Tag Archives: James Joyce


“Scent of earth, sweet with the evening rain”, wrote Edith and Saretta Nesbit in All Round The Year (1888). A spell of fine, dry weather was suddenly punctuated by a short, sharp burst of rain. As I walked in the garden, I was conscious of an intensely earthy, fresh, almost sweet aroma, as if the shower had woken the earth and the plants from their slumbers and they were rejoicing by giving off this distinctive fragrance. It is one of the most evocative and invigorating smells of summer and so alluring is it that you can even buy it in a bottle.

For several generations enterprising perfumiers in Kannauj in India’s Uttar Pradesh have captured and absorbed the scent in sandalwood oil in a process which takes around fifteen days to complete. Having baked clay in a kiln, they immerse it in water held in copper cauldrons called degs, sealed with earth. A cow dung fire is lit under the cauldron and the resultant vapour travels through bamboo pipes to condense in receivers, over a base of oil, to form what they call matti ka attar or “earth perfume”, an essence released by the interaction between earth and water. It is used as a perfume, in air fresheners and, because of its soothing properties, in aromatherapy.

Although James Joyce did not seem the sort of chap who would splash a bit of perfume behind his ears, he too recognised that the fresh smell after a shower of rain was due to some reaction with the earth. In 1916, he wrote in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, how “the trees in Stephen’s Green were fragrant of rain and the rain-sodden earth gave forth its mortal odour, a faint incense rising upward through the mould from many hearts”. Curiously though, it took scientists until 1964 to understand quite what was going on.

That many dry clays and soils gave off a peculiar and characteristic odour when moistened with water was a phenomenon recognised in all standard mineralogy textbooks at the time, but Joy Bear and Richard Thomas, working for the CSIRO Division of Mineral Chemistry in Melbourne, were intrigued to understand why and how. They set about steam distilling rocks that had been exposed to warm, dry conditions.

What they found, and documented in their ground-breaking paper, Nature of Argillaceous Odour (Nature, March 7, 1964)[1], was a yellowish oil trapped in the rocks. It took an interaction with moisture to release it. For want of a better word, they called the oil petrichor, a compound word made from two Greek words, petra, meaning rock, and ichor, which, in mythology, was used to describe the ethereal fluid which flowed through the veins of the gods instead of blood. 

Even a modest increase in humidity is sufficient to fill the pores in rocks and soil with tiny amounts of water, which flush out the oil and release the petrichor into the air. When it begins to rain, the process is accelerated, and the wind helps to disperse the aroma.

Bear and Thomas may have explained why petrichor is produced, but it not until 2015 that two scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Young Soo Joung and Cullen Buie, explained the mechanics of the process in a paper published in Nature Communications[2] . Using high-speed cameras to film what happened when raindrops hit the ground, they discovered that on impact they started to flatten, trapping tiny air bubbles. These bubbles then shot upwards, rather like in a glass of champagne, pushing through the surface of the droplet, before bursting out into the air in a fizz of aerosols.        

The number of aerosol droplets generated was dependent upon not only the speed at which the droplets hit the surface and on the properties of the surface itself but also the intensity of the rainfall. Perhaps counter-intuitively, they found that light and moderate rain showers generated more aerosol droplets than did prolonged, heavy downpours.

If you enjoyed this, check out More Curious Questions by following the link below:

[1][1] https://www.nature.com/articles/201993a0

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms7083

What Is The Origin Of (268)?…

Like snuff at a wake

If burning a strip of tobacco in a paper casing seems a daft idea, then taking a pinch of tobacco between your thumb and index finger and snorting it up one nostril, ensuring the other is closed, and then repeating the exercise with the other is even more ludicrous. Snuff taking is very much out of fashion these days, but you can always tell when a pinch has been taken because a loud, stentorian sneeze resounds around the room. But taking snuff was once a fashionable way of getting your nicotine fix and has spawned several phrases with which we pepper up our language. One such is like snuff at a wake which is a simile for describing liberality or generosity.

