Autumn days

The work project started in the late summer has kept me from posting for a while. I intended catching up today with recent reading, but first I wanted to share some autumn thoughts, images and colours. All the pictures were taken on walks over the last couple of days.

Red ivy leaves

I hadn’t realised how lovely ivy leaves can become in the autumn

The word ‘autumn’ is one of those strange spellings, with that silent ‘n’ that either delights or annoys, depending on your view of orthographical vagaries in the English language. Here’s what the OED online has to say about its etymology, which partly explains how it came about:

Etymology: < (i) Anglo-Norman and Middle French autompne, Middle French automne (French automne) season between summer and winter (1231 in Old French), middle age (1405).

Citations begin with:

?c1400  (▸c1380)     G. Chaucer tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. (BL Add. 10340) (1868) iv. met. vi. l. 4142   Autumpne [L. autumnus] comeþ aȝeyne heuy of apples.

Pink hydrangea

A late-flowering hydrangea

So there also used to be a ‘p’ as well as an ‘n’ in there! Nothing to do with the usual culprits, those 18C “grammarians” who thought it was a good idea to insert a bit of Latin conformity into the totally different structures of English, hence ‘no split infinitives’, a ‘b’ in the middle of ‘debt’ (to align it spuriously with its Latin source, ‘debitum’), and so on.

I suppose the literary text we most associate with this season is the ode by Keats, with its famous image of personified Autumn:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
  Steady thy laden head across a brook…

I remember at an undergraduate lecture hearing Prof. Ricks using this as a marvellous example of using the movement of the reader’s eye and imagination over the line to its break and resumption on the next line as a sort of visual metaphor to enrich the verbal/pictorial image. This personification is one of a list of them in the second stanza: the young woman (= Autumn) steps over the brook (perhaps on stepping-stones?) and balances her burden of fruit on her head as she does so. The lines reenact the ‘steadying’ motion of her stepping over.

When I checked the poem I realised I’d forgotten that the image begins with ‘like a gleaner’. So it’s a simile: the image of an image.

Here’s another hydrangea, bronzed and burnished by the cool air of autumn so that it looks almost metallic:

Purple hydrangea

In some of my lockdown posts about rural ramblings I mentioned the good work done by our city’s ‘countryside ranger’. He’s created some lovely woodland walks locally, and these have become very popular with the community.

Some members of this community have started decorating the walks with artworks and ‘fairy houses’. These charming constructions by a local man called John Rowe can be seen on the Facebook group called ‘Fairy doors of Malabar and Coosebean’ (the names of local areas). They’re a huge hit with local children – and adults. I’ve mentioned them (and posted pictures of other artworks) here before.

Here to finish this post are some images of my walk through one of these woods yesterday, and one of a local artist’s pictures, aptly framed in rustic, salvaged wood. According to one of the ranger’s posts in this group, the print is one taken from a sketchbook by Jean McNaughton:

artwork mushrooms

Bird box

This nesting box high in a tree has an unusually large entrance: maybe for owls? Or very large bats??










Woodland path

The sun was dappling through the leaves not yet fallen when I took this; half an hour later it poured with rain!

Virginia creeper red

This virginia creeper grows on a garden wall at the end of our road. This was taken this morning.


Of dictionaries and cicadas

Lisa Hill’s recent post (at her blog ANZ Litlovers) on Pip Williams’ new novel The Dictionary of Lost Words was timely. A week or so back I watched the 2019 film ‘The Professor and the Madman’, directed by the Iranian-American Farhad Safinia, based on the 1998 book by Simon Winchester with the less strident title The Surgeon of Crowthorne – a sort of joint biography of James Murray, who in 1879 became the editor of the New English Dictionary – later known as the Oxford English Dictionary, and of W.C. Minor.

Minor had been an army surgeon during the American Civil War, after which his mental health deteriorated. Having moved to England, he shot and killed a man in Lambeth in 1872, was found not guilty at trial on the grounds of insanity, and was committed to what was called, in those less forgiving times, the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Crowthorne in Berkshire. Minor read the appeal by Murray’s team for contributions of quotations from the major works published in the English language that would illustrate the evolving meaning of words from their earliest usage. He became one of the most prolific of contributors to the project, and Murray went to visit him often from 1891.

The film has a powerful, committed performance as Minor from Sean Penn. Mel Gibson got to air his dodgy Scots accent again (yes, ‘Braveheart’ wasn’t his finest hour) in a strange bit of casting as Murray. As a film it was pretty poor, but gave a reasonably sympathetic account of the early struggles to get the OED project off the ground (Murray didn’t live to see the final volume of the first edition published in 1928).

Lisa’s post describes Pip Williams’ novel as a kind of counter-factual feminist vision of how the OED might have been compiled if it hadn’t been such an androcentric product of the late Victorian patriarchy. It sounds fascinating, and I commend Lisa’s post to you.

She has some interesting things to say about the OED’s entry for loaded words (in terms of gendered usage) like ‘service’, ‘bondmaid’ and ‘delivered’.

Cover of Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything

That’s the famous photo of Murray in his Scriptorium

This morning while looking for something to read next (after Donna Leon), I noticed on my shelf another Simon Winchester history of the OED, The Meaning of Everything, published by the OUP in 2003 as a sort of sequel to The Surgeon. I’d forgotten that I’d read it, and spent some happy time leafing through it.

