Sunday, 29 January 2012

Astrology: A Credible Zodiac

For some unknown reason I found myself overhearing (not actually listening to) the horoscope found in one of the daily newspapers. Not that the content was of any interest to me, unlike the reader who seemed thrilled to announce "Oooooh, Uranus is in your ascendancy" or something. As anyone who reads my blog will probably have guessed, my thoughts were already turning to etymology rather than astrology.

There are twelve signs of the zodiac in our daily horoscopes (although Monty Python apparently found a thirteenth sign between Virgo and Libra called Derry and Toms - named after a London department store as well known for its roof garden.) The word 'astrology' itself comes from the Latin astrologia, ultimately from the Greek meaning 'account of the stars'. Zodiac is a word from Old French zodiaque, again from Latin zodiacus and borrowed from the Greek zodiakos meaning 'circle of little animals'.

There will be those of my generation who recall Gerry Anderson's Fireball XL5 puppet series, the 'star' of which was Colonel Steve Zodiac (infinitely more interesting to me than fortelling the future based on a date of birth). Another character was an alien named Zoony, who was a lazoon. The word zoon is a diminutive from the Greek and meant 'animal'. It seems Gerry Anderson's team put more than a little thought into naming the creature, simply adding the French definite article to the Greek.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Why Do We Say That?

I was recently asked to explain a very British expression by a non-Brit who had no idea of the meaning. Of course no sooner had I explained and I was wondering why I had said it in the first place and where such a weird expression came from. Before long I had uncovered the origins of several very British comments and written the following.

Don't get shirty with me! - was how it all started, not that I had realised ever using a phrase advising the other to hold their temper. It probably shares an origin with 'keep your shirt on', meaning the same thing and maybe suggesting there was a tendency to remove one's shirt before a fight.

Bob's your uncle - an expression meaning 'as simple as that'. It is generally held to have started sson after 1887 when Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil found a nice little job for his nephew Arthur James Balfour when assigning him to the post of Secretary for Ireland. Whether this was earned or blatant nepotism, it is easy to see why some would think it was easier for him to get the job when Bob is your uncle.

A little black over Bill's mother's - suggests there's a dark cloud on the horizon and rain seems imminent. It seems many are trying to tie this down to 'Bill' Shakespeare and his mother. Yet as usage appears to be well-nigh national a more likely explanation is that William (or Bill) has been a very common name for centuries and thus any direction (be there a dark cloud present or not) would almost certainly represent the direction of a woman who had had a son of that name.

Double Dutch - is something baffling but did not originally refer to the Dutch. The similarities in the Dutch and Germany languages would have been unintelligible to the English. As German language was also refererred to as High Dutch, this was originally a slur on German or Germany.

A pig's ear - is to make a mess of, a very poor attempt. It is derived from another phrase first seen in the sixteenth century when an English clergyman by the name of Stephen Gosson wrote in the story Ephemerides that someone was "Seekinge too make a silke purse of a Sowes eare", ie engaged in a hopeless task. Thus to make a pig's ear of something was exactly the reverse, turning something useful into something utterly useless.

Like it or lump it - a very odd comment as it suggests 'like' is the opposite of 'lump' which it clearly is not. At least not today. However in the sixteenth century 'lump' was used to describe someone's sulky or moody expression. Thus while the use of 'lump' in this sense is unknown today, the phrase is still surprisingly commonplace.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Etymology of Bridgwater, Somerset

In response to an email recieved this week asking why there is no 'e' at the end of the 'bridge' in Bridgwater, I recall the entry for the town from my book Somerset Place Names.

