Saturday, 31 December 2011

The gavvers are bowling down

The workshops at the British Library for the show Evolving English (2010-11) were some of the best I have been involved in, partly because they gave adolescents the opportunity to feel good and enthusiastic about their own use and experience of their language.  A regular invitation to show off some expressions which they felt were peculiar to their own schools and colleges brought some wonderful phrases.  The one that sticks in my mind was from a secondary school in Maidstone, Kent, where the impending arrival of the local constabulary is heralded with the words ‘the gavvers are bowling down’. 

At first I thought I was being ‘Margaret Meaded’ – not rhyming slang, though I’m looking for an outing for this, but a reference to the way her anthropological subjects provided her with what they thought she wanted to hear (according to her critics), and thus giving rise to some dodgy science in ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’, and reputedly some ‘scientific’ justification for the permissive society in sixties America.  The arguments are worth looking up.

So, with reservations, I was imagining some rather articulate teenagers indulging in teenage activities among the herbaceous borders of the parks of Maidstone warning each other of trouble by using this rather Dickensian phrase.  However, ‘gavvers’ is a long-standing Roma word for the police or soldiers, with strong links to the region of Kent.  ‘Bowling down’ presents more problems; I’ve come across ‘bowling up’ in the sense of ‘arrive without notice’ – e.g. ‘where did you bowl up from?’.  Maybe a mixture of this with ‘bearing down’?  Though a brief Twitter conversation on the nature of phrasal verbs reminds me that looking for reason in phrasal verbs is pointless – ‘bearing down’ meaning nothing like the opposite of ‘bearing up’.  ‘Bowl down’ or ‘bowling down’ as intransitive verb forms do not appear in the Urban Dictionary website, or any other slang dictionary I have come across, or the OED, so must for the time being be put down to very local usage.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The animal formerly known as Cheetah

The news of the death, aged 80, of Cheetah, the chimpanzee which allegedly featured in many Tarzan films, is sad, and has sent me scurrying to research the word ‘cheetah’ and to try to find out if there was some reason for naming a chimp after such a different kind of animal.

The all-too-brief report on the BBC website states that there was some dispute over the age of the animal, and noted that other animals had claims to have starred alongside Jonny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan in the Tarzan films.  Specifically another chimpanzee, also called Cheeta (no ‘h’) was for a while supposed to have been in the films.  A comprehensive Wikipedia article takes the research further, listing sixteen animals which are claimed to have participated in the films and ensuing television series, including two named Jiggs and four for whom there is little data.  Furthermore the role is sometimes billed as Cheetah, sometimes Cheeta, sometimes Chita, and sometimes Cheta.  All of these correspond to the root-word for the feline quadruped’s name, the Hindi chita, from the Sanskrit chitraka, meaning ‘variegated or speckled’.  Interesting that the animal which we now associate with African savannahs should have a name which originates in India, but then European awareness of these animals derives from their use as tame animals used in antelope hunting in Asia – and this makes sense of their frequent appearance in late-Renaissance court paintings, apparently tamed and with a fairly sanguine attitude to their presence in human company.

Eric Partridge derives cheetah from the Sanskrit citra, meaning ‘marked, spotted, variegated’, a root which also leads to chintz, and to chit – a black mark on white paper, which became specifically used to give the sense of a written message; particularly appropriate for Cheeta(h) the chimp, whose main role in the Tarzan films was to convey messages.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Chokepears and Blackberries

I’m still wincing at the article I read recently in the Christmas issue of the first year of Punch, 1841: How Mr Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas.  It's a moral tale of how Mr Chokepear and his family clearly enjoy Christmas – they have a fine festive dinner after their trip to church - but challenges their attitudes towards their fellows.  Their turkey has been dispatched from Norfolk, and is described as ‘only a little lower than an ostrich’.  Their celebrations are Dickensian and merry, and thrown into sharp relief by comparison with the situation of two people who are not sharing the day with them.  The second of these is a debtor who owes Mr Chokepear £5 and is consequently spending Christmas Day in a debtors’ prison, but the first is a daughter of the family who has married beneath their expectations financially; she has been cast out, in a very nineteenth-century bourgeois version of the ‘family crime of honour’ that is becoming a shocking facet of British culture (in 2010 3,000 violent ‘crimes of honour’ in the UK were reported – BBC, 3rd Dec 2011).

