The autobiography of a once-famous British comedian and game-show host isn’t perhaps an obvious place to find oneself wrong-footed by obscure words and phrases but Bob Monkhouse’s contains a bunch which had me scurrying to the dictionary. Here in no particular order are some of them, to which I’ve appended definitions for any readers who may be as ignorant as I recently was:
nimeity (noun): an excess, redundancy, more than what is required.
inessive (grammatical case): indicates the state of being in or inside a location.
poco curante (adjective, sometimes written as a single word): nonchalant, relaxed in manner, aloof, apathetic, blasé, breezy.
autarky (noun): economic independence or self-sufficiency. “‘Autarky’ [says one authority] is invariably used pejoratively to mean self‐government in a manner condemned by the speaker. A regime is autarkic if it tries to be self‐sufficient by cutting off trade and intercourse with the rest of the world.”
catechumen (singular noun): in theology, a person who receives instruction in the Christian religion in order to be baptized; (loosely) a person learning the elementary facts, principles, etc. of any subject.
cantrip (noun): a magical spell of any kind, a mischievous or playful act, a trick.
tardive dyskinesia (noun phrase): a medical condition where the face, body or both make sudden, irregular movements which you cannot control.
Un tant soit peu (idiomatic French phrase): a little bit. (Monkhouse has this as ‘tant soi peu,’ which may be a printer’s or publisher’s error)
To see how Monkhouse deploys these words you’ll have to read his 1993 book for yourself — and it’s worth finding a copy if you can because it’s an extraordinary piece of work. To begin with, it’s a whole lot more honest than most such efforts. I’ve read quite a few of them and they tend to follow a pattern. First comes the family background with stiffly-posed photos of grandma and grandpa and blurry snaps of childhood holidays on beaches and on outings to the countryside. Then we have the early struggles in showbiz with attendant failures and disasters, which is always the most entertaining part of the book especially if the disasters are amusing in retrospect, and finally comes Success — and now the blinds tend to be drawn to protect the privacy of current spouses and children, and the book turns into a sort of c.v. with often-boastful accounts of hit shows and awards won accompanied by photographs of the star with their famous mates, being presented to royalty etc. People who seek fame and fortune on the stage or screen don’t usually do so because they want to hide their light under a bushel.
Monkhouse’s story broadly follows the pattern. His childhood was worse than most and his anecdotes are funnier, but his story is most interesting for its psychological self-analysis. When he was young Monkhouse was a bit of a shit… correction: he was a lot of a shit, lying, cheating, screwing around and so forth …..
“We are many of us foxes in youth [he writes], initially loyal only to self. We must be taught humility, consideration for others, the constant business of fair exchange, the development of such innate human qualities as modesty, honesty and fidelity. It’s the last of these, faithfulness to family and colleagues, allegiance to those who require it of me, that I’ve had the greatest difficulty in cultivating and which has consequently become as paramount to me as the display of his sense of humour to the person who has none. I had to invent, or perhaps manufacture, my own scruples. They were never built in when I was originally delivered. […] I have been so grateful to discover that, as one grows older, artificially assumed characteristics become real.”
By a sort of effort of will, and with the support of his second wife Jacqui, Monkhouse seems over the years to have turned himself into reasonably decent person — though of course we have only his word for it. Still, all credit to him for trying. So many people don’t.
I originally read the book because I was very interested in comedy and wordplay, though I never found Monkhouse laugh-out-loud funny. Clever, yes, but back in the day I preferred Benny Hill. I liked Monkhouse’s love of words, however, for as he himself put it:
“The English language is an adventure playground with a treasure hunt, full of puzzles to solve and silly meanings to be found.”
Indeed it is.
P.S. Monkhouse’s follow-up volume (Over the Limit, 1998) is less erudite, though I did notice the words squamulose and peripeteia lurking therein. There are more good showbiz anecdotes but rather too many descriptions of wining and dining in expensive places which, as with sex, is more fun to do oneself than to read about other people enjoying.
Arachibutyrophobia is the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth.
Babies: It’s said that every new-born baby looks like Winston Churchill, and recent arrivals tend to prove that this is indeed so. Luckily most of them soon grow out of it.
