Tag Archives: Hudibras


Words come into fashion and fade into obscurity all the time in our wonderful language, some shining in the firmament longer than others. While its ability to absorb like a sponge and to loosen its grammatical structure are strengths of the language, English as she is spoken now has lost of its richness and inventiveness. Take invectives. We all use a few choice words from time to time, with the emphasis on few, but our vocabulary is not as rich or as inventive as it once was.

I came across slubberdegullion when I was searching through Samuel Butler’s 17th century mock-heroic satire on Puritanism, Hudibras. He wrote ”Quoth she, though thou has’t deserved/ base slubberdegullion, to be serv’d/ as thou did’st vow to deal with me/ if thou had’st got the victory”. Dr Samuel Johnson included it in his dictionary, defining it as a noun to describe “a paltry, dirty, sorry wretch”. The great doctor could not hazrd a guess as to its origin, placing it as an example of the rich argot of the canting classes.

It appeared in an alternative spelling, slabberdegullion, in Sir Thomas Urquhart’s 1653 translation of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. Some etymologists think that slubber may owe its origins to the Dutch and Low German verb, slubbern, which meant to gobble. Its similarity to the English slobber is almost too close to resist. As for the second part of the word, it is anybody’s guess. Some think that it might be derived from cullion which meant testicle and shares the same root as the French couillon and the Spanish cojones. Alternatively, it may just come from the Scots dialect word gullion which means a quagmire or pool of mud.

Wherever it came from, it was never widely used and now is languishing in obscurity. It is a shame as it is a colourful way to describe a slovenly person.

How Does Bubbly Get Its Bubbles?

Wines from the Champagne region were still but susceptible to variations in temperature and the cold winters would stop the fermentation process, leaving some residual sugar and yeast in the wine. Bottling at this point meant that any rise in temperature would cause the fermentation process to start again, producing carbon dioxide and a build-up of pressure in the bottle.

Stoppers would fly off or bottles explode, the shards of glass often hitting other bottles and causing a chain reaction of exploding bottles and the occasional injury to the unwary vintner. Not for nothing did the French call this wine vin du diable, the devil’s wine, or saute-bouchon, jumping cap. Gassy, bubbly wine was seen as a grave imperfection and much effort was expended to eliminate this dangerous side-effect of the fermentation process.

Once the Champagne wine had arrived in England and the temperature had risen, it too became fizzy when opened, producing those distinctive bubbles that we now come to associate with the drink. However, by this time the English had made great strides in improving wine storage technology.

The innovations of Sir Kenelm Digby and the use of coal-fired ovens produced glass which proved to be stronger and more durable than the wood-fired French glass, providing wine bottles capable of storing wines under high internal pressure. The almost contemporaneous introduction of cork as a means of capping a bottle resulted in a tighter and more secure fit.

For the English, these innovations meant that spontaneously popping wine corks and exploding bottles were less of problem. Indeed, the bubbles released when opening the wines, far from being galling as they were to the French, were seen as a rather pleasing novelty. They rather tickled their fancy, and their noses, you might say.

The phenomenon was so intriguing that the English scientist, Christopher Merret, took a closer look, presenting his findings in a paper to the Royal Society on December 17, 1662 entitled Some Observations concerning the Ordering of Wines. He described how winemakers added sugar and molasses to encourage a secondary fermentation which resulted in a brisk (frothy) and sparkling drink. What Merret was describing later became known as the méthode champenoise. Any wine, he declared, could be made to sparkle if sugar was added prior to bottling.

The taste for “brisk champagne”, as Samuel Butler dubbed it in Hudibras (line 570)) in 1663, grew in popularity and other European courts took up the craze. Clearly, wine merchants, and English at that, were adding sugar, albeit in a rather hit or miss fashion, well before Dom Pérignon began “drinking the stars”.