A name which, not surprisingly, is seen as 'the bridge over the water' and where one 'e' has been lost over the centuries. The missing vowel is correct but the definition is not. The record from Domesday gives this place as Brugie, while a century later in 1194 this has become Bridgewaltier. This 12th century example is significant for it shows that the second part cannot be 'water', for this is never seen in forms this early. The true origin here is 'the place at the bridge held by a man called Walter', with the suffix and early name coming from Old English brycg. While this individual is neither known nor recorded, it was a popular name at the time and is undoubtedly the basis for the place name.
Locally we find Barclay Street, named after the Barclay Arms Inn. Castle Bailey takes the name of the medieval castle, as does Castle Street. Yet the latter was earlier known as Chandos Street and what is now Chandos Street was once Little Chandos Street and the two remember the family name of the Duke of Buckingham who funded these developments.
Eastover was recorded as Estovre in 1323, a name describing 'the 'eastern bank of land'. Horse Pond was where these animals were taken for centuries to be watered in Durleigh Brook. Friarn Street and Friarn Avenue are named after the Franciscan Friary which was founded here in the 13th century. Penel Orlieu was originally two streets named from a member of the family which should have been Orloue.
Other pubs here include the Cross Rifles, acknowledging the formation of the local Rifle Volunteer Force in 1859. The Great Escape may conjure up images of the film of that name, but it is used here as a message of invitation to get away from it all for a while, similarly the Bunch of Grapes advertises the product on sale within. The Bristol and Exeter remembers the railway line which served these places and which was opened in 1840.
Patriotic names include the Rose & Crown, the Three Lions, the British Flag, and the King Alfred Inn which remembers the man who united the English against the Danes. The Green Dragon shows this was associated with the holdings of the earls of Pembroke, while the Quantock Inn refers to the hills of that name to the north and which are defined under their own name.
The Parrett Inn overlooks the River Parrett across Salmon Parade for this was where these coveted food fish were brought. Horse Pond was a watering hole for horses on the Durleigh Brook for centuries. High Street is only above the remaining roads in importance and stature, not elevation. St Mary Street is overlooked by the church which gave it a name, while Friarn Street remembers the 13th century Franciscan Friary. Chandos Street features the family name of the dukes of Buckingham. Castle Street and Castle Bailey are reminders of the medieval castle, however neither the town moat and Moat Lane are no more. Dampiet Street was listed as Damyet Street five centuries ago, which shows it featured a raised area to help prevent flooding. Penel Orlieu is an unusual street name, with an even more unusual evolution for it comes from two former streets Pynel Street and Orliue Street which, in turn, are named from former residents.
One of the town's best known sons is remembered by Blake Street. Robert Blake was born in Bridgwater in August 1598, the eldest of twelve sons he was educated before carrying on his father business. Blake's first 40 years are quite unremarkable, indeed surprisingly so considering what he achieved afterwards. In 1640 he entered parliament, representing his home town. During the Civil War he served under Popham, securing decisive victories against Prince Maurice at Lyme in 1644, followed by a major turning point in the war with victory at Taunton after a battle which lasted a year. In 1649 he was given command of the fleet, winning naval engagements against isolated Royalist strongholds in Scilly and Jersey, defeated the Dutch, routed pirates in Tunis and Algiers, and virtually eliminated the Spanish at Santa Cruz. It was when returning from that final victory when, on 7th August 1657 and in sight of Plymouth Harbour, Admiral Robert Blake died.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Pen Names

Over the years many authors have opted to use a nom de plume. Historically female writers have chosen to write under a male name - perhaps the most famous being the Bronte sisters, Anne became Acton Bell, Charlotte assumed the name Currer Bell, and Emily was Ellis Bell - and for good reason in a world dominated by men.

Whilst it is easy to see why some opt for pseudonyms, I was intrigued by why particular names were chosen.

Charles Dickens wrote his Sketches by Boz, he chose Boz as it was already well-known in the family. His youngest brother, Augustus Dickens, picked up the nickname 'Moses' from one of the brothers in the highly popular nineteenth century novel The Vicar of Wakefield. It became the norm to pronounce it nasally, hence 'Boses' which was eventually shortened to 'Boz'.

Daniel DeFoe was born Daniel Foe, he considered the addition made him sound more aristocratic. Later claimed to be descended from the family of De Beau Faux, thus saying he was simply replacing the lost 'De'.

