Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Liebestod Eggs

A glimpse of one of the works on show at Sex and Death, GutsforGarters and Fox&Squirrel, Earlham St, London, till 5th June:


Monday, 7 May 2012

Against ponderous carriages attempting a passage

Out for a walk as a family today in rural Hertfordshire, we came across this wonderful notice on the side of a bridge:

Take note that this bridge is insufficient to carry a weight beyond the ordinary traffic of the district and that owners and all persons in charge of locomotives and all other ponderous carriages are warned against attempting the passage of the bridge. By order, etc.
The notice is dated 23rd October 1899.

I admired the way the language combined gravity and clarity, old-fashioned perhaps, but conveying so much: trust in readers to make a judgement based on their own observations of what the ‘ordinary traffic of the district’ might be; trust in readers to act on a warning rather than a prohibition; and an implication in the phrase ‘attempting the passage’ that this would be no more than an ‘attempt’, without certainty of success. I also enjoy ‘Take note that’, which is a statement of much greater tact than ‘Do not’; ‘warned against’ rather than ‘warned not to’, for its elegance; and ‘ponderous carriages’, which uses less space than ‘slow and heavy carriages’. 

Is it too Latinate and pedantic? I do not accept any argument against ‘locomotives’, a common term then for what are now usually called ‘traction engines’ (all three words deriving from Latin), ‘ponderous’, a fine word in use in English for more than 600 years, or ‘warning against’, which is good simple usage. This leaves us with the phrase ‘attempting the passage of the bridge’. I would argue that this is no more odd than, for example, ‘attempting an assault on Everest’ or ‘attempting an immediate return to the Premier League’. ‘Attempting the passage of’ some awful cliché-ridden writing or some banal celebrity-focused journalism might not be so good, but for a physical crossing of a bridge I see no problem, no archaism, and no reason not to enjoy its use.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Deliberate Mistake

Looking through some work from three years ago reawakened my interest in the deliberate mistake. I’ve long thought that the deliberate mistake is a way of approaching art that makes me think about how I think. Mr & Mrs Walker have moved (Anne Eggebert and myself, 1998), for example, where we moved into Kettles Yard, as it were pretending that we didn’t know it was a museum, or laying aside the group knowledge that this is what it is. Or feeling the surface of the painting in Touch (2000), which broke through a barrier of comfort, blurring the line between representation and real – in this case the group portrait of the Lee family painted by Joseph Highmore in the eighteenth century (the painting is in Wolverhampton City Art Gallery.

The obvious point about the deliberate mistake is that it is instantly recognisable, and highlights the correctness of the correct. But I am becoming more interested in the mistake, and the possibilities that it opens up; the fact that it asks why, and that there may be no simple answer.

Monday, 30 April 2012


The oldest portable writing known dates from 60,000 years ago, and is on ostrich eggshell fragments. So I feel it is fairly reasonable to be writing the names of instances of love/sex and death on this kind of ground - quails' eggs in this case, since this trope is fairly old. I could not say what the earliest instance is, but Adam and Eve is a good one to start with in European culture. The skull and heart design is a decal, a memento mori, and a devil of a job to work with.

There's also some similarity between the shape of an egg and that of a human skull seen from above.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Mr Write

It doesn’t make for much spontaneity or impetuousness, this way of working. All the risks have to come at the beginning.

I think with this one I was taken with the idea of what the letter/character does, sometimes functioning as a metonym (part of the whole standing for the whole) and sometimes not. I think you have to know the language, and know what the use of the language implies, just as you would have to know that the original sampler, probably late nineteenth or early twentieth century, was intended to show that the maker had acquired digital craft skills. It’s a sort of code message saying ‘I can do this’. Maybe that proposes a sampler that says just that – Look I can do this, with my name, age, and the information that it hurts my eyes (like some Roman inscription).

This one is called, for now at any rate: Mr Write.

There is, of course, a direct reference to the age and gender difference between myself and the (supposed, projected, imagined) first maker, and to ideas of exploitation, abuse, power, control, insertion, authority and the nature of language. 

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


On the way to the British Library to lead a workshop on Exploring English with West Hatch High School I was thinking about words that seem to be lacking in English, since there are situations for which we need to string together a not very satisfactory sentence. For example, when two people are walking towards each other, change direction to avoid bumping into each other, realise that they are set on a new collision course, smile, get flustered, and make placatory gestures. Somewhere in the back of my mind there is an idea that some European languages have one word for this.

