Thursday 26 June 2014

Fake Etymology IV

I have added fake etymology to my mini ebook Clichés: A Dictionary of Received Ideas (only £1.50 from Amazon and Kobo), and culled some quotes. Here they are:

BANKRUPT Means “broken bench”: “Money lenders in Northern Italy once did business in open areas, or big open rooms, with each lender working from his own bench or table. If he went ‘broke’, the piece of furniture was literally broken to signify that he wasn't in business anymore.” (

BEST MAN Groom’s bodyguard. “In feudal times, it was commonplace for rival Lords to storm a wedding and steal the bride for political reasons.” ( I thought the best man was there to protect the groom from the kidnapped bride’s family… See many ancient traditions of marriage by capture, and strange items of “wedding theatre” based on them.)

BIKINI "The idea was that their impact was like a nuclear explosion. As indeed it was, at a time when swimsuits were modest and often had little skirtlets." (RN)

BISTRO “The word ‘bistro’ (or ‘bistrot, as it is sometimes rendered) comes from the Russian word ‘bistro’, meaning ‘quickly’. The story goes that, when Paris filled up with Russian émigrés after the 1917 revolution, they used to demand food ‘bistro, bistro!’, which is how these early fast-food joints came to be so named.” (SL)

BLACKGUARD Merriam-Webster says: “From black + guard. The term originally referred to the lowest kitchen servants of a court or of a nobleman's Household. They had charge of pots and pans and other kitchen utensils, and rode in wagons conveying these during journeys from one residence to another. Being dirtied by this task, they were jocularly called the ‘black guard’.” The Free Dictionary agrees: “the lowest menials in court, camp followers, vagabonds”. The Urban Dictionary suggests it’s from shoeshine boys.

BROWNIE POINTS “Said to originate with a Pullman Car captain called Brown who awarded merits and demerits to his crew”, friend A writes. “Or brown-nose”, says friend B. Friend A supplied the following: “In the 1930s, Curtis published magazines including the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal. They were distributed door-to-door by youths, primarily boys, who received a small commission. If they met sales targets, they could also receive green and brown vouchers to be redeemed against goods from the company's catalogue. These vouchers were known as ‘greenies’ and ‘brownies’; five greenies equalled one brownie.” Ingenious, but surely the points were earned by trainee Girl Guides (called Brownies after the helpful elves of fairy stories)? (Wikipedia gives all these and more. NGram shows a sharp rise in popularity from 1960.)

CINDERELLA’S SLIPPER “The slipper probably was not glass at all: the mistake was made through the similar French words verre, glass, and vair, fur,” said Simon Hoggart in The Guardian, December 7 1999. But the consensus among folklorists is that it's, well, folklore… As the French folklorist Paul Delarue pointed out in a 1951 essay, ‘one can also find [glass shoes in Cinderella stories] in other countries where there is no homonym which permits the confusion’.”)

DEED POLL “Poll is an old English word used to describe a legal document that had its edges cut (polled) so they were straight. This was done to visually distinguish between a deed signed by one person (a polled deed - hence the term Deed Poll) and a deed signed by more than one person (an indenture), which had an edge indented or serrated. Interestingly, indentures were originally written twice (side by side) on one piece of parchment, which was then torn down the middle and each half given to each party. The impossibility of matching the tear was a guard against forgery.” (UK Deed Poll Service website)

DUDE “It seems almost certain that ‘dude’ derived from ‘doodle’, as in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’. ... For some reason, early in 1883, this inspired someone to call foppish young men of New York City ‘doods’, with the alternate spelling ‘dudes’ soon becoming the norm.” (Allan Metcalf)

FIASCO “English speakers picked up ‘fiasco’ from the French, who adopted it from the Italian phrase ‘fare fiasco’ - ‘to make a bottle’… One guess is that when a Venetian glassblower discovered a flaw developing in a beautiful piece he was working on, he would turn it into an ordinary bottle to avoid having to destroy the object.” (Merriam-Webster) The Free Dictionary says: French, from Italian fare fiasco, to make a bottle, fail, from fiasco, bottle (perhaps translation of French bouteille, bottle, error, used by the French for linguistic errors committed by Italian actors on the 18th century French stage).

FILER A L’ANGLAISE In French, “take French leave” is “leave like the English”. But it’s really from “angler”, or “fish”: “L’expression proviendrait de l’ancien verbe ‘anglaiser’, pour ‘voler’. Par la suite, on aurait utilisé ‘filer à l’anglaise’ pour désigner la façon discrète dont part un voleur qui vient de faire son coup. Par analogie, on a aussi vu apparaître l’expression ‘partir comme un voleur’.” (Oh those French and their puns! Angler (fish) sounds like Anglais (English).)

FINE TOOTHCOMB “I have heard it said that the term ‘comb’ once included implements that did not have teeth, so ‘tooth comb’ may have been a necessary distinguishing epithet”.

FOGGY DEW fog is a kind of grass that “grows in marshes and bogs where the atmosphere would be damp and misty, and this would represent maidenhead, and the dew would imply virginity or chastity”. (“There seems no end to what can be interpreted from the lines of folksongs," says Folksongs of Britain and Ireland.)

HILL OF BEANS “a planting method whereby four or five beans are put in a mound.” (

I DON’T GIVE A D**** “An obsolete Indian copper coin of very little value called a dam,” suggests Sunanda K. Datta-Ray in the International Herald Tribune, 15 Mar 2000. (So “I don’t give a tuppenny dam” would make no sense. And some people say “tinker’s cuss”. It was a damn, dammit!)