Banzai! I wrote a light-hearted bit about Japan in an earlier Jottings which set me thinking in a more serious vein. I don’t consider myself to be in any way racist, but in comics and movies when I was a kid the Japs were the enemy. We’d all seen The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), set in a Japanese prison camp in Burma where the prisoners were treated very cruelly, while at school some of my classmates were keen on war comics which bore names like Action! and Commando! and often featured Japanese pilots who yelled “Banzai!” as their Kamikaze planes flew to their doom. Pretty soon these same boys were yelling “Banzai!” as they attacked each other (and me) with pillows after lights out. There were some nasty books circulating too dealing in rather too much detail with Japanese war atrocities, such as The Camp on Blood Island and The Knights of Bushido. These things revolted me but they were inescapable, yet as the years went by and as the dust of Nagasaki and Hiroshima settled our perception of the Japanese slowly changed, and by the 1980s my company was trading with Japanese publishers very happily and for some years now I’ve been driving Japanese cars, but though It’s probably unworthy of me I can’t help wondering where all the cruelty went. In peacetime did it just melt away, never to be seen or mentioned again? Perhaps I’m wrong even to mention it here.
Deafness, partial: “I have one curious trait which I believe to be inherited from my father … Whenever ten or more people are gathered together in one room, chattering away like broiler-fowl at feeding-time, I go deaf. It is as if the input channels of my ears become overloaded and automatically cut out as a precaution against short-circuiting and bursting into flames. For me, social convocations for drinks or meals turn, when warmed up and under way, into surrealistic happenings in which lips move, tongues wag, eyebrows plunge and soar but nothing that could be remotely described as human speech reaches me.” — Humphrey Lyttelton from Last Chorus: an autobiographical medley (2009) I almost cheered when I read this, for I suffer from exactly the same ailment and had always thought it was a weird thing peculiar to me but to find that Humph, a jazz musician and popular radio host, had it too and lived a very happy and successful life despite it was heartening. When I was younger and went out socializing a lot it was a real handicap in the chatting-up stakes — I was the original guy you’d always find in the kitchen at parties — but these days I don’t go to parties and it’s no problem at all.
Diana: the Musical: The recent kerfuffle over Prince Harry’s book Spare reminds me of a couplet from this bizarre musical work when Diana looks at her newborn baby and sings “Harry, my ginger-haired son / You’ll always be second to none.” As a prediction this was way off the mark, of course, and the show contained many other cherishable lines, e.g.
● Some paparazzi chasing Diana: ”Better than a Guinness, better than a wank / Snap a few pics, it’s money in the bank.”
● AIDS patient to Diana: “I may be unwell, but I’m handsome as hell.”
● Charles angry at Diana’s dance routine with Wayne Sleep: “How about for a start / Don’t act like a TART.”
● Diana, bored at a cello recital by Rostropovich: “The Russian plays on and on / Like an endless telethon / How I wish he were Elton John!”
● Diana at a fashionable party: “Nights like this, I envy the poor / Their parties can’t possibly be such a bore.”
The original stage production was much delayed by Covid and was trounced by the critics when it finally did appear (in The New York Times Jesse Green wrote, “If you care about Diana as a human being, or dignity as a concept, you will find this treatment of her life both aesthetically and morally mortifying.”) but it has been filmed for Netflix and many clips from it can be found on YouTube.
There’s a particularly good (i.e. bad) one here, and a chunk of the soundtrack here which amongst other things gives us the word fruffles.
