THE BIG HEAT

Etymologising* in the heat of the moment

On July 11 2022 the temperature in London was 32 degrees, hotter than the notorious summer of 1976. By the 19th it had risen to a record-breaking 39 degrees, at which point I, who had mocked the complainers and declared my preference for extreme temperatures, collapsed. On a restorative stroll across the Surrey Hills five days later I could see the wildfires burning in the distance.

For the last two months on social media the hashtag #heatwaveuk has dominated the conversation. ‘Heat wave’ was first used in 1893 to describe a weather phenomenon. Noun and verb heat are descendants of Old English hætuhæto – heat, warmth, ardor – from Proto-Germanic *haita, source also of the Old English adjective hat, hot. The ancient, pre-Germanic ancestor of these key words is unknown, although I suspect it was also the ancestor of the Greek kaiein and Lithuanian kaisti, both meaning to burn.

As folklorist Tatiana Fajardo had reminded me on a 31-degree July 17, the dog days are the hot, sultry days of summer. They were the period following the heliacal rising of the star system Sirius (known as the ‘Dog Star’), which Hellenistic astrology associated with heat, drought, lethargy, fever, & bad luck. ‘Sultry’ incidentally was first recorded in the late 15th century and is a variant form of the older swelter, to suffer discomfort from the effects of heat, itself deriving ultimately from an Old English verb meaning both to die and to burn, probably from a ProtoIndoEuropean root *swel in the sense of shine or beam.

(The French term for a period of dangerous heat, canicule, can also denote a seasonal bout of listlessness and indolence, coming as it does from Latin canicula, an affectionate diminutive of canis, dog, used of Sirius, the Dog Star.)

During this year’s dog days it has sometimes been muggy and close here in overcast suburbia. ‘Muggy’ – uncomfortably warm, humid was first recorded in 1746. It derives from rural dialect ‘mug’, mist or drizzle, via the archaic Middle English verb ‘mugen’, from Old Norse mugga, ultimately from ProtoIndoEuropean *meug- slimy, slippery.

Despite some occasional humidity we have had virtually no rain at all in July and so far in August. The ground is parched. Of uncertain origin, ‘parch’ – a verb meaning to dry by excessive heat – appeared in the 1400s referring to drying or roasting (nuts or vegetables for example). In spite of the surface resemblances it probably does not derive from either ‘perish’ or the Latin word persiccare – to dry thoroughly, which is related to dessicate. Parch is also unrelated to ‘parchment’ which came via French from a blend of Latin pergamina – writing material from Pergamum – and Parthika Pellis – scarlet leather from Parthia.

By the first week of August the authorities were imposing hosepipe bans in some areas, and the alarming lack of reservoir water was becoming apparent. Drought is from Old English drugaþ, drugoþ, from Proto-Germanic *drugothaz, noun form of adjective *dreug, dry. Chaucer used it in the Middle English form ‘droghte’. ‘Drouth’ was a variant form which has survived in some dialects.

In engaging in hot weather banter, those of us of a certain age are likely to reference the much-quoted tabloid headline of summers past (mocked and endlessly replicated, and possibly actually invented by Private Eye magazine) ‘Phew What a Scorcher!’ or the Fast Show’s 1994 comedy catchphrase ‘Scorchio!’ Scorch was first thought to be related to Old French escorchier – to strip off the skin – from Vulgar Latin *excorticare to flay, but is nowadays usually derived from Middle English ‘scorchen’ or ‘scorcnen’ (to make dry, singe), probably an alteration of the Old Norse *scorpnen – to be shrivelled.

The Mirror‘s ‘Blowtorch Britain’ is a slightly more original take on ‘Tinderbox Britain’, a standard scare headline in these conditions, and for once we can forgive the tabloids their perennial overexcited comparisons; ‘Hotter than Corfu!’, ‘Hotter than the Sahara!’

*If you are searching for word origins and histories – etymologies – online, the well-known dictionary sites are not necessarily the best sources. I recommend https://www.etymonline.com/ whose author will have consulted, compared and synthesised the various ‘authorities’ before producing their own well-judged and thorough summaries.

2022 – THE STORY SO FAR

The themes of the year so far can perhaps be summarised by my hasty posts in passing, on Twitter and elsewhere, in which I considered the keywords trending in the UK’s political and media discourse during the last days of January and the first days of February…

Scurrilous

Rather late to the party – sorry, ‘gathering’ – today’s word is ‘scurrilous.’ Defined by Dr Samuel Johnson as ‘using such language as only the licence of a buffoon could warrant.’ In her resignation letter yesterday Downing Street Policy Chief Munira Mirza accused Boris Johnson of ‘scurrilous’ behaviour when he falsely linked Keir Starmer to the failure to bring paedophile Jimmy Savile to justice. The word first appeared in English in the early 1500s in the form ‘scurrile’, coarsely joking, from the Latin ‘scurrilis’, buffoonlike, itself from the noun ‘scurra’ denoting a fashionable loafer, idler, buffoon, said to be a loan word from Etruscan.

