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.


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A Forgetting to Breathe

In one of my workshops at the British Library I begin by asking students how many stars they would give the English language. Uusally it averages out at four; by the end of the workshop I have worried and perplexed them into lowering their assessment to two or three. Yet we know the language is capable of incidentally producing phrases and sentences of staggering beauty. ‘Elbow’ is reckoned by many to be the most beautiful word in the language, yet it refers to a part of the body which seldom makes viewers swoon; why ‘elbow’ rather than ‘eyebrow’, which for centuries was so important a feature of the face that its placing drove women to shave theirs off and replace them with false ones?

One of my favourite sentences in the language comes near the end of Heming and Condell’s preface to the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623). After the wonderful bombast with which they castigate previous publications of the plays – ‘stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters’ – they include in their text surely one of the most successful pieces of advice ever: Read him therefore, and again, and again. This begins with a  combination of sounds in the first three words demanding a steady pace, followed by the forced break of the comma, and then another strongly rhythmic and again slow phrase, the divided repetition of the nasal sound of ‘again’ sounding like a bell inside the head. It sets the reader up for the wonderfully embracing sentiments of the end of the preface, which honour Heming and Condell’s fellow writers introducing Shakespeare, the playwright himself, his readers, and readers they might introduce to his work. But ‘read him therefore, and again, and again’ stays in the mind, like the memory of something we know to be right.

Yesterday I came across something very sad but very beautifully written, the narrative of the death of a young woman from a drug overdose in 1787. Dr Priest  is writing to his colleague Dr Hamilton from Ipswich; he begins by stating that he was sent for to oversee the case of a young woman. ‘Her name, as I am told, was Lydia Spratt’. I have always felt that the genius of the iambic rhythm is that it observes and reflects the rhythm of much spoken English; this sentence, ‘her name …’, is a great example of this. It could be early seventeenth-century dramatic verse.

Lydia Spratt was ‘the servant girl of a farmer’. Dr Priest states ‘the only information which I received, was, that they could not wake her’, and it soon transpires that she has taken an overdose of laudanum, which she was accustomed to take for a stomach complaint. He gives her ipecacuanha ‘without the least effect’, and manages to get her to swallow fluids without any apparent muscular motion. He bleeds her, but the blood flows slowly, and is ‘very black’. He gets some vinegar and brandy into her, and has her body rubbed with this, but to no avail. In desparation she is taken outside and laid on a cask, which is rolled about, and then sat in a chair. But she does not regain consciousness, and dies an hour later. ‘Her breathing became more and more laborious; at the end of every expiration, there seemed to be total inactivity of the lungs for some moments, and the succeeding inspiration was long. I should call her death, a forgetting to breathe’.

This last sentence, though it does not have that iambic rhythm, has an expressive pace. Though it is possible to pronounce the first clause swiftly, the second clause demands to be spoken slowly, and seems to expire at the end of the sentence –  the word ‘breathe’ is almost onomatopoeic. And the break in the middle reflects the ‘total inactivity’, the forgetting.

I had remembered this sentence as ‘Her death was, she forgot to breathe’, but the actuality is so much less glib, and so much better. We imagine the doctor sitting thinking about the case of poor Lydia Spratt, wondering how to assess this death, in which his observation meets his medical knowledge of what he knows to be a reflex action, and how these meet the potential of the language to express the problem. The sentence is about how we try to reconcile what we know with what we see, and how we fail.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Quarantine and Contagion

Browsing through the  31 January, 1825 edition of John Bull, as you do (as we say), I came across this book advertisement. It reaffirms my conviction that doubt is more useful than conviction (but of course I can be persuaded otherwise).

