- Julian Walker
- 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.
Wednesday, 4 December 2013
Tuesday, 26 November 2013
Wednesday, 20 November 2013
Wednesday, 9 October 2013
By the way, How to Cure the Plague, and Other Curious Remedies is published on 10th October 2013 http://publishing.bl.uk/book/how-cure-plague
Saturday, 21 September 2013
Pure Filth Why?’ and ‘how?’ are the first questions that come to mind on finding that the word used to describe collected dog-poo for the nineteenth-century tanning industry was ‘pure’. A more improbable word for this substance would be hard to imagine. Curious too that the first documentation in the OED dates from 1842, by which time the word had several centuries of being associated with the complete absence of defilement. In the four quotations in theOED entry for this usage there are three given spellings – pewer, pure, and puer. The first one, from the Penny Magazine, 1842, specifically states that the spelling is conjectural since the writer had only heard the word, and not seen it written down. This rings true, as the people who took on this job would be unlikely to have the benefits of reading and writing, though tanning companies must have kept some records of payments made to collectors. Mayhew, 1851, suggested the substance was called ‘pure’ because of its ‘cleansing and purifying properties’. Partridge gives it as changing from a colloquialism to a jargon word (i.e. a technical term) about 1905.Three centuries earlier ‘pure’ was used to describe ‘pured’ fur, in this case fur trimmed in such a way as to show only one colour – this was also known as ‘pured’ and ‘purray’. These derive from the verb ‘to pure’ in the sense of refining impurities, particularly impurities of colour – which links to another OED mention - 'purwyt', meaning ‘pure white’, dating from the fourteenth century. This usage, applied to white, survives in the phrase ‘pure white’. So a conjectural passage is from ‘purifying’ to ‘preparing’ to ‘the substance which was used in the preparation process’.
Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, 1865, gives ‘Pure Finders – street-collectors of dogs’ dung’, as a footnote with no explanation – as other footnotes do give explanations this implies that the process was generally known. Grose's The Vulgar Tongue, 1785, does not have it (but does give as a meaning for ‘pure’ – ‘a harlot, or lady of easy virtue’, which might be a joke or wishful thinking or placatory, or any combination of these). As a final twist, a Google search for ‘pure tanning’ provides pages of businesses which offer to turn you brown rather than white.
I am grateful to Lucy Inglis for the information (17th Jan) that Ned Ward's London Spy, 1690, uses 'pure' in the sense of dog excrement, which would support the idea that the usage had a long pre-nineteenth-century existence as a spoken word.
Poo, and some words from tanning
My quest to find the root (and route) of ‘pure’ has thrown up a few dainties.
Searching for incidences of ‘pure’ has so far taken me back to the sixteenth century, but I can trace the word itself to no earlier than 1780. A Compleat & Effectual Method of Tanning without Bark (1729) does not mention dog excrement, and neither does Brief Directions how to tanne leather according to a new invention made out by severall of the principal tanners(1680). And, sadly, I cannot find it in Ned Ward’s London Spy.
A trawl through a handful of lengthy Acts of Parliament from the early eighteenth century has revealed no ‘pure’, but a lot of exciting language to do with the ‘feat, craft or mystery of a tanner’ – ‘feat’ here meaning no more than ‘activities’. An Act concerning tanners, curriers, shoemakers and other artificers, occupying the cutting of leather (1718) immediately points to the word ‘curry’, which is still in use to describe the preparing and dressing of hides. ‘Curry’ here comes from an entirely different root from that which produced ‘cure’, which since the mid-seventeenth century has also meant ‘prepare for keeping’. Both processes, currying and curing, in the seventeenth century employed salt.
Skins were dressed in ‘allom and salt, or meal, or other Ingredients properly used by the Tawers of white leather.’ This is as near as the Act comes to describing dog-poo, though other excrements are described – ‘culver-dung and hen-dung’ (a culver is a pigeon, and theOED describes this word as ‘now the name of the wood pigeon in the south and east of England’, which is a new one on me). ‘Culver’ is a word which appears to have no connection to any similar word in any other language; the OED discounts claims that it is related to the Latin columba. Like ‘dog’ it seems to be an English word that has materialised out of the English earth, or air.
