A is for Alphabet

Earlier in the summer, I celebrated the relative idleness of retirement with an alphabet, sent out most days on Twitter. It consisted of favourite words culled from my commonplace book, and I reproduce it here, lightly edited, in case it pleases any of my prudently Twitter-free readers.

A is for Aftermath, a word much abused to describe the destructive after-effects of a battle or a storm, when it really means the tentative green blush of growth amongst the stubble after the harvest, in that short , sweet interval before it is all ploughed back in again.

B is for Barnacular, coinage of Ivor Brown’s from Dickens’s Tite Barnacles of the Circumlocution Office – rich in “bureaucratic dalliance, pedantry and the issue of complicated forms composed in an abominable jargon … this lingo I venture to call ‘The Barnacular’.” It flourishes today.

C is for Cathartic, a word we think we know, forgetting that catharsis (“releasing repressed emotions”) is a metaphor: a Cathartic was the second degree of laxative in the mediaeval pharmacopoeia, fiercer than the milder Laxative, milder than the dreaded Drastic – which last beggars imagination.

D is for Drizzling, a popular early 19th century after-dinner hobby for aristocrats, of rubbing the bullion off old epaulettes, frogging and braid into a ‘drizzling-box.’ Prince Leopold of Belgium drizzled enough silver in a year to make a soup tureen for the future Queen Victoria.

E is for Eagle-stone, or aetites, supposedly from the stomach of an eagle and tied to the thigh to protect a woman in childbirth. Alternatively, in Thrace, the egg of a black hen laid on Maundy Thursday, painted red and kept under the iconostasis for 7 years has the same effect. Stick to eagle-stones.

F is for Footmanism, a coinage by Melville for absurd class deference (not always shown by footmen), in “certain parts of the earth” where men “bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions owned and rented in his name.”

G is for Gander-month, the month between a woman’s giving birth and being churched, when men looked elsewhere for their pleasures. A man taking advantage of the gander-month was a ‘gander-mooner.’ Gander-mooning has become a good deal less time-bound in our post-churching times.

H is for Hack-silver, the mess of small chopped-up fragments of gorgeous late Roman silverware to which Clovis and his Franks reduced their booty for easy division amongst greedy barbarian warriors. A useful metaphor for modern banking.

I is for Isobel, the Elizabethan name of a ‘dingy yellow grey’ colour. Named for the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, daughter of Philip II, who allegedly wore the same underclothes for three years, perhaps after becoming a nun in old age: she really doesn’t look that kind of girl.

J is for Jerusalem artichoke, named in rustic error for the Italian girasole, or sunflower – another, related, heliotrope. Neither an artichoke nor connected in any way to Jerusalem, it was called topinambour in France, and cooked with plodding literalism into purée Palestine.

K is for Kendall green, one of many lost colours our ancestors saw and named, like Amaranth, Brassel, Crane, Dead Spaniard, Filomot, Gingerline, Goose-turd, Incarnadine, Lion, Lusty-gallant, Murrey, Plunket, Popinjay, Puke, Russet, Sangyn, Stammel, Tabby, Verditer, and Watchet.

L is for Limehouse Kiss, a head-butt to the nose at the coarser end of the street-fighting business. A much contested cultural artefact, it is also known as a Liverpool , Glaswegian and Geordie Kiss, competing toponyms which suggest that it does not indicate unqualified affection.

M is for (Lady) Mondegreen, ghostly heroine of the ballad in which “they hae slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green.” Doyenne of an invisible college including Hamlet’s battlement-treading Marshal Stork, the hymnist’s Good He-tortoise, and Gladly, my Crossed-eyed Bear.

N is for Nugatory, favourite word of civil servants for whom an effort or an expenditure is nugatory if it is wasted, trifling or fruitless. Found in no other habitat than the official minute, and even there an endangered species on the verge of extinction. Arguably a nugatory word itself.

O is for Oxter, a Scottish armpit. You can be ‘up to your oxters’ in something or, in the words of Neil Munro, “To those who know not the pipes the feel of the bag in the oxter is a gaiety lost.” He is referring to a pibroch or bagpipe, a gaiety (lovely word) that I can only imagine.

P is for Phrop, a coinage by Sir Arnold Lunn, Hugh Kingsmill’s father, to describe a phrase that means the exact opposite of what it appears to say, like “We must have lunch some time,” or “With all due respect,” or “It’s not the money I’m interested in, it’s the principle.”

Q is for quarter-day, old landmark in the calendar when rents were paid and servants hired. Midsummer, Michaelmas and Christmas have lost fiscal significance, but Lady Day (March 25th) lives on as the April 6th tax-deadline, displaced by 11 days lost to calendar reform in 1752, and one compensatory leap-day.

R is for Rapture, the Pumpkinification of the Saved. Enterprising poste restantes in the US take letters passing on PIN numbers &c. to avoid a 7-year probate in the absence of a body, which will be pipped at the post by the end of the world. “The Government of the Antichrist gets your stuff unless you do.” Truly.

S is for Soulgrove, a delicious old Wiltshire word for February. Aubrey writes “The shepherds and vulgar people in South Wilts, call Februarie ‘Sowlegrove’ and have this proverb of it: – viz. ‘Soulgrove sil lew,’ – February is seldom warm – sil pro seld, seldome.”

T is for Tantony (or tantany) the smallest bell in a peal, or piglet in a litter, named for St Antony, the patron saint of domestic animals and skin diseases. Erysipelas was treated by smearing with pig-fat, and so the saint was often portrayed with a pig, leading to this odd association.

U is for St Uncumber, a pious if imaginary lady who, wishing to avoid an arranged marriage, prayed that God would make her unattractive. Overnight she sprouted a luxuriant beard, which did the trick, but papa was not amused and crucified her. Let that be a warning to beard-wearers.

V is for Vomp, the slime that coats an eel, perhaps an old Gloucestershire word, perhaps an acronym for ‘Variously Expressed Outer Membrane Protein.’ Perhaps both. You feel it on your toes, swimming in Lake Bracciano, as the great eels slide by beneath you.

W is for Waterloo-teeth, which filled the mouths of the toothless for a generation after the battle of Waterloo. Large numbers of teeth were harvested from dead bodies on the battlefield for orthodontic recycling.  Said to be much better than their wooden predecessors, and I daresay they were.

X is for Xavier’s toe, bitten off in an excess of enthusiastic hagiophagy by Dona Isabel de Carom when the saint’s body was displayed at the Bom Gesu in Goa, in 1554. She bore it away in her mouth, to her family chapel in Portugal, and it was only returned to Goa after Indian independence.

Y is for yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp – the Cumberland and Westmorland shepherds’ count, used until modern times to count sheep, and embodying fragments of ancient, perhaps Brythonic, language preserved like a cloud of tiny flies in amber.

Z is for Zeppelin, a grand but nasty old object named for a grand but nasty old man. Immortalised in Zeppelina Williams, born during a Zeppelin raid on Little Wigborough in Essex in September 1916, whose 102nd birthday would have been on the 23rd of September 2018: Z-day.


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