Quarantine and Contagion
Just published in octavo, price 15s. the second edition
Evils of quarantine laws; and non-existence of Pestilential Contagion; deduced from the phenomena of the Plague of the Levant, the Yellow Fever of Spain, and the Cholera Morbus of Asia. By Charles Maclean MD
London: Printed for Baldwin, Cradock and Joy

Hats off to Dr Maclean for getting into two editions.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Register-Office for Beauty, 1800

I came across this in The Lady’s Monthly Museum, 1 April 1800. I present it copied verbatim:

Proposals for opening
A Register-Office for Beauty:
Or, Repository for Female Charms

Mr Editor,

Through the medium of your excellent and widely-circulated Museum, I beg leave to state, that I have procured, with infinite labour and expense, the choicest collection of all the several articles required for mending, patching, restoring, improving, and supplying every female perfection. I have also engaged the most ingenious artists in the different branches of this useful profession, and mean shortly to open an office at the Court end of the town.

I have provided all the different assortment of lilies and roses, to suit every complexion. I have laid in a considerable stock of unguents, cosmetics, and beautifying pastes. I have the finest tinctures to colour the hair, the brightest red salve for foul lips, and the sweetest perfumes for stinking breaths. I shall sell Mr. ---’s fine compound (at a guinea an ounce), to take off all superfluous hair, without the least prejudice to the tenderest complexion; as likewise the grand anti-maculating tincture, to remove pimples, sun-burns, or freckles.

I have various shapes ready fitted up, of all sizes; with all sorts of cushions, plumpers, and bolsters, to hide any defects. I have a curiously-contrived engine for pulling out wry necks, for strengthening bandy legs, and for stretching or cramping them, with the feet, arms, hands, etc, if too short, or too long. I also have a machine for reducing crooked backs, or flattening round shoulders.

I have artificial brilliants of all waters, whether for the bright eye, the dead eye, the piercing eye, the sleepy eye, the bold eye, the swimming eye, etc. I have hired a French oculist to put them into any ladies’ sockets, from whence he will take out, with very little pain, the squinny eye, the wall eye, the goggle eye, and all others. Hairs are plucked out of the forehead by pincers, and the smoothest mouse eye-brows, of all colours, put on by him in their room, with the nicest exactness.

Mr ----, the dentist, has engaged to draw teeth at my office, and to put in a new set of the best polished ivory. A noted chin-turner will attend every day, to shave, plane, and mount chins, to any cock desired; he will also neatly piece, join, and glue on artificial ones, if wanted.

I have imported a great-grand-daughter of professor Taliacotius, who pares, scrapes, grinds, and new-models overgrown noses; cuts off crooked or flat ones to the stumps, and engrafts new ones on the roots of them.

I apply a particular sticking-plaster to the face, which takes off the whole skin; I then rub it over with a beautfying liquor, which adds a new gloss to it; and afterwards I paint it, as natural as the life, to any pattern of complexion. I peel off the finger-nails, and flay the entire hand in the same manner, which, in a month’s time, makes them as white as hanging them in a sling, or the wearing of dog’s skin gloves can render them in a twelvemonth. As for those who are hindered from dancing, by corns of any sort, or toe-nails grown into the flesh, a most famous corn-doctor has promised to cure them; as (according to his advertisement) several of the Royal Family, and a great many persons of the highest distinction, have experienced.

I cut dimples into the grain, which never wear out. I slit the lips open on each side if too narrow, and sew them up when they are too wide, with such niceness, that the seams are imperceptible. I no less dexterously fine-draw, or darn, wrinkles of any standing; and fill up all dents, chaps, or holes made by the small-pox, with a new-invented powder. I have a thin diet-drink to bring down the over-plump to a proper gentility of slimness, and a nourishing kind of jelly for the improvement of the scraggy. In short, I am possessed of many other equally valuable secrets, on which I shall enlarge more particularly hereafter, in my printed bills, to be dispersed over the three kingdoms.

Ladies are waited upon at their own houses, by their very humble servant,
Elizabeth Mendall.