Glee

On 2/2/22, as #BorisJohnson and #jimmysavile jointly trended for the second day, the word ‘glee’ was ascribed to both. It denotes barely repressed mirth/hardly concealed febrile joy and I think describes the desperate glint of triumph in the eyes of the abuser who once again goes unpunished. ‘Glee’ was Old English ‘gliu’, ‘gliw’, ‘gleow’ – entertainment, jest, play, also music and mockery – probably from Proto-Germanic ‘*gleujam’ but its only close relation was the rare Old Norse word ‘gly’ joy. All these are related to Old Germanic ‘gl-‘ words with senses of shining, smooth, radiant, joyful and Celtic cognates such as welsh ‘gloywa’, shining. Dictionary definitions of ‘glee’ note another nuance or connotation (more technically ‘semantic component’) which is often present: ‘exultation deriving from one’s own good fortune or another’s misfortune.’

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Airfix nostalgia

As Airfix promoted their 2022 calendar (cover picture above), I was asked again to explain the notion of ‘Airfix nostalgia’, an expression which mocks the delusion whereby nativists, patriots and bigots, most of them under the age of 50, like to imagine that they were personally involved in WWII or the British Imperial project. The reference is to the Airfix plastic modelling kits of fighter planes and warships bought by parents and children in the 50s and assembled at home.

Fib

In among rancorous ongoing denunciations of lying by those in public office (see elsewhere on this site and in this list by Peter Oborne*) came a passing invocation of – or attempt at disculpation by reference to – the lesser offence of ‘fibbing’. A fib is a ‘trifling lie’ or ‘white lie’, so I’m not sure it’s quite the right term in the current context, but it’s from the 1580s, the verb from 100 years later. Its exact origin and first use are uncertain, but it probably began as a jocular version of ‘fable’, perhaps reduplicated as ‘fibble-fable’ and then abbreviated to its modern form.

Rhubarb

When accused of being complicit in the authorising of an airlift of dogs from Afghanistan, PM Boris Johnson described the allegation as ‘total rhubarb’. The colloquial borrowing of the word to mean incomprehensible chatter or nonsense may have its origin in theatrical circles (as noted by Mark Peters in 2015**): it is again a telling choice of words: dated, euphemistic (like ‘mince’ as a euphemism for sh**t which seems similarly to be part of Tory groupspeak), obscure in the sense of being class/age-sensitive, hence condescending.

Endemicity

A new and tendentious, contentious example of #coronaspeak was added to my glossaries on this site in January 2022. The seemingly neutral, technical term was in fact employed in attempts to convince the public that the pandemic was subsiding and the coronavirus morphing into a less lethal presence in the community. Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani noted perceptively that ‘Endemicity’ is the rebranding of ‘herd immunity’ by the same people who were repeatedly wrong about how close we’ve been to achieving herd immunity. They’re now moving to claiming we’ve reached endemicity, regardless of what the term actually means – just like they did before.’

Lawfare/lethal aid

As the promoter of Brexit Arron Banks sued investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr and the US sent the first aid packages to Ukraine I added two key terms to the #weaponisedwords glossary on this site: #Lawfare, referring to vexatious litigation by a nation or individual, and ‘lethal aid’, a euphemism or (as lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield pointed out to me) a dysphemism for military assistance.

Languishing

Are you Languishing? - The Performance Room

In mid-January articles examined the effects of isolation and burnout after nearly two years of restrictions and confinement using a new characterisation of the condition***: ‘languish,’ from the 14th century, meaning to be feeble, listless, moribund or grieving, pining, is from Old French ‘languir,’ from Vulgar Latin ‘languire’ to be weak, faint, idle, from proto-IndoEuropean *'(s)leg’ the ancestor of ‘slack’, ‘lag’ and ‘lax’. ‘Anguish’ is unrelated.

The prospective and retrospective pathways to and from depravity are... |  Download Scientific Diagram

Depravity

Despite the blizzard of slurs and denigrations circulating on social media and in the mainstream press since 2019, some words have been conspicuous by their absence. One such began trending in the UK national conversation, and then only briefly, in mid-January. ‘Depravity’ in the sense of immorality, degeneracy was first recorded in English in 1641, not directly formed from the earlier verb ‘deprave’ (Old French ‘depraver’, pervert, accuse, from Latin ‘depravare’ distort, disfigure) but a version of the noun ‘pravity’ from Latin ‘pravitas’, crookedness, deformity, from ‘pravus’, crooked.

Guile

On January 7 my word of the day was ‘guile’ (first ascribed to the leader of HM Opposition, and then energetically disputed on social media: ‘…it took guile to convince so many on Labour’s left that he was the natural successor to Jeremy Corbyn’ –The Times) The noun, meaning cunning, artful ability to deceive and/or duplicity, was first recorded in the 12th century. It is from Old French ‘guile’ from Frankish ‘wigila’, ruse, from Proto-Germanic ‘*wihl’, ancestor of English wile(s), from Proto-IndoEuropean ‘*weik’, consecrated, holy.