JOHN O’GROATS Jan de Groot “He charged 4d a trip apparently, and they will tell you in these parts that that sum became known ever after as a groat, but alas it is a pathetic fiction. It is more probable that Groot was named Groat after the money rather than it for he.” (Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island)

MIDSUMMER “Maybe it has the same etymological origin as the word midwife – meaning ‘with’?” (The Guardian, 7 June 2011)

SINCERE Merriam-Webster says: “The allusion is to the Roman practice of concealing flaws in pottery with wax, or to honey from which all the wax has been extracted.” (Make up your mind!) Wikipedia says: “The Oxford English Dictionary and most scholars state that sincerity from sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus meaning clean, pure, sound (1525–35). Sincerus may have once meant "one growth" (not mixed), from sin- (one) and crescere (to grow).”

TAWDRY From St Audrey: “There used to be a huge fair in her honour this day in Ely where bits of tatty lace were sold to pilgrims.” (Rev Richard Coles) “Necklaces of silk and lace were sold, often of very inferior quality.” ( “A lot of cheap bobbin lace was sold.” (

WALLY Why does it mean “a fool”? “Originally pronounced as in valley in place of origin Glasgow, before being distorted by Londoners especially who believed the Scots were actually saying the male name 'Wally', it relates to a tenement stairway, a 'close', that was titled 'a wally close' pronounced as in valley, and where the more well-off families lived, and who kept their children from playing with the 'roughs' with the consequence that lack of 'playing out' led to less well co-ordinated (less socially skilled as well, therefore) people, 'wallies' (as in valleys).” ( (The longer and more circumstantial the explanation, the less I believe it.)

“Folk etymology always leaps for acronyms.” (RN)

More here, and links to the rest.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Received Ideas VIII

Who was that rather common little boy?

More quotes redacted from my book Clichés: A Dictionary of Received Ideas, available on Amazon.

ROMANTIC NOVELS Modern heroines are feisty and self-determining: “Today’s romantic novel is a well-written and accurate reflection of the modern woman, with all her strengths and insecurities. … the days of muscled heroes sweeping damsels in distress off their feet as the waves crash over their tanned and gorgeous bodies are long gone.” (Writers and Artists Yearbook)

SHAKESPEARE Much too lower middle-class to have written the plays attributed to him: “You have to be a snob if you just hate it that the greatest poet the world has produced was born into the humble aldermanic classes of a provincial town.” (Janet Suzman, The Guardian, 19 August 2012)

SHYNESS “Getting along with people doesn’t depend on saying amazingly profound things in a striking way. It’s about listening to people and showing you’ve heard – in a word, communication. It also means knowing your own strengths so that social success doesn’t become the be-all and end-all of life.” (Agony Aunt Angela Willans in the 70s. In other words, you’re stuck with it – just give up.)

TATE MODERN Say “It’s just cynical the way it puts on blockbuster exhibitions to pack in as many people as possible, there was some lovely stuff there of course but it was impossible to see it. You’re marched round and only given a few seconds for each picture.” (JL)

TATTOOS Have become middle class. Should we panic? “The story - that tattooing has "entered the mainstream" - is just one of a number of tattoo tropes recycled relentlessly over the decades, suggests Dr Matt Lodder, art historian and tattoo expert at the University of Essex,” says the BBC, quoting a “tattoo worry” article from 1908.

TEA “One person thinks tea cools you down, one person refuses to accept this.” (, July 2012)

VEGETARIANS Friend TW writes: “I have always understood that if you lived only on red meat with nothing else at all, you went mad.” (When I was young, we thought all kinds of things would  drive you mad – apart from sleeping in moonlight, what were the others?)

VICTORIAN CARTOONISTS Stodgy and dull: “One of those Victorian bores who drew fussy scenes and bolted on weak jokes at the expense of servants and foreigners.” (Libby Purves on the very funny Pont (1908-1940), Times 2008. Queen Victoria died in 1901.)

WINE “One of the many wine myths that needs debunking is that great wine has to taste disgusting in its youth, before evolving into a delicious dotage.” (Jane MacQuitty, The Times, November 2011)

WOMEN Can have jobs now, hooray! But will they become too masculine? “Thousands of young working women are literally going bald because of ‘testosterone overload’ caused by occupying traditionally male roles in the workplace, a report said yesterday. A study carried out at the University of Portsmouth… found that of 800 women interviewed, 30% were experiencing hair loss,” said the Sunday Times. “Dr Hugh Rushton, a consultant trichologist, said women in the workplace were becoming more sensitive to the circulation of male hormones, such as testosterone, in their bodies. Increasingly in recent years, professional women have been seeking treatment for hair loss, acne and deepening voices.” (Helen Carroll, Daily Mail, 1997) “Bobbing hair causes women to grow beards.” (Humourist S.J. Perelman, 1920s)

More here, and links to the rest.

Was Agatha Christie Anti-Semitic? Part 2

A commenter on my previous post on this subject challenged me to look at page one of The Mystery of the Blue Train, so I ordered a 1930 copy. (Look out for spoilers.)

"It was close on midnight when a man crossed the Place de la Concorde. In spite of the handsome fur coat which garbed his meagre form, there was something essentially weak and paltry about him.

A little man with a face like a rat. A man, one would say, who could never play a conspicuous part, or rise to prominence in any sphere. And yet, in leaping to such a conclusion, an onlooker would have been wrong. For this man, negligible and inconspicuous as he seemed, played a prominent part in the destiny of the world. In an Empire where rats ruled, he was the king of the rats.

Even now, an Embassy awaited his return. But he had business to do first - business of which the Embassy was not officially cognizant. His face gleamed white and sharp in the moonlight. There was the least hint of a curve in the thin nose. His father had been a Polish Jew, a journeyman tailor..."