It originates from Ireland, like many a colourful phrase, and specifically relates to a custom at a wake. A bowl of snuff was placed on the chest of the deceased. This custom served three purposes, one, as snuff was a rare and desirable commodity, it brought mourners closer to the coffin, and, once there would encourage them to say a prayer for the deceased’s  immortal soul, two, to prevent the mourners from falling asleep during the night vigil and , three, if it rose and fell, it gave a pretty good clue that the incumbent in the box wasn’t dead. There is no recorded instance of anyone being saved from an early internment because of a moving snuff bowl but it was often the case that the bowl of snuff had to be replaced. In parts of England this custom was observed, although the snuff was replaced with bread and a bowl of salt.

Perhaps the first case of the phrase being used in a figurative sense, with a meaning akin to from pillar to post, was in a humorous piece, ostensibly a report of a court case, appearing in the Freeman’s Journal, a Dublin magazine, on June 19, 1844, in which the unfortunate prisoner is reported as saying, “is that any reason why I am to be robbed of my liberty, strapped on a stretcher, and thrown about from policeman to policeman like snuff at a wake”. This rather negative connotation with the phrase was echoed by James Joyce in his account of O’Callaghan on his last legs in Chapter six of Ulysses; “Terrible comedown, poor wretch! Kicked about like snuff at a wake”.

However, by the time Bloom uses the phrase again, in Chapter 13 during the Nausicaa section, it has a more positive connotation; “others in vessels, bit of handkerchief sail, pitched about like snuff at a wake when the stormy winds do blow”. It is with a more positive connotation that it is used in earlier sources, this one, from the Emigrant Soldier’s Gazette of February 19, 1859 almost exactly echoed by Joyce’s second usage; “the masts bindin’ like switches an’ the sails in smithereens, an’ the life bouys flyin’ about like snuff at a wake”.   

The sense of liberality or generosity appears in the phrase’s usage in the Illustrated Dublin Journal of December 28. 1862; “new buckskins, as my grandfather was a gentleman; new brogues, new coat, new everything – the signs of money flying about him like snuff at a wake”. The phrase crossed the Atlantic, presumably with the Irish migrants, appearing in the United States Investor of May 14, 1898; “advice to take up Americans, pay for them, and hold them, is “flung about like snuff at a wake”.

Whether used in a positive or negative sense, it is a wonderfully evocative phrase and one that deserves to be used like snuff at a wake.

What Is The Origin Of (186)?..

Fit as a butcher’s dog

If I was to come back as a dog, perhaps being assigned to a butcher would be the dog’s bollocks. After all, there would be all that food around and surely even the most curmudgeonly of purveyors of meat wouldn’t begrudge me of some scraps. The upside would be that there would be a veritable feast to enjoy and I would be as full as a butcher’s dog, as the Australians so eloquently describe someone who has indulged in a substantial meal.

The simile, fit as a butcher’s dog, emerged in the 20th century, probably in Lancashire, to describe someone who is the epitome of rude health, fitness and robustness. In a sense there is a bit of an oxymoron in its current usage because having access to and being fed so much meat is likely to make the pooch fat and unhealthy, unless it is exercises vigorously.

The reason behind this disconnect is that the attributes to be sought in a butcher’s dog have changed over the years. The phrase butcher’s dog originally described an animal that could stay impassive amongst all the temptations of a butcher’s emporium or, as John Camden Hotten put it in his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words, published in 1859; “To be like a butcher’s dog, that is, lie by the beef without touching it; a simile often applicable to married men.”  This sense of stoically resisting something close at hand has disappeared into the mists of time.

Being a butcher’s dog, though, has to be better than a barber’s cat. Being confined to a barber’s shop would mean that other than for the odd stray rat or mouse there would be nothing for the moggy to feed on. No wonder then that the barber’s cat was a scrawny thing. It was used figuratively to describe someone who was full of piss and wind, unnecessarily loquacious, a blatherskite. This figurative meaning caused the inestimable Hotten some difficulty when he came to define it in his Dictionary, commenting that it was “an expression too coarse to print.

