At the hustings: more etymology – and Tory praises Beast of Bolsover

Today’s Word of the Day is inspired by attending an election hustings in Glossop last night. The Oxford English Dictionary (thank you Derbyshire Libraries – don’t let them say you never do anything for us) tells us that hustings is ‘from OE. hústing, a. ON. hús-{th}ing, house-assembly, a council held by a king, earl, or other leader, and attended by his immediate followers, retainers, etc., in distinction from the ordinary {th}ing or general assembly of the people (the OE. folc{asg}emót, FOLKMOOT).’

My own impression of the would-be MPs was that they were a rather less sophisticatedly fluent bunch that I fondly imagined the ‘kings, earls, or other leaders’ of yore. Perhaps a folkmoot is more in tune with our less heroic times? The Green Party candidate, Peter Allen, was the most articulate and passionate and seemed to have done more homework on the questions. Literary Connections has to warm to someone whose slogan, ‘for a green and pleasant land in High Peak’ echoes William Blake and who also strongly recommended The Spirit Level, a book already mentioned here. The Conservative candidate said that now he’s canvassing he doesn’t have time to read books (I pointed out to Andrew Bingham that, rather cheekily, David Cameron cited the book in his Hugo Young lecture last year – though the authors of The Spirit Level rejected the conclusions he attempted to draw). The Tory’s real shock, however, was his praise for arch-left MP Dennis Skinner, the fabled Beast of Bolsover who represents all that Conservatism, even in its new guise, is not. Unfortunately, he bracketed him in his commendation of independence of spirit with Sir Nicholas Winterton, the Macclesfield MP who recently described standard-class rail passengers as ‘a totally different type of people’ to persons of his ilk. Clearly Sir Nicholas is not a man for meeting folk or even a folkmoot.

Volcanoes, earthquakes – and etymology

 Eyjafjallajokull's outlet glacier
Eyjafjallajokull's outlet glacier: see below
A journalist commented a week ago that although we knew that the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland was causing the cancellation of flights, we didn’t know how to pronounce it. Well, we do now! Chris Warren, whilst still delayed in Japan, has gained exclusive access to a top-flight linguist (his brother, Professor Nicholas Warren of Fukuoka University, Japan) and can reveal, exclusively, here that Eyjafjallajökull is pronounced AY-ya FYA-tla YEUH-kutl. Or, to put it another way: [ei.ja,fjatl.a’jœ.kʏtl]. It means, literally: ‘island mountains’ glacier’. Amongst other gems imparted by the learned Professor Warren is the nugget that, in English ‘the -s- in island was inserted because of folk-etymological association with isle from Old French from the Latin insula (compare this with the Icelandic eyja).’ Ever idiosyncratic, the English, eh?

Meanwhile, back in England, beside the fells (Icelandic fjalla, Old Norse fiall, fjall ‘mountain, rock, barren plateau’) of the High Peak, the political scene seems to be subject to earthquakes of its own, as the tectonic plates of two-party politics are all shook up. As Marina Hyde puts it in today’s Guardian: ‘For those of us perfectly happy to concede we haven’t a clue at the best of times, and merely hazard this sort of cobblers in exchange for beer tokens, the sense of discombobulation is delicious and thrilling.’ Furthermore, there’s an interesting account by Ian Jack of his visit to Somerset to meet the Rees-Moggs who featured in an earlier post.

Photograph by Andreas Tille from Wikimeida Commons, published under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

Playwright’s XI deliver a good line

Cricket, lovely cricket….

Cricket - from Punch Magazine, June 1937
Cricket on the village green: where even failure causes jollity (Punch cartoon from June 1937)

Regular readers (if there are any) may suspect I rarely even glance at the sports pages of the paper. This morning, however, just as I was about to toss the Guardian’s supplement into the recycling bin I caught sight of Frank Keating’s elegant column on the back page. His opening stroke, mentioning Stoppard’s The Real Thing, was followed by further evidence of the ways playwrights throw in allusions to the game. Gems include a reference to the scary brainwashing scene in The Birthday Party which includes the unanswerable question ‘Who watered the wicket in Melbourne?’ (which, Keating adds, “the Germans translated as ‘Who pissed on the Australian gate?'”). There is also a reminder of Jack Rosenthal’s beguiling play, P’tang Yang Kipperbang, woven around the commentaries of John Arlott. I loved to use this TV play with classes who had probably never heard the man himself on the radio.