There are some fascinating photo portraits of some of the key figures in the development of the OED. Right at the start (and on the cover in my picture) is Murray himself in his Scriptorium, where he began to pigeon-hole the millions of slips of paper sent in by contributors like Minor, on which were handwritten the citations illustrating usage of words. There are also images from earlier dictionaries of the English language, like Cawdrey’s (one of my earliest posts was about this, and other forerunners of Murray like Blount, Minsheu and Mulcaster: link HERE).

As I flipped through the pages I came across a delightful passage from K. M. Elisabeth Murray’s 1977 biography of her grandfather, Caught in the Web of Words, about a typical day’s bout of his dictionary-related correspondence (all written by hand, of course, with a second ‘fair copy’ as well). These included requests to the director of the botanical gardens at Kew for information about the first record of an exotic plant, and to various contemporary authors about the meanings of words they’d used in their novels or poems.

One of these was to Lord Tennyson, ‘to ask where he got the word balm-cricket, and what he meant by it’, in his poem ‘Dirge’. A footnote explains that this is another term for the common cicada, and is a mistaken translation from the German Baumgrille, meaning tree-cricket. It wasn’t Tennyson’s mistake originally – he’d borrowed it from an 18C author.

‘Dirge’ was first published 1830, revised 1842. With seven stanzas of six lines each, it has an unfortunate refrain, repeated twice in each stanza, at lines three and six: ‘Let them rave.’

It appears to address a person (a woman?) reposing in their grave, while the busy world raves on round them (Van Morrison was to use a similar image). It’s full of intrusive archaisms, like ‘Thee nor carketh care nor slander’. Carketh – even the inflection is archaic. From the Middle English via Old French and Latin (meaning ‘burden’); here’s the OED online (how James Murray would have loved computers and the internet: they would have shortened his work by decades) –

That which burdens the spirit, trouble; hence, troubled state of mind, distress, anxiety; anxious solicitude, labour, or toil. (In later use generally coupled with care.) archaic.

The poem’s troubled, stumbling rhythm is largely trochaic, I suppose to give a melancholy air; instead it makes it almost impossible to read aloud and make sense, hampered further by some weird imagery and awkward archaisms:

The frail bluebell peereth over

Rare broidery of the purple clover.

Let them rave.

‘Rare’ here seems to be OED online’s (rare) sense of ‘Of colour: thin, faint, pale’, or maybe ‘exceptional’ (as in the old ballad’s refrain about ‘rare Turpin, hero’).

Here’s the bit with the cicada:

The balm-cricket carols clear

In the green that folds thy grave.

Let them rave.

It’s hard to hear the raucous scratching screech of a nocturnal cicada as ‘carols clear’. As so often with early Tennyson, the imagery sounds impressive and mellifluous, but doesn’t stand much close scrutiny in terms of meaning. Still, a poem should not mean, but be, as someone famously said.

PS a ‘dirge’ – a song or poem of lament or mourning, suitable for a funeral – derives from the Latin Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam (“Direct my way in your sight, O Lord my God”), the first words of the first antiphon in the Matins of the Office for the Dead, created on basis of Psalms 5:8 (5:9 in Vulgate). (Wikipedia).


“Text” or “texted”?

In family conversation recently someone said, “I hate it when people say ‘I texted her yesterday. It should be text”.

As a former teacher of various linguistics courses I had to resist the temptation to go into lecturer mode – prescriptive v. descriptive attitudes, misguided notions of “correctness” in language and grammar, etc. (This is not a temptation I’m noted for resisting, but hey, this was family.)

I always say “texted”, on the grounds that the simple past tense in regular verbs (if there is such a thing) is usually (but not always!) formed by adding –ed. The nearest equivalent I can think of is “test, tested” and all those other verbs that end –est in the present tense form.

English language is so inconsistent and full of exceptions, however, that it’s not a clincher to point to parallels with which to assimilate (compare ‘live/lived’, ‘give/gave’ and ‘dive/dived’ – or should that be ‘dove’?!)

What if “next” were used as a verb (which it isn’t, but all English syntax is more flexible, especially in informal, conversational use, than pedants like to believe – put that in your clay pipe and smoke it, Jacob Rees-Mogg, in your monocle and plus-fours)? I think I’d say “I nexted her” – ok, not impossible, if one thinks of the innovative ‘verbing’ and nominalisation of the conjunction “but” in ‘but me not buts’ – as first used in an obscure text of 1709, but made popular by Scott in The Antiquary (1816) – not Shakespeare, as is often asserted; so one could imagine ‘next me no nexts’ (imperative). Just a short step from there to: ‘I nexted her’, ie I used “next” as a verb to her some time in the past. I don’t think I’d say ‘I next her’.

I would have turned to David Crystal for insight into or clarification of this problem; I’m sure his book on the language of the internet/IT would have covered it (he’s a big fan of the playful inventiveness of text message language, for example, though this is largely outdated now by the ubiquity of smartphones), but I donated my copy to my college English dept when I finished teaching there this summer – I’m now officially retired (well, made redundant, but that’s another story).

A quick online search found that this “text” v. “texted” is a common language question.

Chicago Manual of Style Online:

Texted is correct. Adding ed is the standard way to make a verb past tense, so with a new verb like text, that’s the default. With increased usage, a nonstandard past tense could eventually establish itself, but until then, use the standard verb form.

At OED online (edited) entry on ‘text’ as a verb:

Now rare.

1.  A.  transitive. To inscribe, write, or print in a text-hand or in capital or large letters. Also figurativeObsolete.

1600    Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing  v. i. 179 [this is Claudio speaking]   Yea and text vnder-neath, here dwells Benedick the married man.