Washington Irving wrote under a series of pseudonyms. In 1809 he completed his first major book and, in a clever publicity stunt, set about creating interest in his satirical examination of self-important local history and politics A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, written under the pen name of Diedrich Knickerbocker. He then placed a series of missing persons notices in all the New York newspapers. First he asked for the leads on the whereabouts of the 'crusty Dutch historian' and later, under the guise of the hotel proprietor, demanded that Knickerbocker return to settle his hotel bill or he would find the manuscript he had left behind quickly published in payment. Readers followed the story as closely as they would any serialised drama, especially when city officials were reportedly offering reward money! The fictional name of Diedrich Knickerbocker is still in use when referring to inhabitants of Manhattan.

Mary Ann Evnas never recorded why she chose George Eliot and yet her long-term relationship with critic George Henry Lewes must surely have been the only real factor. Lewes was a married man when they met in 1851, within three years they were living together and remained so for 20 years, with Eliot calling herself Mrs Lewes. Unlike the Brontes she never needed a masculine image, female authors were quite accepted in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Yet when she wrote her last piece for the Westminster Review entitled Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, she showed her desire not to be thought another female writing of trivial and ridiculous plots.

Eric Arthur Blair wrote what is now known as Down and Out in Paris and London and insisted it was published under an assumed name in order to protect his family from the embarrassment of his time as a tramp. He suggested four possible nom de plumes: P. S. Burton (the identity he had assumed on the streets), Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, and H Lewis Allways, leaving the choice up to the publisher. He later adopted George Orwell, inspired by the River Orwell, as it was "A good round English name".

John Wyndham, the nom de plume of a science fiction writer best remembered for The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos also wrote under other pen names - John Benyon and Lucas Parkes. It is easy to see where all three assumed names came from, he was named John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris by his parents.

That Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson will come as a surprise to few (if any). He chose the name as Lewis was the English form of Ludovicus, itself Latin for Lutwidge, while Carroll is an Irish surname not dissimilar to the Latin Carolus, which is the anncestor of the English Charles.

Why Samuel Longhorne Clemens adopted Mark Twain for his writings has been told many times, not least by Clemens himself who also credited his riverboat captain Isaiah Sellers as signing his reports on the ever-changing river conditions 'Mark Twain'. For those unaware, Clemens worked on Mississippi riverboats for some years, the river known for its moving banks of silt making navigation tricky and hence the depth was checked regularly on a sounding line. The line had a mark at two fathoms and as long as that mark reached the water level the river would allow safe passage. When found to be safe the cry went up of "Mark Twain", 'twain' being the archaic term for two and thus was two fathoms (12 feet) deep.

William Sydney Porter wrote under the name O. Henry, which he informed everyone was chosen when a friend suggested choosing a name from the society columns of a New Orleans newspaper. Hence they found the surname. He wanted something short for a first name and, when the same friend suggested an initial, opted for 'O' as it was "about the easiest letter written".
Despite this explanation it did not stop two others offering quite different explanations. William Trevor stating the inspiration was Ohio State Penitentiary prison guard Orrin Henry, while Guy Davenport wrote it was to be found in the name of OHio state pENitentiaRY.

Idries Shah wrote The Teachers of Gurdjieff under the pen name of Rafael Lefort, held to have been chosen as an anagram of "a real effort".

Stephen King's early career saw him penning more than the one book per year which publishers were willing to put out, considering it would flood the market and be effectively competing with other Stephen King works. The author approached the publisher and suggested releasing others under a pseudonym and, in an attempt to discover if his success was down to talent or luck, did as little as possible to market the writings of Richard Bachman. Originally opting for the name of his maternal grandfather, he chose Richard as a tribute to fellow author Donald Westlake's pen name Richard Stark, while Bachman honoured Bachman-Turner-Overdrive, a rock band Stephen King just happened to be listening to at that time.