The French Benedictine monk’s major contribution to champagne production, after spending years trying to eliminate bubbles, was to establish ways of increasing carbonation. It was not until the 1830s, though, that a pharmacist, André François, produced formulae showing precisely how much sugar was needed to make a wine sparkle without producing so much pressure that the bottle would shatter.

In champagne production, the flat base wine from the first fermentation is bottled with a mix of yeast and sugar. As the yeast consumes the sugar, the wine ferments again, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. A finished champagne bottle is under around five to six atmospheres of pressure and when the cork is released, the carbon dioxide rushes out in the form of tiny bubbles. To regain its equilibrium the liquid must release six times its own volume in gas, of which around 80 percent of the carbon dioxide simply diffuses into the air. The remaining 20%, still in bubble form, remains in the bottle to be transferred into a glass when poured. When they pop, they produce that intriguing and intensely pleasurable sensation on our nose and mouth.

Contrary to popular opinion, there are no bubbles inside a bottle of champagne; they are the result of the reaction caused by releasing the cork. More pertinent is how many end up in our glass and this is where we are indebted to the research of Gérard Liger-Belair, from the Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne.

The ingenious Liger-Belair built a theoretical model to examine the factors that might have an impact on the final figure, including how much carbon dioxide escaped from the glass without forming bubbles, how bubbles changed size over time, as well as considering the number of gas pockets trapped between particles, bubble nucleation sites, and the pressure of the bottle at room temperature. Adding a splash of ascending bubble dynamics to the mix, he pressed go.

His model led Liger-Belair to conclude that “one million bubbles seem[ed] a reasonable approximation for the whole number of bubbles likely to form if you resist drinking champagne from your flute”, far fewer than the fifteen million that some champagne manufacturers claim. Serving champagne at a slightly warmer temperature than normal and tilting the glass while pouring will increase the amount of fizz.   `

The shape of the glass also effects the number of bubbles produced. Tall, thin glasses produce a fast stream of bubbles which dissipate quickly while wide, shallow glasses produce bubbles at a slower rate and they linger longer, filling the air with the drink’s distinctive and inviting aroma.

There is more to champagne than hits the eye, it seems.

What Is The Origin Of (193)?…

High dudgeon

Getting annoyed is a natural human emotion. Most of us encounter something irksome during the course of the day. So it is not surprising that there are many words and phrases available to describe our blood boiling. One of my favourites is in high dudgeon by which we mean having a feeling of anger, resentment or simmering outrage. There is an air of theatricality around its usage – people often storm out of rooms in high dudgeon.

Dudgeon is a curious word, not least because its ending –udgeon is a fairly uncommon one in the English language. The only other two I could bring to mind without causing my little grey cells irreparable damage were bludgeon and curmudgeon – a state to which I aspire and the only English word ending in –mudgeon. My researches also unearthed gudgeon, a small fish which is easily caught and by extension is used to describe someone who is gullible, the Scottish humdudgeon, used to describe an unnecessary cry or complaint or an imaginary illness, and trudgeon which is a variant of trudgen, a type of swimming stroke.

The other curious feature of our word is that its origin is far from certain. One theory is that it comes from the Welsh word, dygen, which means malice or resentment, a suggestion rather firmly scotched by the Oxford English Dictionary. It does not give any reason for this rejection and whilst there is a similarity in form, the meaning of the two words is some distance apart. Perhaps we should bow to the OED’s superior knowledge and decidedly anti-Celtic stance.

The next suggestion is that it comes from the Italian, aduggiare, meaning to overshadow, rather like the English word umbrage, which is also used to describe a temper tantrum. But there is no citation to move this on from pure speculation. Another, perhaps more hopeful, suggestion is that we look at the French word, indign, which spawned our indignant. The English are notorious for mangling foreign words and phrases and perhaps in dudgeon came from mangling en indign. Endugine does pop up once, in 1638, and the sense is the same but to build too much on this hapax legomenon may be dangerous. But it certainly intrigues me.