1607    T. Dekker Whore of Babylon sig. I4   Vowes haue I writ so deepe,..So texted them in characters capitall, I cannot race them.

1621    J. Fletcher et al.  Trag. of Thierry & Theodoret  ii. i. sig. D1   Condemne me, for A most malicions [sic] slanderer: nay, texdeit Vpon my forehead.

1624    T. Heywood Γυναικεῖον  vii. 315   That such as..past.. might read them as perfectly and distinctly, as if they had beene textedin Capitall Letters.

[My note: That Shakespearean usage is interesting; it looks to me, in context, that it’s the future form, for Claudio characteristically continues the chaffing at Benedick’s expense, started in the previous speech by Don Pedro: ‘But when shall we set the savage bull’s horns on the sensible Benedick’s head?’ i.e. ‘[when shall we] text underneath…’; so, not the past tense. Interestingly, those citations from Dekker, Fletcher and Heywood all have the –ted ending. But this is a different semantic sense from the modern ‘messaging’, so not really comparable. But it does at least establish that the –ted ending was considered acceptable at that time.]

 [OED] Draft additions March 2004 to ‘text’ as verb: transitiveTelecommunications. To send (a text message) to a person, mobile phone, etc.; to send a text message to. Also intransitive: to communicate by sending text messages…

2001    Leicester Mercury (Electronic ed.) 31 July   I texted my mother and my friends when I got my results.

Hardly a canonical citation, but worthy of note.

OED also has:

texted, adj.


  1. Skilled or learned in ‘texts’ or authors. rare.(In this sense texted wel (v.r. text wel) appears in one group of Chaucer MSS., where another has textuel. The latter was probably the original reading, but the change in some MSS. perhaps implies that texted was known.)

14..    Chaucer’s Manciple’s T. (Harl.) 131   But for I am a man not texted wel [so Corp.; Lansd. texed, Petworth text; 3 MSS. textuel] I wil not telle of textes neuer a del.

14..    Chaucer’s Manciple’s T. 212   But as I sayd, I am nought tixted wel [Corp., Petworth, Lansd. text; 3 MSS. textuel, -eel, tixt-].

2. Written in text-hand or text-letters; engrossed.

1620    T. Dekker Dreame sig. A2   They beg nothing, the Texted Past-bord talkes all; and if nothing be giuen, nothing is spoken.

1695    London Gaz. No. 3125/4   Texted Indentures for Attorneys.

To sum up: most people defend their usage of one or other of these forms, “text” or “texted”, by saying: ‘it just sounds right’. Each to his (or her) own, I say. Let’s just not be prescriptive or pedantic about it.

Words, words, words

Few authors cited in the Oxford English Dictionary are responsible for as many arcane and obscure words as the polymath, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682). OED states he’s responsible for 4156 quotations illustrating definitions, 767 of which provided evidence of first usage of the word cited. 1575 of the quotations gave first evidence of a particular meaning. He appears at No. 73 in the OED’s current list of top cited sources, above Shelley, George Eliot, and Ruskin. [Note the use of the Oxford comma; this is about the OED, after all.]

After graduating from Oxford he studied medicine in Europe. He practised as a physician in Norwich from 1637 until his death. His writings – and his language – were deeply influenced by his scientific, theological and philosophical interests.

His erudite enquiries into science and religion are notable for their wit, their fascination with the natural world, and their attraction to the esoteric, and all of these characteristics are evident in his vocabulary. Like lithomancy: divination by signs derived from stones (not sure how that would work in practice – what kinds of stones – or signs? Some of our current political leaders appear to use this, or something like it, as a means of determining policy.)

Appropriately for the person who first talked of classical Latin, Browne’s neologisms are mostly scholarly derivations from Latin. They are often minutely, scientifically precise, but have a quality of baroque humour and curiosity which prevents them being merely pedantic ink-horn terms. Many originate through his efforts as, in one of his own terms, a zodiographer: a person who writes about or describes animals.

In Pseudodoxia Epidemica – an encyclopaedic exploration of received wisdom which refutes such vulgar errors as the belief that elephants don’t have any joints, or that children, without instruction, would grow up naturally speaking Hebrew – Browne describes a snail not as a boneless creature, but an exosseous one.

He writes not of the flight of birds, but their acts of volitation. Not the twittering of cicadas, but their fritiniency; not the booming call of the bittern, but its ‘mugient noyse’. Nightingales aren’t melodious, but canorous; earwigs aren’t wingless, but impennous. He invents peculiarly specific adjectives such as tauricornous (‘having horns like those of a bull’). Hedgehogs aren’t simply spiny or prickly, they’re aculeous.

Some while ago I posted on his use of latitant, ‘hidden, latent’, his example referring to the practice of diverse lizards, snails, etc., of hiding away for periods of time. I came across the term ‘latebricole’, living hidden in a hole, like certain types of predatory animals, especially spiders.

Many of Browne’s coinages are more generally useful than this, and some have proved enduring, most famously electricity, and medical, but also indigenous, ferocious, migrant, coma, therapeutic, anomalous, prairie, ascetic, carnivorous, selection and ambidextrous, among others.

