What Is The Origin Of (261)?…

According to Cocker

It is rare in my etymological researches to be have nailed the origin of a phrase but I am pretty confident I have done so with this phrase I stumbled upon when reading one of R Austin Freeman’s Thorndyke detective stories, Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke from 1931. It means something that is done properly and in accordance with established rules and methodologies. But who was Cocker?

Edward Cocker, that’s who, who lived between 1631-75.,His Cocker’s Arithmetick, published posthumously in 1677, was to become the bane of the lives of many a schoolboy (and the odd lass) for centuries to come. So successful was the book to become that there were 112 editions of it, reaching its 20th edition by 1700 and its 52nd edition in 1748. Freeman would almost certainly have sampled its delights as a boy.

The delicious irony, of course, is that Cocker, although a master at a grammar school in Southwark, was better known for his penmanship and his mastery of the art of engraving in his time rather than his mathematical prowess. He appears several times in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, particularly as the only man the diarist knows who has the skill to engrave some tables on his new slide rule. On August 10, 1664 the diarist noted, “so I find out Cocker, the famous writing-master…well pleased with his company and better with his judgement upon my Rule, I left him and home”.   

We can only deduce that Crocker perfected his skills in drumming mathematical techniques into the unwilling skulls of his pupils whilst teaching. Part of his Arithmetick phenomenal success was due to the extremely practical approach to teaching the subject, concentrating specifically on the techniques and skills that tradespeople, builders and the like would need to go about their daily lives. The playwright, Arthur Murphy, gave it an early namecheck in The Apprentice in 1756 in this exchange between a despairing father, Wingate, and his reckless son, Dick; “Wingate: Let me see no more Play-Books. Dick: Cocker’s Arithmetick, Sir? Wingate: Ay, Cocker’s Arithmetick – study Figures, and they’ll carry you through the World”.  

Well-meaning men would give a copy of the book to children. Samuel Johnson, whilst visiting the Isle of Skye in September 1773, recorded in a letter that a little girl he had met “engaged me so much that I made her a present of Cocker’s Arithmetick”. Her reaction to this gift is unrecorded. And James Boswell recorded in his Life of Samuel Johnson that the great man, when asked why he travelled with a copy of Cocker’s, pontificated thus; “when you have read through a book of entertainment, you know it, and it can do no more for you; but a book of science is inexhaustible”.      

Inevitably, Cocker’s name, and by inference his methodology, became the yardstick of mathematical accuracy. The Town and Country Magazine of March 1785, reporting on a failed attempt to raise the stakes in a card game, noted that “she never played for above sixpences, and added, that her husband had calculated, according to Cocker, that an alderman might be ruined in a month, if his wife cut in for shillings”.  

It was also used in newspaper articles to confirm the veracity of a calculation. The Morning Post on October 25, 1816 reported that “the Dividend payable at the Bank upon 23l. 8s. is (according to Cocker) 23s. 22d. per annum”. By the time of Tom Brown at Oxford, written by Thomas Hughes and published in 1861, it had become a general bit of slang, used to denote what should happen; “According to Cocker. Who is Cocker? Oh, I don’t know; some old fellow who wrote the rules of arithmetic, I believe; it’s only a bit of slang”. In the negative, as Freeman used it, it meant something was not quite right; “there was no sign of the driver, and no one minding the horse; and as this was not quite according to Cocker, it naturally attracted his attention”.

The phrase has almost disappeared from sight these days. Now that can’t be according to Cocker.

Gin O’Clock – Part Eighty Seven

There are more than enough gins produced in this country, thanks to the ginaissance, to be going on without having to consider ones produced from farther afield. But I’m not one to shut my eyes to what is on offer globally, particularly if it fits my taste requirements almost to a tee. It doesn’t do to be a little Englander.

