All Change – Part Seven


Today, if we use the word garble it conveys the sense that something has been mixed up. He garbled his words such that the meaning of what he was saying was unintelligible to the listener. The word’s origin is probably Arabic, from the verb gharbal which was in common use around the first millennium and meant to sift or separate. It was typically used in connection with spices and dyestuffs. In late mediaeval Europe spices were imported from the Arabic-speaking eastern Mediterranean and invariably contained natural chaff residuals and some unnatural additions.

So the produce had to be sifted before it could be sold on, causing the verb garbele to enter the English language – the first recorded usage of which dates to 1393. The Italian verb, gherbellare, first used in 1321 and meaning to sift drugs and spices, shares the same origin. And garble continued to be used in the context of sifting until the 19th century until for some unaccountable reason its meaning was turned on its head.

From time to time many of us are guilty of using an expletive or two. Its modern meaning is associated with a swear word or some form of blasphemy which we use to show our displeasure or to spice up our language. The first recorded usage of expletive is attributed to Sir Walter Scott who wrote in Guy Mannering, published in 1815, “We omit here various execrations with which these honest gentlemen garnished their discourse, retaining only such of their expletives as are least offensive”.

But its original usage from around 1610 was to signify a word or phrase used to pad out a sentence or a metrical line, from the middle French expletive which, in turn, was derived from the Latin expletivus. So you can easily see how its sense moved from the general to the specific. Other than vigour and colour a swear word does not add anything to the sense of the sentence; it is merely padding.

Furniture is one of those portmanteau words which is used to describe a variety of similar objects, chairs, cupboards and tables. In the 16th century it was used adjectivally to describe large quantities as in this usage in a translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry of 1570, “great increase and furniture of knowledge”. The word comes from the Middle French fourniture which meant the act of furnishing. Perhaps the transition to meaning a collection of tables and chairs was simply picking up on the concepts of quantity and supply in the original word. We cannot be sure but, interestingly, English is the only language to use words derived from fourniture to describe furniture. In other languages the descriptor for furniture is derived from the Latin mobilis – for example, the French meuble.

Going back to work after all those New Year furniture sales may be welcome but you will probably find that you walk into a backlog. This word is used to describe a build-up of work or, more particularly, of unfulfilled orders. But this is a meaning it has had only since 1932 – was that the year that customer care became the vogue or was it the year that inefficiency first made an appearance? But the word’s origins were much more prosaic – it was used, principally in America and Canada, in the late 17th century to describe the largest log on a fire which was always put to the back. By the 1880s it was used figuratively to depict something stored for later use, just as the back log was the last to burn.

Toilets Of The Week


With advancing age comes an increasing need to use the toilet. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one built for your personal convenience?

Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, a Thai princess, was visiting Yeak Lom Lake in north-east Cambodia and her dutiful hosts built her a karsey at a reputed cost of $40,000 – and very nice it looks too – in case she needed to powder her royal nose. She didn’t but did take a photo of it, apparently. So that’s alright then.

In India they do things differently. When we felt the need to relieve ourselves in public facilities, fortunately not very often, our guide would anxiously enquire whether they were American or Slumdog Millionaire. But many follow the example of the northern descendants of the Raj by having a wazz in the street. In Hyderabad the traffic police have initiated a campaign where they swoop on people spotted urinating in the street and hand them a garland of flowers, a badge of shame equivalent to being surrounded by purple dye in a public swimming baths.

Many have been supportive of the initiative but some have grumbled that the money would have been better spent on building bogs than on flowers. Try telling that to the Cambodians.

Murder Of The Week


The rural calm that is to be found in Sandon in Hertfordshire has been shattered, I learned this week, by a murder most fowl.

A gander, which had been adopted as a symbol of the village and taken up residence in a disused telephone box for close on a decade, was shot dead whilst bobbing along on the pond on Sunday afternoon. He was killed by a shot, probably from an air rifle, which penetrated his skull close to his left eye.

The gander, known to the locals as Goose, was buried near the pond and, as is the modern way, flowers and cards from well-wishers have been left in the phone box.

The hunt is on for the killer.

And by way of an update of last week’s Court Cases Of The Week the Sledden brothers had their sentence changed to two years in chokey.

What Is The Origin Of (84)?…


Rack your brains

These days I find that I am talking about something, or more usually, someone and I find it increasingly difficult to recall their name. And then suddenly, often when we have moved on to another subject, it will come to me like a flash. Of, course what I have been doing is delving into the darker corners of what is left of my grey cells or to put it another way I have been racking my brains, applying strain on my brain to find the answer.