The online version of Keating’s article has the rather more clumsy headline ‘Playwright’s XI would know how to bowl a good line’. Evidence, perhaps, that the possibility of greater prolixity away from the restrictions of a fixed page width is not always a good thing. To confirm this, today’s G2 supplement has an article about a sporting match headed, in print: ‘It’s just not cricket!’ The online version is the more prosaic ‘Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik: the romance that gripped two nations’. The article, alas, has nothing to match Keating’s inclusion of Beckett’s alleged instruction to imagine the parts of Vladimir and Estragon as ‘batsmen numbers five and six fretfully waiting to begin their innings at a Test Match at Lord’s’.

Grit your teeth: weather warning

There’s no clichés like snow clichés

Daily Express front page, 6 Jan 2010 Bad weather, like other adversity, can bring out the best and the worst in people. After an hour-long neighbourly street-clearing session yesterday, I was able to make it into town to replenish essential supplies (milk, butter, spiral notebooks). I noticed the Daily Express front page used the cold weather as an excuse to take a shot at global warming. As I couldn’t bring myself to buy the paper, all I have the online version, which seems to have suppressed the controversial subheading. Roy Greenslade quotes the opening sentence: ‘As one of the worst winters in 100 years grips the country, climate experts are still trying to claim the world is getting warmer.’ Has global warming taken over from Princess Diana as their favourite subject for conspiracy theories? Deborah Orr asked in Wednesday’s Guardian: ‘Are some people really this stupid?’ I can’t find this bit of her column online; perhaps they don’t like to offend fellow-journalists too much?

Elsewhere, clichés abound. I enjoyed two Guardian headlines: ‘Passengers grit their teeth while children enjoy a day off school’ (7 January) and ‘The man from the council helping put grit into Britain’ (6 January). Although grit is in short supply, it would seem from the first headline toothpaste is even scarcer, if people are having to grit their teeth rather than their pavements….

The Publican’s ’Postrophe

Christma’s partie’s for all

The Publican's 'PostropheAt this time of year, I’ve been given a special Christmas present: what I think we should call the Publican’s ’Postrophe. Until today, all I had was hearsay – but now, as Othello says, we have ‘ocular proof’ from the window of the very hostelry in London’s Wood Green where these ‘Christma’s Partie’s’ are advertised. There is of course some clever word play here, despite the artless lettering. For surely these are no ordinary Christmas parties but festivities in honour of Mary, Christ’s Ma?

No doubt the publican is aware of the need to bring old customs up to date, just as the Guardian recently reported how Jeanette Winterson has, in an interesting phrase ‘taken up the crusade’ by bringing out her own, ‘unorthodox account of the nativity story told from the point of view of the donkey in the stable’. Not that it’s very unorthodox; U A Fanthorpe included a ‘Cat in the manger’ in Safe as Houses, with the lines:

Matthew, Mark and Luke and John
(Who got it wrong,
Who left out the cat)…

Thomas Hardy wrote about The Oxen, ending:

I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so

So Happy Christmas, everyone, publicans, sinners and, as Betjeman says,

Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

‘Always treated in a gentlemanly way’: a reductio ad absurdum in the City of London

Shock, disbelief and erudition in a City sex discrimination case

For ordinary mortals, it’s hard to know what is most jaw-dropping about the Nomos Capital sex discrimination case. The allegations are shocking for a start, confirming our reasonable prejudice that the love of money is indeed the root of all kinds of evil and those greedy blighters truly are a different species. Except, of course, that they are merely a worse version of much of the rest of mankind in their arrogance and bullying.

Then there’s the claim by ‘multimillionaire financier Mark Lowe’ that he ‘always treated’ his employee, Jordan Wimmer, ‘in a gentlemanly way’. His use of ‘gentlemanly’ seems rather stretched when his conduct included emailing jokes which ‘compared women to dogs, expensive cars, sheep and corrosive chemicals’. Perhaps Lowe (described, rather bizarrely as ‘erudite’) was using the word in the first, archaic, definition given by the OED: ‘properly, one who is entitled to bear arms, though not ranking among the nobility’ (‘now chiefly historical’), though I rather suspect he may have been trying to lay claim to be ‘a man of chivalrous instincts and fine feelings’. Yet the report continues: ‘He admitted referring to Wimmer as “only decorative”, but he said it was a joke.’ Is it gentlemanly to jest about a young lady in that way, even in London?