I came across a website which posts a few of these missing words: http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/20-awesomely-untranslatable-words-from-around-the-world/ It has some nice examples. The one that has remained with me is ‘l’appel du vide’, French for ‘the call of the void’, the desire to leap, to one’s doom, into empty spaces – for which I thought ‘vertigo’ filled the bill. But checking on ‘vertigo’ in the OED I find that it actually means the state of giddiness in one’s head. And thinking further about it I realised that I had been assuming that ‘vertigo’ meant both ‘fear of voids’ and ‘the lure of the void’, which are essentially opposites – the desire to move from the void, and the desire move towards the void.

‘Vertiginous’ does at least mean ‘capable of inducing vertigo’, so a favourite phrase ‘vertiginous heights’ is still OK. Alternatively I can assume that the meaning of vertigo has effectively changed to what I thought it meant; this would be taking the ‘Humpty Dumpty defence’, that a word means what I want it to mean. As HD, of course, knew a thing or two about vertigo, I feel I am on safe ground here. Or not. 

Monday, 16 April 2012

Final instalment of that work

And the first instalment of another, to be a set of carved erectile dysfunction tablets; the working title is 'Little Boy Blue'.

The final shot of the preparation of the interventionist embroidery work:

The completed work will be on display with to other interventionist embroidery works at Nymans House and Gardens from 4th May as part of a group show.

Friday, 13 April 2012

More intervention

A continuation of the work for Nymans. I'm now sewing onto the anti-macassar the scientific names of the botanical materials from which soft furnishings in the library are made.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Interventionist embroidery

Some images of the preparation for a work for Nymans Unravelled, opening 5 May at Nymans House & Gardens, a National Trust property near Brighton. The process of undoing the embroidery has taken about four hours and requires as much concentration as the sewing. Images of replacement embroidery coming soon. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Work on show

A view of one of the cases of work I am showing at London's Pride, at Valentines Mansion from Thursday 29th March till Sunday 1st April.

Why do we give animals names which reference other animals, especially ones which are vastly different?  In this case, marine invertebrates being given names which reference terrestrial vertebrates - apart from one, which references another mollusc, but one that lives on land. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

William Blake: a source for 'The Fly'?

I have been working on the British Library’s English Online project, researching for a hypertext contextualisation of English Literature between 1780 and 1900. Recently I have been working on William Blake, whose work has been challenging me since I was at school. Some recent work based on Michael Phillips’ admirable examination of Blake’s writing processes (William Blake, The Creation of the Songs, British Library, 2000) has fixed one poem in my mind. Here it is:

The Fly

Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

For me this is about as good as it gets for the English language, and poetry, and much more besides. On a very basic level, every time I feel I have to kill a fly, and most times I see one, it comes into my mind. Nothing is there in the poem that doesn’t need to be there, and everything that needs to be there is there. As Michael Phillips writes, ‘Blake’s choice of language [is] as spare as anything written since the seventeenth century, apart, perhaps, from the Jubilate Agne of Christopher Smart.’ It was probably written after 1791, deduced from analysis of Blake’s handwriting. ‘Will Blake’, as he signed his name in some of his letters to his friend George Cumberland.

Following a reference to Blake’s engravings made in the previous decade I looked at Joseph Ritson’s Select Collection of English Songs (1782), for which Blake did eight engravings. The first section of the songs covers drinking songs, not what I would immediately associate with Blake (I also looked at a letter by Cumberland written in 1815, in which he mentions visiting the Blakes, drinking tea with them, and Mrs Blake uttering seditious comments). Song XIX goes as follows:

Busy, curious, thirsty Fly,
Drink with me, and drink as I;
Freely welcome to my cup,
Could’st thou sip, and sip it up.
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short, and wears away.

Both alike are mine and thine,
Hastening quick to their decline;
Thine’s a summer, mine no more,
Though repeated to threescore;
Threescore summers, when they’re gone,
Will appear as short as one.

It is marked “Made extempore by a Gentleman, occasion’d by a Fly drinking out of his Cup of Ale.”

Similar thoughts, occasioned by the visitation of a fly. Maybe the same fly landed on William Blake’s cup of tea eight years later? 

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Affectation, something affectated

Further to words that develop an added ‘-ate’, as in ‘commentate’ and ‘orientate’.