There are a number of things in this text worthy of comment, but what I find most difficult is to trace the exact line separating the possibly accurate from the satirical. It’s not easy: women did sleep in dogskin gloves which sealed their hands in a paste to whiten them; hairs were plucked off foreheads, and plumpers filled out the spaces in the mouth where lost teeth would otherwise cause sunken cheeks. So, in my quest for evidence of mouse-skin false eye-brows, should I treat this as a viable documentary text, or a satire? It is a very late mention for this particular cosmetic fashion – references to mouse-skin eye-brows tend to be mid-eighteenth century. My gut feeling is that I should treat it as satire, one more for a growing collection of satirical references to this phenomenon, for which I have as yet to find one non-satirical reference.

A further thought though: where does the expression ‘mousy hair’ really come from?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The persistence of the theory of humours

My family having been remarkably resilient this autumn against the colds that usually afflict us, I have looked at the OED definition of ‘cold’ in the medical sense: ‘As a mass noun: disease attributed to an excess of the quality of coldness within the body or part of the body, to a superfluity of cold humours (esp. phlegm), or to exposure to low temperature; (in later use) spec. acute and self-limited catarrhal illness of the upper respiratory tract.’

‘A superfluity of cold humours’? When was this written? Humours, as a medical term, ceased to be part of serious medical terminology in the nineteenth century. Is this a case of deliberately outdated but stylish language? The last sentence reverts to a more expected style, preceded with the ‘(in later use)’. Does this mean that the earlier definition, presumably applied to earlier thinking, merited this archaic terminology?  The OED does not usually do this; witness the definition for the more or less obsolete term ‘ague’ – ‘An acute or high fever; disease, or a disease, characterized by such fever, esp. when recurring periodically, spec. malaria. Also: a malarial paroxysm, or (esp. in later use) the initial stage of such a paroxysm, marked by an intense feeling of cold and shivering. Now chiefly hist.  Or ‘dropsy’: ‘A morbid condition characterized by the accumulation of watery fluid in the serous cavities or the connective tissue of the body.’

All very curious. And possibly helpful when needing to take a sicky; just email in saying you have been affected by a superfluity of cold humours. No doubt work will find it very humorous. 

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

Reposting: pure, poo, and words from tanning

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

Rolf Greifelt and his work on English Soldiers' Slang 1914-18

Many thanks to Rob Schaefer for bringing this to my attention.

Rolf Greifelt’s “Der Slang des englischen Soldaten im Weltkrieg 1914-1918” (English Soldiers’ Slang in the 1914-18 World War) is a fascinating document. Written as Greifelt’s inaugural doctoral dissertation for the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Marburg in 1937, it gives a view into how British (and some other English-speaking) soldiers’ slang was being recorded and analysed nearly a generation after the conflict. Greifelt was born in 1910 and studied in Hamburg, Frankfurt am Main, Leeds and Marburg between 1929 and 1935, when he received his doctorate. Thereafter he taught and studied English, and specifically American English, at Marburg and Heidelberg, before becoming (I think) a high-school teacher at Darmstadt. He died in March 1945.

The dissertation is divided into three sections: firstly a discussion of the nature of slang; then, roughly, an investigation of English soldiers’ slang in terms of 1, its position and meaning within slang generally, 2, the methods of creating and the forms of spoken soldiers’ slang, 3, the content and forms of words, and the experience of war in speech, and 4, the distinction between English, German and French soldiers’ speech. The final section contains some observations on the influence of soldiers’ slang on postwar English and an extensive, and extremely interesting, glossary, in several sections. His bibliography includes works on language (Jespersen, Partridge, Dauzat, Saussure, Brophy & Partridge, Fraser & Gibbons, etc), novels, comments and memoirs (Graves, Sassoon, Mottram, etc), and several dictionaries.