The story is quietly told, and the more powerful because of it, particularly the final message.  Only now have I come to consider the family name – Chokepear seeming to be a simple odd name.  But the OED shows ‘chokepear’ to have a specific and very old meaning.  Chokepears were bitter pears, used for making perry.  In Turner’s Seconde Parte Herball of 1562, the quote given is the tasty-sounding ‘The wyld Pere tre or chouke Pere tre or worry Pear tre’, the last of which brings to mind the tree that features in January’s garden in Chaucer's  The Merchant’s Tale.  But the first quote is even more enticing: from Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement of 1530: ‘Estrangvillon, a choke peare’.  There’s a feast in this alone: John Palsgrave wrote Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse as an aid to English-speakers wishing to learn French, and it is supposed to be the first comprehensive French grammar in English.  Tetsuro Hayashi proposes it as ‘the first work in the genre of dictionaries of the modern languages’; most importantly it was a teach-yourself book, one intended to allow the reader to learn a language without recourse to a teacher.

From the apparently common use of the word to mean an actual fruit, there grew a figurative use as an obstacle, or something hard to swallow, or something that might shut you up.  The quotes offered for this usage suggest things that are too difficult to avoid, and which would stop your flow, the final quote given by the OED suggesting an instrument of torture.  Perhaps the most indigestible part of Mr Chokepear’s Christmas was the knowledge of having made a decision which favoured economic concerns over those of the love of a parent for a child. 

I’m trying to match this with the story in 14th December’s Metro of the 13-year-old Bedford girl who ‘has warned Father Christmas that he will be “killed” if he fails to deliver at least two of her long list of gifts – including a BlackBerry smartphone and “the real-life Justin Bieber”’.  Shock-horror notwithstanding, the irony is pretty smart for a thirteen-year-old, I would say.  Her mother has stated ‘When I first found the letter, I thought it was funny.  Now I think I’d better get her what she wants.  The last thing I want is for her to kill Santa’.  I hope she is playing along with the joke.

How would Mr Chokepear have dealt with this?  Rage?  A thorough Victorian Barretts-of-Wimpole-Street style apoplexy?  Perhaps just the opposite.  Given that he cast off his daughter for having chosen poverty, it is more likely that he would applaud this 'go get it' approach: he’d be rushing to snap up a last-minute BlackBerry to get on the phone to Justin Bieber’s agent to see if he's available.

More about Dickensian Christmases on

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Number 8

The question came up during Wednesday’s Radio London interview of why the rugby union position No 8 does not have a name.  The term ‘lock’ or ‘lock-forward’ used to be the term for this position, widely used in South Africa, and is being used more often now in the UK.  The OED gives this explanatory quotation from 1906 – ‘Immediately behind these hookers … is he whom we call the lock man.  …His duty is to hold or lock the two hookers’.  This is from The Complete Rugby Footballer by D Gallaher and W J Stead.  So middle of the third row of the scrum – and the position played by Martin Johnson, Alun Wyn Jones, Sebastian Chabal, all quite noticeable gentlemen who deserve rather more than a number.

New words, 1670s

Sir Thomas Browne, that extraordinary writer who lived from 1605 to 1682, is credited with being the first documented user of 800 words in the OED.  He largely achieves this distinction by inventing words through the process of jamming together short words or parts of words from English or other languages.  It is a process usually thought of as involving Greek and Latin, as in the word ‘television’ from tele, the Greek for ‘far’, and the Latin word for ‘seeing’; but the German fernsehapparat works in much the same way – ‘far see apparatus’.   Browne is credited with the first documentation of ‘mistle thrush’, though this probably was just because he happened to be the first person to have put it down in a surviving text (mistle thrushes were so called because they eat mistletoe, or at least can be seen easily when they are doing so).

Thomas Munks wrote of his style of writing: ‘His style is indeed a tissue of many languages – a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art and drawn by violence into the service of another.  He …  was not content to express in many words that idea for which any language could supply a single term.  … He has many  forcible expressions, which he would never have found but by venturing to the utmost verge of propriety; and flights which would never have been reached, but by one who had very little fear of the shame of falling’.  So, in a lexical sense, not afraid to invent words ‘heedlessly’, a term for which he is the first credited user.

A lot of Browne’s first uses have survived and become core English words: additionally, ambidextrous, approximate, botanist, carnivorous, causation, circumference, coma, compensate, complicated, disruption, electricity, equable, ferocious, gradually, hallucination, inconsistent, narwhal, perspire, selection, therapeutic, ulterior, vertically, and the phrase ‘above one’s station’.  But maybe more exciting are the ones that we don’t hear so often: avolation (flying away), glandulosity (a gland-like formation), latirostrous (having a broad beak), and opodeldoc (a medical plaster).  Thus a latirostrous mistle thrush suffering a ferocious complicated glandulosity might be spared hallucinations (or additionally even a coma) by the application of a therapeutic opodeldoc, with the causation of its avolation.  

The majority (just) of these get past spellcheck.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Tablet carving for Sir Thomas Browne and the Digestion of an Ostrich

I would not normally show any of the processes of making work, but in this case it is reasonable to do so, as people are being expected to eat the works.