This morning on BBC Radio4 the playwright Alex Bulmer used the word ‘oriented’ and then corrected herself to say ‘orientated’, excusing herself by saying that the shorter word was Canadian usage. A contributor to this blog (Ms. Dig) raised the awful prospect of the word ‘registrate’, and ‘conversate' was brought to Twitter by Janet Byron Anderson on 12 Jan 2012: ‘Back-formed vb "conversate" (meaning converse) -- definitely "low" register. Not used by educated speakers.’ 

What ‘registrate’, 'orientate’, ‘commentate’, and probably ‘conversate’ share, in my mind, is an idea that in the user’s view the simpler form is too simple, deceptively simple. Anyone can ‘comment’ on something, but ‘commentating’ requires some setting up of systems and controls, qualifications and experience. ‘Commenting’ on a cricket match may take a few seconds; ‘commentating’ may take five days. ‘Orienting’ yourself maybe involves no more than knowing which way you are facing, while ‘orientating’ yourself implies a complex set of geographic and cultural and maybe personal relations with the world. ‘Strangling’ is very different from ‘strangulating’. By virtue of its being more complex, the ‘-ate’ form sounds more deliberate, more arranged, less spontaneous, and thus more official. The addition of ‘–ate’ in ‘conversate’ may be an attempt to sound more formal and educated.

Does it work? If someone near me on the Tube ‘perspirates’ am I more likely to sympathise and offer to call a doctor rather than discreetly moving to a distance? Am I more likely to talk about a lion ‘predating’, and a hyena ‘preying’? Clearly some of the ‘added –ate’ forms have been embraced, while some which are on their way in, even possibly ‘conversate’, are horribly jarring today, and part of the language tomorrow. But during that process ‘foundate’, ‘affirmate’, ‘limitate’, and ‘reservate’ fortunately still provoke spellcheck’s wiggly line, and thus can still be regarded as linguistic affectations (things which you affectate). 

Ultimately I wonder if this doesn’t come down to the familiar pattern whereby if you want to make something sound more formal and imply a structure behind it you add a bit more Latin to it; that is, you make it more Latinate. 

Monday, 12 March 2012

More Banerkness

Thanks to J Coates for comments on Banerk - see  Banerk , particularly for the fact that he has spotted a howler - using 'verb' where I should have used 'adjective'. Small consolation that these terms are so untaught that they are in the process of becoming jargon, specialised terms for those working within the field rather than common parlance.

But the case does flag up the current freedom regarding the way that words move across grammatical boundaries of use, which would in former times have had English teachers gnashing their teeth. 'To friend' someone, and 'very fun', are exciting or ugly and ungrammatical, depending on your point of view.  When feeling unsure of how I feel about these I revert to  pragmatism - if it works, it works. But have I got anything other than a gut feeling to know whether it works? And if so, my gut feeling is determined by my cultural capital, what I read now, what books there were in my home when I was a child, current and long-gone conversation round meal tables, what newspapers I choose, and so on, all delineated by Pierre Bourdieu long ago. Trying to ditch prejudices as regards 'good English' does maybe allow me to look at current changes in language in the same light as past imaginative literary usage, but it's not easy; it means ditching a part of what makes me me.  

If 'bad' English sticks in the throat, then sometimes good 'bad' English restores faith in the dynamism of the language.  I like 'kardash'; it's fun, and there's wit in the punning image of people rushing to get away from a ceremony.  In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra's battle of verbal irony with Octavius is summed up in her 'He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not be noble to myself'. No question that the use of 'word' as a verb here works, and then some (not sure yet about how I feel about that last phrase - maybe raincheck it in a decade or so). 

'Raincheck' as a verb?  Why not? A rain check was originally a definite booking for a later date, but the open-endedness implied in 'check' has led to a change of meaning, at least in the UK in my experience, possibly because 'check' is used primarily as a verb rather than a noun.  Thus 'I'll take a rain-check on that' used to mean 'I'll definitely come back to that later', but is now used in the UK in the sense 'I'll see about that later referring to the circumstances pertaining since it's raining now and it might or might not be later on' - partial understanding of the original usage redifined by the legendary British weather. But definitely a case of one word being better than several (no main verb).