At this stage I will confine myself to a few points in the final part of the document, which alone is a very impressive and fascinating piece of work. It begins with rhyming slang, with a clear awareness of how rhyming slang develops away from the original phrase – as in the way “butcher’s hook” becomes “let’s have a butcher’s”. It’s a comprehensive list, three and a half pages, with such familiars as “apples and stairs”, “north and south”. There’s a bit of a separation before he gets to the shortening of rhyming slang (Elliptische Kürzungen) – “china” being the only one of the five that I have heard in speech; this means a few common examples are missing – “dutch” for “Duchess of Fife/wife” (Greifelt gives “Duke of Fife”), “tod” for “tod sloan/alone”, as in “on your tod”, and “trouble” for “trouble and strife/wife” (Greifelt gives “war and strife” – and, though according to the OED “trouble and strife” was definitely around by 1908, “war and strife” may have been a more topical variation).

There are words taken from card and dice games, the nonsense word-making that created “Hoojamakloo” (Greifelt has “hooga ma kloo”), and “oojiboo”, and hats off to his transcription of “skiboo, skiboo, skibumpity-bump-skibboo” and others similar. Then there is a keenly observed section on the anglicisation of foreign words and phrases, from “apree la gare” to “nix goot” – the words and phrases given being from French, German, Hindi, Arabic, and Russian. His selection of anglicisations of place-names indicates a full understanding of the humour derived from these – “Moo Cow Farm” for Mouquet Farm, “Arm in tears” from Armentières, and the wonderful “Ocean Villas” for Auchonvillers. Then he examines shortenings, the creation of phrases from initials, including the backslang process by which RAMC is reversed to give “Can’t Manage A Rifle” (backslang being the process by which "boy" becomes “yob”). Then there are phrases derived from the trench-experience, some of them ameliorations such as “hop over”, followed by avoidance language such as “cop it”. The section ‘Tommies unter sich’ includes words for comrades, less-favoured soldiers, lice, old soldiers, common trench expressions and experiences (“to chance one’s arm”, “come the old soldier”, “come unstuck”), the structure of the army (“red caps”, “brass hats”), and how Tommy described both enemy and friend. Then there are sections on the terminology applied to women, food, weapons, cigarettes, alcohol, dying, and finally a few catchphrases, which again indicate Greifelt’s striking perception of how irony works in English humour – “wasn’t it your crowd that sank the Emden?”, and “what do you want, jam on it?”

Inevitably, etymology being a continuously developing field, some of his observations have been superseded. His proposal that “raffish” developed from the RAF is a great idea, but the OED is now able to show a usage of the word to mean “Showing an attractive lack of regard for conventional behaviour, appearance, or style; rakish; mischievous; offbeat” dating from 1906 (it derives from “raff”, which meant “rubbish” in the fourteenth century).

Though I like idea of “mungaree” coming from Zulu (Greifelt), the source Green (Green’s Dictionary of Slang, OUP, 2011) gives goes back to Nashe in 1599 London. Personally I feel there is room for a bit of discussion here, as the obvious derivation from the French manger is clearly linked to Nashe’s “mangery”, but the soft “g” seems a bit of a jump from the hard “g” of “mungaree”. And the next quote Green gives is from a Mayhew interviewee in 1861, who thought that “numgare” (sic) was ‘broken Italian’. It is not until 1886 that the form “mungary” is documented. This may be far from the story that it was a mistaken form of “I’m hungry”, as heard by Egyptians and adopted in Egypt by British soldiers, but that may have had a reinforcing effect, just as Scapa Flow may have reinforced the use of “scarper” (go/run away), originally from the Italian ‘scarpare’.

Most interesting (so far) is the observation that the word “Hun” was ‘journalese’. To test this briefly I looked at how long after the war it survived in the popular press. Sure enough the Daily Mail was still using it in headlines in 1921 – War Cat Veteran – Cigarettes That Saved Him From Hun Snipers - appeared on 13th August 1921. And they were still quoting the word in reports and letters in March 1922, by which time ‘Bosch(e)’ was long gone. I will be looking through other papers and periodicals to see how the evidence stacks up.