*https://boris-johnson-lies.com/johnson-in-parliament

**https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/11/mark-peters-bullshit-word-of-the-day-rhubarb-is-a-tart-theatrical-term-for-bs.html

***https://theconversation.com/languishing-what-to-do-if-youre-feeling-restless-apathetic-or-empty-174994?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=bylinetwitterbutton

UNWRAPPING GIFTS – at the first CHRISTMAS

A multitude of camels shall cover you. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and proclaim the praise of the Lord – Isaiah 60:6

Elsewhere on this site you can find reflections on the culture of Christmas cards, on traditional yuletide symbols and on the language of the very first Christmas. I realised this year that I had never considered perhaps the best known symbols of all: the gifts presented to the Christ Child in an act of adoration by the ‘three kings’ of Orient. The earliest known depiction of the Magi, in their ‘traverse afar’, is found in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, a wall painting dating from the middle of the third century CE. The sole biblical account of their arrival, in Matthew’s Gospel, describes an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which a number of unnamed μάγοι, mágoi – wise men – from the East visit the baby Jesus in a place described not as a stable but as an οἰκίαν, oikian – house. The gifts they brought are specified as chrysós (χρυσός), líbanos (λίβανος)* and smýrna (σμύρνα)**. In English these are rendered as…

GOLD – a familiar symbol of earthly wealth and kingship, the word itself in English is a descendant of Proto-Germanic *gulthan  gold, from the Proto-IndoEuropean root *ghel-  to shine. 

FRANKINCENSE – an aromatic gum resin burned as a perfumed offering in ceremony and ritual and mentioned in the Old Testament, also used in the form of an essential oil. Associated with Christ it probably evokes a priestly function and/or the worship of a deity, hence the divinity of the receiver. Our word is from Old French franc encens, literally noble or high-quality incense.

MYRRH – the rare and costly substance, obtained from an evergreen bush, was used for medicinal purposes but also for anointing the dead and in embalming, so perhaps references death, interment and the afterlife.  An early modern spelling from Old English myrre, from Latin myrrha, from Greek myrrha, from a Semitic source such as Akkadian murru, Hebrew mor, Aramaic mureera and Arabic murr, from a root meaning bitter.

Three caskets they bore on their saddle-bows,

Three caskets of gold with golden keys;

Their robes were of crimson silk with rows

Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows,

Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees.

-Longfellow

* Líbanos was also the ancient name for Lebanon, from a word meaning white. The connection with the perfumed commodity is that the spice trade from the orient passed at one time via the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where frankincense was cultivated, across the Lebanese mountains en route to Europe.

**Smyrna, also known as Myrrha, was an Amazon and the mother of the god Adonis in Greek mythology. In a legend which probably originated in Cyprus she was transformed into a myrrh tree after seducing her own father (the hero Cinyras who was king of Cyprus and Byblos) and giving birth to Adonis in tree form. The resin she exuded was said to be her tears. Present day Izmir on the coast of Turkish Anatolia was for centuries known as Smyrna, after the mythical mother or after the spice.

Three Wise Men Statues | Wayfair

Two days after this post appeared, the aptly named Dr Eoin Lettice of University College Cork wrote about those same precious commodities for The Conversation. His article is here:

One day in July

On Burnout, Decompression, Re-entry Syndrome – and Calling It a Day

Still mulling over the words of Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation, who described plans by the UK Government for a general relaxation of COVID-protection policies in ten days time as ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity’, I was invited to join a discussion on London’s Voice of Islam radio station about the notion of ‘Pandemic Fatigue’ and its implications.

The full discussion is here, with my contribution beginning at 44 minutes…

We can see then, that ‘pandemic fatigue’ can sometimes be a useful, neutral, technical designation, and this is how the WHO itself presented it in 2020…

We can become aware, too, that ‘pandemic fatigue’ is a very conflicted term: although used by the WHO and by ‘ordinary’ people to describe their very real exhaustion, it has also been used, like ‘compliance fatigue’ by authorities to blame the public for disobeying…

https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/01/07

Despite being locked down myself, in exile for the moment, this was another busy day, with long, mainly heated and indignant discussions taking place on Twitter of what ‘indigenous’ might mean in the context of the UK, triggered by the assertion by Tory MP Andrew Bridgen that the ‘indigenous’ population of the UK will not tolerate immigration. The offending word is an ambiguous and context-dependent term currently. Recent examples have referred to Canada’s First Nations in the harrowing context of deaths in schools where indigenous children were confined. I don’t think it has been used by any reputable specialists in or about the UK, and its use at a time when an England football team of very mixed origins is being celebrated seems crass and provocative. (We don’t know who the ‘original’ inhabitants of the British Isles were, because there was no written record until 55 BCE, but they certainly immigrated, or invaded and colonised as did all the subsequent settler groups.)

On BBC Radio Bristol I once again answered listeners’ queries on the the etymology of popular expressions. This time, perhaps aptly in present circumstances, the phrase was ‘call it a day.’ First recorded in 1838 by US writer Joseph C Nolan in his Charcoal Sketches – A Study in the Humor of the Old Northeast, it was in the form ‘call it half a day’ and seems to have reflected the mixed feelings of weariness and resistance on the part of workers from the Philadelphia slums, deciding to knock off early or to award themselves a half-day holiday. By 1919, as the USA wearily emerged from war, the usage had mutated into ‘call it a day’: in 1938 ‘call it a night’ was first recorded.

