As an inveterate reader with very eclectic tastes I often come across odd scraps of information and things that simply please me or interest me in one way or another, and sometimes I remember to note them down as well as odd things I’ve noticed in real life. Here’s a fairly random selection.
Advice: Never stick your hand in a pike’s mouth [–Daily Mail last weekend]
Antisimile: Raymond Chandler once described Los Angeles as “a city with all the personality of a paper cup.” If a simile is an explicit likening of one thing to another, an antisimile — my own proposed term — tells us that something does not possess a particular attribute by likening it to something else that lacks it, usually in a sarcastic, wisecracking way, as when Dorothy Parker wrote that a book by Margot Asquith had “all the depth and glitter of a worn dime.”
“Welcome as a snowflake in hell.” [–anon, 1920s]
“Denis Quilley played the role with all the charm and animation of the leg of a billiard table.” [–Bernard Levin]
“She informs us that she moved to Italy in order to escape an incestuous passion for her brother –- but relates it with all the excitement of someone describing a head cold.” [–from a review in The Guardian]
“… about as useful as an ashtray on a motor-bike” [–Spike Mullins]
and a late entry heard on tv the other day:
“Gordon Brown: a man with all the carefree joie de vivre of a haunted cave in Poland.” [–Cunk on Britain]
‘Build back better’: A slogan much used by politicians in recent months to indicate a determination to reform after things have gone wrong in one way or another, even when they’ve caused the damage themselves. Joe Biden is using it to describe his proposed stimulus package. A variation on it, #rebuildbetter, has been used by the US solar industry in a joint letter to congress asking for an extension of the Solar Tax Credit. And it’s being used by governments elsewhere too. The UK, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Adern, and the OECD have all used the phrase in reference to green recovery plans. I wonder if the Taliban are now saying that they’re going to build Afghanistan back better. [Thanks to Paul Petzold for drawing my attention to this phrase].
Censorship: It was still rife in the late 1960s particularly where sexual matters were concerned when I started to get my stuff published, but I suffered from it only once when a speech-bubble in a comic strip I’d drawn was altered by a cowardly printer:
I’ve always wanted to change this back when the strip has been reprinted but never had the opportunity to do so. I think the customers should get the fucks they’ve paid for.
Churchgoing: “Went to church by myself. The clergyman preached an odd sermon. Said the devil laid eggs in us. An unpleasant idea.” —Mary Gladstone, from her diary (31st March, 1872)
Diastema: “Diastema refers to a gap or space between the teeth. These spaces can form anywhere in the mouth, but are sometimes noticeable between the two upper front teeth.” (–Healthline.com). Elvis Presley had this condition as an adolescent and had his teeth capped as soon as he started making serious money. Marilyn Monroe sufered from diastema too and had a tiny bridge made which she inserted when she was being filmed or professionally photographed. The candid photo on the right below, taken during the filming of River of No Return (1954), shows the gap and also that she was a secret smoker.
From some website: “If you have a gap between your front teeth, you’re in luck – at least according to the French. They call the teeth on either side of a gap dents du bonheur or dents de la chance. While many cultures consider the gap unattractive and something to be fixed, chez les Françaises it’s fashionable and alluring.”
Dieting: Philip Larkin pointed out that we put on weight by eating food that we like, but he didn’t make the corollary suggestion that if we ate only food we don’t like we’d soon get slimmer. If I had to live exclusively on beetroot and sardines I’d be as thin as a whip, and very miserable.
Double-entendre: Curiously, the French don’t use this term. There are a few other French-sounding terms in English that are scarcely known to the French, e.g. cul de sac, cause célèbre, encore, fait accompli, negligée … and their expressions for what we call a double-entendre — mot/expression à) double entente and (mot/expression à) double sens — don’t have the same suggestiveness.
We Brits seem to like our innuendo more than most other nations. There was recently an entertaining article on the subject in The Guardian [read it here], and I personally don’t think the #MeToo movement will make any difference. We’ll carry on sniggering at soggy bottoms and tenderized rumps regardless as we sink slowly into the sea.
Elephants, dead: Reading Steve Aylett’s Lint — wildly funny and highly recommended — I came across this affecting little poem:
an elephant mended
is a tusker befriended
an elephant dead
is as big as a shed
which reminded me of the elephant-funeral sequence in the movie Santa Sangre when the circus folk have an elaborate ceremony for their beloved elephant carrying their late chum to his rest in an enormous coffin, which is indeed as big as a shed, and quite a large shed at that. It’s a sequence that’s both hilarious and quite moving, though the rest of the movie wasn’t so good.