What is certain, though, is that dudgeon existed from around the 16th century and was used to describe the wood that made up the handle of a knife or a dagger. Shakespeare uses it in Macbeth to describe the hilt of the dagger; “I see thee still,/ and on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood/ which was not so before.

It is tempting to think that Shakespeare was at the cutting edge of all developments in the English language but in the usage of dudgeon he was pretty old school. Gabriel Harvey was a pre-eminent writer in the Elizabethan era and pretty disputatious too. In his Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey, published in 1573, he provided the first example of dudgeon being used to describe temperament; “who seem’d to take it in marvelus great duggin.

It was Samuel Butler, the 17th century poet not to be confused with the 19th century novelist, who first linked the adjective high to dudgeon in his mock heroic poem, Hudibras, published in 1663; “when civil dudgeon first grew high/ and men fell out they knew not why..”  There’s no point in being in low dudgeon, I suppose. And in 1885 we see its modern-day usage, the Manchester Examiner reporting; “[He] resigned his position as reporter of the Committee in high dudgeon.

Whilst it is tempting to see the figurative grasping of the handle of a dagger as illustrative of a temper, I rather like the idea that dudgeon comes from the mangling of a French word. My only hesitation is that the singular appearance of endugine comes sixty years after Harvey’s use of dudgeon.

What Is The Origin Of (107)?…


Never look a gift horse in the mouth

I have never got close and personal with a horse but I am told that you can learn a lot by inspecting the mouth of a nag, particularly about its age and general health. Horse traders routinely look at the mouth of horses they are thinking of purchasing before going ahead with the transaction. Our phrase – the variant is don’t rather than never – is used to warn someone not to be too sniffy or critical about something that is given to them for free.

The phrase has a long pedigree, perhaps not surprising as the giving of gifts was an important part of Ancient Greek life. Recipients were advised to praise a gift that anyone bestowed on them. As early as the fourth century CE a proverb involving the inspection of teeth was doing the rounds. John Chevenix Trench commented on the phrase in his book, Proverbs and Their Lessons, published in 1852, with this gloss, “I will not pretend to say how old it is: it is certainly older than St Jerome, a Latin father of the fourth century who, when some found fault with certain writings of his, replied ….that they were voluntary on his part” adding “noli..ut vulgare proverbium est, equi dentes inspicere donate”.

The interesting points of St Jerome’s usage are that it was clearly an idiom used commonly, if only by the common sorts, at the time, that we have a clear connection with the inspection of the gnashers of a horse that has been given as a gift and that it is used as a form of admonition. Given its classical origin it is not surprising to see a variant of the phrase crop up in other languages. In the 13th century the French used a proverb, “cheval donne ne doit-on en dens regarder”  which translates as don’t look at the teeth of a horse which has been given to you, an almost exact match with St Jerome’s proverb.

The first example of its usage in print in England may have been in a collection of proverbs compiled by John Stanbridge, Vulgaria Stambrigi, published in 1510. There we find “a given hors may not be loked in the tethe”, an almost exact translation. Just over thirty years later there had been one significant change to the formula – we weren’t just looking at teeth but the mouth of the horse. In John Heywood’s A Dialogue of the Effectual Proverbs in the English Tongue Concerning Marriage, published in 1546 we find “no man ought to look a gueun hors in the mouth”.  The transformation to the phrase we now know was completed a century later. Samuel Butler used it in a couplet in his poem Hudibras, published in 1663, “he ne’er considered it, as loath/ to look a gift-horse in the mouth”.

The other common phrase associated with the mouth of a horse, straight from a horse’s mouth, indicating something that has come direct from the source and, therefore, reliable, is much more modern, dating from the early 20th century and, probably, of American origin. The first reference in print seems to have been in the Syracuse Herald of May 1913, “I got a tip yesterday and if it wasn’t straight from the horse’s mouth it was jolly well the next thing to it”. This is where we came in – you can tell a lot about a horse from its mouth.

So now we know!