The rack was an instrument used in days of yore to torture individuals. It consisted of a rectangular, usually wooden frame, with a roller at one or both ends. The victim would be strapped on to the rack with their ankles toed to one roller and their wrists to the other. The handle at the top of the rack would be turned as the interrogation progressed, putting the victim’s limbs under increasing pressure. Unless they confessed, the process would continue until limbs were dislocated or worse.

You can imagine that the prospect of a visit to the rack would strike fear into the minds of the populace and that the term rack might become assimilated into the language to convey the sense of pain or anguish. Shakespeare in Twelfth Night (1602) used it as a verb in this context, “how have the hours rack’d and tortur’d me, since I have lost thee?” Half a century earlier, racking as a participle was used to convey the sense of increasing something or putting something under increasing pressure, “they may not racke and stretche oute the rentes of their houses”,

The composer William Byrd associated racking with one’s wits in 1583, “racke not thy wits to winne by wicked waies” and a century later William Beveridge in his Sermons, published in the 1680s, specifically used the phrase with which we are now familiar, “They rack their brains…they hazard their lives for it”.

We use the phrase rack and ruin to signify the complete destruction or collapse of something and it is tempting to think that the rack in this phrase also owes its origin to the mediaeval instrument of torture. But that is not the case. Its etymological root is the Middle English noun wrac which morphed into the verb with which we are more familiar, to wreck.

One Ephraim Udall used the phrase to wrecke in the context of something going to rack and ruin in 1548, as follows, “the flocke goeth to wrecke and utterly perisheth”. A phrase more analogous to our modern variant appeared in Henry Bull’s 1577 translation of Luther’s commentary onn the 15 psalms, “whiles all things seeme to fall to wracke and ruin”. Only a couple of decades later our phrase made an appearance in Thomas Fowler’s History of Corpus Christi college, “in the mean season the College shall goe to rack and ruin”.

Interestingly, whilst the presence of ruin in the phrase may seem tautologous in the context it is there to add emphasis.

So now we know!

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Twenty


The Spitalfields Mathematical Society

Until the Education Act of 1870 brought in compulsory education, at least for children aged between five and ten, the availability of formalised education was somewhat hit and miss and was decided by the wealth (or otherwise) of the parents, the cost of learning compared with the earning potential of the child and the child’s sex. For those who had missed such rudimentary schooling as there was or came to realise that in order to progress in their chosen career they needed some mathematical skills, there were a number of clubs or societies around which could assist.

One such was the Spitalfields Mathematical Society which was founded by Joseph Middleton in 1717 to teach sailors the mathematical skills needed to assist navigation. Its initial meeting place was a pub called the Monmouth’s Head, but over the years it moved around – perhaps a test of its students’ navigational skills – but always staying in Spitalfields.

Membership was restricted to the square of eight but by 1735 numbers were clearly declining as the maximum number of members was reduced to the square of seven. As was to be expected, members were from the working classes,, a contemporary report of 1744 noting that “about half were weavers, ,and the rest were typically brewers, braziers, bakers, bricklayers”. Meetings were held on Saturday evenings between 7 and 10 o’clock and members paid a fee of four pennies a session. The middle of the three hours at the club was to be spent in silence solving mathematical problems.

The society was no barrel of laughs and instituted a fine system ranging from a penny if they failed to do the mathematical exercise to two pennies if they failed to answer a mathematical problem posed by another member to a shilling “if any member break silence … or curse, swear, game, or lay wager, during the hours of the meeting”.  A whopping fine of two shillings and sixpence would be levied for “behaving riotously or using abusive language”.

By 1793 the Society had moved into permanent rooms in Crispin Street where it was able to build up a library consisting of some 3,000 volumes. In 1798 it launched a series of public lectures, a publicly spirited move which, surprisingly, led the club into some difficulties. Informers snitched on them for taking money for an unlicensed entertainment, namely a philosophy lecture. The Society had its day in court, raised money to pay for its legal expenses and won its case. But the impact was detrimental to the Society’s financial health as a minute laments, “produce of the lectures delivered in 1799 – 1800 had been very materially diminished by the effect of the information lodged against several of the members by the Gang of Informers who have occasioned so much trouble and expense to the Society during the past year”.

In 1804 the maximum membership was raised to the square of nine and a president, secretary, treasurer and six trustees were elected. The heights that the Society were to reach in the first two decades of the 19th century were its acme of achievement. By 1825, though, the Society reported in its minutes, “great difficulty was found in procuring members to give lectures” and the first trading loss was reported.

By 1845 there were just 19 members and the Society’s committee wrote to the Royal Astronomical Society informing them of their intention to dissolve the club. Magnanimously the Astronomers offered life membership to the remaining members if the Society transferred the mathematical, astronomical and philosophical portions of their library to them.

The Society agreed and closed down in the early summer of 1845.