Hector Hugh Monroe wrote under the name of Saki. While no explanation was offered as to where he derived this pen name, there are two quite plausible explanations as to the source. Saki is a character, the cup bearer, in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and is stated as 'fact' in the 1978 anthology by Emlyn Williams. The central character in Munro's work The Remoulding of Groby Lington is a monkey, described as 'a small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere'. There is a monkey which fits this description, a native of South America known as a saki.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy New Year. Is it really 2012?

1st January and it is 2012 (MMXII), but only on the Gregorian calendar. While I was aware of the existence of others, until I examined the subject in more detail I had no idea just how many different calendars there are. The following are a selection and include some explanation as to who, where and why.

Ab urbe condita and the year is 2765, not exactly the most widely used calendar and important only to historians with an interest in Rome for the name is Latin for 'from the founding of the city (of Rome)'.

Armenian calendar gives this as 1461, a solar calendar based on 365 days in a year. Twelve months of 30 days each with another five days which belong to no month. Year 1 began on 11th July AD552 in the Julian Calendar.

Assyrian calendar it is now 6762 as the calendar began in the equivalent of 4750BC, the year the first temple was established as Ashur.

Bahai calendar says 168, as the Bahai Era began on 21st March 1844.

Bengali calendar and the year is 1419, the Bengali era beginning with the rule of King Shoshangko.

Berber calendar this year is 2962, adjusted in the 1960s so year 1 was set to 950 BC, the approximate date of the first Libyan pharoah in Egypt.

British regnal year and today 60 Eliz 2, it will become 61 on February 6th, the day after the death of George VI and Queen Elizabeth II's accession to the throne.

Buddhist calendar it is now 2556, dating from when the Buddha attained nirvana.

Burmese calendar the year is 1374 as it began 638 years after the Christian calendar.

Byzantine calendar this year is now 7520, the date of creation given as September 1st 5509 BC.

Chinese calendar says 4648, although there is no agreement as to when the calendar began it is traditionally held to have been invented by Emperor Huang-di in the 61st year of his reign.

Coptic calendar lists this as 1728, based on a reform of the ancient Egyptian calendar.

Ethiopian calendar makes this 2004, a calendar based on the Annunciation or Incarnation of Jesus as given by the Julian Calndar, which equates to 25th March 9AD

Hebrew calendar comes out as 5772, no surprisingly the number of years considered to have passed since the beginning of the world.

Hindu calendar of Bikram Samwat is 2068, as established by the Indian emperor Vikramaditya of Ujjain follwing his victory over the Sakas in 56 BC.

Hindu calendar of Shaka Samwat gives this as 1934, where the year was set to zero (not one) in the year 78 of the Saka year. However this was not decided until as recently as March 22nd 1957.

Hindu calendar of Kali Yuga reads 5113, literally 'the age of the female demon Kali' or perhaps 'the age of vice'. Hence is said to be the age of the world, which began on 23rd January 3102BC

Holocene calendar reads 12012, clearly exactly 10,000 years before the Gregorian calendar and given as the beginning of the Holocene epoch, the Neolithic revolution, and thus seen as the Human Era.

Iranian calendar reads 1390, roughly corresponding to the calendar of Zoroastrian cosmology with a starting point in the period of the Achaemenid Empire.

Islamic calendar states 1433, counting beginning with the emigration of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina.

Japanese calendar reads 24, or correctly Heisei 24 the reign of the current empreror. However the Japanese also use the Imperial Year system, which would then make this the first day of 2772, while officially using the Gregorian calendar.

Korean calendar is seen as 4345, counted from the foundation of Gojoseon in 2333 BC, although officially the Gregorian Calendar has been used for some time.

Minguo calendar says this is ROC 101, the 101st yeat of the Republic of China (Minguo meaning literally 'the Country of the People'.

Thai solar calendar reads 2555, today counted in the Buddhist era as 543 years greater than the Christian Era.

Unix time states 1325376000, my personal favourite and one I use whenever I receive a phone call from some organisation who demand my date of birth when trying to 'go through security'. There are no years, months, days, hours or minutes in Unix time, only seconds. It began at midnight on Thursday 1st January 1970 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), today referred to as UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).