Always one willing to judge a book by its cover, my eye was immediately drawn to the wonderfully elegant bottle housing Puerto de Indias Pure Black Edition Gin. It is tall and black, using brass embossing to fine effect at the front, representing the Tower of Gold, one of the symbols of the city of Seville and around which its trading activities were concentrated. The glass at the rear and below the bottom section of the bottle are embossed within the glass itself. It is stunningly simple in design but highly effective and, if nothing else, is a welcome aesthetic addition to my gin shelf. The labelling is disappointingly uninformative, save for that it is “Sevillian Premium Gin”.  

The name of Puerto de Indias takes as its reference Seville’s monopoly status in trading relationships between Spain and its territories in the Americas, the gateway through which gold, other valuable minerals, and unusual fruits and vegetables came into Spain and the rest of Europe. The distillery is located in Carmona and is one of the oldest and most traditional distilleries in Andalusia.

There are, currently, three gins on the market under the Puerto de Indias brand, which was launched in the latter months of 2013; the Black Edition, which we will go into more detail in a minute, a strawberry-flavoured gin and the Classic, which, at an ABV of 37.5%, promises a more traditional flavour, whatever that may mean. The Black Edition, the latest of their gins, was launched in March 2016.         

It takes as its inspiration, so says the inevitable marketing blurb that seems to go hand-in-glove with gins these days, springtime in Andalusia. So, we are warned to expect the gentle aromas of orange blossom and citrus, mingled with strains of jasmine and vanilla. It is supposed to conjure up a picture of the province at that time of year. However, we are advised, it is not a flavoured gin and is aimed to appeal to the serious gin and tonic lover. I tend to take this sort of drivel with a sip of gin.

Astonishingly, they were not wrong. Quite simply, this is one of the finest gins I have ever tasted and has bulldozed its way into my favourite handful of gins I have tasted. It is one to be savoured and kept for those special occasions when you want to rise above the humdrum.

Removing the screwcap, a cork stopper would have really finished this product off, my nostrils were greeted by the reassuring smell of pine, courtesy of the juniper, and jasmine but there was also a distinctly floral overtone. None were so overpowering as to hinder the others from getting a look in. In the glass the spirit was crystal clear and in the mouth was a perfectly balanced mix of spiciness, floral notes and citrus from the region’s oranges and lemons. It made for a very smooth drink with enough astringency in the aftertaste to remind you that you were drinking not only a gin but a high-class gin.

It shows that you do not have to have to go too far off the piste in terms of botanicals to produce a distinctive and thoroughly enjoyable gin. Often less is more and simplicity is to be preferred over unnecessary complexity. I’m sold.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – December 2019 (2)

While She Sleeps – Ethel Lina White

I am a fan of Ethel Lina’s White’s work but even her most fervent advocate would be hard pushed to convince me that this novel, published in 1940, is one of her finest. That said, it has some interesting features and makes for an engaging and entertaining read. Instead of an atmospheric thriller which is her normal fare it struck me as light-hearted in tone and a parody of some of the excesses of the gothic genre.

The protagonist is the rather self-satisfied Miss Loveapple who prides herself on her good luck and the fact that she owns three properties in the south of England, including one in Madeira Crescent in London. The book’s opening sets the scene and informs the reader that she is likely to be murdered. “Miss Loveapple awoke with a smile. She had slept well; her digestion was good – her conscience clear; and she had not an enemy in the world. There was nothing to warn her that, within the next hour she would be selected as a victim to be murdered”. The tension in the book is whether she survives with her life intact.

It is Loveapple’s decision to let her London house out, she is obsessively careful with her pennies, leads to her receiving visits from three men all wearing gloves, her paranoid maid, Elsie, had warned her about men wearing gloves, and being selected as the victim of a murder which a minor criminal, nicknamed Ace, intends to use to frame his arch-rival. She goes to Switzerland on holiday and makes elaborate plans to return to Madeira Place on the evening of September 13th, the date set for her murder.