And just to point out again that while 'banerk' is a portmanteau word, strictly speaking 'portmanteau' is not. Watch the Marx Brothers film A Night in Casablanca to see a portmanteau in use. In fact, watch it anyway.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Embroidery for Nymans Unravelled

The first photographs of my work for the catalogue for Nymans Unravelled, taken by Sussie Ahlberg.  The show, opens on 5th May; the participating artists are Alec Stevens, Guy Holder, James Sutton, Matt Smith, Lauren Adams, Lucy Brown, David Cheeseman, Sally Freshwater, Steven  Follen, Caitlin Heffernan, Gavin Fry, and Julian Walker.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

On class, language and exclusion in sport

By about 1850 pedestrianism was, according to Neil Tranter in Sport, Economy and Society in Britain 1750-1914 (1998), ‘the most extensive working-class sporting interest’; when in 1866-7 the Amateur Athletic Club drew up its first rules for athletics it ‘specifically excluded mechanics, artisans and labourers from participation in an attempt to divorce amateur athletics from professional pedestrianism and preserve the former exclusively for the upper and middle classes’. The ‘mechanics clause’ caused significant antagonism between amateurs and professionals, which lasted well into the twentieth century.  In 1907 when the International Olympics Committee met to organise the London 1908 Games, the mechanics clause was cited in drawing up the rules for the rowing events, having been adopted by the Amateur Rowing Association in 1882. 

In 1846 the Lancaster Regatta organisers consulted with Bell’s Life as to the protocol of whether to admit a boat crewed by tradesmen; the response was that ‘tradesmen’ were acceptable so long as they were not ‘journeymen or mechanics’, in which case they were to be called ‘landsmen’, ‘to distinguish them from gentlemen amateurs and professional watermen.  If the oarsmen in question are master tradesmen the decision should stand; if journeymen or mechanics, they should be defaulted.’  ‘Landsmen’ was a term that had been in use for some years by that stage, to indicate someone whose normal employment was on land.  The Isleworth regatta in the same year had races for apprentices, landsmen, amateurs and watermen.  The discrimination increased from the 1870s when American and Canadian crews started to participate in British regattas, their amateur status being regularly challenged.  In 1874 the Bolton and Bingley Rowing Club was disqualified from the Agecroft Regatta when it was found that there were artisans in their crew.  The rules for the Henley Regatta in 1879 stated that ‘no person shall be considered an amateur oarsman or sculler who is or has been by trade or employment for wages, a mechanic, artisan or labourer.’  At various times the Amateur Athletics Club and the Amateur Rowing Association adopted similar clauses, though the Amateur Athletics Club dropped theirs after fourteen years, under pressure from members; in 1890 the National Amateur Rowing Association was formed by clubs who found that several of their members would not pass the amateur qualification regulations of the ARA – the two did not amalgamate until 1956.  In 1900 the National Cyclists Union banned from their race meetings prominent English cyclists who had recently been racing on the continent.  The ‘Artisan Golfers’ Association’ was formed in 1920.  The mechanics clause survived the longest - it still applied for rowing in the 1908 London Olympics.  Henley Regatta as late as 1920 banned an American rower who had once been a bricklayer, and banned the Australian Olympic eight in 1936 because they were policemen and therefore could not be amateurs.  Whatever the intention, the mechanics clause came to be seen as an act of class exclusion and resentment.

Adapted from Team Talk, Sporting Words and their Origins

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The next English soccer gaffer

The word to be addressed today is, unsurprisingly, ‘manager’.  What is the difference in status between the language the manager uses, and that used by the footballers he manages (still ‘he’, despite everything)?  I have never heard a manager call himself anything but a ‘manager’, while I have often heard interviewed footballers call their manager ‘the gaffer’.  ‘Manager’ is a word which arrived in English in the sixteenth century from Latin, as a term to describe handling or directing a horse (it is still used, as ‘manege’, for this), while ‘gaffer’ is an abbreviation of ‘godfather’, both of the constituents of that word being derived from Old English words.

In a sense this directs some questioning towards the ‘etymological fallacy’, which states that despite the attractions of the idea, the etymological root of a word is not its ‘deep’ or ‘real’ meaning. But the difference in usage between ‘manager’ and ‘gaffer’ indicates that the etymological root of a word may give clear indicators of its sociolinguistic status, usage, and thus part of what it ‘means’. 

The status between the two words, ‘manager’ and ‘gaffer’, is directly related to their historical origins.  In this case status differentials derive from the different statuses of Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Old English, in the post-Norman Conquest period, where Latin was the language of government and church, Anglo-Norman French was the language of the wealthy and powerful, and Old English was the language of the dispossessed.  Thus Latin- or French-based words sound to us still more formal, more serious, more authoritative than old English-based words.