The Dundee Courier and Argus in its edition dated 8th September 1877 was almost as bashful, using a carefully bowdlerised euphemism, but the sense is clear; “He should be the very last man in Dundee to call anyone a windbag, for it is a well-known fact that…he is generally considered the very Prince of Windbags. Indeed, it is often remarked about him that he is all wind and water, like the barber’s cat.

James Plunkett’s 1969 historical novel, Strumpet City, set in Dublin, gives us probably the rationale behind the phrase; “Do you know the expression – wet and windy, like the barber’s cat? I know it well, Matthews confessed. Why the barber’s cat, I wonder? A consequence of frugality, the poet explained, its staple diet is hair and soapsuds.” James Joyce used a variant of the phrase in Ulysses; “all wind and piss like a tanyard cat.” –

But are we barking up the wrong tree in thinking that the barber’s cat is a moggy? One commentator has noted that a barber’s cat was a bottle of water with a pump which when operated by the barber sprayed water finely over the hair of his customer. I recall them but never knew them by that name and, of course, they operate by wind and water. But Joyce was clearly thinking of a cat and other phrases in which the barber’s cat appears – as poor as a barber’s cat to describe someone who was painfully thin and starving and as conceited as a barber’s cat to paint the picture of someone who fancies themselves – tend to suggest that we are thinking of felis catus here.

What Is The Origin Of (170)?…


If you sleep the recommended eight hours a day, then you will have been kipping for a third of your life. We use kip to describe sleep or the act of sleeping. It can be used as a noun, as in “Get some kip” or are an intransitive verb, as in “they kipped in the barn.” But where does kip come from? The answer is, probably, from Denmark via Ireland.

The suspect for the word’s ultimate origin is the Danish word kippe which meant a hut or a low sort of alehouse, the type of which I like to frequent. However, by the time it got to Ireland it was a slang term for a brothel. James Joyce, in Ulysses, one of the world’s greatest books that few us have ever read, published in 1922, Leopold Bloom responds to the androgynous prostitute, Bella Cohen, “I saw him, kipkeeper! Pox and gleet vendor!” In his collection of oral history entitled Dublin Tenement Life, published in 1994, Kevin Corrigan reports the following contribution; “Now we didn’t call them madams, the outsiders called them madams. We called them kip-keepers. The houses that they lived in were called kips.”  Alternative variants in Dublin slang for brothels were kip-house and kip-shop.

The word first appeared in English literature in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1766. “My business was to attend him at auctions,” he wrote, “.. to take the left hand in his chariot when not filled by another, and to assist at tattering a kip, as the phrase was, when we had a mind for a Frolic.” Goldsmith was Irish and educated in Dublin and almost certainly this is where he picked up this piece of vernacular. A later commentator noted that tattering a kip describe the act of smashing up a house of ill-repute.

By the time the word had crossed the Irish Sea to mainland Britain in the 19th century it had lost its specific association with prostitution and came to refer to a common lodging-house or, more specifically, a bed in such a house and then, by extension, a bed in general. So by 1879 we find, in the MacMillan Magazine, “so I went home, turned into kip.” However, in parallel was its usage as a form of lodging house as can be seen from the edition of Pall Mall Magazine for 27th September 1883; “The next alternative is the common lodging-house or kip, which, for the moderate sum of fourpence, supplies the applicant with a bed.” Similarly, in Round London, published between 1893 and 1896, kip is used to describe a doss-house; “the sort of life that was led in kips, or doss-houses.

We have noted before in our etymological explorations the tendency for a verb to develop from a noun. This trend still continues, the most egregious example, to my mind, is the sports commentators use of to medal to refer to some sportsperson who is likely to end up in a medal-winning position. So early in the 20th century kip began to appear as a verb meaning to sleep, the activity associated with mainland, but not Irish, kips. Nowadays, kip is used exclusively to denote the act of sleeping without any reference to brothels or doss-houses.

An interesting transformation, to be sure.