Earworm: I got this one — an earworm, as I’m sure you know, is one of those annoying tunes that gets into your brain and won’t go away — on a visit to New York in 1986 when I was in a taxi taking me from one appointment to the next, and a record came on the radio. I heard only snatch of it, a high-pitched voice singing “ooh-ooh baby blue” or something like that, and I didn’t hear who was singing it or the title of the song. But it stuck in my mind and has remained stuck there ever since, damn it. I tried quite hard to identify it, looking at the US charts for the period to see what records might have been hits there at the time, and even singing the bit I remembered to friends who knew more about music than I did. No luck with any of that. Had I got it wrong? Had the high-pitched voice been singing “ooh-ooh Betty Boo” or “Dicky Doo” or something similar? Eventually I gave up the search, but the earworm remained. Imagine my surprise, then, when idly flicking around YouTube the other day I came across a video called Two-Hit Wonders of the 1970s and there it was! Long story short: it had been a a big hit in the USA and elsewhere in 1975 — the NY radio station must have been playing it as a golden oldie — but was virtually unknown in the UK, and it was ‘Jackie Blue’ by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, a group hitherto unknown to me. The high-pitched voice turned out to belong to the drummer, a hairy fellow who also wrote it. It took me 35 years to identify the thing, and then I did so only by accident. Anyway, I downloaded the track and now play it two or three times day in the hope of getting sick of it and banishing the earworm forever, but at the moment I still like it.
If you want to risk hearing it and getting the earworm yourself it can be found here.
More family stuff: One of my ongoing projects is to find and archive family photographs to get them all into decent-quality digital form, and amongst my late mother’s things I found a folder of very old pictures which I’m scanning and retouching one by one: a voyage of discovery as I’d never seen many of them before. Here’s one of my mother’s family, the Smiths, from the 1920s:
On the left is my Nana who I claim as the original Betty of Bettys Café fame — she was never very keen on smiling for the camera — then my mother, then my grandfather J.J. who ran Bettys for many years but died young, and finally Uncle Ray. It doesn’t do to dwell too much in the past, however, and I’m glad to say that my family in New Zealand are keeping me plentifully supplied with photos of the new generation:
That’s Mia at the back, then (from the left) Isabelle, Finn and Madeleyne: one great-nephew and three great-nieces. Can these beautiful kids really be related to ugly old me?
Language note: In recent months a lot of americanisms have crept into the speech of our politicians and public speakers: drilling down, doubling down, ramping up, etc., but the one that really irks me is the use of likely instead of probably, as in “It will likely rain tomorrow.” This is now becoming widespread: in today’s newspaper former British Army Colonel Philip Ingram is quoted as saying “Western response would likely be the conventional destruction of every Russian piece of kit inside geographic Ukraine.” Col. Ingram really ought to know better.
Lewis, C.S.: My father knew him personally and would send me copies of his books when I was a teenager away at boarding school, including these Pan editions which are still the best cover designs I’ve seen for these titles. (Pan retitled Perelandra as Voyage to Venus.) I have them still. Still good.
Meat, red: “I caused looks of utter horror on Masterchef when I said I didn’t go along with the fashion for serving pink lamb. ‘I like mine well-done and crispy-skinned. Good old falling-apart lamb, like Granny used to cook,’ I said. ‘Why do we have to copy the French?’ Needless to say, I wasn’t invited back.” —June Whitfield, from her autobiography.
I like mine well-done and crispy-skinned too. When I bought my first house in the mid-1970s and started to learn how to cook properly — or as properly as it ever got — this coincided with a sudden vogue amongst my generation for serving meat semi-raw. “It’s much more tasty this way,” said friends serving me slices of nearly raw meat slopping about in tepid blood, and some of them sneered at me for not following this new fashion. Well, over the years I have eaten meat prepared in many different ways and stubbornly I still prefer it well-done, and it was good to find sensible person like Dame June agreeing with me.
Monopoly: Interested to see that there’s now a Harrogate edition which has Bettys Cafe as one of its stops. Regular readers if this blog will know of my family’s early links to Bettys.
New Zealanders eat more ice cream per capita than any other nation. Fact.
Pronunciation: When I was research student long ago my father used to annoy the hell out of me by pronouncing it ree-search (“How’s your ree-search going?”) at a time when everyone else pronounced it with two equal syllables as in reverse or rehearse. Well, times change, and now ree-search seems to have become standard. I don’t like it, but even worse is the now almost universal pronunciation of kilometre with the emphasis on the middle syllable: kill-OM-eter. It makes no sense, as we don’t say kill-OLL-eter for kilolitre or cen-TIM-eter, but I’m afraid it’s here to stay. I blame Top Gear for this. Grrrrr.