There is more, much more, to be examined and explored in this text, so I hope others will look at Greifelt’s work, particularly whether there was any motivation behind it. My apologies if my enthusiasm has led my very dictionary-aided German to mistranslate or misunderstand any of Greifelt’s text; and if anyone knows any more about Greifelt, and particularly the role of his text in 1937, we would love to hear from you. And if anybody feels like submitting a paper on him for a conference, the British Library and Antwerp University will supply an ideal opportunity in June 2014: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/socialscience/2013/07/wwi.html .

Monday, 29 July 2013

Wonderful news from Buckinghamshire, 1677

A quick post: while looking through Early English Books Online for an early example of a dream book  (more later on that) I came across a truly wonderful title. I give the title page more or less as it appears:


How a young Maid hath been for
Twelve years and upwards possest with the
D E V I L ;
And continues so to this very day in a 
Lamentable Condition.

With an Account of several Discourses with the said Evil
Spirit, and his Answers: attested by Ear-witnesses; and other
strange Circumstances from time to time relating thereunto.
Published for the Awaking and Convincing of Atheists and
modern Sadduces, who dream that there is neither
Angel nor Spirit.
Licensed according to Order
London : Printed for D.M.  1677

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

Seventeenth century flintlock flint

Some photographs of the incredibly beautiful flintlock flint we found today on the foreshore of the Thames by the Tower of London. Staff reckoned it to be from the seventeenth century. It's larger than I would expect a flint to be for this purpose, but may have been for a large mechanism for a large gun, or conceivably as a model for flintworkers to work from. Either way, the thought of the care required to create something so precise by the process of flint-knapping makes it a thing of wonder. Thanks to the staff from the Museum of London and COLAS who were at hand, for their expertise and enthusiasm.


Friday, 19 July 2013

Perfumed Candles, 1705

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 

I have been trying to make sense of the use of the comma in 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

The Britisher’s back-bone

The Britisher’s back-bone

Very powerful muscles along the back support a man’s back-bone, and if the correct balance and poise of the body is to be attained, they must be cultivated with that object. How often do we hear the statement that so-and-so is man with “plenty of back-bone”? Sometimes the phrase may be meant to imply that he is a man full of pluck, sometimes to suggest that he possesses staying-power and endurance; sometimes it may even be used in an attempt to describe him as possessing the essential qualities of a Britisher. Yet a man with a good back-bone is merely a man who supports himself in the upright position with dignity and carriage. Such a one is reckoned within the British Empire to be typical of his race and tradition.

Physical Jerks, Thomas Lowe, 1921  

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 Notable Thing

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.

This is from ‘A Thousand Notable Things’ compiled by Thomas Lupton, and published in 1579, and again in 1601. His grammar and/or punctuation seem to have gone a little awry, since he implies that she was full three years of age at the time of her birth, which alone would have made this a notable thing. I assume Charsay to be Chertsey.

Thomas Lupton was a protestant polemicist, who proposed to Queen Elizabeth the notably intelligent idea of a scheme of national insurance, including taxing the wealthy to support the sick and poor, and a national fund to repair bridges and coastal defences. His most well-known text, ‘A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts’, which remained in print into the nineteenth century, is a collection of folk recipes, observations, and odd ‘facts’ drawn from several medieval encyclopedias.

Of which more later.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Pregnacare Venus

Images from the series I am working on, called Pregnacare Venus (1, 2, etc.). ‘Venus’ with reference to the name usually given to European prehistoric carvings of pregnant women, though I don’t think it’s entirely appropriate. The figures represent women who may be about to give birth or may have just given birth, not a state usually attributed to Venus. ‘Pregnacare’, because that is the name of the raw material; so their generic name may change in the future. They are carved by hand from Pregnacare tablets, which measure 19 mm in the longest dimension.



Tuesday, 11 June 2013

To trench

'A boy from the town, trenching on Smith's monopoly, was selling papers with the afternoon's news.'