He arrives at his rendezvous, a "tawdrily furnished sitting-room. The electric light was shaded with dirty pink festoons, and it softened, but could not disguise, the girl's face with its mask of crude paint. Could not disguise, either, the broad Mongolian cast of her countenance. There was no doubt of Olga Demiroff's profession nor of her nationality."

Later in the book, however, Poirot goes for help to his theatrical friend Joseph Aarons, who is shown as a cheery fellow, full of industry gossip, and fond of stodgy English cooking.

The elderly Mr Papopolous is referred to both as a "wily Greek" and a "patriarch". Poirot calls in a favour:

"I believe that I am right in saying, Monsieur, that your race does not forget."
"A Greek?" murmured Papopolous, with an ironical smile.

"It was not as a Greek I meant," said Poirot.
There was a silence, and the old man drew himself up proudly.
"You are right, M. Poirot," he said quietly. "I am a Jew. And as you say, our race does not forget."

On reflection, later editors' quiet removal of racism – either expressed by Christie or more often by her characters – has partly deprived at least two of her creations of their identity and their role in a complex plot.

They are Oliver Manders (Three-Act Tragedy) and Jim Lazarus (Peril at End House). Manders is a young man who deliberately alienates the other characters, some of whom treat him as an outsider. We're told he is illegitimate, but without the references to his origins, he has less of a reason for his inferiority complex. Jim Lazarus is a London picture dealer, the lover of a drug addict separated from her husband. In the original text he is referred to as "a Jew – but a fearfully decent one".

Both Manders and Lazarus are murder suspects, and the regular 1930s reader of detective stories might expect a Jewish character to be revealed as the villain, but Christie pulls the rug from under our feet, and they both turn out to be "fearfully decent" after all.

More here.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album

Where's America?
Royal Academy of Arts, London
To 19 October
Burlington Gardens entrance

Before he was an actor (Blue Velvet) and director (Easy Rider), Dennis Hopper (1936-2010) was a photographer. These snaps date from 1961-1969 (which took me from 9 to 18). After he made Easy Rider, he never took another picture - he said. Here's a candy-coloured tangerine-flake review.

There always seemed to be a party going on somewhere else. The beautiful people were older than me. From Mary Quant and Courrèges to hippy love-ins in 1967. Structured to unstructured. Back-combing and rollers to wash it, brush it, leave it. I wore dressing-up clothes - a black velvet jacket cut down from a dress, long orange skirt, bare feet. 

Faces of the 60s, a new kind of fashionable face. David Hemmings became unrecognisable; David McCallum never changed. Bill Cosby as the Green Man in a lot of ivy. Brian Jones in a paisley shirt, playing the sitar.

Indian bedspreads. Cane "peacock chairs". Behold we make all things new.

Man reading a bondage comic. Jane Fonda in a very "straight" tailored wedding outfit, 1965, next to two guys reading the original Barbarella comic upside down. Comics became Roy Lichtenstein.

Set of The Sons of Katie Elder, 1965. John Wayne aged 58, on a horse, hand on hip, seen through a camera tripod.

"Long-haired" musicians who have let their short-back-and-sides grow out. How shocked people were.

Martin Luther King rally - a straight guy in a suit holding up a furled umbrella. On the end is a hand-written sign: US HISTORIANS.

We Give Blue Chip Stamps, holey washing, rusty cars. Downtown LA, homeless people beside a fence among sunflowers. Two beautifully cared-for little black girls surrounded by litter, beside a vacant lot with KEEP OUT signs. Holding a white doll. Kirk Douglas said he had worked hard so as not to have to sleep on the floor - and now his hippy sons were living in squats, sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

Sitting on the grass was subversive. Love-in 1967 like a painting by Richard Dadd - the same kind of grass in the foreground, girls dressed like fairies.

Hippies collected trash like fairground horses. The art they made became a highly priced commodity.

Layers of peeling poster, "Elect....". Low-rent shop interiors. DRESSES 25 cents each. Mirror reflects utility pole and US flag. Another mirror reflects nothing. Furs by... Comer and Doran Beauty School. Capitalism is constantly destroying the past.

Biker style has lasted better. I never saw Easy Rider.

Empty roads, empty landscape - where did the people go? Monument Valley, John Wayne again. Looking for America. How did we get here? American hippies dressed as characters from American history, revived stained glass, Tiffany lamps, old advertising signs. Everything that was supposed to be painted over by modern design. US HISTORIANS.

A TV screen shows the lunar surface. Where were you that night?

Monday 23 June 2014

Received Ideas VII

Prince Albert

More quotes culled from my mini e-book, Clichés: A Dictionary of Received Ideas, a mini e-book available from Amazon for a mere £1.50.

LONDON’S KERBSTONES Are carved with coded messages: “There are Maltese crosses, dotted crosses, rectangular crosses and ones with arrows. When a fifth of London’s population was wiped out in the plague and fire just around the corner, the corpses were dumped in mass pits and unmarked graves. Families of the newly dead who had moved into the area and were quarantined may have tossed out a coin to street urchins offering to memorialise the dead. I think they were possibly carved by the poor and destitute to earn a crust.” (Art student Louise Drescher, West End Extra, 2009)

MARRIAGE Is just a bit of paper. Or is it the bedrock of society? “Not being married is OK for us, but we need to get married in public to support the institution of marriage, because marriage holds society together.” (The Times, 2 October 2010 – man quoting father-in-law) “For any feminist, surely, marriage is rooted in patriarchy, ownership and exploitation.” Tim Lott, Guardian, October 2012

MEDIEVAL ART Static and two-dimensional: “Medieval manuscripts belie the idea that “figurative art of that period was a static conservatism awaiting release by the Renaissance.” (Adrian Hamilton, The Independent, 21 November 2011)

MILK IN FIRST? “Milk used to be put in first to take the heat off the tea, because boiling tea in a cup was likely to crack it. Fine quality china was thin enough for the heat to conduct through and not crack the cup, so milk in last was showing off the quality of the china. Nowadays most cups and mugs can take boiling liquids, so the wealth/class issue has gone away.” Friend TD writes.