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I called it a day myself, at nine o’clock on a warm evening, pleased to have been awarded nine out of ten in a facetious Twitter competition for a photo of my hand, and recalling the louche philosopher Gurdjieff’s realisation that he had progressed from drinking from glasses to drinking from “what are called ‘tumblers'”…

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BEWARE BIGWIGS – and BIGWIGS BEWARE

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Print, broadcast and social media have a fairly small repertoire of expressions to deploy when fawning over, or seeking to discredit, the bigwigs who lord it over us and, supposedly, lead us. The expression I have just used, hoping for a striking epithet, is first attested in the mid-18th century (already with its tinge of sarcasm, its lack of due deference) when ostentatious wigs were worn by the most important and self-important personages in the land: ‘A new point of discussion for the lawyers, for our big wigs, for their Lordships.’ From the same era and invariably used of Dr Johnson is ‘panjandrum’, from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense verse published in 1755 by Samuel Foote*. By the 19th century it had come to refer mockingly to an ‘imposing figure’, especially if puffed-up. Such terms have a comic quality which may not be quite appropriate in the current climate of political rancour, so we revert to the (over) familiar mainstays of journalistic discourse.

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With recollections of the notorious fraudster press baron Robert Maxwell featuring in post-Epstein press reports the word magnate has been employed by more than a few journalists. It first appeared in Middle English and derives from late Latin magnas, magnat – great man, and it and its translations formerly defined a class of post-feudal nobility in European lands.

While we are at it, grandee (important, influential male in public life, often applied to elderly, retired, invariably hugely wealthy former politicians of a particular stripe) appeared in the late 16th century, from Spanish and Portuguese grande, senior nobles, from Latin grandis, great. The English ending was by association with the originally French-inspired ending -ee, seen in such formulations as ‘devotee’ and ‘debauchee.’

 

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In the same lexical set of possibly overweening, overstated titles as ‘magnate’ and ‘grandee’ is mogul (as in ‘hedge-fund mogul pedophile’ – a recent press caption) which was originally cognate with ‘mongol’ and referred to the Mughal (the Iranian version) dynasties who ruled India between 1526 and 1857 and were thought by Europeans to have vast stores of treasure at their disposal. The word’s suggestion of limitless power coupled with financial profligacy gave us those journalistic cliches of the 1950s, ‘movie mogul’ and ‘Hollywood moguls.’

‘Mogul’, ‘grandee’, ‘magnate’ share a category with tycoon – Japanese taikun, great lord or prince, from Chinese tai great and kiun lord, a designation of the ruling Japanese Shogun used by respectful foreigners, adopted into English in the 1860s, first as an admiring description of a political figure, then, from the 1920s as journalese shorthand for a prominent business leader and/or entrepreneur, especially if perceived as powerful, dynamic and/or aggressive.

On Twitter J-V Vernay asks ‘How about nabob from Nawab?’ In the colonial era in India the word, which later came to mean a returning colonist who had enormously enriched themselves, originally denoted a deputy governor of a province under the Mogul Empire. It is Anglo-Indian, probably adopted via Portuguese nababo from Hindi and Urdu nabab, from the Arabic plural nuwwab meaning viceroys. A wonderful word in its jaunty sound and in its connotations, perhaps bestowed most memorably in this case:

https://www.amazon.com/Nabob-Sob-Very-Johnnie-1951-57/dp/B01AXLWSBE …

Another rather rare but interestingly loaded term for alpha-males in public life is plutocrat, denoting a wielder of power derived from enormous wealth. ‘Plutocracy’ appeared in English in 1631, from the Greek ploutos wealth and -kratia, meaning rule and was widely used to describe the economic and social dominance exercised by late 19th century and early 20th century industrialists in the USA. Potentate is another resonant label from the politico-journalistic lexicon: it began to be used in the 1400s and is formed from Latin potentatus, dominion, from potent, having and/or exercising power.

I should probably mention in passing the honorific I secretly crave for myself: it’s eminence-grise, describing a ‘power-behind-the-throne’, a hidden manipulator of affairs, an arranger working in the shadows, originally referring to His Eminence François Leclerc du Tremblay, who wore a beige robe when that colour was in French described as grey and was the righthand-man of Cardinal Richelieu.

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In my previous post I listed some of the disapproving epithets for those in public life who wield power and influence and aspire to or affect greatness but, to put it much too kindly, fall far short. Another term associated with scrutiny of these reprobates which has been trending recently is impostor. ‘Impostor syndrome’ (then known as ‘impostor phenomenon’) was first defined in 1978. The word itself was adopted from French in the 16th century, derived via French imposteur from Latin imponere to impose upon, deceive, swindle. An ‘imposture’ denoted a fraudulent display or adoption of a false persona while the imposter or impostor was the perpetrator. Some, of course, who exhibit symptoms of the syndrome – shiftiness, false bonhomie, exaggerated preening – really are impostors.

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*Foote invented the word, which has echoes of Latin or Asiatic tongues, as part of a sequence to test the memory of a fellow-actor: ‘And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top’

NATIVISATIONS, PEJORATIVES, INKHORNS AND MULTISYLLABICS

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It seems an apt moment to highlight some of my favourite words: adoptions from other languages that have subsequently become partly or wholly ‘nativised’ – that is, admitted into English usage despite their exotic origins and overtones.