During the course of her adventures Loveapple encounters a motley crew of eccentric characters, not all of whom have her best interests at heart. A shady couple, who have been tracking her since she left Victoria station, mistake her for a Lady’s maid and think she is carrying her ladyship’s jewels plan to rob her. They make several attempts to effect the jewel snatch and there are moments of comedy as circumstances thwart them more often than not. Every decision that Loveapple takes during the ill-fated holiday either takes her closer to her intended fate or thwarts her conspirators.

The plot, such as it, depends on a series of coincidences or chance turns of events. Although not an engaging character, the reader is taken along with it all by the power of Lina White’s writing and descriptive talents, she is at her best when skewering the Brits’ social mores and behaviour when abroad and describing the stunning scenery in the Swiss Alps, and even the most jaundiced of her readers could not help wondering whether Loveapple would make it alive at the end of the story. I will not spoil your anticipation.

A curious feature of the book is that the London elements of the story, it is there where the real danger to Loveapple’s well-being are, only surface intermittently as the story progresses. It almost becomes a sub-plot as Lina White enjoys herself satirising the English en vacances. This makes the book somewhat unbalanced, in my opinion, and makes for a vaguely unsatisfactory ending.      

An enjoyable enough read , to be sure, but if you were thinking of exploring Lina White’s work, this is not the one to start with.

Eco-friendly Christmas Decoration Of The Week

I’ve been away for three weeks and in that time my neighbours have installed their external Christmas decorations. They seem to get earlier each year. At a time when we are urged to consider our global footprint, it seems rather counter-intuitive to waste so much juice on these extravagant displays.

Perhaps they should take a leaf out of the book of the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. If you have an electric eel swimming aimlessly around in the aquarium, why not put the energy it generates to some use.

Somewhat ingeniously, Joey Turnipseed, the Aquarium’s audio-visual production specialist, has attached sensors to the tank in which their electric eel, who goes by the name of Miguel Wattson, swims in. They harness its natural electrical discharge to a set of speakers which then use the charge to power a selection of Yuletide ditties and power the flashing set of Christmas lights.

The only draw back is that when the creature is foraging for food, it only emits around 10 volts of electricity and so the lights are somewhat dim. However, there can be a power surge when the eel wants to stun its prey by unleashing 800 volts of electricity.

Still, they are doing their bit for the planet, so more power to their elbow.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty One

The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals

Perhaps it is because I am not a pet owner but I am constantly astonished by how much the British spend on pets. The Pet Food Manufacturing Association claim, and they should know if anyone does, that there are nine million dogs and 8 million cats in the country and Mintel calculated in 2015 that we spend an astonishing £18 billion on our four-footed friends. Even more baffling to me is that, according to Groomarts, British cat and dog owners spend almost £200 a year on clothes for their pets and that 22% of the respondents to their survey admitted to spending up to £20 a month on outfits. And there was me thinking that nature had provided them with a perfectly adequate means of protecting them and keeping them warm, their fur.

It is undeniable, though, that when you are out in the countryside with your family, you may see animals being animals and for those of a sensitive or prudish disposition, being confronted by a priapic bull in flagrante delicto is a bit of a shock and takes some explaining to the children. Wouldn’t it be great if animals were required clothing to hide their private parts and avoid upsetting those of us of a gentle disposition?

That was the idea behind The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), rather inaptly named as what they were trying to do was to stamp out what they perceived to be the affront to common decency of animals going around as nature intended them. Their mission was to clothe all animals standing over four inches tall and over six inches long. The organisation developed a number of catchy slogans, including “A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse”.

In 1959 articles began to appear in the press about their aims and objectives and they seemed to have struck a chord with the nation. SINA’s President, one G. Clifford Prout, claimed that they already had 50,000 members and were receiving around 400 new applications to join a week. It didn’t cost anything to join, all you had to do was to promise to out neighbours who insisted in parading their animals unclothed.

Prout began to appear on TV, wowing audiences by demonstrating a range of Bermuda shorts for horses, slips for cows and trousers for kangaroos. Stunts were organised including street parades to get the general public used to the idea of animals wearing clothing and bundles of clothes were airdropped into fields so that farmers could slip them on to their herds. Demonstrators even picketed the White House, exhorting the then First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, to clothe her horses.