Punctuation: “Kipling, of course, found a new use for the colon.” –from Tavern Talk by Collin Brooks (1950). Did he, indeed? Being very interested in such matters — and isn’t that ‘of course’ annoying? — I had a look through Kipling’s works to see if I could spot this so-called new use, but the only unusual use of the colon that I could see occurred at end of the first two stanzas in Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’, though in some editions it’s been replaced by a semicolon, no doubt by editors who thought they knew better than the author. If this is what Brooks means by ‘a new use’ it seems hardly worth mentioning — but perhaps I’ve missed something. Tavern Talk has a bit more to say about punctuation, however: “Bart Kennedy, that almost forgotten man, thought he could make a new use of the full point. For a while his technique was effective, but it grew tedious. Parody eventually killed it.” When I first read this in the 1970s I could find out nothing about Bart Kennedy, but now we can google him and get the basic facts, which are that he was … well, here‘s a link to his Wikepedia entry. Some of his books have been published online too, and we can see his innovative use of the full point in a succession of short often verbless sentences:
Other writers have since employed this sort of staccato style, e,g, Peter Tinniswood in his later works like The Stirk of Stirk, and no doubt many other too.
Finally, there’s a punctuation mark used to signify irony or sarcasm that looks like a backwards question mark [⸮] but since it doesn’t feature in most computer fonts it isn’t widely used,
Rhyming slang: In an earlier Jottings I made the suggestion that scarper, meaning run away, leave, scram, might be rhyming slang from Scapa Flow (=go), but my friend Bob was quick to point out that this was not so, and that it derives from the Italian ‘scappare’ – to escape. This has been in use since the 17th century. Swell’s Night Guide, 1846 includes the quotation: “He must hook it before ‘day-light does appear’, and then scarper by the back door.”
Saddest book title:Leftover Life to Kill by Caitlin Thomas (Dylan’s widow).
Saucy books of the ‘sixties: I belong to various online groups devoted to the celebration of vintage paperbacks, of which I possess hundreds, where members upload pictures of the books in their collections and of their latest finds. Most of these books are from the genres of thrillers and science fiction with splendidly lurid covers, and occasionally one of these brings back sharp memories, e.g. The Passion Flower Hotel which was considered a very naughty book in the early 1960s. It was read avidly by my sister Carol and the other girls at her boarding school where it had to be hidden from the teachers and, at home, from parents too. Tee hee. I wasn’t averse to a bit of sleaze myself and remember a few books that I read at the time in search of cheap thrills. One was The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy, which I enjoyed and actually admired as a novel, but sleazier by far was The Carpetbaggers. Does anyone read Harold Robbins these days? I doubt it.
Wasabi: Most wasabi paste isn’t real wasabi, which is expensive.
X-Ray Specs: I knew that they would be a con, and that they wouldn’t really enable me to see through women’s clothes to their naked bodies — something I was very keen to see when I was 13 or so — and when I finally got hold of a pair (of x-ray specs, not yet naked women) by a most circuitous route of course they didn’t.
Zoom: Over the Christmas/New Year holiday we planned a Zoom session between England and New Zealand but I was in such a dismal state with cold and general low spirits that I knew I wouldn’t be able to give a good account of myself — maybe we’ll try again at Easter — so to end on a more upbeat note here‘s a record that I used to have on a compilation tape and always liked.
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]
Am I woke? If I am woke is that a good thing or a bad thing? If I’m not woke should I be? What is woke anyway?
From Wikepedia:Woke is a political term that originated in the United States, and it refers to a perceived awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice. It derives from the African-American Vernacular English expression “stay woke”, whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. First used in the 1940s, the term has resurfaced in recent years as a concept that symbolizes perceived awareness of social issues and movement. By the late 2010s, woke had been adopted as a more generic slang term broadly associated with left-wing politics, social justice activism and progressive or socially liberal causes such as anti-racism, LGBT rights, feminism and environmentalism (with the terms woke culture, woke politics and woke left also being used).