As an unashamed poseur (‘one who puts on airs, affects an attitude or style, usually to impress others’, from French poser, to place or put, first attested in 1869) and a dilettante (‘one who casually cultivates or dabbles in arts and/or literatures, from Italian dilettare, to delight (in), first attested in 1733), I have been accused of being a flâneur to boot, but take this as a compliment, as it uses the French verb flâner, ‘to wander’ or ‘saunter’, to describe a sophisticated, idler, perusing at their leisure the novelties and curiosities of the urban cavalcade*. As you can tell, I have always been drawn to fanciful, colourful terms, particularly when they serve as critiques or slurs (some of them are traditionally gendered as male, but feminine counterparts are now permitted, even in the countries of origin). Here is a small selection of examples, with more to follow shortly…

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Mountebank

The word means a swindler, fraud or trickster and comes from the Italian invocation  monta in banco! ‘climb on the bench!’ supposedly directed to a seller of quack remedies, later known as a montambanco (the word which was anglicised in the 16th century), who mounts a platform in a fair or public place to peddle their wares to credulous onlookers.

Charlatan

Almost a synonym for mountebank, the charlatan was a seller of useless remedies, later generalised as a fraud, a fake, a dissembling hypocrite. The word is from Italian ciarlare, to babble, as in blustering, bamboozling sales-talk practised by a ciarlatano, which became French charlatan whence the early 17th-century English borrowing.

Parvenu

A snobbish term of condescension, contempt and dismissal, the French word literally denotes someone who has arrived, ultimately from the Latin verb pervenire, ‘to come to, reach’. Its sense in French and later in the English of the early 19th century is a social climber who has attained or claimed a social position that they do not deserve. It is a near-synonym for arriviste, also French, adopted in the early 1900s to sneer at someone who has recently acquired undeserved and unaccustomed status – but without managing to gain the esteem that would normally accompany such success.

A Prince and a Poltroon posters & prints by Anonymous

Poltroon

This derogatory description of someone who is considered foolish, embarrassing, craven and pitiable, is said to come from the Italian poltro, ‘sluggard’ or ‘coward’ which became poltron in Middle French before being picked up by English speakers who were particularly fond of deploying it during the 18th century. The Italian ancestor possibly derives from Latin pullus, ‘a young chicken’, ultimate origin of the English pullet and poultry.

Rentier

Another more technical French categorisation (normally given its French pronunciation), adopted into English in 1798 and often employed as a pejorative, can refer to an individual or social class or cohort whose income derives from property, a form of capitalism which profits by monopolising access to property, or a state deriving national revenues from the rent of indigenous resources. Rente in French denotes dividend or income and rentier  (first recorded in 1650) referred to persons of ‘independent means’, typically landowners and landlords, thus could be applied to the ‘idle rich’. ‘Rentier capitalism’ describes the collecting of income from rents,  investment or dividends rather than from labour or productive activities and without reinvesting in socially worthwhile schemes.

The unattractive characters listed here are often instrumental in provoking disasters, catastrophes and confusions, for which, again, we have in the past raided our neighbours’ lexicons in search of more sonorous, memorable pejoratives…

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Debacle

This word, denoting an utter, often humiliating disaster, is the French débâcle, popularised in the troubles of 1848 and then meaning a collapse, a downfall, an unleashing of chaos. It derives from the verb débâcler, from earlier desbacler meaning to unbar in the sense of removing a river barrier and permitting a damaging outflow of ice and floodwater. The literal sense became a technical geological and engineering term in English in 1802, followed a little later by the figurative use.

Fiasco

The word, of Italian origin, again came to us via French, first attested in 1855 as theatrical slang for a botched performance or flop. By 1862 it was being used outside the theatre for an ignominious failure or embarrassing disaster. It comes via the French phrase faire fiasco ‘result in a failure’ from Italian far fiasco,  literally ‘make a bottle,’ (fiasco is Late Latin flasco, the origin of English flask). Nobody is certain whether the original idea evoked was the accidental or clumsy smashing of a bottle or the loser of a game of chance having to buy the winners a bottle of wine. I should perhaps add that my old friend, the musician F. Robert Lloyd, tells me from Paris that in the French of the 50s and 60s fiasco could refer, in polite speech, to a gentleman’s inability to ‘perform’ in an intimate, non-theatrical context.

Shattered green champagne bottle ... | Stock image | Colourbox

Farrago

Now in English denoting a confused mishmash or mess, a jumble of ridiculous notions or disorganised ideas, farrago began as a Latin term for cattle-fodder made up of different ingredients and was borrowed, via Italian, in the 1600s.

Rodomontade

This sonorous multisyllabic word could easily be dismissed as an ‘inkhorn term’, an obscure, little-known and archaic, not to say outrageously pretentious usage (first attested in 1543 – a word imported or used unnecessarily by scholars who dipped their pens in inkwells made of horn), but I like it and try to insert it into my conversations as often as possible. It means boastful, inflated talk and/or behaviour and was based on the name Rodomonte, a King of Algiers and a braggart, in the early 17th-century Italian epic poems Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso. In a similar vein fanfaronade is a nice description of arrogant, boastful talk. It may also denote a military fanfare and comes from fanfarrón, a word still used in Spanish to mean a show-off, blusterer or blowhard. Very rarely used, but surely very useful, and very timely is pasquinade which means a satire or lampoon, typically posted provocatively in a public place. It is inspired by the ‘Pasquino’ statue of a male torso displayed in Rome, on which the learned would attach verses and where wits would stick anonymous barbs and mocking diatribes.

Imbroglio

A confused, chaotic and embarrassing entanglement. The term was adopted into English in the mid 18th century, first in the sense of ‘jumble’, then more specifically in reference to diplomatic or political misunderstandings. The word is Italian for a tangle or muddle from broglio, confusion, intrigue, snarl-up and the derived verb imbrogliare.