Mix this in with the information that Miss Wimmer, at the tender age of 29, was paid £577,000 a year ‘to introduce rich individuals to hedge funds’. Ah, the etiquette of introductions is so expensive, isn’t it? All that money merely to be decorative! Add to the brew her claim that he’d hired a hitman to kill her and Hugh Muir’s revelation in Friday’s paper that this ‘erudite’ man was known at Balliol College Oxford as ‘Markedlylowgrade’. Which might explain Mr Lowe’s unconvincing riposte that the accusation that he thought of women as objects was ‘reductio ad absurdum through false syllogism’. Such language might be material for Word of the Day but it rings hollow, particularly when read in the light of Hugh Muir’s story on Thursday. This has Mr Lowe look in on the Balliol College law library. ‘This is just like a gentleman’s club,’ he said. ‘In that case you’d better leave,’ came the reply.

The humble wage-earner might also enjoy a moment’s schadenfreude when reading that, in a reductio ad absurdum, Lowe’s firm was brought low, nay liquidated, after being burned by the Bernard Madoff Ponzi fraud. Unfortunately (as much for him, I feel, as for natural justice), Lowe still has an estimated wealth of £100m. As we’re being jocular, we might consider it appropriate that ‘to be a gentleman’, the OED tells us, is ‘to have no work to do’. Even more appropriately, perhaps: ‘in contemptuous or humorous uses; esp. old gentleman = old fellow, spec. the devil’. The devil, after all, also took pride in false syllogism – but that’s another story, involving, as Oscar Wilde reminded us, ‘a man and a woman in a garden’ and ending ‘with Revelations’. Revelations enough in the employment tribunal for now.

Caesura: it’s not the end of the line

Is the afterlife just the second half of a line of verse?

I came across an interesting use of this word in a Media Guardian article about the death of Reinhard Mohn, the owner of Europe’s largest media group, Bertelsmann: ‘Mohn’s death has been described by German commentators as a “caesura”‘.

So is the afterlife just the second half of a line of verse? And if so, from which poem? Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained? ‘Futility’ or ‘Easter Wings’? Or is this some deeply existential statement about life imitating art?

Sophisticated? Pretentious? Moi?

It was good to see that yesterday’s Word of the Day, ‘sophistry’, was also used at least twice in yesterday’s Guardian. ‘But I doubt many people believe this is anything other than sophistry in pursuit of profit’ said Chris Hawkey and it appeared in Comment is Free too (online only): ‘The piece opens with a clever piece of sophistry….’ Clearly Word of the Day is in step with the Zeitgeist (Word of the Day for 12 April 2006). What’s that? Pretentious? Moi?

Ah yes, Wednesday’s word is: pretentious. We’re just a few paces behind Hadley Freeman in today’s paper.

Further suggestions for Word of the Day will be gratefully received – from journalists, actors, critics and any others who have fearlessly probed the spirit of the times in search of truth, themselves, an audience or just someone to talk to.

What lies beyond?

‘Lord Mandelson is “beyond anger”‘, says Jackie Ashley in today’s Guardian, ‘which must be quite a sight.’ It reminds me of the sign over the cosmetics section in Harvey Nichols, which reads ‘Beyond Beauty’. For those who can pay Harvey Nichols prices (we only went in for a cup of tea, since that at least was affordable), it seems that mere beauty must be too plain, too common, too readily bought at counters of mere High Street stores. ‘The quest for healthy skin is on going,’ they say. ‘On going’ where? What lies beyond beauty: the ineffable? Or ugliness? Perhaps only the very rich know, for truly they live in another country.

And where do we imagine Lord Mandelson to be in his ‘beyond anger’ state? Is he crouched under his Lord-High-Everything desk in whimpering despair? Is he going through the roof in an ecstasy of rage? Or has he attained that blessed calm that comes from knowing it’s not worth it? A page earlier in today’s paper, Madeleine Bunting extols the virtues of ‘such counter-cultural values as humility, patience and contentment’. Rubies beyond price, though I didn’t see them on the shelves of Harvey Nichols.


Twitter updates posted on the Literary Connections blog

I thought it was about time to play with this toy, so now Twitter provides a Word of the Day feed each word can be seen on the new Word of the Day page on this blog.

Judging by the ‘followers’ whose own updates stop after a few entries, it may soon wear off. However, I may be underestimating my ability to twitter on about nothing….