MOSCOW’S SEVEN SISTERS These pseudo-Gothic Stalin-era skyscrapers conceal many mysteries. “I’ve heard that because of the lack of metal girders their walls are tremendously thick at the bottom. I’ve heard that they go down into the ground as far as they go into the sky, that there are old explosive self-destruct charges left over in some of them, that there is a huge monument to Stalin stored in one of the cellars. I’ve heard that the super secret Metro 2 runs underneath them. And the ones that were never built – like the Palace of the Soviets, with a gigantic statue of Lenin so big and so high up top, that it needs shortened legs and torso to preserve the perspective.” (

ONLY FAILURES TAKE THE BUS Said Mrs Thatcher: “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” (Attributed to Margaret Thatcher in Commons debates, 2003 and 2004. According to a letter to the Daily Telegraph by Alistair Cooke on 2 November 2006, this sentiment originated with Loelia Ponsonby, Duchess of Westminster, who said "Anybody seen in a bus over the age of 30 has been a failure in life". In a letter published the next day, also in the Daily Telegraph, Hugo Vickers claims Loelia Ponsonby admitted to him that she had borrowed it from Brian Howard. There is no solid evidence that Margaret Thatcher ever quoted this statement with approval, or indeed shared the sentiment. So says Wikipedia.)

OUR TIMES “Call it a time of transition, or decay.” Flaubert “Something is happening to Britain and the British. Or has happened. We are said to be passing through a transition, or a turning point, or even a transformation, nobody is quite sure which.” (Ferdinand Mount,, summer 2001)

OVER-SHARING There's too much of it about: “In this age of emotional incontinence/exhibitionism and hysterical hyperbole…” (Gareth McLean, Guardian blog January 2008) “Joining in with the hyped hysteria of public mourning is a temporary aberration.” (

POM What Australians call British immigrants – there are many explanations. “It actually originates from the hundred years war, when the French called the British "pommes" (as in pommes de terre) because they were always eating potatoes.” (Guardian Notes and Queries)

PROTESTERS “Dilettante indignationists” who are just after 15 minutes of fame, according to Libby Purves in The Times, April 2012.

QUEEN VICTORIA Friend WS writes: “A story I was told when I was a lad: In the 1890s, a party of ‘ordinary’ folk was being shown round one of the royal residences, I think Osborne. It’s said that a lad strayed from the group, and found his way into the Queen’s bedroom – which was not on the itinerary. In the bed the boy saw a life-sized wax model of Prince Albert. At this point, he was apprehended by the officials, and dragged off to an office, where they told him in the most blood-curdling terms exactly what would happen to him if he dared breathe a word about what he had seen. So he didn’t, until the Queen was long dead, and he was middle-aged.”

More here, and links to the rest.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Received Ideas VI

The gun helps.
More quotes purged from my mini ebook, Clichés: A Dictionary of Received Ideas. Only £1.50.

CAPTAIN COOK His ships were too big for the Polynesians to see: “European explorer ships, it is said, were invisible to native peoples because they had never seen a ship before.” (Guardian blogs, 16 May 2005)

CROMWELL Never housed his steeds in a stable when there was a church handy: “General Monk, having changed sides, sacked Dundee for Cromwell and stabled his horses in the ruins of the South Church.”

EVIL Old-fashioned. “Do we still need evil?”, asks Laurie Taylor (July 2012).

GUNS Don’t kill people. People kill people. (“But the gun helps.” Eddie Izzard)

GUYS, IT’S 2014! Say this whenever a social reform has unaccountably failed to happen. “The dates of English school and university spring terms are set according to when Easter falls, and the date of Easter is set by the phases of the moon – this in the 21st century!” (A.C. Grayling, 2013)

HELL IN A HANDCART Where we’re all headed: “London, that us’d to be the most safe and peaceful City in the Universe, is now a Scene of Rapine and Danger [due to] effeminacy, our Toupee Wigs, and powder’d Pates, our Tea and other scandalous Fopperies; Disuse of noble & manly Sports." (Daniel Defoe, 1728) Thanks to Lee Jackson, author of Daily Life in Victorian London.

HISTORY IS BUNK Henry Ford “said nothing of the sort. What he did say was that much history was bad history, and was therefore more or less bunk. He was not criticising history but the way it was interpreted and taught. He was so concerned that well-based history should be available that he endowed history faculties in a number of US universities.” (Professor Emeritus Garel Rhys, Cardiff University, writing to the Times, 2014)

HUMAN RIGHTS As Prince Charles said in 2001, the Human Rights Act “will only encourage people to take up causes which will make the pursuit of a sane, civilised and ordered existence ever more difficult”. (That may be why we are going to Hell in a handcart.)