Brouhaha

Meaning an agitated hubbub, a confused uproar, an overexcited reaction – especially in cases when a minor incident is exaggerated – the word was borrowed in the late 19th century from 15th century French. It may be imitative of the noise of public clamour, and is thought to have been the sound of the devil laughing as performed in morality plays. Some authorities derive it from a mangling of the Hebrew barukh habba – ‘blessed be the one who comes.’

You may well find my lucubrations (‘archaic – a learned or pedantic piece of writing’) rocambolesque –  far-fetched, fantastic, grotesquely inappropriate, from Ponson du Terrail’s character Rocambole** – and you may detect a hint of persiflage (light irreverent bantering) – but surely you’ll admit they are topical. There are other such expressions in my files which deserve to feature in this list and I will add them shortly – but please feel free, as Twitter acquaintances have already, to donate your own examples, for which I will thank and credit you, as long as you don’t mean them personally…

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*cavalcade, by the way, is yet again from Italian, this time from cavalcata, a procession, passing show, from cavalcare ‘to ride’, based on Latin caballus ‘horse’.

** from Spanish ‘carambola’, from Malaysian for Starfruit, meaning also bumping and trickery. Rocambole denotes several types of leek and garlic – and a ‘Brazilian Swiss Roll’ apparently. In today’s French it means ‘unbelievable’ or ‘over-the-top.’

ABSOLUTION? ABSOLUTELY! SHROVE TUESDAY NOW AND THEN

 

And on Shrove Tuesday when the bell does ring

we will go out at hens and cocks to fling

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Today is Shrove Tuesday. A propitious time for hanging laundry according to English tradition, which holds that whites will dry to yield an even brighter white on this day.  There are 46 days between tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, and the Holy Saturday at Easter. If the abstinence required of the faithful is relaxed for each of the coming Sundays then Lent will last for 40 days. Today marks the beginning of Lent and the end of the three-day period of indulgence and revelry known since 1530 as Shrovetide, culminating in the tossing and sharing of pancakes, formerly a way of using up the sinfully fattening contents of the larder prior to fasting.

In old tradition believers were summoned by a bell rung at eleven in the morning to be ‘shriven’, that is given confession by a priest and forgiven for their sins. The verb to shrive, meaning impose a penance, was Middle English shriven, scrīfan in Old English, and is related to modern German schreiben, to write. Old Germanic borrowed the Latin verb scribere, to write, (itself descended from Proto-IndoEuropean *skribh -, to cut) in the form *skrībaną on the basis that, even for an illiterate community, religious proscriptions were written down. The confusion of penitence and indulgence resulted in the old phrase to ‘go a-shroving’ denoting not seeking confession but making merry and misbehaving.

By the 19th century the shriving bell had become the pancake bell, which in Toddington in Bedfordshire brought village children to Conger Hill to put ears to the ground and listen for the sizzling of the local witch’s pan. In Chester the wild communal street games played on Shrove Tuesday were said to have originated when the townsfolk decapitated a Viking prisoner and used his head as a football: in Derby in 1839 the army had to intervene to stop, once and for ever, the mayhem occasioned by this annual festivity. Other communities celebrated with bull-baiting and tugs-of-war, or as in Brighton played variations of ‘cock-in-the-pot’ or ‘cock-squailing’ whereby weighted sticks were thrown at a captive chicken (or in Somerset at a ‘Lenycock’ – not a bird but a daffodil). Cocks and chickens, though, had a hard day of it almost everywhere. In Scotland children could bribe their teachers with a ‘cock-penny’ to abandon lessons in favour of a cock fight – the dominie was allowed to claim and eat or sell any bird that fled from the ring.

The name of the coming period of penitence, Lent, is a shortening of Middle English lenten, from Old English lencten, coming from  *langatinaz,  a ProtoGermanic word for springtime using the prehistoric ancestor of ‘long’ and evoking the arrival of longer days.

 

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…at last, by the skill of the Cooke, it is transformed into the forme of a Flip-Jack, cal’d a Pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people doe devoure very greedily

-John Taylor c.1642

 

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‘POOR TOM’S A-COLD’

 English below freezing

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Writer Melissa Harrison was intrigued when I posted on Twitter last night that ‘It’s pretty nipply out there.’ I was referring in facetious fashion to this January’s latest cold front – ‘cold snap’ has described a cold spell or sudden sharp frost since the 1740s – but the more literal nipply has been substituted by wags for the colloquial nippy (used in this sense since the 19th century) only since the 1990s.

We are bombarded at this time of the year by journalese hyperbole –  the threat of thundersnow, the imminent arrival of The Beast from the East, the Siberian blast or even Snowmageddon. In January 2021 the UK press passed on warnings from the Met Office of  a SSW – a Sudden Stratospheric Warming event, caused by a reversal in the direction of polar winds: at the end of November an Arctic Shot –  a band of intense cold and high winds moving south and east – was announced. The need for Brits to try and keep abreast of their capricious and wayward climate changes, coupled with our love of flippancy and understatement has thrown up a number of quaint and folksy expressions treating the notion of ‘bloody freezing’, some of which risk leaving foreigners at a loss.