SINA seemed to have hit the jackpot when Prout was invited to appear on the influential Walter Kronkite television news programme on CBS on August 21, 1962. It proved to be SINA’s equivalent of Icarus flying too close to the son because some of the studio crew recognised Prout as the comedian, Buck Henry. Although the interview went out on air, it soon transpired that SINA was nothing more than a giant hoax. Kronkite was reportedly furious that he had been conned. Time magazine ran an exposé of the hoax in 1963.

The brains behind the hoax was serial hoaxer, Alan Abel, who played the role of the organisation’s executive vice=president, Bruce Spencer. Henry was Abel’s able accomplice, willing to front the operation. Abel claimed to have got the idea after driving past a couple of cows mating and wondered how far such a ludicrous idea, which would appeal to the American moral brigade, would run.

Quite some way, it would appear. Astonishingly, he was able to keep the hoax running for a few more years via a newsletter sent to those who were oblivious to the fall-out from the Kronkite show or the detailed expose in Timemagazine.   

Quite what he would have thought of the current trend to clothe pets is anybody’s guess but I’m sure he would have had a chuckle.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


What Is The Origin Of (260)?…


There is a lot that is mysterious and intriguing about the phrase cloak-and-dagger and that is appropriate as it denotes the sense of subterfuge, deceit and acting underhand. The first point of controversy is whether it should be hyphenated. The grammarians amongst us would contend that it should as it is used adjectivally in front of a noun. Alas, modern usage and the wilful disregard for the grammatical niceties of our wonderful language means that it is often seen without hyphens.

The second area of controversy is where it came from. Some authorities point to similar expressions, de cape et d’épée, in French, and de capa y espada, in Spanish, which described a form of drama, popular in the 18th century, featuring characters who, unsurprisingly, wore cloaks draped around the arm to act as an impromptu shield and a sword with which to fight. It may have drawn its inspiration from a fencing move called Rapier and Cloak, described in Alfred Hutton’s Old Sword-Play: The Systems of France in vogue during the XVIth, XVIIth, and XVIIIth centuries, published in 1892.   

That the name of this dramatic art form made its way into the English language when Henry Vassall-Fox wrote his Some Account of the Life and Writings of Lope Felix de Vega Carpio in 1806, as Carpio was a pre-eminent playwright. Interestingly, though, Vassall-Fox wrote, “the plays…acquired the name of Comedias de Capa y Espada, Comedies of the Cloak and Sword, from the dresses in which they were represented”. Note that it was a sword, not a dagger, a small point, perhaps, but one that casts a scintilla of doubt as to whether it is the origin of our phrase.

Cloaks and daggers can be found in use in English print in the 18th century without any direct reference to continental drama. In a letter printed in an edition of The Derby Mercury from July 1769 entitled A Speech of a Nobel Earl to a Great Personage, the correspondent gave a dire warning about attempts to dissolve the Union of Great Britain, which, in these troubled times, we would do well to heed; “and those that endeavour to dissolve it, carry a dagger under the cloak of patriotism, to stab their country in the heart”. The sense of this figurative usage is clear; cloaks and daggers denote underhandedness and menace.

Cloaks and daggers were used in a figurative sense in The Examiner on May 26th of the same year, when it ruminated over the judgment in a court case, fulminating that, “Sir Vicary Gibbs will insist that you do it as a blind, as a cheat for the unwary, a cloak for some dagger that you are carrying about you”. A similar usage is to be found in the Morning Post of September 1836; “carrying a dagger against the Church, under the capacious cloak of economy”.