IBSEN “His reputation as a distinctly gloomy, po-faced Norwegian who invariably occupies the high moral ground does him no favours.” (Daily Telegraph, February 2010)

ICED COFFEE “There’s a popular story that iced coffee (frappé) was invented during some exhibition in Thessaloniki when an enterprising exhibitor whose stand didn’t have electricity decided to try his coffee cold instead of hot.” (A Greek friend writes)

JOKES “There are only eight jokes, though nobody knows what they are.” (Paul Daniels) “It’s impossible to be funny without offending someone.” (Jeremy Clarkson)

KIDS TODAY Grow up too fast: “In every generation… there has been an outcry against young girls’ bad behaviour as if it were a new phenomenon – the flappers, the beats, the ladettes – and every generation has looked back with nostalgia to a previous age when little girls’ innocence was intact.” (Review of Girl Trouble by Carol Dyhouse, The Guardian, March 16 2013) “Ever since the war there has been a loosening of moral fibre. Nobody minds what they say, and as to the clothes they wear!” (Mrs Price-Ridley in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage complains that there has been a loosening of moral fibre since the war – the First World War) “In the 1550s, people in Buxton complained about ‘youthful persons’ who loved ‘to pipe, dance, hop and sing’.” (Tom Holland)

KILTS An ancient form of Scottish dress: “The mummy’s curse is one of those traditions (like celebrating Christmas or wearing clan tartans) whose origins are supposedly lost in the mists of time but were in fact invented by the Victorians.” Thomas Jones, London Review of Books, February 2014

LESBIANS Queen Victoria didn't believe in them: “It’s claimed that the 1885 Labouchère Amendment which prohibited acts of ‘gross indecency’ between men originally applied also to women. The Queen stated firmly that no woman ever did things like that; nobody wanted to take on the job of explaining the reality to her; and the bill was amended, so as to leave lesbians unaffected.” (Friend WS writes.)

LOGIC “The paperwork of the brain.” (Truett Ogden)

More here, and links to the rest.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Received Ideas V

Here are some more quotes I've taken out of my mini e-book Clichés: A Dictionary of Received Ideas (£1.50 on Amazon).

CHARITY All money given to charity goes to middlemen. “To buy Ray-Ban sunglasses, apartments in Paris, Ferraris and all the rest of it that goes with most of the foreign aid.” (MEP Godfrey Bloom, August 2013)

CHEERS! “One story about the clinking of glasses is that the purpose is to spill each person’s wine into the glass of the other, for assurance that nobody is being poisoned (or everyone is). Another story is that the custom of clinking glasses originated in the Middle Ages, when any alcoholic drink was thought to contain actual ‘spirits’, such as the demons in ‘demon rum’, who, when imbibed, inhabited the host’s body, causing the imbiber to do things that he would not ordinarily do. Since bells and other sounds were thought to drive spirits away (to this day, churches ring bells to drive the ‘demons’ away from the sanctuary before worship begins), the clinking of glasses was thought to make it safe to drink.” (The usually sensible Judith Martin in Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour)

CHILDHOOD Invented by the Victorians: “When the idea of childhood came into being at the beginning of the 19th century...” (Mark Ravenhill, The Guardian, 22 January 2007)

CLOCK FACES “The logical notation for 4 is IV. However, the letters IV (the Latin equivalent of JU) were commonly used by the Romans as a shorthand for ‘Jupiter’, and it was considered bad luck for anyone other than a priest to write this down in any form… Consequently, they used the IIII form instead. Clockmakers were aware of this and did not want their timepieces to bear the symbols of bad luck, albeit of a pagan origin, and so to this day they use the IIII form.” (

DICKENS “If Dickens were alive today he would probably be making blockbusters or scripting smart HBO miniseries.” The Times, Nov 30 2012)

DIRT IS MATTER IN THE WRONG PLACE Not anthropologist Mary Douglas but “The memorable definition of dirt as 'matter in the wrong place' was first coined by Lord Palmerston, whilst he was Home Secretary, at an agricultural meeting in 1851, referring to the possibility of turning sewage into manure. It has been widely quoted, often misattributed, ever since.” (Dust, Mud, Soot and Soil: The Worst Jobs in Victorian London by Lee Jackson)

EAU DE COLOGNE Friend RI writes: “4711 was originally sold as an alcoholic drink, but when a tax was put on spirits – but not on scent – they simply swore it was a perfume instead. Completely contrary to expectations, it started selling far more. Was originally sold as a vastly profitable secret-formula health elixir (with alcohol in it, conveniently). When Napoleon invaded, he made an order that the recipes of all such medicines and potions had to be disclosed (as well as numbering all the houses, hence No. 4711).”

ENGLISH SPELLING Logical English spelling was made more complicated by “schoolmen... whose concern was not to make the written language more user-friendly and to increase literacy but to make English appear more prestigious and, in effect, less Anglo-Saxon.” Or perhaps by “Dutch printers who didn’t speak English or confused clerics more used to writing in French and Latin”. “The Chancery clerks who in the 15th century substituted “ea” for both the long and short “e” sounds ... did so to preserve their superior status.” Letters to the Times June 2014

ETIQUETTE Is a thing of the past: “Nowadays at least, civility is less class-oriented and exclusive, and more about gestures of politeness.” (, 2013) “The restrictions that bound us in the past, in the matter of social etiquette, have all been washed away by the cleansing waters of time.” (Pietro Ramirez, 1936)

FACEBOOK Is “the J.B. Wetherspoon of social media”, says a keen Tweeter. “There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter.” (Bill Keller, New York Times, May 2011)

FAMILY MEALS Will solve all society’s problems. “We’re always being told we don’t sit down for dinner together enough.” (BBC Online, January 2011)

FOLK MUSIC Always being ruined by professionals: “When ‘serious’ composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams or Percy Grainger got hold of these tunes the process was intensified, with four-square harmonies being imposed in place of the entirely different idiom of monophonic music.” (Paganism in British Folk Customs, Bob Trubshaw)

FREUD Moved Man from his place at the centre of the Universe, with a little help from Copernicus and Darwin: “He claimed, in the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, that his theory was the third of three major blows to the ‘naive self-love of man’.” Copernicus dislodged us from the centre of the cosmos. Darwin then revealed we were part of the animal kingdom. The next step was for Freud to show that ‘the ego is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind’.” Paul Broks, The Guardian May 6, 2006)

GESTURES “When the Greeks moved to southern Italy and colonised Naples, the Italians used gestures as a way to communicate without being overheard [but] the gestures continued to have a tradition as a way of communicating.” Barbara Poggi, BBC “I remember as a youth being told not to use gestures: that doing so is a sign of a poor grasp of the language.” (Friend SK writes.)