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‘It’s a bit taters out there, I can tell you.’ Can still be heard, as I related in my Dictionary of Slang, in the ‘respectable jocular speech’ of older people, though it’s a shortening of the archaic Cockney rhyming slang ‘taters in the mold’ as rhyme for cold, originally describing not potatoes in a cooking tray, as I long thought, but potatoes lying in bed of loose earth (the ‘mold’) ready for harvesting. From a similar age-group and given the notoriously bad insulation of British buildings, you might still hear ‘There’s a terrible George Raft in here!’, the rhyme for draught borrowing the name of the Hollywood actor of the 1940s, famous for his stylish tough-guy roles on and off screen.

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More modern colloquialisms for ‘cold’ are arctic and Baltic, the latter sounding like a slightly rude double entendre. Common in Scotland, it might just reference the cold weather systems that sweep towards the UK from that region, but since the 1990s has been heard on US campuses too, and in Northern Irish slang where it means both freezing and fashionably ‘cool’ or ‘chilled.’ More obscure is brick as adjective for chilly, cold, freezing, heard in American English, where the better known cold as a witch’s tit and colder than a well-digger’s ass originated.

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On being met by a blast of freezing air the expression, or exclamation, brass monkeys is entirely appropriate. Baffled hearers will likely be told that this is a shortening of the vulgar expression ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’ and, if their informer is better informed, that the brass monkeys in question were the racks of cannonballs stored on the decks of warships. This is, though, almost certainly a false, folk etymology. A more likely source is that novelty brass monkeys were sold in sets of three as desk or mantelpiece decorations from Victorian times. Each monkey’s hands were clasped to hide a part of the body and in some cases one was covering his – or her – genital area.*

Another very British way of understating the intense, unbearable cold is ‘it’s rather parky isn’t it.’ The word has been used, particularly in middle-class speech since before the First World War, but its origin remains obscure. It might be a dialect pronunciation of ‘perky’ in the sense of sharp and fresh, or from the word ‘park’ as used by gamekeepers to mean ‘(the cold) outdoors’. Nowadays in lighthearted family conversation it’s sometimes elaborated to parquet-flooring or Parkinson – the name of a well-known elderly TV presenter. The more emphatic perishing used to be rendered by Peregrine Worsthorne, the name of a journalist cruelly nicknamed ‘Perishing Worthless’ by Private Eye magazine. @the TuesdayMan on Twitter tells us that it’s Perez de Cuellar in his household.

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Out in the frozen fields, away from the southern conurbations, another old dialect term still flourishes. Nesh can mean cold, or weak and susceptible to cold (hence also cowardly or contemptible) and still crops up in northern conversations. In Old English it was hnesce, weak or infirm and may derive ultimately from a Proto-IndoEuropean word for scrape or scratch. In the Potteries district  in Staffordshire they still use starvin’ to mean feeling cold, and my friend and colleague Jonathon Green reminds me that the English Dialect Dictionary also lists as synonyms for chilly airish, chillery, chilpy, coldrife, cuthrie, dead, lash, oorie, rear, snelly and urly. From Grimsby John Mooney reports a local usage is ‘it’s a bit hunch, usually with a dropped aitch, meaning really cold’ while @fairfaaye on Twitter contributes an Ulster Scots expression: founthered (also foundered): meaning ‘chilled to the bone’; as in ‘thon day would founther ye’, I’m founthered wi tha caul’ or ‘he got a wile founther’. From Old Scots fundy, to suffer a chill, originally, Old French enfondre, to be chilled.

Prompted by the breakdown of my central heating system I reposted all this on 22 January 2020 and The English Voice Bank on Twitter has responded with some new cold weather terms from the British Library’s Evolving English WordBank. One, recorded in Hull, is nithered, another is thanda,  ‘a wonderful example of Punjabi-English code-switching supplied by a contributor from the West Midlands’. From Derby comes an example of rhyming slang:

https://blogs.bl.uk/sound-and-vision/2019/01/recording-of-the-week-its-a-bit-derby.html

In September 2020, as an Indian summer receded, @Tweetolectology posted this reminder:

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* In April 2021 Angela White contacted me with more details on the ‘brass monkey’ derivation. I gratefully reproduce her observations here…

In your discussion about ‘brass monkeys’, you dismiss the idea of it relating to naval usage, the brass monkey was a cannon and the ‘tail’ was a lever used to aim the cannon. The same cannons were also referred to as ‘dogs’ and ‘drakes’. This is attested in: “short brass munkeys, alias dogs” from an inventory, ‘The articles of the rendition of Edenburgh-Castle to the Lord Generall Cromwel (1650)’ and “Twenty eight brass monkeys alias dogs” from Flagellum by J Heath (1663). in the 19th century, the phrase ‘cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey’ emerged: “Whew, ain’t it blowing ‘Jehosaphat Bumstead & cold’, it would freeze the tail off of a brass monkey.” from ‘Before the Mast in the Clippers, the diary of Charles Augustus Abbey (1857).
At the same time, a range of other ‘brass monkey’ phrases emerged such as ‘as cheeky as a brass monkey’, ‘talk the leg off a brass monkey’ and ‘hot enough to singe the hair off a brass monkey’ etc. These probably originated from the popularity of brass monkey souvenirs from the Far East which depicted the three wise monkeys. [My Great-grandfather served in the British Army in the Far East in the late 19th century, so he may have brought back such a souvenir.]
In 20th century USA, the phrase changed to the current expression: ” Ernest said ‘It would freeze the balls off a brass monkey – that’s how cold it gets.’ from the notebooks of Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). From a letter by Zelda Fitzgerald dated 1921, she writes: “This damned place is 18 below zero and I go around thanking God that, anatomically and proverbially speaking, I am safe from the awful fate of the monkey.” which was referred to in ‘The Far Side of Paradise’, a biography of F Scott Fitzgerald by Arthur Mizener (1951). This suggests that the phrase was in common usage by this time.
At the end of January 2022 the BBC report of a weather event in the USA introduced two new terms to its readers and viewers:
‘Experts say the storm will undergo bombogenesis, meaning that colder air is expected to mix with warmer sea air, leading to a swift drop in atmospheric pressure. The process leads to a so-called bomb cyclone.’