Entropy: This concept was central to New Worlds magazine during the time that I was involved with it (I wrote about it here), and I was interested to come across this ancient text showing that such concerns go back a long way:
“… the world has now grown old, and does not abide in that strength in which it formerly stood. This we would know, even if the sacred Scriptures had not told us of it, because the world itself announces its approaching end by its failing powers. In the winter there is not so much rain for nourishing the seeds, and in the summer the sun gives not so much heat for ripening the harvest. In springtime the young corn is not so joyful, and the autumn fruit is sparser. Less and less marble is quarried out of the mountains, which are exhausted by their disembowelments, and the veins of gold and silver are dwindling day by day. The husbandman is failing in the fields, the sailor at sea, the soldier in the camp. Honesty is no longer to be found in the market-place, nor justice in the law-courts, nor good craftsmanship in art, nor discipline in morals. Think you that anything which is old can preserve the same powers that it possessed in the prime vigour of its youth? Whatever is tending towards its decay and going to meet its end must needs weaken. Hence the setting sun sends out rays that hardly warm or cheer, the waning moon is a pale crescent, the old tree that once was green and hung with fruit grows gnarled and barren, and every spring in time runs dry. This is the sentence that has been passed on the earth, this is God’s decree: that everything which has flourished shall fail, that strong things shall become weak, and great things shall become small, and that when they have weakened and dwindled they shall be no more. So no one should wonder nowadays that everything begins to fail, since the whole world is failing, and is about to die.” [—St Cyprian (circa 250 AD) translated by Rebecca West, from St Augustine (1933)]
Epenthesis: During the recent spell of football mania here in the UK I’ve repeatedly heard Wembley spoken as Wemberly, and in recent months have heard athaletics, arthuritis and even emberlem (for ’emblem’) too. The rhetorical term for the insertion of an extra sound into a word is epenthesis, from the Greek ‘putting in’. According to some linguists, “vowel epenthesis is often motivated by the need to make consonant contrasts more distinct” (–The Handbook of Speech Perception). I think it was Tony Gubba back in the 1970s who abandoned any notion of pronouncing ‘hat-trick’ as two separate words, opting instead for hatrick, rhyming it with Patrick, and most other sports commentators have since followed his lazy example, though I suppose hatrick is better than hattertrick.
Fan mail: Here’s a letter received by John Lennon at the height of his fame with The Beatles, though whether the writer was really a fan is debatable:
I should have written to you years ago. I might have avoided a great deal of suffering and unhappiness if I had. As you know very well a brain operation was carried out on me by the Queen in 1959 whereby a person was enabled to pick up my thoughts in his head. From the very start I was writing songs and he put them on tape and sold them to singers, songwriters, and recording companies who copy-writed them and recorded them. As you probably know it was my idea to form the Beatles; I chose the name and specified that the group should come from Liverpool (as close as I dare come to Belfast). Needless to say when I suggested letting Lennon & McCartney claim to have written the songs, I really didn’t want to be famous — I did want the money. Over the years I have probably written songs worth hundreds of millions pounds but have received not a penny for them. I am at present living on £11.35 per week invalidity benefit. Do you not consider that this is grossly unjust? I don’t need to write a list of the songs, — you will know very well which were written by me. I presume that all the songs which he sold to you were mine although he might have written a few himself. When I wrote “Give me money” I meant it. I intended to get a fair share of the massive profits which were being made and expected to be offered a just cut of the takings. I thought I would complete my education first and worked hard to get to Cambridge where my ambition was to become a History don. As you know the results of the man in my mind were that I got very depressed and lost my concentration and was lucky to get a degree. I stopped writing songs — “Vincent” was my last. He proceeded to operate again on me — this time in an attempt to kill me’
I am trying not to blackmail you although I gather that blackmail has been very very rampant and understandably. I don’t want to recover that money — I am prepared to write it off, as long as I get 50% of the money still around. I write to you because you are the most intelligent of the four and I hope
you I will not have to write to them or even to you again.