GRAMMAR Just “old-fashioned classism and elitism”. (Guardian September 2013)

More here, and links to the rest.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Received Ideas IV

You never see her writing
Because of copyright concerns, I've removed some quotes from my mini ebook Clichés: A Dictionary of Received Ideas. But I thought I'd share them with you before putting them away in a drawer (actually a folder within a folder within a folder).

“They had become so used to saying the same thing… that they no longer thought about what they were saying. The same phrases were simply trotted out without thought.” (The Guardian, 12 January 2013)

“It’s common these days (perhaps it always has been) to sneer at our ancestors as gullible fools and talk about how enlightened modern society is.” (Commenter at, July 2012)

AGATHA CHRISTIE Couldn’t write: “You never see her writing.” (Nancy Banks Smith)

ARCHITECTS Are always constructing buildings the wrong way round: “On Fourvière Hill (Lyon), note the basilica, a Romano-Byzantine monstrosity apparently built the wrong way up.” (Sunday Times 2012) “Located at the rear of St George’s Hall are St John’s Gardens… It is rumoured that the gardens were to form an impressive frontage to St Georges Hall and that the Hall was actually built the wrong way round.” ( “A long-standing rumour was that the Birkdale Palace Hotel, Southport had been built the wrong way round, so instead of the hotel front facing out to sea, it in fact faced inland. It was also said that the architect, William Mangnall, then committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the building. There have been stories of how the architect’s ghost was heard to travel up and down in the lifts and was heard walking along the second floor stone floors whilst the building was being demolished.” (Wikipedia) “I had recently been to Hobart in Tasmania, where the Sheraton chain had built a hotel of stunning plainness on its lovely waterfront. I had been told that the architect hadn’t actually visited the site and had put the hotel restaurant at the back, where diners couldn’t see the harbour.” (Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island) And many, many more…

ARCHITECTS When not disorienting their buildings, they add pillars that don't support anything: “When Sir Christopher Wren was designing the Sheldonian (Theatre in Oxford), he envisaged an unsupported ceiling. His patrons, convinced that such a structure would collapse, insisted that he insert some columns. He reluctantly agreed – but years later, maintenance workers discovered that the columns stopped a few inches short of the ceiling. [But] there are no columns in the Sheldonian. However, this story is also attached to other Wren buildings: eg Windsor Town Hall. It has four non-supporting columns, but no one has ever managed to find any evidence of them causing a dispute between Wren and his employers. [And] the same basic story is also told about Brunel and the Maidenhead Bridge, Brunelleschi and Florence Cathedral, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.” (Financial Times)

ART Don’t try investing in art: “One shouldn’t really buy paintings for financial gain, one should buy them because one loves them.” (Art dealer on Cash in the Attic)

ATHEISTS Don’t really exist: “By night an atheist half believes a God.” (Edward Young, Night Thoughts) “I am still an atheist, thank God.” (Luis Buñuel) “If there were no God, there would be no atheists.” (GK Chesterton) “Atheists are accidents.” (Deepak Chopra) (Thankyou, Twitter.)

AVANT GARDE “The avant garde is now a period style.” Robert Hughes

BALLAST All kinds of unlikely things came over as ballast: “Imari plates came over as ballast in tea clippers.” (James Lewis on Bargain Hunt, 2010) “Mr Schwartz, author of Finding Oz, said that the Dutch ships that carried the first inhabitants of Peekskill used yellow paving bricks as ballast, and these were then used to lay roads.” (Times, 13 June 2011) “I heard he was digging out the earth and selling it for a great deal of money as ship’s ballast.” (A neighbour on London’s Mole Man, The Independent, 4 October 2011) “These warm water shells were originally brought over as ship’s ballast.” (Ellie Harrison in Scott’s Grotto, Country Tracks, 2012) “He himself likes the sword-and-sorcery ones, like Savage Sword of Conan and Kull and the Barbarians. He says they’re shipped over from America as ballast.” (Angela Carter on an 80s newsagent) “In the 19th century, cargo boats returning from Europe to North America would carry quarried stone as ballast, contributing to the architectural heritage of some east coast cities (for example Montreal), where this stone was used in building. (Wikipedia) “After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, rubble from the decimated buildings and streets was offered free as ballast for sailing ships. Many of these ships came to Newcastle and their ballast was discharged at Stockton [in Australia’s Newcastle]. This area of Stockton is still known as ‘the ballast ground’.” ( Alcatraz prison is built of concrete used as ballast. (BBC) (And many, many more. But “Stones from many parts of the world can be found on [Porthmadog’s] Ballast Island as well  as rare plants and flowers which have grown from seeds brought on the stones.”)

