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.

Change The Record – Part Four


First vinyl

When conversation in the pub or restaurant wanes, it is always good to have a stock question up your sleeve which will revive the convivial banter. One that almost never fails is what was the first single or album or book – you get the drift – that you ever bought. The answers are often amusing, embarrassing and revealing and often the person that you thought had the coolest and most impeccable musical taste turns out to have started off with a real turkey.

My first album was a Monkees album. There is nothing much that can be said in self-defence other than I was young and impressionable. In those days the Light and Home Services from the Beeb ruled the airwaves and what popular music was played was heavily controlled. The more adventurous of us tried to tune in the cat’s whiskers to find Radio Luxembourg and pirate radio stations. The signal was by no means crystal clear, waxing and waning with monotonous regularity, but was good enough to engender a frisson of excitement and rebelliousness.  Doubtless the Monkees were plugged mercilessly on these stations and I fell hook and sinker for them.

But an early record I am proud of is Airconditioning by Curved Air which was released in late 1970. Curved Air are pretty much forgotten these days but this album was ahead of its time and a pretty astonishing debut, coming almost from nowhere. The key components of the group were the guitar of Francis Monkman and the violin of Darryl Way. Sonja Kristina provided the vocals and the improbably named Florian Pilkington-Miksa played the drums.

It was with some trepidation that I took the album which is firmly in the prog-rock camp and put it on the turntable to give it its first listen in over thirty years. And, I’m pleased to say, it stood the test of time. What I was astonished by was the quality of Monkman’s guitar work. Whenever I had thought of Curved Air it was always the violin and the quality of Kristina’s voice that came to mind but on my first re-listen it was the guitar work I was intrigued by with its continual weaving in and out of the other instrument lines. The solo on Hide and Seek is astonishing and Monkman was clearly one of the unsung guitar heroes of the time.

For me the most pleasing track was Stretch where the violins take centre stage, providing a solid soundscape against which to appreciate the almost manic guitar work of Monkman. A truly astonishing track. And then there is Vivaldi which represents the pomposity that we now associate with prog-rock, a bravura piece with manic violin work building up to a crescendo with cannons (natch) which then settles down into a calmer section which explores some of the ideas at more leisure before finishing with a frenetic climax.


I have amalgamated TOWT’s collection with my own and there are surprisingly few doubles but we both had Curved Air’s second album, imaginatively called Second Album, with its pale yellow sleeve with top left quadrant showing the purple, light blue, light green and pink pages of the inner sleeve as if they were a rainbow. In comparison with their debut album this is disappointing, being more of a mainstream rock affair. The first side features compositions by Way and the second by Monkman, perhaps a portent that the band’s days were numbered and that the main creative forces were going to go their separate ways. Better, though, to create one masterpiece than none at all.

Perhaps I will forget the Monkees and claim Curved Air as my first album. No one will know any different, will they?!

A New Day Yesterday – Part Twelve


Observant readers will have noticed that my ramblings about gin which used to appear under this title now have their own billing and this series is left to consider the transition from pre-tirement to retirement and work-related issues.

The moment it really dawned on me that I was retiring was when I handed in my corporate credit card and my Blackberry. No greater sacrifice is man called to make! In some ways the two represent the yin and yang of modern corporate life. The credit card opens up a world of restaurants that you wouldn’t have dreamt of going to under your own steam – although, alas, the riotous lunches of the last century are a thing of the past – but the quid pro quo is your enslavement to the wretched pocket-sized messenger.

The theory behind the blackberry was laudable. It meant that you could work on the hoof, even from your restaurant table. The practice, though, was a little different. The major drawback of the blackberry was that without looking at it you couldn’t tell whether the latest communication was a genuine emergency which warranted your immediate attention or it was just a piece of quasi-spam in which a colleague thought they should share you their opinion on a subject which had minimal impact on your role.

And there is no doubt that it was addictive. For those of us who liked to keep vaguely on top of their e-mails there was the question of what to do when you received e-mails, as you invariably did, when you were crashed out on the sofa in front of the TV. Why we thought that our hasty, ill thought out pensees typed on the machine at midnight would have any more value than a more considered response composed when you had got into the office the next day is one of life’s many mysteries. Speed of response, I suppose, was king.

And then there was the holiday question. Do you take the thing on your hols? I did but my rule was only to switch it on for a few minutes when I had got up and was waiting for TOWT to rise and for a few minutes in the early evening when she was getting ready for dinner. The problem was that if you started responding to e-mails, all that did was unleash a flurry of new e-mails – a never-ending vicious circle. But there was something psychologically comforting to know what was going on in your absence and, I think, that knowledge made me more relaxed.

The perceived need to be in contact and on top of things is the curse of the modern office environment. It is no surprise to me that a survey conducted by the Chartered Management Institute of 1,500 managers found that 80% claimed to work an extra hour a day on their mobile devices and as many as 1 in 10 worked around 3 hours a day. The result – increased stress, inability to switch off and, ultimately, lower productivity. If the survey is to be believed modern managers are working the equivalent of their annual leave in using their communication devices out of office hours.

No, it grieved me not one bit to hand the wretched device in.