An alternative word for currying was ‘frizing’; to ‘frize’, later ‘frizz’, was to rub the skin with a pumice stone in order to produce a uniform thickness, though in the late seventeenth century it was also used to describe roughening the leather on one side, to produce a surface similar to suede.
The skins described in the Acts include calf-skins, kips (a kip was the hide of a young or small animal, and again seems to be a word invented in English), hog-skins, dog-skins (the OEDpoints out that this commodity was familiar enough to have produced a fourteenth-century family name; and the citations indicate that dog-skin produced fine soft leather). Also mentioned are ‘slink calf-skins’; slink here comes from the use of the word to mean ‘give birth prematurely or abortively’, a usage which dates from the seventeenth century. ‘Slink’ or ‘slink lamb’, for example, was also the name applied to the meat of an aborted animal, usually classified as ‘bad meat’, while the skin, also called ‘slink’ if from an aborted or stillborn calf was considered to produce the finest vellum. Skins were ‘tawed’ in ‘wooze’ or ‘shomack’ (spellcheck working overtime here). ‘Tawing’ was softening, an early stage in the tanning process. ‘Ooze’ comes from the Old English word for ‘sap’, and Eric Partridge proposes it is ‘probably akin’ to ‘virus’, particularly appropriate here.
Observations on Leather, printed in 1780, provides more exciting stuff. For stripping hair off the hides ‘a liquor is made of Hens or Pidgeons Dung; this is called a Grain’. Elsewhere this liquid, and the vat where it does its stuff, is called ‘grainer’. Other vats, generally during this period called ‘fats’, used in the tanning process, contained ‘drunch’, a mixture of wheat-bran and water, and the oak-bark-based tanning liquid itself, known as ‘wooze’, ‘ooze’ or ‘ouze’.
Oak-bark, providing tannin, was the source of a lot of legislation; removing the bark at the wrong time of the year could damage the tree, and as oaks were essential for defence, being used in shipbuilding, this had to be controlled. Brief Directions … (1680) begins with a description of the time of the year to take the bark: ‘First all the Tops or Loppings of Oake of what Age or Growthe soever, or young Oaken Coppice wood, from two to ten or twelve years growth, being cut and gotten in the spring, at or a little before the Leafe shoots forth, or in Barkingtime: The Sap (which is the main and sole cause of Tanning) being then the most fluent and powerful in it, will Tanne all sorts of Leather, or the Tops of those Trees that the Bark is stript off, or the Tops of Coppice wood stript as aforesaid will be as serviceable.’ The Tanners reasons against the exportation of bark (1695-1718) uses the term ‘coppice-bark’. ‘Barkingtime’ begs to be reintroduced; ‘barking mad’ first appeared in 1900, and ‘barking’ alone in 1991.
‘Drunch’ was an early form of ‘drench’; by the mid-nineteenth century it had become ‘drench’, a term used for any process or medium of soaking. The leather was tanned with ‘shoemake’ – which looks like a word made up to describe exactly what it does, but is more probably a folk-etymology for the plant sumac; the spelling ‘shoemake’ was in use from the sixteenth century. The hides were ‘very well limed (soaked with lime), then flesh’d (any flesh or sinew removed) and struck as before, then put in a Liquor made of dogs-dung and water, this is called Puer’. And this is the earliest use of ‘pure/puer/pewer’ that I have found. The use of ‘flesh’ as a verb here points to its inclusion in that group of words that can carry two completely opposite meanings – to add flesh, or to remove flesh, as here; and ‘pure’ itself could reasonably claim inclusion in the group.