I became aware of the word last year. I missed Erykah Badu’s song ‘Master Teacher’ in 2008 which apparently popularized it with the chorus ‘I stay woke’, but the Black Lives Matter movement last summer brought it to much wider notice, including mine, while the recent accession of Joe Biden to the US presidency provoked a lot of questions along the lines of ‘Is he Woke’? and the right-wing media have seized on the term with stories like these, all from the Daily Mail in the last few days:
Why NO ONE is safe from the woke warriors trying to stamp out free speech
REVEALED: How ‘woke’ English teachers have cancelled Shakespeare because of his ‘white supremacy, misogyny, racism and classism’ – and are instead using his plays to lecture in ‘toxic masculinity and Marxism’
Black Country residents have slammed ‘woke’ Facebook rules after a local history group was threatened with a ban for discussing the local delicacy – faggots and peas.
It’s reminiscent of the scorn which greeted the Political Correctness movement a few years ago when people ridiculed the more extreme examples with cries of “It’s political correctness GONE MAD.”
From what I’ve learned I think I’ve been woke ever since I first became interested in politics and social issues in the early 1960s when nearly all of my generation were lefties. Some of my friends went to extremes, becoming Trotskeyites and even Anarchists and looking forward to the Revolution that seemed imminent as the sixties progressed. One of them told me that he and a few fellow radicals had been practising with home-made Molotov cocktails on some waste land somewhere, and many of them attended the anti-American demos in Grosvenor Square; Graham Hall (now dead so I can name him) boasted of having knocked over a police horse, which disgusted me as I didn’t think that horses held political views.
I never bought into any of that stuff. As a jazz fan I knew about Jim Crow from an early age and was horrified by the accounts of what had happened to some of my heroes: Lester Young having an appalling time in the army, Billie Holiday not allowed to sit with the rest of Artie Shaw’s band, Duke Ellington having to buy sandwiches for his band because no restaurant in the South would serve them … and as the 1960s progressed there was much talk of Revolution, but I knew that there wasn’t going to be any such thing. For one thing, the people planning it were so incredibly inept, but we did what we could on a local level, starting adventure playgrounds for disadvantaged kids, getting involved with ‘alternative’ publications, supporting the Labour Party etc. — but this isn’t a recital of my own woke credentials, such as they are. I did a bit, but nowhere near enough.
I think I’m woke, though I hope I’m not sanctimonious about it and definitely not a woke warrior. Which takes me on to the next key question of our times: am I a Snowflake?
‘”Seigneur, I have invented forty new dishes for to-night’s banquet,” François said pathetically, his eyes creeping out until they hung on the rims of their sockets like desperate people wavering on the edges of precipices.’ (George Viereck and Paul Eldridge, Salome The Wandering Jewess, 1930)
Connoisseurs of strained similes, mangled metaphors, grisly grammar, excessively purple prose and all writing that is differently good will love Thog’s Masterclass, a regular feature in David Langford’s monthly newsletter Ansible®, essential reading for anyone who wants to know what’s going on in the binary worlds of science fiction and fantasy.
Thog the Mighty is a not terribly bright barbarian hero, the creation of John Grant (Paul Barnett) in his “Lone Wolf” fantasy novels loosely based on Joe Dever’s gamebooks. He first appeared in The Claws of Helgedad (1991) and was soon identified as the presiding genius behind much bad genre writing, with many fans avidly collecting examples of his influence, as they continue to do.
Mr Langford has very kindly allowed me to include a selection of some vintage Thogs here. They’re mostly from SF stories, but not all. My own passing thoughts are in green.
‘Long-since dusty hopes are about to float away on the invisible ink of time, he thought.’ (Robert Newcomb, The Fifth Sorceress, 2002)
‘A minute later, he was vomiting up the breakfast he had not eaten.’ (Peter Straub, Lost Boy Lost Girl, 2003)
‘A thick branch crashed through the tunnel, just missing Filidor’s nose, and he carefully sliced it away before resuming his slow upward progress.’ (Matthew Hughes, Fools Errant, 1994)
‘… a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.’ (Morrissey, List of the Lost, 2015)
‘… the pain marched across my shoulder like a shark army might have.’ (L.E. Modesitt Jr, The Fires of Paratime, 1980)
‘Somehow, the mackerel paté of memory had escaped its wrapper, skipped its kitchen dish, and turned into a flickering silver shoal, darting and twisting in terror against an empty darkness.’ (‘Gabriel King’, The Wild Road, 1997) My memory quite often does that too.