Do reply and I will burn your letter. As I say only want ½ million from you. The rest should come from him. If you cooperate the whole agreement should be sewn up in a few weeks and I will never bring it up again.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Ferrets: I recently posted this on my Facebook page: “In the newsagents the other day there was a young woman with a small furry creature scurrying about on the end of a lead. It didn’t seem to be a dog or a cat so I asked what it was. It’s a ferret, she said. I’d never seen a ferret before and asked if it was friendly. Oh yes, she said, and picked it up and let me stroke it: such a beautiful creature, much like the one in the photo, and indeed very friendly and very happy to be lead along the pavement as she continued her shopping. And now I’m seriously thinking of getting a ferret of my own.”
This produced an astonishing set of responses offering advice about ferrets as pets, some against the idea (“they stink”) and some encouraging me to go ahead (“They’re lovely friendly creatures,” “Get two,” etc.). When I post about serious social or political issues the reaction is usually tepid at best, but when it’s about cute furry creatures …
Heliotrope: “… the only flower whose name sounds like a Victorian flying machine” [–from Lint by Steve Aylett]
Japan: has a Penis Festival. It’s called Kanamara Matsuri, which means “the festival for the phallus of steel”. It’s celebrated every year on the first Sunday of April. The phallus, as the central theme of the event, is reflected in illustrations, confectionary, carved vegetables, decorations, and a parade with a mikoshi (portable shrine). I’ve never been to Japan and it’s unlikely that I ever will, but if I did go it would be to see original prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige, to see Mount Fuji itself and perhaps some exquisite gardens, and by way of diversion maybe take a ride on the bullet train — but I certainly wouldn’t want to get caught up in any penis festival. Nothing against such things, of course, but definitely not for me.
Kudos: Recently I’ve come across several websites which invite me to click on a button which grants them one kudo by way of approbation. I don’t, because I know that kudos is a singular noun from the Greek, like chaos and pathos, and it’s pronounced koo-doss, not koo-doze. Just as there is no such thing as a chao or a patho there’s no such thing as a kudo.
Spaghetti, on the other hand, isn’t a singular noun: a single strand of spaghetti is a spaghetto.
Lucy Mangan: I’ve been a fan since first reading her in The Guardian some years ago, and she continues to hit the nail on the head, as in her column last Saturday:
Somehow, as one looks at the empty supermarket shelves as food rots in our fields, the growing shortage of medical equipment, the increasing entrenchment of mask and vaccine refuseniks, news of Christmas supplies being threatened by the 90,000 lorry driver vacancies, McDonald’s running out of milkshake, companies asking to use prisoners to make up for the lack of labour, it becomes harder and harder to keep the faith about anything at all.
–Exactly how I feel myself. I greatly enjoyed her reminiscences of childhood reading in Bookworm too — and on her Guardian recommendation I’ve just started watching Kevin Can F**k Himself on Amazon Prime. Seems promising, though so far it hasn’t actually made me laugh much.
Marilyn Monroe: For my previous post [here] I found a picture of Marilyn eating a carrot but I’ve now found the better one above, showing her not only wielding a carrot but also reading a book. She was a keen reader and in a future post I hope to show that she was by no means the dumb blonde she was often made out to be.
Neighbours: I’m fortunate to have two places where I can stay. At one of them the neighbours are friendly and when we get together we’re relaxed and have a nice time, but at the other my neighbours treat me as a pariah and make things unpleasant for me in various ways — yet I’m the same mild, inoffensive person in both places. This puzzles me and weighs rather heavily on me, and I don’t know what to do about it.
New Zealand’s finest export: undoubtedly Eric Partridge, the lexicographer, who compiled dictionaries all by himself long before the age of computers, the internet and whole departments busily monitoring the English language. His Slang Today and Yesterday is one of the most diverting books I possess, with expressions like these (from the Yesterday section) which I reproduce verbatim:
Admiral of the Narrow Seas — a man spewing into another’s lap
Bag of Mystery — a cheap sausage
Dine Out with Duke Humphrey — to go dinnerless
Eel-Skins — very tight trousers
Ferricadouzer — a knock-out blow, a thrashing
Little Grey Home in the West — vest
No Milk in One’s Coconut — brainless
Rhinocerical — rich
Think Tank, Have Bubbles in One’s — be crazy (motorists)
Tulip-Sauce — a kiss
Umble-Cum-Stumble — to “rumble”; understand, suspect, detect
‘Oblivious’: Oblivion ought to be about forgetting, from the Latin obliviosus “forgetful, that easily forgets; producing forgetfulness” via the French oublier, to forget, but to forget something one has to have known it in the first place so it really makes no sense to use the adjective oblivious to mean ‘unaware’, as here:
You know the person who’s walking down the street, totally oblivious to the fact they have bird muck on their shoulder?