The Art of Tanning (1774) uses the terms ‘dogs confit or masterings’. The book later explains that ‘confit’ is the French term, while ‘masterings’ is the English word, in both cases describing a mixture of dung and vegetable matter, to be laid on by hand. ‘Masterings’ do appear in the specimen financial accounts shown in the book, but not as a priced item, so there is no evidence as to what was paid for what was specified as ‘dogs dung, pigeons dung, and henhouse dung.’ The 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica refers to a ‘pit of water impregnated with pigeon dung (called a grainer or mastring)’. ‘Confit’, which became ‘comfit’ in English, would have been understood as ‘a preparation’. ‘Comfit’ also carried the meaning of ‘sweetmeat’ - if a recognisable French word carrying the connotation of a sweet was used at all in English tanneries this would no doubt have caused sniggers all round during the Napoleonic period – which connects nicely with the proposal that the use of the word ‘pure’ was semi-satirical itself.
It begins to look like dog excrement was not an ingredient in tanning until the second half of the eighteenth century; the further back we go the absence of references in texts which detail other kinds of dung render it more likely that this particular ingredient was not used. A 1564 Act of Parliament controlling tanning processes carries very specific prohibitions against putting ‘any thing in any lycour, stuffe or workmanship in or about the tanning of leather but only lyme, Culver donge or Hen donge, and that in colde water onlye, and wooses made of colde water and Oken barke onlye.’
Finally, the word ‘tanner’, which as well as an occupation meant a 6d coin (a sixpence), surely one of the most attractive coins ever minted. Green’s Dictionary of Slang offers two possible roots, the Romany tawmo, (Hotten gives tawno) meaning ‘small’; and ‘a ponderous Biblical joke’ dependent on a wilfully obtuse interpretation of the words ‘St Peter lodged with one Simon a tanner’, from the King James Version. I like Hotten’s link to ‘teeny’, more plausible than his link to the Latin tener, ‘slender’ which he follows with a question-mark. The regularity with which tanners still turn up in allotments, under floorboards and along forest paths indicates how easily they slipped out of the pocket. Maybe human tanners after a career of handling some rather unpleasant stuff just got dried out and seemed to be on the point of shrinking away, like Tollund Man.
Saturday, 3 August 2013
Monday, 29 July 2013
Stirring stuff. Apart from the startling difference in the meaning of 'wonderful', I like the 'ear-witnesses' - we have eye-witnesses, so why not ear-witnesses?
Saturday, 27 July 2013
Friday, 19 July 2013
Perfumed candles, to make them
Perfumes of this kind are very grateful for the entertainment of company, when they have a double advantage of pleasing two senses by it, one in seeing the cheerful light and the other in smelling the delightful odours, it disperses from its beams. To do this, take dried charcoal made from the branches of willow an ounce, wood of myrrh, storax, calamita and aloes of each an ounce and a half, of labdanum an ounce, of amber and musk each seven grains, oil of spikenard two ounces, spirit of wine wherein gum tragacanth is dissolved two ounces, bees wax four ounces, make these by a gentle heat so soft that you may rowl them up like small candles over a cotton wick, and when you see your time light one or more of them and they will give a tolerable good light, and perfume the place with a very pleasing odour; but if they give not light enough for the entertainment, you may set common candles amongst them, and these burning by the bedside of a sick person, will be a great refreshment to the fading or drooping of spirits.
You may make this composition, leaving the wax out, into little cakes or balls, and burn it in the day time for being set on fire, it will burn out without putting on any live coals; but rather in such a case, make it up into little rowls the length of your finger.
Beauties Treasury 1705
this text. The first paragraph seems to be straightforward, with commas between clauses, or marking good places to take a breath, until the very odd comma between 'odours' and 'it'; odd that is until I realised that with the addition of 'which' before 'it' there is no problem at all. There does seem a serious need to have a comma between 'time' and 'for' in the second paragraph, for there is a definite change of direction in the sentence, as there has been in this one. The comma between 'ounces' and 'make' in the first paragraph would now be replaced by a semi-colon; and that between 'person' and 'will' is needing only its counterpart between 'these' and 'burning' to satisfy modern sensibilities (i.e. mine).