‘She had an annoying habit of running her tongue over his teeth, and as she did that, he realised there was absolutely nothing between them.’ (Jackie Collins, Hollywood Wives: The New Generation, 2001)
‘The wagon lurched forward like an armadillo trying to mate with a very fast duck.’ (James P. Silke, Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer, Vol II Lords of Destruction, 1989)
‘She shrugged, quivers manifest beneath the thin material of her blouse, the breasts, unbound, moving like oiled balloons.’ (E.C. Tubb, Eye of the Zodiac, 1975)
‘She knew how to embroider and milk a cow.’ (Connie Willis, Doomsday Book, 1992)
‘The underwriter seemed equally amused, frisking up the ends of his moustache, eager for them to join in the fun.’ (J.G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights,1996)
‘A pair of bushy eyebrows jutted out above his orbits like two hands cupped over the brow of a man peering into an unfathomable distance. At the same time, his dense windswept sideburns swerved back dramatically behind his earlobes, as though his mind was speeding faster than the rest of his head.’ (Edwin Black, War Against the Weak, 2003)
‘He was handsome and blond, with the same height and almost the same muscular build as Chastity, except her chest-circumference measurement involved different lumps from his.’ (Robert L. Forward, Saturn Rukh,1997)
‘O’Malley had a face like an inflated punctuation mark.’ (Joel Goldman, Motion to Kill, 2002) Yes, but which punctuation mark – a semicolon? The mind boggles.
‘”Are either of you aware of the fact that there’s nothing between us and the pole to break the wind but an occasional stray reindeer?”‘ (David Eddings, Castle of Wizardry, 1984)
‘She sat down in that earthy way that said she was all there.’ (L.E. Modesitt Jr, The Fires of Paratime, 1980) I know women like that
‘It was dark. No darker than it had been while she fell through her dialectical hole, but no lighter, either. It was the kind of disorienting dark that, had she been a feather in a large, unopened can, she wouldn’t have the faintest idea which way was up.’ (Jenny Diski, Monkey’s Uncle, 1994)
‘I felt my molars reach for each other.’ (Kathy Reichs, Death du Jour, 1999)
‘Jocelyn came through the fog wall, muttering, her breasts swaying like two angry red eyes looking for a fight.’ (Gregory Benford, Furious Gulf) Thog seems to have a bit of a thing about breasts doesn’t he.
‘The horse’s fall had the sound of a bag filled with rocks and lamp oil, landing beside him and rolling over his legs.’ (Steven Erikson, Gardens of the Moon, 1999)
‘She looked up, and the silence stopped. The carbonized sky howled as the Milky Way cracked its sternum, exposing its galactic heart.’ (Bryn Chancellor, Sycamore, 2017) The mind boggles even more.
‘Other-ness plays the same part in urinating as in producing poetry.’ (Colin Wilson, The Philosopher’s Stone, 1969)
‘… there is always something magical about the moment when your eyes touch nipples running free; nipples are a door from one world to another, from the grey of the everyday to a place of enchantment.’ (Francesco Dimitri, The Book of Hidden Things, 2018) … and there he goes again with the breasts.
‘Vienna, in that perfunctory way of hers, has sighed and spread her legs to be shagged by the winter solstice.’ (Adrian Matthews, Vienna Blood, 2001)
‘Somewhere in Snowfield, were there living human beings who had been reduced to the awful equivalent of foil-wrapped Pop Tarts, waiting only to provide nourishment for some brutal, unimaginably evil, darkly intelligent, other-dimensional horror?’ (Dean R.Koontz, Phantoms, 1983)
‘”Pleased to meet you,” Arnstein said, and took the offered hand. It felt like a wooden glove inside a casing of cured ham …’ (S.M. Stirling, On the Oceans of Eternity, 2000)
‘Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take.’ (Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama, 1973) No comment, absolutely no comment.