To push it a little further: popular ‘football’ comes from Old English fot, and bal, almost definitely Germanic, while rather more posh ‘soccer’ comes from Association Football, ‘association’ being adopted from Latin in the fifteenth century.  The title of the ‘referee’ comes from Old French or directly from Latin, while his or her ‘linesman’, rather lower in status but still with a position of authority, developed from line, from Middle English via a mix of Old English, Old French and Latin, and from the Old English man.  The ‘players’, at the bottom of this linguistic ladder, and with the least authority, derive their name from Old English plega, meaning ‘play’, though their intermediary with authority is their ‘captain’, from Late Latin capitaneus via Old French capitain.  Their roles are: ‘strikers’, from Old English strican; ‘forwards’, from Old English foreweard; ‘halves’, from Old English halb; and ‘backs’, from Old English bæc; with behind them a reassuring ‘goalkeeper’, from Old English gælan (probably) and cepan, who might pass the ball out to the 'wing', of Scandinavian origin.  

To raise their statuses they may wish to be called ‘attack’, from French attaquer, and ‘defence’, from Old French defens.  Both of these are abstract nouns, while the corresponding term for the middle area, ‘midfield’, describing a place, is from Old English mid  and feld.  I would be wary of pushing this much further; but then it’s only a ‘game’, from Old English gamen (‘sport’, far more serious, comes from Old French desport).

For more on the origins of sporting words, see Team Talk, published by Shire Books.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Why have I not enjoyed Pillars of the Earth as much as Wolf Hall?

Somehow over the past two weeks I have read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  Admittedly I had been looking out for a secondhand vaguely since enjoying the television version last winter, and wanted to see if reading the book would recreate that enjoyment.  It was different of course, but enjoyable.  Particularly I enjoyed curling up on the sofa for most of Saturday evening while it was getting colder outside, and polishing off most of the last third, though it was past one in the morning before I decided to save a bit for the morning.  By then the house was cold.

Some of it raised the occasional grimace: some of the writing about sex is hamfisted, some of the details of cathedral building feel more like ‘bolt-ons’ rather than a natural development of the story, and clichés like ‘a fine figure of a woman’ and ‘the civil war dragged on’ .  But what surprised me most was the ease with which I have read 1074 pages without really trying; I haven’t read it on the train going to work, I haven’t read it in the toilet, and since I bought it it was by the bed until the long Saturday session.  What is it that makes it such a ‘good read’?  This question reminded me of some of the discussion about the last Man Booker Prize; were judges going to decide on the winner on the basis of its being ‘a good read’ or having ‘literary merit’, and does the projected decision imply that these two criteria are mutually exclusive?

Certainly Pillars of the Earth is a very good read - it is very popular, and has been a bestseller since it was published; it is pacy, full of suspense, and I don’t think I skipped or skimmed any of it.  I suspect that its appeal lies in Follett’s knowing how to construct a book which keeps several strands running alongside each other, and in meaningful contact with each other, where a lot happens, none of it irrelevant to what is happening elsewhere.  Much of the book is told as conversation, so the reader feels complicit in the immediacy of the plot.  Violent sequences are told in very short sentences, five to ten words.  But few sentences are longer than twenty-five words, leaving a sense of a ‘ceiling of complexity’ which is not exceeded. Many of the characters are thin and uncomplex, the prior being unremittingly good, even when he fails his own standards, while William Hamleigh is unremittingly bad.  We are directed to make quick judgements as to which side of the line they stand on, and few characters are redeemed by repentance or remorse. I never felt I was inside any of them, or did not understand any of them, unlike in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which seemed to satisfy the demands of both criteria, being a good read and having literary merit.  There I could empathise with the cautious political enterprise, the world-weary tautness that infused the character of Cromwell and the environment he inhabited, the darting exploitation of situations by those who knew that if they did not rise they would fall.  But most of all in comparing the two books I was aware of discrepancies in my own reactions to the stories, my ‘reader’s need for justice’ plots.    

Bear in mind that I knew vaguely what would happen in Wolf Hall from a general knowledge of history, and that I knew vaguely what would happen in Pillars of the Earth from having seen the television version, though realising pretty quickly from reading the book that there were going to be differences.  Would justice be done a) in the sense of Cromwell being compensated for the treatment he had received as a child from his father, and b) in the sense of the baddies being punished in Pillars of the Earth?  In the case of the second book, yes, it was important; in a way, that seemed to be the point of the book, and what kept me reading – as the outrages were detailed so too did the retribution have to be equally detailed, the physicality of rape matched by the physicality of the rapist’s death, down to details of the same part of the body.