Punctuation, and particularly the locating of commas, seems a very personal and idiosyncratic business, to do with how we make meaning as we write: the weight we give to clauses and the connections we wish to emphasise. Originally designed to indicate to an orator where to take a breath, the comma still carries something of this, as well as indicating a break between blocks of closely connected meaning in a sentence. At my school one teacher taught us that if you could read five consecutive words within a sentence and they 'made sense' there was no comma needed; and if they didn't, then one was. But I don't think this can be much more than a rule of thumb, or perhaps it was designed to get unruly boys to think about how to communicate effectively.
How pleasant to see that people were making scented candles in 1705. But shouldn't there be an apostrophe there - Beauty's Treasury rather than Beauties Treasury? That's another story.
Thursday, 18 July 2013
Captain Lowe was clearly a man with a mission: in the preface he states 'The war proved that the British were a C3 nation in physique and an A1 nation in ideals.' Had the War stiffened the British back-bone? Was there a need for the British male to get fit or to keep fit? Had those endless exercises at the Bull Ring at Etaples actually improved the physical fitness of the British serviceman, or made him so resentful of physical training that any form of PT was to be avoided?
Wednesday, 19 June 2013
A certain wench was born within fifteen miles of London, who within a year and a half after her birth did begin to eat earth, stones, brick and gravel. And so continued therein (having all her delight in eating of such baggage), also she did eat the woollen sleeves that were on her arms, besides that she did eat a glove. And on a time as her mother did feed her with milk, there chanced to fall a great piece of soot out of the chimney into the said milk, which soot the said child did take out of the dish with her fingers, and did eat it most greedily. She abhorred then bread and butter, and other such natural food. Whereby she was marvellously consumed with a flux, and yet she liveth, having nothing in her but skin and bone. I saw her in June 1577. She was born in Charsay, within two or three miles of Staines, at which time she was full three years of age.
Friday, 14 June 2013
Tuesday, 11 June 2013
Sunday, 9 June 2013
Monday, 20 May 2013
I note that the OED online does not recognise the phrase when queried, but the 1998 Modern English Usage (R W Burchfield) refers to several examples in the OED, beginning with one from Shakespeare. Burchfield does state clearly though that the phrase is 'still strongly present in the language of the less well educated but is indisputably non-standard in Britain' . Does that 'still' imply 'despite the best efforts of the British educational system' or 'a sadly obsolescent dialect form'? Burchfield goes on to note that all the twentieth century quotations in the OED are from 'sources representing non-standard speech', and Webster's College Dictionary (1991) states that it is 'widespread in speech, including that of the educated ... but is rare in edited writing'.
From earlier authorities I can find no references in the copies of Lindley Murray, William Cobbett or Henry Alford that are to hand, but an early edition of Nathaniel Bailey's Dictionary (1733 I think) gives the spectacular typo:
Of - belonging to
Of - from
Tuesday, 16 April 2013
To anoint the face and to make it white
Take fresh bacon grease, and the whites of eggs, and stamp them together, and a little powder of bays and anoint your face therewith, and it will make it white.
A white fucus or beauty for the face
The jaw bones of a hog or sow well burnt, beaten and searced through a fine searce [sieve], and after, ground upon a porphyrie or serpentine stone, is an excellent fucus, being laid on with the oil of white poppy.
Monday, 8 April 2013
Take one apple roasted and cleansed, quicksilver killed [neutralised] with spittle, mix them well and anoint.
Monday, 11 March 2013
"You should be more gentle with her. You should give her time to find out whether she likes you or not."
"She has known me all her life, and has found that out long ago. Not but what you are right. I know you are right. …"
'Yes,' continued Ethelbert; not at all understanding why a German professor should be contemptible in the eyes of an Oxford don. 'Not but what the name is best earned at Oxford. In Germany the professors do teach; at Oxford, I believe they only profess to do so, and sometimes not even that. You'll have those universities of yours about your ears soon, if you don't consent to take a lesson from Germany.'
"He worked his way up from nothing when 'a came here; and now he's a pillar of the town. Not but what he's been shaken a little to-year about this bad corn he has supplied in his contracts."