‘Hope was a classic, a classic barmaid, one whose broad behind leaves an imprint on the pages of history.’ (Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, 1957)
I’ll leave Thog there contemplating Hope’s historic behind, and knowing his predilections I’m sure she had epoch-making breasts too. My own hope is that these quotations will serve as a caution to all practicing writers as well as providing fine entertainment for the rest of us — and budding science fiction writers should bear in mind that Thog is watching.
There are hundreds more examples of Thog’s influence lurking on the Ansible website and here http://thog.org/ Do visit and have a click around (free but donations are welcome) and if you find any particularly good (bad) specimens please email them to me at email@example.com then maybe we’ll be able to publish another selection here.
Huge thanks to David Langford for allowing me to do this.
For anyone who likes to waste their time on pointless puzzles here’s one, and it’s even more pointless than most because I can’t supply the solution. If you can you’ll be saving me from even more grief.
In my sorting through old papers I came across a single typed sheet headed NON ALIAS PLOT with a list of various names which I soon realized were all anagrams of each other. The typing was done on what looks like my old Olivetti portable and the paper size is quarto, not A4, which would seem to date it back to the early 1970s. But what does it mean, what on earth was I thinking? Above all, what are all these names anagrams of?
At that time I was doing illustrations and writing various things for some of the more adventurous (meaning small-time and unsuccessful) periodicals of the day, and it looks as though this might have been an attempt at some sort of avante-garde piece. Perhaps these characters were to feature in a story or playlet; I can imagine Pat Lion Sloan as the very posh p.a. to a top executive and maybe Alan Tinspool as a rather self-important manager in the grocery business, but after them things take a more bizarre turn. Lon (‘Piano’) Salt is obviously an itinerant boogie-woogie piano player, perhaps in a vague partnership with Pliant Alonso the eccentric dancer, while Spain O’Tallon, Nina Last Loop and Lopo Slantani seem to be denizens of the US underworld, but I can offer no clues about Polliana Sot or Alan T. Loopins. Maybe the denouement of my little tale was to have been that all these characters were actually the same person. I was always trying to be clever in those days, with little success then and not much more now. J.G. Ballard I was not.
I’ve spent more time puzzling over this than I want to admit. The letters in these names obviously came from something, some key name or title or phrase — I wouldn’t have just chosen them randomly — but searching what’s left of my brain produces absolutely no memory of it. I’ve also tried feeding the letters into various online Anagram Solvers but the solution remains a mystery, although they did come up with a few amusing variations: the onanist Pallo making a mess on the post-anal lino and getting a notional slap from his indulgent mum. I feel that the answer is staring me in the face, that with a bit more effort it will reveal itself, and when it does I’ll cry out “Of course! Why didn’t I see it?”
But so far it hasn’t. If one of my devoted readers can figure it out please post the answer in the Comments and put me out of my anguish.
Neologisms for coronavirus communication, by Jay Martel, from The New Yorker (print edition), July 20, 2020.
Maskhole An individual who wears a mask in a way that makes it completely ineffective — e.g., below the nose, under the chin, on the back of the head.
Face naked The state of facial exposure that occurs when an individual declines to wear a mask in public. For example, “Pence went all face naked to the Mayo Clinic.”
Body mullet What most people wear on Zoom calls: a nice top and, below the waist, underwear or less. (“Business up top, party down below.”)
The NOVID-19 The nineteen minutes after a too-close interaction with a maskless stranger during which you experience a thickness in your throat and a certainty that you’re dying. This sometimes lasts longer if frantic hand washing, antiseptic gargling, and estate planning are not readily available.
Overdistancing When the guy in front of you in line has a metric understanding of the six in six feet, allowing twenty feet to open up between him and the next person in line, which then allows others to interpret that next person as the end of the line and to cut in front of you.
Domino distancing When the person behind you in line stands too close, causing you to crowd the person in front of you, and on and on until everyone dies.
Emotional distancing Deciding that now really isn’t the time to make big decisions about a relationship or, for that matter, to have a conversation about it.
Covideo A short video featuring a quarantined individual’s child doing something adorable and/or profane, the public sharing of which falls somewhere between cute and a cry for help.