Not so with Wolf Hall; I knew there would be no retribution, that Cromwell would not see his father punished, for the reality of life is that bad things happen, and those who perpetrate them seldom come to remorse through punishment.  This maturer view of the world, which we may not like, is for me where Pillars of the Earth is at its best, where a hero is killed, innocent people suffer, harvests fail, and enterprises collapse; however, in the case of this book, this makes the final retribution more important, for in this way fate too is punished.  In the case of Wolf Hall, I could empathise with Cromwell’s restrained triumphs and his private griefs, recognising a world of realism where, beneath her blindfold, the figure of Justice is staring unblinking into an unfocused distance.  I empathised with not just his pain, but his knowledge that the pain would not be healed.

So, for a good read Pillars of the Earth certainly delivers the goods; it is a good story, well told, and I feel satisfied.  But I now want to read Wolf Hall again: for the dissatisfaction. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012


Adopted from a French word as renk, meaning a space for jousting, the first use of ‘rink’ was in the Scottish dialect as for a place for jousting and later racing, and then figuratively for a contest itself. Later, from the 1780s, ‘rink’ was used for the area of ice specified for curling, and later for ice-skating, and from the 1870s, for roller-skating, when the craze in the United States gave rise to the term ‘Rinkomania’.

The first refrigerated rink built in London was the Glaciarium, constructed in London’s Covent Garden in 1844, with a skating area backed by a panorama of Lake Lucerne. Entry cost 1 shilling, with skating an extra shilling. The proprietor published bills announcing the spectacle ‘on Thursday 25th of January, 1844, [of] the most extraordinary Thaw ever witnessed in this Country or any other’. ‘Glaciarium’ became a generic word for ice-rinks, as established in Melbourne in 1906 and Sydney in 1907. The quality of the ice has always been important – a notice in the Sporting Gazette of 15th April 1878 states that it used ‘real ice – Gamgoe’s patent, not natural’. Rinks now are resurfaced by a ‘Zamboni’, a machine named after its inventor, Frank Zamboni.

from Team Talk: Sporting Words and their Origins 


Friday, 3 February 2012

Poor Fred

Since Fred Goodwin (the erstwhile Sir Fred Goodwin) is currently being pitied as much as he was previously vilified, now is a good time to look again at that wonderful word ‘scapegoat’.  This first appears in William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible (1530), and as ‘scape-goote’ is used as a translation for Azazel.  In the Mosaic ritual for the Day of Atonement, two goats were chosen, and lots were cast as to what would happen to them, one being sacrificed, while the other was ‘cast out into the wilderness’ (general purpose Biblical term) carrying the sins of the people.  The second was the ‘scape-goat’, literally ‘the one which escaped’.  Except that ‘scapegoat’ by the nineteenth century had come to mean what it means now, which is exactly the opposite – the one that does not escape, but gets caught, punished and carries the sins of the others, a triple-whammy.  ‘Scape’ and ‘escape’ being the same word, an ‘escapade’ is perhaps ‘something you get away with’, or as the OED puts it, ‘a flighty piece of conduct’.

Has Mr Goodwin been ‘deknighted’ or, following the pattern in use in Twitter and Facebook – ‘unfollow’ and ‘unfriend’, has he been ‘unknighted’?  Or, since he is usually described as having been ‘stripped of his knighthood’, does the term ‘defrock’ cover his demotion to the rank of plebeian?  Has the recent England football captain been ‘demoted’, ‘dismissed’ or ‘decaptained’, or even ‘uncaptained’?  ‘Demotion’ sounds faintly disrespectful to the status of his team-mates.  ‘Relieved of the captaincy’ carries all the understated irony that made England great.  ‘Defrocking’, by the way, dates from the late nineteenth century, and depends on the usage of ‘frock’ to mean the cassock worn by the Anglican clergy.  A frock is essentially an outer article of clothing, now with rather frivolous connotations, but previously quite serious, as in a frock coat or even a frock of mail (chain–mail).  Defrocking someone in chain-mail would be a serious business.