BEGGARS Earn huge sums and drive expensive cars: “Rumours abound of Romanian beggars earning £100 a day in London.” The Daily Telegraph, July 2013) “I think Thackeray has a character who sweeps a City crossing by day and goes home in his carriage to a sumptuous house in the West End at night.” (historian Lee Jackson)

BOARDING SCHOOL “Any boisterousness or subversive tendencies are ironed out of him at school, and everyone… says how much he has improved. No one, on the other hand, can explain why the housekeeper’s cat has been strangled.” (Jilly Cooper, Class)

BRITISH FOOD Not as bad as it used to be: “A strange myth has emerged that Britain is now a country full of sophisticated restaurants. Well, try getting anything other than fried chicken, pizza or fish and chips in any provincial town after 10pm on a wet Monday evening.” (Harry Mount, Daily Telegraph, June 2010)

CATHEDRALS “Forests were the first temples of God and in forests men grasped their first idea of architecture.” (James Snyder)

CELIBACY It is possible to live a fulfilled life without sex, according to Christian barrister Mark Mullins.

CENTER PARCS “They have all the characteristics of normal woodlands, apart from the fact that they are enclosed in a dome of weatherproof glass.” The Times, October 7 2012 (Just the swimming pool.)

More to come.

And more here.

Monday 9 June 2014

The Demon Drink

If we want to stop binge drinking, and alcohol-damaged health, and alcohol-damaged families, perhaps the broadcasters could agree to stop using alcohol for a cheap laugh. Wine or beer tastings on the BBC's Countryfile always come with titters and guffaws and big leers. And when an elderly lady comes onto Antiques Roadshow with a claret jug the guffaws and leers are turned up to 11. “Don’t drink it all at once, Gladys!” The old lady gurns and pulls faces and plays along. (We could do with less twinkly condescension to the old, too.)

Nobody smokes on TV or in movies any more. How about a similar ban on drinking?

Tim Wonnacott on Bargain Hunt at an oyster bar: “But there’s something missing!” Barman: Here you are! (Hands over glass of Guinness) Tim W: Ha ha ha ho ho ho!

Presenter: You can lie in the bath, survey your domain.
House hunter: You forgot the champagne!
Presenter: Pat’s mind is on the champers already!

Presenter: Sit out here of an evening, glass of wine.
House hunter: I can just see myself sitting out here with a glass of wine, of an evening. Or two! [Titters all round]

Sit here with a glass of wine, look out over open fields. [Titters]

Sit out on the patio with a glass of wine. [Titters]

Relax in the bath with a glass of wine. [Titters]

Be lovely to sit out there on a summer evening with a glass of wine. [Titters]

Jules Hudson: Chat to your friends and enjoy a glass of wine.

All from Escape to the Country (And how many of these exchanges are scripted?)

Chris Hollins: Is it a glass of sherry or a glass of wine on the terrace in the sunshine?  Cash in the Attic

Naga to Carol: You look a bit squiffy there, are you sure it was just apple juice you had? You say it's apple juice, Carol, but we know!
All: ha ha ha!
BBC Breakfast

Couple who’ve bought a house next to a pub: It’s going to cost a lot in beer!
All: Ha ha ha!
Homes under the Hammer

British Winter Olympics gold medal winner: I celebrated in champagne. Ha ha ha ha ha!

Contestants dither over opening a cupboard: Are we allowed to look inside?
Voiceover: Go on! there might be booze inside!

House owner:
Most people keep food in their fridge – ours is a drinks cabinet.
Voiceover: So that’s where he’s hidden it!
May the Best House Win

More on the demon drink here.
How to drink less here.

Alcoholic euphemisms here.

You can call Alcoholics Anonymous on 0800 9177650, or email them at

Sunday 8 June 2014

Reasons to Be Cheerful 12

God calls me God
Doctors expect their patients to ask questions. Fewer surgeons and architects are megalomaniacs. “God calls me God” syndrome seems less prevalent. Authoritarianism is retreating. We even have a friendly Pope.
30 years ago half of Britons thought same-sex relations were always wrong, that figure has dropped to a fifth. (Owen Jones)

From September 2014, evolution will become a compulsory part of the primary school science curriculum in state schools. (Jewish Chronicle)

Clement Attlee (Labour Prime Minister of the UK 1945-51):Created the NHS.
Built the welfare state.
Introduced child benefit.
Equalised right of wives to own property.
Introduced free secondary education as a right.
Helped to create the United Nations.
Granted independence to India.
Brought public services into public ownership.
Nationalised the bankrupt private railways.
Achieved full employment.

50 reasons to love the EU (

1939 King George VI is the first British monarch to visit the United States of America.
1960 Geoffrey Fisher is the first Archbishop of Canterbury to visit the Pope since the Reformation in the 16th century.
1982 The Pope visits the UK for the first time since the Reformation.
2011 Queen Elizabeth II is the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland since it broke away from the United Kingdom.

1824 Test Act of 1673 repealed (It required public officials to be members of the Church of England and subscribe to the 39 Articles of faith.)

1868 In the last public execution, Irish terrorist Michael Barrett was hanged outside Newgate Prison.

1917 Overruling 19th century cases to the contrary, the House of Lords clearly laid down that rational argument against Christianity was not blasphemy; and, more fundamentally, that “the phrase ‘Christianity is part of the law of England’ is really not law; it is rhetoric”. (Lawyers Secular Society)

1923 Intoxicating Liquor Bill states that no one under the age of 18 can purchase alcoholic drinks. (The previous age limit was 14. It was changed thanks to the UK’s first woman MP, Nancy Astor.)

1929 Margaret Bondfield becomes Britain's first female cabinet minister, serving as Minister of Labour.

1971 First women’s refuge opens in Britain. (Unless you count Baroness Burdett-Coutts' Urania Cottage.)

1974 Women in the US can own real estate in their own names. (

1995 Uruguay outlaws duelling.

2014 Alcohol prices rise - binge drinking lessens - injuries due to violence fall. Lowest for 10 years, say police.

2014 Marshfield, USA, lifts ban on video games in place since 1982.

Smacking children is illegal in the following countries. Which one is missing?