Next time you’re engaged in pistillation (pounding with a pestle) in the kitchen – perhaps while preparing something cenatory (relating or pertaining to dinner or supper), prior to some accumbing (reclining at table, like a Roman dignitary) – or in balneation (bathing) in the bathroom, or in everyday moration (a delay, a tarrying), you can thank Sir Thomas Browne that you have the exact word you need – the mot juste, as Flaubert might put it…

I posted some time back on Browne’s Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall. He also popped up in one of my earliest posts on etymology (something I’ve neglected since) for his coinage of ‘sarcophagy’ (eating flesh).

I recall noting (but not posting) on ‘retromingent’ animals – those that urinate backwards, like cats (it’s used in medieval bestiaries, indirectly).

Note: this post is freely adapted and augmented from an article at the OED, downloaded and saved by me seven years ago, and now apparently not live on their site; I trust it’s not infringing copyright.



Combinational delight: Nabokov, Pale Fire

I’ve tried to write this post several times. How to even begin to discuss a text as dense and as teasing, as multifaceted and astonishing, as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, first published in the US in 1962.

Scholars have been poring over this chess puzzle of a text since it was published; I’ll put some links at the end for those who’d like a more profound and challenging account. Much of what’s been published, and I’ve just scratched the surface of a daunting amount of scholarly interpretation and comment, involves exactly who on earth is the ‘only begetter’ of this…novel.

I hesitate to use that word because Pale Fire refuses to conform to most definitions of novel, from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary: ‘A small tale, generally of love’ – when the novel was still closer to what tended to be called later Romance – to the OED online:

..A long fictional prose narrative, usually filling one or more volumes and typically representing character and action with some degree of realism and complexity; a book containing such a narrative….

After a Foreword by an American university scholar called Charles Kinbote, in which he explains that his neighbour and alleged ‘very dear friend’, the poet John Shade, was killed on July 21, 1959, just one line short of completing his magnum opus, a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets (he calls them ‘heroic’, but they are too ‘open’ in structure to fit this term, beloved of the Augustans; and Shade shows a heavy debt to Pope in the poem, as Kinbote does in his commentary). It was completed, Kinbote claims, in the last 20 days of Shade’s life.

Already my problem in trying to give an idea of this Russian doll of a novel appears: how to describe it coherently, when it defies coherence itself.

Nabokov Pale Fire cover

My Penguin paperback edition

The poem itself follows the Foreword. Its four cantos consist mostly of autobiographical details about Shade, his wife Sybil, and their daughter Hazel, who apparently killed herself at a young age, after experiencing ‘psychokinetic manifestations’ and some kind of mental collapse. There follows a long section in which he questions the notions of existence and ‘le grand néant’.

The largest portion of the text consists of Kinbote’s supposed ‘commentary’ on the poem. He’s stolen the MS (record cards, like the ones Nabokov himself composed on) of the poem and hidden himself away in an obscure American hotel to edit it. It rapidly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary scholarly exegesis or approach – despite his disingenuous claim that these notes ‘will certainly satisfy the most voracious reader’.

Kinbote reveals himself to be increasingly deranged and pompous. If there is a narrative, it’s in this slow self-revelation: he deludes himself that Shade had become an intimate friend, and that he, Kinbote, had told him in the months before he died that he was actually the exiled King Charles the Beloved of his native northern country, Zembla – he’d been arrested by the Shadows, who resemble the secret police of the Soviet regime that Zembla closely resembles. Kinbote insists, however, that its resemblance to any such place is illusory; it’s very name, he explains unconvincingly, means ‘semblance’ (his claim that his name is Zemblan for ‘regicide’ is equally duplicitous). He and his country are shape-shifters. He even uses the word ‘versipel’, which can mean ‘werewolf’ – a creature of dual nature. The commentary lingers on such wordplay, puns, and relishes its own obscure vocabulary and elegantly sinuous but ostentatious prose style.

Kinbote boasts that Shade was intrigued by his stories of his royal exploits in Zembla, and isn’t daunted by the complete absence of any reference to Zemblan material in the poem; instead he sets about a ludicrous, often hilariously outlandish hermeneutically distorted set of pseudo-scholarly notes in which he interprets extracts from the poem as a coded version of his own Zemblan story.

Either that or he just digresses into long rambling reminiscences, full of non sequiturs and dead ends, of his own putative life as King, including his bizarre escape from captivity and arrival in the US. Or riffs on waxwings, cicadas and butterflies, in the register of TS Eliot (sometimes echoing Conan Doyle), Pope, Shakespeare (the poem and novel’s title may come from Timon of Athens, but Kinbote dodges accuracy by claiming not to have any books with him to verify his literary claims). He’s almost pathologically hostile to his fellow scholars, who find him ‘disagreeable’ and ‘insane’ (with reason!), and who he denounces as frauds and fools who envy his intimacy with the great poet and his superior intellect; only he perceives the truth.

To try to give any fuller a picture would require a post almost as long as the novel.

The poem famously begins with one of nature’s ‘pranks’:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the window pane…

The bird had died by flying into a reflection of the world in the poet’s window-glass. The text is full of such ludic language (‘shadow’/Shade; ‘pane’/pain; strictly speaking the bird has ‘slain’ itself unwittingly – the suicide theme is established obliquely at the outset), doublings, deceptions, mirrors and false notions – like Kinbote’s deluded gloss on the poem.

Instead of being Boswell to Shade’s Johnson (the Epigraph is taken from Boswell’s Life of the great man; but who is supposed to have inserted the Epigraph?!), Kinbote reveals himself to be a slightly modified, super-vain version of a Shandean (ie interpreter of Sterne’s vast comic shaggy-dog story), calling himself a ‘Shadean’.

