more serious, comes from Old French desport).