It was not until the early 19th century that cloaks and daggers were associated here with a form of melodramatic play. Bell’s Weekly Messenger of February 3, 1811 reviewed a play in which one of the protagonists, an assassin by the name of Montalvi, “drops his cloak, mask and dagger”. Charles Dickens clearly had this cliched stage device in mind when he wrote, in Barnaby Rudge, from 1841, “it was given to him by a person then waiting at the door, the man replied. With a cloak and dagger? Said Mr Chester. With nothing more threatening about him, it appeared, than a leather apron and a dirty face”. With Dickens’ imprimatur, the phrase took off.

It is difficult to know what to make of all of this. My sense is that cloaks and daggers were well established as a description of a form of menace before their usage as a stage device in Britain. However, it was probably Charles Dickens’ use of the phrase that firmly established it in popular speech.

But I may be wrong and that is the beauty of attempting to trace the origin of phrases.

Gin O’Clock – Part Eighty Six

The power of the ginaissance is such that distillers have to be imaginative to ensure that their product muscles its way into the consciousness of gin lovers. One way is to do it by the design of your bottle, another is to have a good back story for the gin and a third is to have an unusual flavour combination. Perhaps master distiller, Meindert Kampen, is being greedy because he seems to have ticked all three boxes with his Black Tomato Gin.

The gin is distilled at the Kampen Distillery in Zeeland in the Netherlands and comes in a rather dumpy 50cl bottle with a black matt finish and a dark red, almost maroon cap, suggestive of a black tomato, and an artificial cork stopper. It is certainly distinctive in size and colour. There is a dark red label at the front with a picture of a black tomato. The words “Dutch, quality, premium, gin” are embossed on the shoulder of the bottle and the label at the back raves about the qualities of these tomatoes; “full of nuances of merlot, salt, and citrus, with robust, tangy firmness. Dark fruits with rich, sweet, dynamic flavour and a smoky note”. There is no mention of any other flavours or botanicals, it is all about the black tomato. The rear label did inform me that mine was bottle number 2,377 from Batch 24.   

Black tomatoes are not everybody’s cup of tea but aficionados claim that they are the best tasting of all, turning a bluey-black on ripening and with deep, blood red flesh inside. They are also stacked full of anthocyanin, the same antioxidant you find in the likes of blueberries and blackberries. It may not come as a surprise to you that this is the gin, at least so far, that uses this fruit as one of its main ingredients. The tomatoes that go into this gin are grown in Sicily where the combination of salty groundwater and sun produces especially flavoursome fruits.

Once the ripened tomatoes, grown organically (natch) are picked from the bushes they are crushed and mixed with a neutral spirit, the resulting liquid then filtered and distilled. The two other botanicals in the mix, juniper, of course, and an unnamed secret botanical, it is annoying when this happens, are each distilled separately and then three separate distillations are mixed and purified salt water, from the Oosterschelde which the distillery overlooks, added. Grain alcohol is then introduced and the hooch is finally reduced to its fighting ABV of 42.3%.

So, what is it like?

I think it is fair to say that it is not for everyone’s taste. On removing the stopper, there seems to be little in the way of subtlety about the aroma. It is overpoweringly one of tomato, strong and fruity, with juniper and whatever the secret ingredient is barely getting a look in. Surprises continue when the spirit is poured into a glass. It is a light brown in colour. In the mouth, when drunk neat, there is an initial sensation of salt but that is soon overwhelmed by the tomato. It is not clear what the juniper is doing as the taste is predominantly one of a fruit juice rather than the more peppery taste one normally associates with a gin.

Pouring in a tonic, I expected that the gin would settle down and the other flavours would surface, if only briefly. Far from it, though, the tonic seemed simply to give the tomato a fresh lease of life. The aftertaste is sweet and tomatoey. It wasn’t an unpleasant drink, in fact the sweetness makes it quite a refreshing drink, notwithstanding the presence of salt, but it was just not what I would have expected of a gin and would probably make an interesting base for an adventurous sort of cocktail.

Several glasses have convinced me that is worth persevering with but if you are thinking of indulging, be certain that you like tomatoes. It is certainly as far left field on the taste spectrum that I would care to venture.

Until the next time, cheers!