Stockholm syndrome The assumption that everyone would be just fine without any government restrictions.
Someday, Noneday, Whoseday?, Whensday?, Blursday, Whyday?, Doesn’tmatterday Days of the week.
Parenting The ability to figure out why the PlayStation isn’t working with the Wi-Fi.
Body Zoom-morphia Finding your own image on a group video call so unappealing that you are unable to focus on anything else.
Quorumtine The minimum number of family members necessary to decide what to watch on TV.
Pan-demic A potentially dangerous increase in the baking of bread in a quarantined home.
COVID-30 Formerly COVID-15; the amount of weight gained by an average adult during quarantine. Sometimes related to a pan-demic.
Helter shelter That moment in the quarantine day when everything seems dirty and chaotic and you feel like saying, “Fuck it, let’s go outside. I don’t care if we die and a bunch of other people do, too.”
Flattening the curve Trying to fit into your jeans after three months of sweatpants. (See COVID-30.)
Germophobe Formerly, crazy people (e.g., Howard Hughes); now everyone except crazy people.
A quotation in an earlier post included the word sympathy and in passing I noted how seldom we see it these days as it is supplanted by empathy, which has become what Fowler called a vogue word. In a recent review section of The Guardian I counted no less than seven instances of empathy or empathetic in its various articles, and I see that the dictionary-makers have been busily playing catch-up to re-define its differences from sympathy.
Anything wrong with empathy? Not really, though I think that many of the writers who use it do so without much thought, precisely because it’s the fashionable term. Has sympathy gone? No, it’s just lurking in the shadows and may re-assert itself one day. The problem with vogue words is that we get sick of them.
Another current one is decimate, which classical scholars will know means ‘to reduce by one-tenth’: not to one-tenth or to wipe out altogether, though that is how it tends to be used these days. “The whole area has been completely decimated” says a TV reporter describing the charred after-effects of a forest fire, and a sports commentator once said that Mo Farrah had “simply decimated the opposition”, meaning that he won the race easily. Decimate in this sense is attractive because the speaker can stress the first syllable and its concluding sibilant — DESS-imate — giving it a dramatic ring, which is not the case with destroy or any other synonym. And of course we know what the reporters mean even if they don’t know or respect their Latin.
Then again: Once upon a time an enormity was an outrage, usually of a criminal nature. A Victorian maiden happening upon the scene of some hideous murder might have exclaimed “Merciful heavens, what heinous fiend can have perpetrated such an enormity?” but these days the word is generally used to denote great size, as when an astronomer speaks of the enormity of a galaxy or of the universe itself, as Brian Cox has sometimes done.
It sounds right. Everyone knows what enormous means, and in speech the central o-sound of enormity (which actually has a somewhat different derivation) can be stretched out to evoke wide open spaces (the arms may also be stretched out to illustrate the concept visually), while the alternatives are much less appealing: vastness and immensity are altogether too hissy for the purpose, while bigness, hugeness and indeed enormousness are awkward and ugly formations, colossal and stupendous generate no manageable nouns, and many hold that massive should have at least something to do with mass.
Purists may disapprove, but I think we must surrender to the forces of common usage and accept that big-enormity has ousted bad-enormity, and that use of the latter should now be confined to works of historical fiction, time-travel and possibly steampunk. It can go too far, though. In a recent TV programme about the excavation of some hitherto unknown tombs in Egypt the archaeologist in charge spoke of “the enormity of the discovery”, by which she presumably meant its great importance. I think this is an enormity too far, a bad-enormity in fact.
And while we’re on the subject of vogue words here’s a list of some words and expressions that I guarantee will never be used by me in this blog:
awesome (unless it really does inspire awe)
from the get-go
elephant in the room
epicentre (unless it’s about an earthquake)
meme (unless it’s from Richard Dawkins)
quantum jump or leap (except in physics or SF)
scenario (unless it’s a film treatment and not a worst-case)
trope (unless it’s a figure of speech)
I’m still debating whether someone like me should ever say or write heads up. There’s nothing more ridiculous than an old guy trying to be hip, as we used to say.