Malta (2014)
Honduras (2013)
TFYR Macedonia (2013)
South Sudan (2011)
Albania (2010)
Congo, Republic of (2010)
Kenya (2010)
Tunisia (2010)
Poland (2010)
Liechtenstein (2008)
Luxembourg (2008)
Republic of Moldova (2008)
Costa Rica (2008)
Togo (2007)
Spain (2007)
Venezuela (2007)
Uruguay (2007)
Portugal (2007)
New Zealand (2007)
Netherlands (2007)
Greece (2006)
Hungary (2005)
Romania (2004)
Ukraine (2004)
Iceland (2003)
Turkmenistan (2002)
Germany (2000)
Israel (2000)
Bulgaria (2000)
Croatia (1999)
Latvia (1998)
Denmark (1997)
Cyprus (1994)
Austria (1989)
Norway (1987)
Finland (1983)
Sweden (1979)
Italy (courts)
Nepal (courts)

1517 In “Evil May Day” riots in London, London apprentices attack foreign residents. Wolsey suppresses the rioters, of whom 60 are hanged.

2014 Louisiana House votes to keep unconstitutional anti-sodomy law.

2014 The Garrick Club and the Travellers’ Club still don’t admit women.

And some old farts are kicking and screaming because they are no longer top of the tree with the “freedom” to do what they like to their wives, children and employees.

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Hyperbole, Overstatement, Catastrophising 4

Using condoms to prevent AIDS "seems profoundly damaging to the dignity of the human being". (John Paul II)

Iain Duncan Smith says claiming benefit takes away dignity and self-reliance.

Iran’s new drone bomb is essentially a peaceful device. “This jet, before it heralds death for enemies, is a messenger of salvation and dignity for humanity.” (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad)

When you deny God, you deny human dignity. Whoever defends God is defending the human person. (@pontifex)

What’s behind this ban obsession? = People have called for a few things to be banned, like sweets at supermarket checkouts, or fireworks for home use. (Libertarians would prefer individuals to acquire a sense of responsibility. Good luck with that.)

We’ve never been a more shallow society, totally focused on the superficial and ignoring what is really important… We are all obsessed with the trivial now. (Julia Blackburn, writing to the Daily Express July 2013)

Gambling pollutes your desires to be one with your community. (Said somebody in 2013.)

spittle-flecked outrage: Someone I disagree with is complaining about something.

Women can't drive because it damages the ovaries and gives their children birth defects. (Saudi cleric)

Coercing people into relationships with tax breaks is a sure fire way to increase rates of domestic violence. (@Asher_Wolf)

Newspapers are full of porn! (Translation: The Daily Mail sidebar is a bit racy.)

Just like you to ruin Christmas! (Translation: The Christmas tree you bought is a bit too tall/short.)

Young people worship technology! (Young people check their phones mid-conversation.)
Young people live in a different world! (Young people use social media.)

We have nothing to fear but fear itself. (And man-eating tigers.)

I've lost count how many times it's been suggested that we'd like to see an aisle full of boring beige boxes. (Let Toys Be Toys, campaigners against pink/blue segregation of toy shops)

Lord Reith thought ITV was like “the bubonic plague”.

To subject either the fully fledged readers, or those who are well on their way, to a rigid diet of intensive phonics is an affront to their emerging identities as persons. "To require this of students who have already gained some maturity in the rich and nourishing human activity of reading is almost a form of abuse." (Andrew Davis of Durham University quoted on 2014)

In 1877 the New York Times warned that the telephone (invented 1876) would cause “an immediate end to all privacy” – because any “telephonic miscreant” could connect a telephone to the wires strung overhead and listen in.

The Time Team special on Lutyens was absolutely terrible. Dissolved into Gove-like celebration of WWI. (Tweeted architect Charles Holland. When challenged, he pointed to the lists of the fallen, gazing into the distance, and Tony Robinson’s shorts. “Think it’s mainly a tonal thing.” Which doesn’t translate as “absolutely terrible Gove-like celebration of WWI”.)

When I mentioned that I was hopeless at arithmetic, I was accused of “revelling in ignorance”.

Christians accuse atheists of “missionising for converts” when they’re just putting a point of view – or existing.

As for the rapidly advancing era of illiteracy, sometimes it's funny to laugh and gaffe about, but other times it feels positively grievous, as though a huge chunk of literary and historical culture is dying. The specific incident which occasioned my writing today is a faux pas in today's Chronicle . . . The penultimate paragraph [of a certain story] states that Barbara Jeffers told police "her son had been acting strangely recently and had threatened her safety." (Letter to The age of illiteracy is advancing, and culture is dying because a newspaper used the phrase “acting strangely”. Correctly. Did she think it should be "acting strange"? And I think she means "chaff" rather than "gaffe".)

Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference and an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion, said that the government’s anti-bullying education programme and "gender equality" was turning schools into “re-education camps”.  “In reality they seek to instill in children preconceived ideas against the family, parenting, religious faith, the difference between father and mother,” said the cardinal, likening Italy’s efforts to root out discrimination to “indoctrination”. The government’s social programme prompted the cardinal to ask whether Italian parents were being “deprived of their authority” and right to educate their children. (March 2014)

People are illiterate!
(They confuse its/it’s and your/you’re. Truly illiterate people can't read or write.)

Christians are being marginalized and persecuted! (Translation: We Christians no longer make the laws and control everybody’s lives. Other points of view are allowed.)

Gay supremacy is becoming worse than white supremacy! (Tea Partyer April 2014)

To look backwards is to be spiritually dead! (Pundit complaining about… the Early Music Movement in the early 70s.)

London is Hell! (Oxford Street is a bit crowded.)

More here, and links to the rest.