All the reader can do is try to make sense of things, knowing that with Kinbote as guide, claiming as he obfuscates that he’s ‘clearing things up’ authoritatively, we’re unlikely to succeed. That’s where I went wrong at first; once I’d relaxed into glorious failure, the novel took off and took me where it liked.

It was exhilarating and not a little scary. It’s about authors’ lack of…authority. A postmodern labyrinth of paratexts or hypertextual cross-references and metafictional asides, word games, parody, and looping paradoxes, offering impossible solutions to imaginary questions, prolix and dazzlingly allusive. Even the foreword advises how to read the text (preferably using two juxtaposed copies) – in a non-linear, reflexive manner similar to the way today we read e-texts full of hyperlinks. As Shade concludes, near the end of the poem, he understands his existence, or part of it,

…through my art,

In terms of combinational delight.

And as Kinbote teasingly boasts at one point in his faux commentary: ‘for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.’

It’s cerebral and very funny.

As I was about to start this post I came across this by Anthony at his brilliant blog, Times Flow Stemmed: thesis 20 (of 33) published today to mark his blog’s tenth anniversary:

20: Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable

Very apt for a reader of Pale Fire. See Frank Kermode on St Mark’s gospel in The Genesis of Secrecy, and Jesus’ disturbingly opaque explanation of why he spoke in parables.

Here are those links to some of the academic studies of the novel:

Brian Boyd on his theory that Kinbote is really another scholar named in passing in the novel, Botkin:

Zembla website has many more such links.



Asides: marrying upwards

Some years ago I read Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Faber, 2004). His argument was that ‘small talk’ or gossip plays a similarly important role in human social groups as grooming does in those of primates: it facilitates social cohesion and mitigates conflict.

Because we came to live in larger groups – up to 150 – than apes and monkeys, grooming became an impossibly time-consuming task for that social function. For this reason social talk evolved. Far from being trivial, it therefore fulfils a vital role in human interaction; it’s what linguists call phatic talk. People who are no good at it are often seen as outcast or sociopathic.

While leafing through Dunbar’s book again recently I came across a word I’d highlighted: HYPERGAMY. Here’s the OED online definition:

Cultural Anthropol.

 A term first used by W. Coldstream, to denote the custom which forbids the marriage of a woman into a group of lower standing than her own; also transf., of any marriage with a partner of higher social standing.

It derives from the Greek elements ‘hyper-‘ (over, beyond or above) + ‘gamy’ – pertaining to marriage. In Byzantine Greek the word signified ‘a late marriage’.

In social groups it’s therefore a key concept. Novels, especially from the 18th and 19th centuries, are full of marriages of this kind; the first that I recall is one I wrote about here last summer: George Gissing’s New Grub Street. Emma Bovary is maybe another case, although she is perhaps more of an aspiring or thwarted hypergamist.

Much of the plot element in Jane Austen’s work involves the pressure on women to marry in an upwardly social sense.

A related term is ISOGAMY: marrying one’s social equal.

Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode

Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode, scene 1: Settlement

William Hogarth’s celebrated sequence of six paintings made 1743-45, ‘Marriage à la Mode’, satirically represents the disastrous arranged marriage between the bankrupt Earl of Squanderfield’s son and the daughter of a wealthy but miserly city merchant. Here’s the Wikipedia account of the narrative in this first scene:


Construction on the Earl’s new mansion, visible through the window, has stopped and a usurer negotiates payment for further construction at the center table. The gouty Earl proudly points to a picture of his family tree, rising from William, Duke of Normandy. The son views himself in the mirror, showing where his interests in the matter lie. The distraught merchant’s daughter is consoled by the lawyer Silvertongue while polishing her wedding ring. Even the faces on the walls appear to have misgivings. Two dogs chained to each other in the corner mirror the situation of the young couple.

Not surprisingly, the marriage fails from the start. The young husband is serially adulterous and catches syphilis from his consorting with prostitutes. His wife is as disenchanted with him as he is with her, and has affairs of her own. After the Earl’s death this son, the new Earl, catches his wife in flagrante, and is fatally wounded by her lover, the lawyer. The husband dies, the lawyer is hanged for his murder, and the wife poisons herself.

That’s hypergamy for you.

Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, colportage and flâneurs

A divagation away from book reviews today, inspired by my leafing through an old notebook and seeing an item from 6 years ago: notes on a review of Beatrice Hanssen’s study (published by Bloomsbury now) of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (my copy of the text in English, trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass and London, 1999). This is the fascinating proto-postmodern montage of notes and essays started in 1927 and left unfinished at Benjamin’s mysterious death (suicide to escape Nazi arrest as he tried to cross the Pyrenees into Spain) in 1940, representing his musings on the 19C ‘passages’ or arcades of Haussmannised Paris, ranging from ‘physiognomy of a flâneur’ to peregrinations through the city’s streets, with Marxist aphorisms and quotations from a huge range of obscure texts interspersed.Benjamin Arcades cover

Some time ago I wrote a post about Leopardi’s similar project of collected texts, Zibaldone (link HERE), likening it to other florilegia such as that by Chamfort.

There are some striking phrases in the review, arising from the text of The Arcades: ‘The Historian as Chiffonier’; ‘Politics of Loitering’; ‘Peregrinations through Paris’; ‘anamnestic intoxication’. This adjective sent me to the online OED (thank you, Cornwall Library Service, for making it available to cardholders for free; it’s a magnificent resource): ‘the recalling of things past; recollection; reminiscence < Greek ἀνάμνησις remembrance, n. of action < ἀναμνα stem of ἀναμιμνήσκειν to remember, < ἀνά back + μνα call to mind, < μένος mind.