This is in H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds. This use of the verb ‘to trench’ in the sense of ‘to encroach on’ is very enjoyable. Which way does the trench go? Does it move over no man’s land on a broad front or is it a sap, moving directly forwards? The OED offers a single quotation, and that from 1631 – ‘Who did it? I? I trench the liberty o’ the subjects?’ from Staple of Newes by Ben Jonson. Sharp eyes will note that the earlier use did not require ‘on’, and that it is designated 'obs', for obsolete.

Any chance that, as a part of the centenary commemorative events next year, ‘to trench’ could be reinvigorated? Will the Labour Party trench the electorate’s faith in the Coalition? Does the knowledge that I have to paint the back door trench the prospect of a sunny weekend? Will a London football club trench Manchester’s apparent monopoly of the Premiership title? Can I trench the ground ivy’s domination of the topsoil at my allotment – and, by digging a trench, could I do that simultaneously metaphorically and physically?

Sunday, 9 June 2013

One Day Wonder 3

On a not so warm June day we were very pleased to welcome so many new visitors to Valentines Mansion. A few views of the day:


Works seen here are by Anna Kiff, Pete Smithson and Shelagh McCarthy:

by Shelagh McCarthy and Helen Rousseau:

by Anne Eggebert and Angela Conway:

and Lynn Hewitt's performance work on and from the grand staircase balcony:

Monday, 20 May 2013

Off of

This looks fun: off of.

I have a few close friends and relatives who use ‘off of’, as in ‘take your feet off of the chair’, and others who don’t. I feel instinctively that it is incorrect, while those I know and respect use it all the time. A Google search raised a few questions – clearly I am not alone in feeling interested in this point, and more than a few people are distinctly worried about the phrase.

‘How can I explain to people that the phrase off of is grammatically incorrect?’ asks a writer to English Language & Usage (http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/619/how-can-i-explain-to-people-that-the-phrase-off-of-is-grammatically-incorrect); answers given include attempts to find analogies with other phrases (optimistically irrelevant because this seldom works with English), and an awareness that American English uses the form more than British English. This may lead us to the idea that it is an Early Modern English form, and true enough the online Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the first documentation of the form as 1567. Merriam-Webster also states that ‘The of is often criticized as superfluous, a comment that is irrelevant because off of is an idiom’ (fair enough, so is the f*****g in ‘abso-f*****g-lutely’; I’m not sure that claiming something as an idiom gets us anywhere). 

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 

Should I gently guide my children away from ‘off of’, as a creeping return-invasion from across the Atlantic? Or should I take comfort from the no-nonsense approach of Jane Strauss’s The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation:

Correct:Take your shoes off the bed.
Incorrect:Take your shoes off of the bed.

(And should that be Jane Strauss’ rather than Jane Strauss’s?)

I was very relieved about a year ago to find that ‘chronic’, which as a child and adolescent I, along with all my school-chums, used in the sense of ‘bad’, was seen as Essex dialect usage by the Rev Andrew Clark (Echoes of the Great War: The Diary of the Reverend Andrew Clark, 1914-19). Is ‘off of’ a UK regional dialect usage? Though it does not appear specifically in Edward Moor's Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823) there is the entry ‘Of’ with the gloss ‘We use this preposition in, I think, an unusual way – redundantly – “I missed of him” – “Taste of it” – “He is leaving of him”.’

This is promising. East Anglian migrants took several worthy things to America – clapboard housing, the Mayflower (built in Harwich), and I suspect the sound /d/ instead of /t/ in ‘beautiful'.

Discussion around the dinner table considered whether it is easier to say ‘take your feet off of the chair’ than ‘take your feet off the chair’. It is, but why? Why should it be easier to say two words than one word, especially if the two-word phrase contains the one word of the other alternative? Admittedly it is easier to say ‘I was like’ than ‘I said’ – there’s an unavoidable hiatus between ‘I’ and ‘said’ which is elided away in ‘I was like’. The dinner-table consensus was that somehow we manage to elide ‘off of’ to make it feel faster and more comfortable than just ‘of’. But I would not like to allow ease of pronunciation prime role as the ruler of language change.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Seventeenth century white face make-up

I have often wondered what was the composition of the white make-up used by Elizabeth I and court ladies of the seventeenth century. Was it a form of lead, as frequently thought? These two recipes come from Delights for Ladies, 1636.

