More alphabetical excursions

Unable to leave well alone, I found myself compiling a second alphabet this winter. It is much as before, and entirely inconsequential. Anyway, for those who do not entertain Twitter, here is the whole caboodle. Happy Christmas.

A is for Amicable numbers, pairs of numbers magically related, each the sum of the other’s divisors. The first pair, 220/284 was used as a love charm. Arab mathematicians once recommended carving them on two fruits as a mutual aphrodisiac. The next pair is 17296/14416. Bananas?

B is for Balcony: Anthony Wood says, “Archbishop Spalato was the first that made a balconney in England, being on the backside of the Savoy,” ca. 1620. Stress was on 2nd syllable, “balcOny,” till 20th century. Jack Aubrey let none on his quarter-deck who said “bAlcony.” HMS Shibboleth.

C is for Cento, a poem made up of lines or passages filched from other poets, originally Virgil. A favourite non-Virgilian cento: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may / And let who will be clever. / God moves in a mysterious way, / But I go on for ever.”

D is for Draisin, a pedal-less, tyre-less, brake-less bicycle invented by Baron Karl von Draisin and shown at the Congress of Vienna: you paddled it with your feet. Tricky on hills. Draisin has bizarrely become a modern brand of recumbent bike. With pedals and tyres – and brakes.

E is for St Expeditus, a 3rd century Roman soldier called Elpidius, re-launched in 1781 when a parcel of bones arrived at a French concent marked “Expédit,” which the nuns took for his name. Patron of haste and quickly settled lawsuits, he is popular in Réunion and New Orléans.

F is for Fistula Club, an institution that proliferated in France when Louis XIV was diagnosed with an anal fistula, and it became a sought-after fashion accessory. 1686 was known as “L’année de la Fistule,” after pioneering remedial surgery on the royal bottom by Dr Felix.

G is for Gamp, from Dickens’s Mr Gamp who always carried a large, unwieldy one: a better name for an English ‘umbrella’ with its absurd suggestion of shade. Ben Jonson describes an umbrella “made of the wing of an Indian butterfly,” which wouldn’t have cut the mustard in London.

H is for Hood-wink, a classy blindfold. “The cheetahs are kept hood winked on a cord and when they get near enough to the deer the hood is taken off and they are slipped at the game,” wrote Lytton Strachey’s grandfather. Freemasons are deliciously hoodwinked with steam-punk goggles for their initiation.

I is for Intinction, or liturgical dunking – dipping the communion bread in the consecrated wine before swallowing. The Orthodox tip all the bread into the chalice with the wine and serve with a silver teaspoon. Intinction is banned in Canada, which seems prim.

J is for Jingling Johnnie, the Ottoman staff festooned with bells, brassware and horses’ tails once twirled in military bands by black jinglers in leopard skins. Dropped by the British army in 1837, it remained a favourite of the French Foreign Legion, where perhaps it jingles still.

K is for Kenspeckle, conspicuous or recognisable, from the Scots – Burns thought his “phiz sae kenspeckle that even the very joiner’s apprentice” knew it. A mixed blessing – and in this age of facial recognition software Google makes kenspeckles of us all.

L is for Lewis Hole, by which a heavy ledger stone is lifted: the Lewis, a Roman gadget, is popped in and its arms spread under tension. Beneath lies what the Dutch call a ‘rijke stinker,’ a rich stinker who bought a grave in the chancel to the olfactory discomfort of worshippers.

M is for Mummy, put to odd uses. In 19th century Egypt, according to Mark Twain, mummies were used for stoking locomotives. Oddly, dried salt fish met the same need in Azerbaijan ca. 1920, and occasionally popped out of the funnel, charred but whole, to be chased by starving Azeris.

N is for the Nun Bun, a cinnamon bun found in Tennessee with an uncanny resemblance to Mother Teresa of Calcutta and kept, shellacked, in a bar in Nashville where it was known irreverently as “the Immaculate Confection.” It was kidnapped on Christmas day 2005 and never returned.

O is for Otter, a fragant defæcator: at Heligan a sign records otters’ occasional “jasmine-scented spraints,” one of many glorious synonyms, from the Questing Beast’s fewmets, the hare’s croteys, and the bear’s lesses to the badger’s feances. Never confuse croteys with croutons.

P is for Pottle, a double quart measure. “A pint is the least measure that hath a peculiar name with us, two of them make a quart, two quarts a pottle, two pottles a gallon.” (Gouldman’s Copious Dictionary, 1674). Bring back the pottle as a consolation for the idiocy of Brexit!

Q is for Quizzing-glass, a magnifier held close to the eye to scrutinize, and to express condescending disdain; distinguished by its handle from the monocle screwed into a vacant fish-eyed socket à la Rees-Mogg, who simply looks like the oyster-eyed Dr Prunesquallor.

R is for Recumbentibus, cod-Latin for the knock-out blow that leaves you involuntarily recumbent. Not to be confused with circumbendibus, the roundabout, scenic route to anywhere. Suspicious coinages: they all sound a bit mumpsimus to me.

S is for Scioptic Ball, a spherical rotating bearing of lignum vitæ set into a socket in a window frame to acrry sunlight inwards, as a small camera obscura, or used as a universal joint into which telescopes and other instruments could be screwed. Every home should have one.

T is for Tattoo, vulgar ornament of today’s epidermis. Not, though, the monopoly of models or footballers: King Edward VII “had quite a few tattoos, many of them done by Sutherland Macdonald, a legendary tattoo artist with a shop above the Turkish baths at 76 Jermyn Street.”

U is for Ullage, the semi-magical loss of beer from a barrel(speciality of my scout at Magdalen in the 70s); leading me on to ‘Bezzle,’ J K Galbraith’s wonderful term for the amount of money likewise syphoned off in transit or (as they say) in transaction.

V is for the Vein of Love, supposedly connecting the fourth finger of the left hand directly with the heart, and accounting for the wearing of the wedding ring. First mentioned by Dr Swinburne in a 1868 law book, citing ancient Egyptian wisdom – which miraculously pre-dated William Harvey.

W is for Whiffler-Waffler, a minor but important functionary who headed a procession waggling and tossing a staff or sword in intricate patterns to clear the way, like a drum-major, or the flag-bearer of a Sienese contrada. Not much call for whiffler-wafflers these days, sadly.

X is for Xenophage, an eater of strange things like Dr William Buckland, Dean of Westminster and founder of the Acclimatisation Society (to tap new and unlikely food sources), who enjoyed mouse-on-toast, and gobbled down the mummified heart of Louis XIV, at dinner with its owner, Lord Harcourt.

Y is for Yellowcake, the mix of uranium oxides which George W Bush mendaciously alleged Saddam Hussein to be importing from Niger for making nuclear bombs: a manufactured ‘cakus belli,’ and about as honest as saying that this splendid chocolate cake contains uranium oxide.

Z is for Zalmusa, an enormous fish with 70 heads and 70 tails, said like a certain turtle to support the world on his back. On the night the Prophet Muhammad was born, Zalmusa shook so uncontrollably with joy, convulsing the oceans, that the world nearly fell over.


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