Then there’s ‘The Colportage Phenomenon of Space’; a ‘colporteur’, says OED, is

A hawker of books, newspapers, etc. esp. (in English use) one employed by a society to travel about and sell or distribute Bibles and religious writings.

 The etymology is curious: ‘French agent-noun < colporter, apparently < col neck + porter to carry’, referring to the practice of carrying a tray or box (of books) held by a strap round the neck.

When I first looked this up in a print dictionary, probably Chambers, I noted this entry nearby: colpopoiesis: surgical construction of an artificial vagina. There’s no entry for this word in OED, but a quick Google search took me to an online medical definition, derived from the Greek for vagina plus ‘poeisis’ – making (as in poet as ‘makar’ (Scots) or maker.

 Strange how one word leads to another.

Umbrella words and Buridan’s Ass: a bibliomantic foray

I began drafting a piece the other day on Alfred Hayes’ excellent novel My Face for the World to See, but my wife has taken my copy away with her on a working trip, so I can’t continue with it. Instead I’ve done one of my occasional bibliomantic forays into old notebooks.

Back in August 2012 I was reading Will Self’s neo-modernist Umbrella. I enjoyed it immensely; its sequel published last year, Shark, has been sitting on my TBR shelf (which doesn’t actually exist, it’s just randomly shelved with books read and unread) looking accusingly at me whenever I catch sight of it.

It’s so long since I read Umbrella, however, that I feel ill-equipped to review it here: I’d need to re-read it, and don’t have time to do so. I’ve already got the recently-purchased Patrick Modiano ‘Occupation’ trilogy lined up for my next read. Instead here’s what I was noting about the novel in my notebook back then: samples of Mr Self’s notoriously arcane vocabulary that I had to look up. Many of them reflect the novel’s location in what was then, early in the twentieth century, called a lunatic asylum, and its central theme of the treatment of people with mental health problems.


KYPHOTIC The OED online prefers the spelling cyphosis-cyphotic. It signifies the medical condition in which spinal curving causes the sufferer to bend over severely. It derives from the Greek for ‘hunchbacked’. First recorded 1847.

TACHYPNOEA The first element of the word derives from the Greek for ‘rapid’, the last from ‘to breathe’; it means unusually rapid respiration. From 1898.

VERBIGERATE To repeat the same words or phrases obsessively, often as a symptom of mental disease. First recorded in Blount’s Glossographia (1656) meaning ‘to speak, to talk, to noise abroad’; its clinical sense was first recorded in D. Hack Tuke (splendid name), A Dictionary of Psychological Medicine (1892). In my notebook I see I’d written this as ‘vergiberate’ – a slip of the pen (or eye – if the eye can legitimately be said to slip) that was perhaps a result of an unconscious association of the word with ‘gibber’.

[I’ll omit here opisthotonos and hypotonic]

APHERISIS Its medical meaning is either ‘amputation’ or, as Self seems to use it, the removal of a quantity of blood, eg to extract specific useful or undesirable components before returning it to the donor (which sense originates from 1880). It derives from the Greek for ‘take’ or ‘snatch’ (from which ‘heresy’ also, oddly, derives). In linguistics it means the loss of an unstressed syllable at the start of a word, as in ‘round’ for ‘around’. It was first glossed as such in 1550 with the Latin equivalent term ‘ablatio’. The introduction of an additional first syllable is called ‘prosthesis’ (hence prosthetic limbs). Omitting the final syllable(s) of a word is ‘apocope’.

BURGOO was a thick gruel or porridge served to soldiers in WWI; sailors called it ‘loblolly’ (first recorded 1750) – Capt. Marryat referred to it in Peter Simple (1834). It derives from Arabic ‘burgul’ which in turn was ‘bulgur’ in Turkish, hence bulgur wheat.

I initially searched for this word in my Encarta dictionary. It wasn’t there, but I found this lovely entry instead:

BURIDAN’S ASS: a situation used to demonstrate the impracticality of making choices

Buridan's ass

Political cartoon c.1900 depicting the US Congress in terms of this paradox, with the 2 piles of hay version, hesitating between a Panama route and a Nicaragua route for an Atlantic-Pacific canal – via Wikipedia

according to a formal system of reasoning (after Jean Buridan, 1300-1358, a French philosopher). Wikipedia defines it as an illustration of a paradox in the conception of free will:

 It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water [or in some versions two piles of hay]. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other.

 There are plenty more Selfian terms, including: ‘hebephrenic’, ‘anhedonia’ (lack of pleasure) and this one, which I thought I knew but didn’t –

CRAPULENT The adj. from ‘crapulence’: sickness or indisposition arising from excessive drinking or eating. It’s found in Nathan Bailey’s dictionary of 1727, and Dr Johnson’s of 1755. In Greek the word signified a drunken nauseous headache; the Romans adopted it (‘crapula’, a word first used in English c. 1687) to mean ‘excessive drinking’ as well as ‘intoxication’.

And that’s probably enough verbigeration for one post. Keep hitting the dictionary, Mr Self.






Mayhem, maiming, ravens and rapine: some etymology

When I began this blog nearly two years ago it was with a notion of writing about the world of words and literature in general. Subsequently my early posts were on a range of topics, from reviews of Javier Marías’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy to unusual vocabulary in Eliot and Byron (orioles, becaficas) to strange engravings in obscure nineteenth-century Portuguese travel books about west Africa. In the last year, though, most of my posts have been book reviews.