In Train

As the sporting season begins to crank up a gear with the start of the Six Nations Championship, here is an example of a punishing training regime for a sportsman in the early nineteenth century, the sport being not rugby but pedestrianism (running):

‘The art of training for athletic exercises, consists in purifying the body and strengthening its powers, by certain processes, which thus qualify the person for the accomplishment of laborious exercises.’  [The ‘trainer’ has a ‘patient’, to whom he gives initially ‘three dozes of Glauber Salts’ (a mild laxative)].  ‘He [the athlete] must rise at five in the morning, run half a mile at the top of his speed uphill, and then walk six miles at a moderate pace, coming in about seven to breakfast, which should consist of beef-steaks or mutton-chops under-done, with stale bread and old beer.  … The pedestrian must … run four miles, in flannel, at the top of his speed.  Immediately on returning, a hot liquor is prescribed, in order to promote the perspiration, of which he must drink one English pint.  It is termed ‘the Sweating Liquor’, and is composed of the following ingredients, viz: one ounce of caraway seed, half an ounce of coriander seed, one ounce of root liquorice, and half  of sugar-candy, mixed with two bottles of cyder, and boiled down to one half.  He is then put to bed in his flannels, and being covered with six or eight pairs of blankets, and a feather-bed, must remain in this state from twenty-five to thirty-five minutes, when he is taken out and rubbed perfectly dry.  Being then well wrapt in his greatcoat, he walks out gently for two miles, and returns to breakfast.’   Pedestrianism (1813) Walter Thom. 

Captain Barclay, the pedestrian champion,  used a regime similar to this and seemed to do rather well on it.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

More poo, and some words from tanning

My quest to find the root (and route) of ‘pure’ has thrown up a few dainties.

Searching for incidences of ‘pure’ has so far taken me back to the sixteenth century, but I can trace the word itself to no earlier than 1780.  A Compleat & Effectual Method of Tanning without Bark (1729) does not mention dog excrement, and neither does Brief Directions how to tanne leather according to a new invention made out by severall of the principal tanners (1680).  And, sadly, I cannot find it in Ned Ward’s London Spy.

A trawl through a handful of lengthy Acts of Parliament from the early eighteenth century has revealed no ‘pure’, but a lot of exciting language to do with the ‘feat, craft or mystery of a tanner’ – ‘feat’ here meaning no more than ‘activities’.  An Act concerning tanners, curriers, shoemakers and other artificers, occupying the cutting of leather (1718) immediately points to the word ‘curry’, which is still in use to describe the preparing and dressing of hides.  ‘Curry’ here comes from an entirely different root from that which produced ‘cure’, which since the mid-seventeenth century has also meant ‘prepare for keeping’.  Both processes, currying and curing, in the seventeenth century employed salt. 

Skins were dressed in ‘allom and salt, or meal, or other Ingredients properly used by the Tawers of white leather.’  This is as near as the Act comes to describing dog-poo, though other excrements are described – ‘culver-dung and hen-dung’ (a culver is a pigeon, and the OED describes this word as ‘now the name of the wood pigeon in the south and east of England’, which is a new one on me).  ‘Culver’ is a word which appears to have no connection to any similar word in any other language; the OED discounts claims that it is related to the Latin columba.  Like ‘dog’ it seems to be an English word that has materialised out of the English earth, or air.

An alternative word for currying was ‘frizing’; to ‘frize’, later ‘frizz’, was to rub the skin with a pumice stone in order to produce a uniform thickness, though in the late seventeenth century it was also used to describe roughening the leather on one side, to produce a surface similar to suede. 

The skins described in the Acts include calf-skins, kips (a kip was the hide of a young or small animal, and again seems to be a word invented in English), hog-skins, dog-skins (the OED points out that this commodity was familiar enough to have produced a fourteenth-century family name; and the citations indicate that dog-skin produced fine soft leather).  Also mentioned are ‘slink calf-skins’; slink here comes from the use of the word to mean ‘give birth prematurely or abortively’, a usage which dates from the seventeenth century.  ‘Slink’ or ‘slink lamb’, for example, was also the name applied to the meat of an aborted animal, usually classified as ‘bad meat’, while the skin, also called ‘slink’ if from an aborted or stillborn calf was considered to produce the finest vellum.  Skins were ‘tawed’ in ‘wooze’ or ‘shomack’ (spellcheck working overtime here).  ‘Tawing’ was softening, an early stage in the tanning process.  ‘Ooze’ comes from the Old English word for ‘sap’, and Eric Partridge proposes it is ‘probably akin’ to ‘virus’, particularly appropriate here.