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.

The second basically creates a layer of white calcium phosphate on the skin; ground jaw-bones of pigs seem to have been a common source for white face-makeup, though the term ‘fucus’ was applied to colours other than white, and in fact derived from a Latin term applied to red dye. The ‘oil of white poppy’ was perhaps an infusion of petals in oil; I think the lard-based make-up would have been a cheaper option. The link between animal products and cosmetics is pretty well entrenched here. Little refinement is involved – the final product is removed from the dead animal by more stages in the second recipe, but it contains only two ingredients. You could not avoid knowing that you were basically slapping the ashes of pig bones on your face.

Monday, 8 April 2013

An ointment for lice in the eybrows

Take one apple roasted and cleansed, quicksilver killed [neutralised] with spittle, mix them well and anoint.

Cosmeticks, or the Beautifying Parts of Physick, Johann Wecker, 1660

I worked in a school once where a teacher came into the staffroom during morning break and told us about a child whose hair appeared to be moving of its own accord. I assumed at the time that it was a case of headlice. I hope so. I have never heard of lice infesting the eyebrows, but I suppose there is no reason why they should not.

‘Killing’ mercury with spittle presumably involves briskly whisking the two fluids to get them to mingle. But would this in fact neutralise the mercury? Spittle can have the opposite effect, that of activating mercury in tooth-fillings – see www.hugginsappliedhealing.com/digestive-disturbances.php in which Dr H Huggins points out that chewing stimulates the releasing of enzymes in saliva, and at the same time stimulates the release of mercury from tooth-fillings. Wecker occasionally specifies 'fasting spittle', but does not in this recipe. The mercury/saliva mix may have increased the absorbtion rate of the mercury via the skin. It cannot have done the lice much good, so with luck the whole mess would have worked and been removed fairly quickly.

Monday, 11 March 2013

A lost Victorian phrase?

'Not but what'.

This looks like a familiar phrase, but I don’t think I had ever come across it until I recently started reading the novels of Anthony Trollope. ‘Not but what’ I don’t think I shall start to use the phrase. Still confused?

This is from Phineas Finn, (1869)

"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. …" 
I still don’t think I would get it from that. Try this quote from Barchester Towers (1857):

'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.'

It appears twice in Phineas Finn, twice in Phineas Redux (1874) and four times in both The Kellys and O’Kellys (1848) and The Eustace Diamonds (1873).  But you won’t find the phrase in The Warden (1855), or The Duke’s Children (1880); nor, curiously, in He Knew He Was Right (1869).

Dickens uses it four times in Great Expectations (1861) but not at all in Pickwick Papers (1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), A Christmas Carol (1843), Dombey and Son (1848), Bleak House (1853), or Little Dorrit (1857). And not in Our Mutual Friend (1865) or The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).

(In all of these I am giving the year of the publication of the final instalment of the serialised form.)

George Eliot uses it four times in Middlemarch (1872) – though I can’t say I noticed it on a recent reading – and a massive eight times in The Mill On The Floss (1860). It’s there twice in Adam Bede (1859), but not in Daniel Deronda (1876). You won’t find it in the novels of George Meredith (between 1856 and 1910), but you will find it three times in Mary Barton (1848), five times in North and South (1855) and an impressive eleven times in Wives and Daughters (1865), all by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Hardy uses it once in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886):

"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."

And it appears three times in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), but not at all in Jude the Obscure (1895). H G Wells does not use it in The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) or The War of the Worlds (1898).

So it seems to have enjoyed some usage in literary English from the 1840s. Not but what I don’t recall reading it in any twentieth-century work (and I would like to hear of quoted instances). Not but what I looked for it in the OED. I couldn’t find it. Not but what I’ll go on looking.