I never intended this blog to become just another book-review site – though such matter will always dominate what I write, in keeping with what I’m reading at the time – but I’d like to maintain an element of novelty and surprise.

Today then I came across an entry in an old notebook – which is where several of my early posts originated – about Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I felt inspired, and looked out a couple of reviews I’d saved. From there I returned to Burton’s book-length Preface, and an hour later had still not written a word. A little ironic, really: it’s a book that arises from what its author ruefully describes as ‘an unconstant unsettled mind’, liable to ‘rove abroad’, ‘taste of every dish and sip of every cup’ —  it’s a ramble, in other words, through everything to be found in an early seventeenth-century library – and I find myself no nearer to a line of critical approach than I was when I set out.

So I’m going to plunder another entry in the same notebook. I hope to return to Burton some time soon. This enables me to do something I’ve not done on this blog for a long time: look at some words and anatomise them.

Before I start, a word about other forthcoming projects. I’m reading Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, and making pretty slow progress in an intriguing novel that’s clearly influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, and therefore can’t be read quickly. I also received in the post the other day my copy of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Laughing Monsters. So those two should keep me occupied here for a while.

The first word that I want to examine is MAYHEM. The OED’s first entry for it as a noun is:

  1. ‘Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence; an instance of this. Also fig. Now hist.‘ Its first citation is from the Rolls of Parliament in 1447. I was surprised to see that its more familiar use

‘Orig. U.S. Violent behaviour, esp. physical assault’, is first cited here:

  1. ‘1870   ‘M. Twain’ in Territorial Enterprise 20 Jan. 1/1   This same man..pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.’ Its next citation is from a report in the Times from 1930 of ‘brigandage…mayhem and murder’ in New York ‘and its vicinity’. Plus ça change…Next is
  2. ‘Rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder. Freq. in to cause (also make) mayhem . Also fig.’ First cited:

1976   Daily Mirror 15 Mar. 24/4 (caption)    Without wishin’ to cast nasturtiums on your worm—I feel he’s not goin’ to make much mayhem today.


It derives from Middle English maheym ‘maim’, from French legal usage maihem, itself derived from Anglo-French mahain or mahaim, originally signifying a ‘lasting wound or bodily injury’; and ‘Subsequently: an injury to the body which causes the loss of a limb, or of the use of it; a… mutilating wound’. Its ultimate etymology is ‘uncertain’:  ‘Compare post-classical Latin mahemium, maamium… mayhem, maiming (from late 12th cent. in British sources), Italian magagna defect, infirmity (late 13th cent.).’ Other sources claim it’s akin to Germanic meidem, gelding, ON meitha, to injure.


Corvus corax: the raven (Wikimedia Commons)

Next is RAVENOUS. This apparently derives from OF ravineus, equivalent to ‘raviner’ – to RAVEN, ie take by force; this derives from vulgar Latin rapinare, from earlier Latin rapina, plunder. OED has this: ‘Compare Old French ravineux, ravinos, rabinos rapid, impetuous (late 12th cent.)….’ This produced English ravin, an act of rapine or robbery, plunder, pillaging (first cited c. 1325).


How did it come to mean what it does now? Here’s the OED again:


  1. ‘a) Originally: (of an animal) given to seizing other animals as prey; predatory; ferocious. Later: (of an animal or person; also of the appetite, hunger, etc.) voracious, gluttonous.’ (First cited ?1387). Here are the first two citations of its now customary primary meaning:
  2. ‘Exceedingly hungry; famished.’ Citations:

‘1648   T. Stephens tr. Statius  Thebais v. 131   Hircanian tygers so the herds inclose, In Scythian plaines, whom morning hunger does Rouse up, and th’ ravenous whelps roare for their paps.

1719   D. Defoe Farther Adventures Robinson Crusoe 201,   I got up ravenous.’


The name of the large corvine bird ‘raven’ appears to come via a different, Scandinavian-Germanic route; in its various forms it was spelt hrafn (OI), hraben (OHG), etc., maybe reflecting an imitation of its guttural call.

And that’s it for today. Probably more than enough etymology for one post.

 Picture credit: “Corvus corax ad berlin 090516” by Accipiter (R. Altenkamp, Berlin) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

A Chamfort Florilegium

Image of Chamfort from Wikiquote

[Image of Chamfort from Wikiquote]

Florilegium, n. (OED)

…modern Latin, < flōrilegus   flower-culling, < flōr(i)-  , flōs   flower + legĕre   to gather; a literal rendering of Greek ἀνθολόγιον  anthology n., after the analogy of spīcilegium; spiciˈlegium   n.

b. A collection of the flowers of literature, an anthology.  First OED citation: 1647.

Spicilegium; † spicilegy   n.  [Latin spīcilegium] Obs. a gleaning; a collection or anthology.

1656   T. Blount Glossographia,   Spicilegy, gathering ears of corn, gleaning or leising corn.

Latin spīca ear of corn, spike n., occurring in a few words, as Mayne Expos. Lex. (1859) also gives spiciferous, spiciflorous, spicigerous as renderings of modern Latin formations.

David Crystal is our most eminent and readable linguist; his Words on Words is packed full of quotations of linguistic interest – a veritable spicilegium.  A random example sparked off today’s blog post:

I am tempted to say of metaphysicians what Scaliger used to say of the Basques: they are said to understand one another, but I don’t believe a word of it.