These small sculptures representing ostrich eggs on nests are made from Rennie tablets (the nest) and iron tablets (the egg).  The images show the processes of the carved iron tablets, stuck to the carved Rennie tablets (using icing sugar), being painted with edible paint (Squires Kitchen Food Colours) with a light yellow tint (Silver Spoon food colouring); four coats have been applied to cover the black of the tablets.  A yellow tint has been added to half the nests.


I have tested the tablets, and I seem to be still functioning.

Fun and games

I’m doing an interview by phone on Friday for BBC Radio Berkshire (Team Talk), and they want the topic of the Olympics to be the main subject of discussion.  I’m not sure how to approach this.  I can’t remember hearing anyone recently say anything positive about the Olympics – anyone I would trust, that is.  I’ve overheard people on the tube worrying about the transport disruption, people complaining about the exclusive bus lanes, people saying that Stratford is being ruined by the shifting of attention and resources onto the ‘Olympic’ side of the railway line, people saying they don’t want any part of it.

Last week brought the news about the school in Hackney, Mandeville Primary, that cannot afford to pay the £600 for a visit from the Olympic mascot with the same name as the school (Evening Standard, 2nd Dec 2011).  There’s a lot of money flowing around, but it all seems to be flowing away from those who are constantly being told how we are all going to benefit from the games.  According to news reports neither of the bizarre Tellytubby-cum-Cyclops figures (Wenlock and Mandeville are named after earlier rural English forms of Olympic games) have to date visited any school in any of the ‘Olympic’ boroughs.

Perhaps these schools might like to do a bit of research into the sports practised at the earlier games.  They might come across a sport called ‘purring’, in which two players hold each others' forearms while trying to kick their opponent's shins.  We used to play it in the playground ay school; it was fun, if painful sometimes, but we used to call it ‘kickback’.  Those quaint old English customs.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Unsporting language

An article in The Daily Telegraph last week (30th Nov 2011) quite rightly complains about the fact that no women are among the 10-strong shortlist for this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year.  The article points out that seven British women have won world titles this year, but the shortlist includes Andy Murray and other men who 'have hardly performed spectacularly well this year'.  The catalyst for this entirely sound complaint is the award, for the fourth time, to one of our high-flying female athletes Chrissy Wellington, of the title 'World Ironman Triathlon Champion'.   

A trace of irony there?

Dickens at Christmas - New Iphone tour

Available later this week - a new tour published by Rama for use with Iphones and stuff like that.

Dickens at Christmas

A walking tour (or can be done in the comfort of your armchair) leading from Dickens' home in Furnival's Inn to where Scrooge's turkey was bought.  10 waypoints, lots of lovely pictures and anecdotes - turkeys in boots, phantom bells, the model for Scrooge.  A gentle stroll past sites from Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, The Pickwick Papers, and many more.

Team Talk interview on Radio London

Radio London, Weds 7th December, 8.30 p.m.  I will be talking about Team Talk, Sporting Words and their Origins.

Newly published by Shire Books, this is an exploration of the language of sport, where words from various sports come from and how they have changed over time.  Including archery, pedestrianism, swimming, barleybrake, knurr and spell, polo, and even football.

Ideal Christmas present, naturally.

Available from all good bookshops, and online from Shire Books
and the usual websites.

More about it on my website

The buzz

In Friday 2nd December’s Metro there is an article about some poor celebrity who is addicted to fame.  He states, ‘We’re chasing the buzz’.

Wondering when ‘the buzz’ started, I was pleased to have taken a note when looking at Sir John Reresby’s Memoirs (1682).  Some political brouhaha was going on, ‘the phenaticks haveing buzzed it abroad’, as he puts it.  The OED gives the first documented use of 'buzz' in this way (buss, actually) as sixteenth century, with an ‘implied’ use in the fourteenth century, and the origin as onomatopoeic (good job the dictionary was to hand).  One of the buzzes in January 1682 was the visit of the ambassador of the Sultan of Fez and Morocco, who brought a present of ‘two Lyons and 30 Ostriges’.  The lions were dispatched to the Tower, while the ostriches were let loose in St James’s Park, though evidently some of them were sent out of London, as Sir Thomas Browne seems to have had one in his garden.

The royal response was perhaps typical of the king known as ‘Old Rowley’:  ‘… his Majesty laughed, and said he knew nothing more proper to send by way of return than a flock of geese.’  Actually a rather more tactful consignment of 300 flintlock muskets was sent.  Ostrich diplomacy in January 1682, and now 'panda diplomacy' in December 2011.  Hmm.

Memo - 'brouhaha' and 'Old Rowley'.