If you’re familiar with any other slang, dialect or humorous, colourful terms for this season’s weather, please let me know. You will be gratefully credited.

CHRISTMAS, ON THE CARDS

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‘I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings
To find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card 
I received this morning.’

George Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody

 

The tradition of sending Christmas cards by post has declined, though in a 2017 survey British respondents said they still preferred paper to texts or emails, while self-styled experts on etiquette dismiss the electronic ‘card’ as vulgar. Most of the cards I receive now come from charities soliciting donations or estate agents promoting retirement homes, nevertheless…

Sole example of a proto-Christmas card, a Rosicrucian manuscript on folded paper, decorated with a rose-sceptre, was presented to King James VI of Scotland and I of England at Christmas in 1611. It was inscribed as follows…

‘…a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate…’

New year cards wishing health and happiness were exchanged in Bohemia in the early 19th century but the invention of the modern Christmas card is usually credited to Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper of the British Public Record Office, who in 1843 collaborated with John Calcott Horsley, a narrative painter, to produce seasonal cards to be sold for one shilling each (then a considerable sum of money) and sent for just a halfpenny through the Post Office which Cole had helped to found three years earlier.

 

 

Though all authorities still credit Cole, in 2018 the TLS announced that a Timothy Larsen of Illinois had discovered an earlier reference to cards much like those with which we are familiar. In the December 7 issue of the Hampshire Chronicle, in 1829, was the following notice:

We learn that the “Olde Winchester” Christmas and New Year’s greetings, designed by Mr A. Clements of Northgate Studio, are receiving a most cordial welcome from Christmas card buyers, sales already nearing the 2,000 mark.

19th century cards introduced motifs invoking celebration, family assemblies and compassion and charity, together with stock phrases which we are still familiar with. Queen Victoria’s family adopted the custom almost immediately and by the 1860s cards were being produced and sold in large numbers by printing companies.

 

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Though Victorian cards in particular might feature surprisingly morbid or unsettling images, and more modern examples sometimes favour humour (cheeky messages appeared in the USA from the 1940s) and wordplay (puns being a British speciality) messages have typically relied on a small repertoire of words and expressions intended to inspire and cheer…

Joy comes via Middle English from Old French joie, which could mean joy or jewel, itself from Latin gaudia, gaudium, from Proto-IndoEuropean *geh₂widéh₁yeti, from the verb *geh₂u , to rejoice.

Glad tidings combines the Old English word for bright or cheerful, from an Old Germanic term for smooth, with the Old English and Old Norse words for happenings, occurrences, tidung and  tiðendi , which derive ultimately from the IndoEuropean root *di-ti, meaning divide, as into time-frames. The -tide of Christmastide or Yuletide has the same source.

Noel was nowel in Middle English, an anglicisation of French noël, from Latin natalis, shorthand for birthday. Latin nātīvitās, birth, became Old English Nātiuiteð, one of the earliest names for Christmas, and gives us modern nativity.

Yule, yole in Middle English, is from Old English ġéol or ġéohol, names for the Christmas or midwinter period, but related to words in Old Norse (jol) and 4th century Old Gothic (jiuleis) which denoted pagan winter festivals and feasting.

The word Christmas first appears in written records as late as 1038 in the form of Old English Crīstesmæsse – ‘Christ’s mass.’

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A particular favourite, thought for several centuries to describe an essence of Englishness, is of course

Merry /mɛri/ adj

  1. joyous, cheery, gleeful, of good spirit
  2. mirthful, convivial, affected by gaiety, as by festive spirit
  3. Colloq tiddly, squiffy, somewhat inebriated, as if by seasonal spirits

ME merye, from OE myrige, delightful, pleasing, sweet, from Proto-Germanic *murg(i)jaz, fleeting, from Proto-IndoEuropean *mreg(h)us,short

  • make merry behave in a frolicsome, boisterous, unconstrained manner, eg dad-dancing, shattering wine-glasses during toasts, communal bellowing of sentimental songs, flirting at the office party (syn: ‘attempting to pull a cracker’) etc.
  • Slang merry-bout an act of copulation (1780) merry-got a bastard (1785) merry-legs a harlot (19C) merry old soul an arsehole (20C rhyming)

 The first evidence we have for the phrase ‘mery Christmas’ is from 1565; coupled with ‘..and a happy New Year’ from 1699.

Finally, a little puzzle. Instead of inscriptions I used these images on the Christmas card I sent a few years ago in the hope that recipients would decode them, Almost nobody did…

 

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