OF PRODIGIES AND PORTENTS…

signs in the skies at the end of summer

The Jelovica Plateau, Slovenia, September 9

Seeing this in the Alpine foothills a few days ago, and thinking of the seemingly supernatural messages evidenced by photographs posted in tabloids and on social media last week, I was reminded that nephelomancy is divination by interpreting cloud formations, a branch of aeromancy* or aeriology – finding meaning by observation of weather conditions. The word is formed from Greek nephele, cloud and manteia, divining. (When undertaken by meteorologists using clouds to study global climate change the activity is known as nephology.) As the Queue of mourners winds its way along the Thames in London towards the late Queen’s catafalque, more celestial wonders are being reported, to add to last week’s list – reported here by the Daily Mail

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11196607/Glowing-clouds-shape-Queens-profile-form-sky-just-hours-passed-away.html

All through the summer heatwave and the accompanying drought I have been observing, and photographing as best I can, the unusually spectacular cloud formations, first above suburban London and the Surrey Hills and lately over the Julian Alps. We need not be credulous or desperate to suspend our disbelief for an instant and see in these a portent (from Latin portentum, an omen or token, borrowed into English in the sixteenth century) or a harbinger (Old French herbergere, from Old Saxon heriberga in the sense of a provider of shelter to soldiers, later a herald) of transformation, redemption or doom, or succumb for a moment to the pathetic fallacy, the notion (named by Ruskin to deride the sentimentality of Victorian poetry) that human affairs and human feelings are reflected in natural phenomena.

Of prodigies, and portents seen in air, Of fires and plagues, and stars with blazing hair, Of turns of fortune, changes in the state, The fall of favourites, projects of the great – Alexander Pope

Near Pope’s house in Twickenham, September 8

I’m not alone in observing that the mourning rituals and public displays of grief following the Queen’s death on September 8 resemble the religious observances and collective gestures that modern society has largely put aside, the mass of people moving slowly through the city recalling pilgrimage. Just as the aerial wonders and omens (the term appeared in English in the 1580s, from a Latin word of unknown origin) seemed to ebb, on September 14 a giant meteor streaked across the evening skies of northern England…

…and the following morning Buckingham Palace was illuminated by a single ray of sunshine…

When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes – William Shakespeare

Equestrian cloud over Hull, September 14

Just a few moments after posting I became aware that today is apparently Cloud Appreciation Day…and you are all invited to add your own photographs of the skies to the celebrations…

https://www.memorycloudatlas.org/index.php

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeromancy

Update: as the sun set on Westminster on the evening before the Queen’s funeral, commentators noted that the crowd gasped…

Photo by cameraman Alex Doherty,
September 18

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. A state of drought was officially declared for South, Central and Eastern England on August 12. The word derives from Old English drugaþ, drugoþ, from Proto-Germanic *drugothaz, noun form of adjective *dreug, dry. Chaucer used it in the Middle English form ‘droghte’ and ‘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, after the driest July since 1836, we can forgive the tabloids their perennial overexcited comparisons; ‘Hotter than Corfu!/Tenerife!/Honolulu!/Ibiza!’, ‘Hotter than the Sahara!’

At the humid, warm end of August my friend Grace Tierney looked at the origins of some other weather and climate descriptions…

*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.

‘POOR TOM’S A-COLD’

 English below freezing

Image result for nipply

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.

Image result for potatoes in the mould

‘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.

Image result for george Raft

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.

Image result for three brass monkeys

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.

Image result for freezing weather

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:

Image

* 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.