(Nicolas-Sebastien Chamfort, 1796, Maximes et Pensées, Caractères et Anecdotes, et petits Dialogues philosophiques, ch. 7.)

[Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609): French scholar born Agen, specialist in classics but spoke 13 languages.  A Calvinist, he was Professor at the University of Leiden and is said to have inspired Dutch scholarship.  This maxim is surely a little harsh on both metaphysicians and the linguistically challenging Basques.]

N. Sebastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-94): French writer, born illegitimately in the Auvergne; his wit, intelligence and charm took him to the upper heights of pre-Revolutionary France, and friendship with Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert and other eminent figures of the period; he caught the admiring attention of Louis XV and was elected to the French Academy – though he claimed, with typical contrariness, that he never attended its sessions. He also wrote tales and drama, as well as these maxims (published posthumously).  In a Guardian essay back in 2003 Julian Barnes * had this to say about him (all subsequent quotations are from his article):

Camus thought him the most instructive of moralists, and far greater than La Rochefoucauld; Nietzsche and John Stuart Mill revered him; Pushkin read him and allowed Eugene Onegin to do the same; he is an admired presence in the diaries of Stendhal and the Goncourts; Cyril Connolly, another melancholy epicurean with a taste for aphorism, quoted him at length in The Unquiet Grave. Yet Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-1794) remains virtually unknown in this country.

He began compiling his maxims in the mid-1780s, noting down on small pieces of paper his thoughts, epigrams and repartees on all manner of aspects of human existence, with ‘anecdotes, quotations and scraps of dialogue’, but after his death, before the first publication of his Maximes, some 2000 items were removed and lost.  What remains of this florilegium shows how he differs from La Rochefoucauld, who exempted himself from his own charge that mankind is motivated by self-interest; Chamfort’s  ‘condemnation of humanity includes himself, very specifically: “If I am anything to go by, man is a foolish animal.”’

His maxims often retain their resonance today: here he is on politics –

You imagine ministers and other high officials have principles because you’ve heard them say so. As a result, you avoid asking them to do anything that might cause them to break those principles. However, you soon discover you’ve been hoodwinked when you see ministers doing things which prove that they’re quite unprincipled: it’s nothing but a habit they’ve got into, an automatic reflex.

Chamfort has been criticised for airing misogynistic views, but he has this to say about love and women: “In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd.”

He’s capable, among these dicta, of self-deprecating wit, too: “Having lots of ideas doesn’t mean you’re clever, any more than having lots of soldiers means you’re a good general.”

When the Revolution broke out in 1789 he espoused the Jacobin cause, was among the first to storm the Bastille, spoke in public support of the revolutionaries, and coined slogans: “War upon the chateaux, peace upon the cottages”.  When, as often happens with those who are early supporters of insurrection (especially when they have circulated in the privileged circles of the overthrown regime), he was denounced and imprisoned, and made botched and messy attempts at suicide, succeeding only in blowing out an eye with his pistol, and losing pints of blood when he attempted to slash his wrists, throat and ankles.

Chamfort was ‘various, contradictory, but always stimulating, never one to flatter the reader’s complacency’.  Camus described the Maximes as ‘a kind of disorganised novel’, which leads me to think of them as an extreme precursor of what has recently been called the ‘polyphonic novel’ (Michael David Lukas, ‘A Multiplicity of Voices: On the Polyphonic Novel’ in The Millions, 15 Feb., 2013; Ted Gioia, ‘The Rise of the Fragmented Novel’, Fractious Fiction website, 17 July, 2013).  I intend to return to these two fascinating essays on modern narrative structure in another blog.

*Barnes was reviewing a new edition of selections from the Maximes: Chamfort: Relections on Life, Love and Society, edited by Douglas Parmee, published in 2003 by Short Books, 224pp.

The Parmee selection reviewed by Barnes (photo from Amazon website)

The Parmee selection reviewed by Barnes (photo from Amazon website)

I see on the Amazon website there’s a ridiculously cheap 2012 Kindle edition of Complete Maxims and Thoughts (The Works of Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort) translated by Tim Siniscalchi.

English translation of 'Maximes', Kindle edition, illustrated on Amazon website

English translation of ‘Maximes’, Kindle edition, illustrated on Amazon website


I haven’t checked to see if this is indeed ‘complete’ –  Amazon state that this edition’s print length is 145 pages, which doesn’t sound long enough for completeness; they also have a Kindle edition in French which is free.

An English translation by Deke Dusinberre of Claude Arnaud’s biography (in French) was published in 1992 (second edition) by the University of Chicago press.  It was reviewed in an essay by P.N. Furbank in the New York Review of Books on 25 June, 1992 under the title ‘A Double Life’, who said of the Maximes‘ author that he was

a man fêted and pampered by the grand monde of the ancien régime—the very prototype of pensioned idleness and frivolous salon display—who all the time had been taking secret notes on this monde and bestowing drops of acid upon it. Here, moreover, was a parasite of the “great” who had welcomed the Revolution with open arms, with a euphoria as intense as his fate under it was to be horrific.

Another review, by Neil Ascherson, was published 5 November, 1992 in The London Review of Books; some interesting comments from readers (reproduced on the website) add nuance.

The blurb on the Amazon page for the English Kindle edition has this: “Chamfort”, wrote Balzac in a letter, “put whole volumes in a single biting phrase, while nowadays it’s a marvel to find a biting phrase in a volume” –  a neat chiasmus to end on.