Until a serious event occurs, such as a heart attack, many people live life oblivious to the fact that they even had high cholesterol as it does not present warning symptoms.
This usage is now very widespread so should I stop bitching about forgetfulness when I come across it? With a sad little sigh, yes.
Rhyming slang: I recently came across the suggestion that scarper, meaning run away, leave, scram, might be rhyming slang from Scapa Flow (=go). Could be.
Satanists, unexpected: Sammy Davis Jr. was one: “… for a time, I became a Satanist. I was introduced to some very interesting people, including the head of the Satanist Church in the States, and became fascinated by their philosophy. I actually joined the church to find out what I could about their beliefs. As it turned out, it was a short-lived interest, but I still have many friends in the Church of Satan. In Amsterdam, for instance, the Satanists are very strong and they never fail to send a deputation to see me as soon as I get into town.” —from his autobiography Hollywood in a Suitcase (1980)
Serial killers: Almost twice as many are born in November than in any other month. (I was born in May.)
“So”: Why do young people begin nearly every utterance with this word? I’m tempted to reply “So what?” but of course am much too polite to do that.
“So fun”: an Americanism that seems to have spread to these shores, replacing our own more grammatical ejaculation “Such fun!” — or so I thought until I happened to look at the text of The Tempest for a piece that I was writing about Shakespeare and found this:
Ferdinand: … for several virtues
Have I liked several women; never any
With so fun soul, but some defect in her
Did quarrel with the noblest grace she owed
And put it to the foil: but you, O you,
So perfect and so peerless, are created,
Of every creature’s best!
Sootikins: A sootikin is a “small, mouse-shaped deposit formed in the vaginal cleft, usually of poorer women who did not wear undergarments — common until the nineteenth century. A sootikin built up over several weeks, even months, of not washing. It was composed of particles of soot, dirt, sweat, smegma and vaginal and menstrual discharge. When it reached a certain size and weight it tended to work loose and drop from under the woman’s skirt.” [– from The Dictionary of Disgusting Facts by Alan Williams and Maggie Noach] I’m glad to say that I’ve never come across a sootikin — my intimate friends have always been very clean, though not everyone is so fastidious: remember Napoleon’s letter to Josephine (“I’m on my way home. Don’t wash.”).
Symphorophilia: Sexual arousal from causing or witnessing disasters such as car crashes. J.G. Ballard explored this phenomenon in his 1973 novel Crash long before the term was coined.
Tabasco: A word of Mexican Indian origin meaning “damp earth” or “place where the soil is humid”. Such earth is favourable for the cultivation of the peppers that are made into the famous sauce.
“Tuh”: Current pronunciation of “to” by posh people, tending to linger on the vowel-sound as in the first bit of turd. Boris Johnson is a major tuh-er, as we’ve found during his many tv appearances during the recent pandemic. You’d have thought they’d teach them better pronunciation at Eton and Oxford.
Vegetables: I spent more time than I care to admit researching my previous blog piece Vegetables of the Rich and Famous and its successors (there are going to be successors). Why? I’m not a vegetarian, though I might be heading that way, and not especially star-struck. I suppose it’s because I’m eating less meat these days and looking for new ideas and getting a bit obsessed with it. Luckily these obsessions don’t tend to last very long though this one is proving more resilient than most, and other people are now sending me recipes and suggestions, which is nice. I plan to include some contributions from non-famous chums in the next piece, so if you, dear reader, have a particularly good vegetable recipe do send it along,
Worst line in a movie?: “Fish, I love you and I respect you very much.” spoken by Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea (1958), script by Peter Viertel from the story by Ernest Hemingway. I think that auditioning actors should be asked to say this line with as much conviction as they can muster.
Yorkshire pudding: “My mother would make a Yorkshire pudding the size of a football field, and my father and I would tuck into this Sunday feast: Yorkshire pudding with gravy, Yorkshire pudding with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding with treacle.” [— Michael Parkinson in last Sunday’s Observer]. That’s how it was in my Yorkshire childhood too, though my sister and I were sometimes allowed to have jam instead of treacle on the last course.
Zoophobia: a fear of animals. Most of the time, this fear is directed at a specific type of animal. [–Healthline]