Observations on Leather, printed in 1780, provides more exciting stuff.  For stripping hair off the hides ‘a liquor is made of Hens or Pidgeons Dung; this is called a Grain’.  Elsewhere this liquid, and the vat where it does its stuff, is called ‘grainer’. Other vats, generally during this period called ‘fats’, used in the tanning process, contained ‘drunch’, a mixture of wheat-bran and water, and the oak-bark-based tanning liquid itself, known as ‘wooze’, ‘ooze’ or ‘ouze’. 

Oak-bark, providing tannin, was the source of a lot of legislation; removing the bark at the wrong time of the year could damage the tree, and as oaks were essential for defence, being used in shipbuilding, this had to be controlled.  Brief Directions … (1680) begins with a description of the time of the year to take the bark: ‘First all the Tops or Loppings of Oake of what Age or Growthe soever, or young Oaken Coppice wood, from two to ten or twelve years growth, being cut and gotten in the spring, at or a little before the Leafe shoots forth, or in Barkingtime: The Sap (which is the main and sole cause of Tanning) being then the most fluent and powerful in it, will Tanne all sorts of Leather, or the Tops of those Trees that the Bark is stript off, or the Tops of Coppice wood stript as aforesaid will be as serviceable.’  The Tanners reasons against the exportation of bark (1695-1718) uses the term ‘coppice-bark’.  ‘Barkingtime’ begs to be reintroduced; ‘barking mad’ first appeared in 1900, and ‘barking’ alone in 1991.

‘Drunch’ was an early form of ‘drench’; by the mid-nineteenth century it had become ‘drench’, a term used for any process or medium of soaking.  The leather was tanned with ‘shoemake’ – which looks like a word made up to describe exactly what it does, but is more probably a folk-etymology for the plant sumac; the spelling ‘shoemake’ was in use from the sixteenth century.  The hides were ‘very well limed (soaked with lime), then flesh’d (any flesh or sinew removed) and struck as before, then put in a Liquor made of dogs-dung and water, this is called Puer’.  And this is the earliest use of ‘pure/puer/pewer’ that I have found.  The use of ‘flesh’ as a verb here points to its inclusion in that group of words that can carry two completely opposite meanings – to add flesh, or to remove flesh, as here; and ‘pure’ itself could reasonably claim inclusion in the group.

The Art of Tanning (1774) uses the terms ‘dogs confit or masterings’.  The book later explains that ‘confit’ is the French term, while ‘masterings’ is the English word, in both cases describing a mixture of dung and vegetable matter, to be laid on by hand.  ‘Masterings’ do appear in the specimen financial accounts shown in the book, but not as a priced item, so there is no evidence as to what was paid for what was specified as ‘dogs dung, pigeons dung, and henhouse dung.’  The 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica refers to a ‘pit of water impregnated with pigeon dung (called a grainer or mastring)’.  ‘Confit’, which became ‘comfit’ in English, would have been understood as ‘a preparation’.  ‘Comfit’ also carried the meaning of ‘sweetmeat’ - if a recognisable French word carrying the connotation of a sweet was used at all in English tanneries this would no doubt have caused sniggers all round during the Napoleonic period – which connects nicely with the proposal that the use of the word ‘pure’ was semi-satirical itself. 

It begins to look like dog excrement was not an ingredient in tanning until the second half of the eighteenth century; the further back we go the absence of references in texts which detail other kinds of dung render it more likely that this particular ingredient was not used. A 1564 Act of Parliament controlling tanning processes carries very specific prohibitions against putting ‘any thing in any lycour, stuffe or workmanship in or about the tanning of leather but only lyme, Culver donge or Hen donge, and that in colde water onlye, and wooses made of colde water and Oken barke onlye.’

Finally, the word ‘tanner’, which as well as an occupation meant a 6d coin (a sixpence), surely one of the most attractive coins ever minted.  Green’s Dictionary of Slang offers two possible roots, the Romany tawmo, (Hotten gives tawno) meaning ‘small’; and ‘a ponderous Biblical joke’ dependent on a wilfully obtuse interpretation of the words ‘St Peter lodged with one Simon a tanner’, from the King James Version.  I like Hotten’s link to ‘teeny’, more plausible than his link to the Latin tener, ‘slender’ which he follows with a question-mark.  The regularity with which tanners still turn up in allotments, under floorboards and along forest paths indicates how easily they slipped out of the pocket.  Maybe human tanners after a career of handling some rather unpleasant stuff just got dried out and seemed to be on the point of shrinking away, like Tollund Man.