Sunday, 29 September 2013

Imagery in Writing

When it comes to fiction images are provided by the author in the text. However I don’t write fiction and thus need to find images to illustrate the subject in question.

Sometimes the subject hardly lends itself well to imagery, such as my books on place names. Whilst views of the villages and hamlets seems obvious, as the photographs are reproduced in black and white the subject has to be a simple one and a general view of the place simply does not work. In some counties I have been lucky enough to find an attractive village sign, usually showing something of what can be found locally. At other times I have to resort to snapping the local signposts – at least these reproduce well in black and white.

When it comes to my books on the paranormal the same problem arises. I can photograph the location or even the venue of the story but images of the event are impossible – at least I’ve never told a story where an accompanying image exists. Other subjects proved equally problematical, albeit for different reasons. Those on ancient tracks would have benefited from an aerial view, but this will obviously increase the expense dramatically.

When I started writing twenty years ago my camera contained a film, indeed I must have been one of the last to switch to digital photography. The advantages of digital photography are twofold. Firstly it is very much cheaper, there being no film to buy or development costs which means we can take as many images as we desire to ensure the best result. I now habitually take as many as half a dozen well-nigh identical shots to ensure I have a choice. Digital cameras also have the screen to enable us to see the finished result there and then, thus any awful images can be discarded immediately.

Generally speaking my books feature historical subjects. Clearly I can’t take an image of the Saxons in the place whose name I’m defining and images don’t exist prior to the invention of the camera. When it came to more recent history, such as when looking for old images for my five Through Time books and in particular the railways as they were before the closures in the 1960s in my look at the heritage railways in the post-Beeching era. Not having any material myself I had to resort to looking elsewhere for images. Of course these are subject to copyright and I am extremely grateful to those who freely offered the use of photographs from their personal collections.

I do feel my photographic skills have improved over the years. I particularly enjoyed the challenge of taking a modern view of an image first pictured 50, 75 and even over a century ago in the Through Time books. The question is, is all this worth the effort. Just how useful a tool is a photograph? Do images really do anything but break up the text? I sincerely hope so as I have recently spent many hours and endless miles driving around Cornwall, Northumberland, and the Home Counties just to capture enough images for five or six forthcoming books.

As always I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Naming Musical Instruments.

Few cannot be aware of the naming of comparatively recent instruments - such as the sousaphone, after John Philip Sousa, and the moog synthesizer, from Robert Moog – but what about more traditional instruments? Where did their names originate? Purely for ease of reference these are listed in alphabetical order.

Balalaika – is a difficult one for it appears to have no etymological value whatsoever. While the first reference is found in a Russian document dated 1688, the very similar term balabaika is also used in Ukrainian records shortly afterwards. One theory suggests it was loaned to both from one of the many sub-languages – there are twenty-seven in Russia and eighteen in Ukraine alone - found throughout this region probably wherever the instrument was first developed.

Banjo – came through the southern US term bandore but is ultimately from the Greek pandoura, a three-stringed lute.

Bassoon – a late-ish instrument of the oboe family. It’s low pitch meant the use of the Italian basso as the basis of the name.

Bouzuki – is a Greek stringed instrument borrowed from the Turkish ‘bozuk’ which means ‘broken’ or sometimes ‘modified’. Here the later seems more likely as the original instrument was formed from a solid block of wood but later modified into the instrument we see today.

Bugle – from the Middle English and Old French words for ‘buffalo’, presumably the idea was the instrument resembled the water buffalo in some way.

Castanets – derived from the shape the Spanish castaneta is ultimately from the Latin castanea or ‘chestnut’, this small concave piece of wood was thought to resemble the chestnut.

Cello – an abbreviation of violoncello, it being a member of the violin family and explained under its family name.

Clavichord – an instrument produced from the fifteenth century and named from the Latin clavis ‘key’ and chorda ‘string’, which is exactly how the instrument is played.

Cornet – named from the shape, not because it resembles something to hold ice-cream but through Middle English from Old French and ultimately from Latin cornu or ‘horn’.

Cymbals – an instrument which has been used at least since its first record of use by the Assyrians some six thousand years ago, although the name is from the Green kumbos meaning ‘cup’.

Drum – undoubtedly the oldest instrument, evidence of drums have been found from Neolithic times, yet the word is comparatively recent from the Late German trommel.

Euphonium – a wind instrument related to the tuba whose name derives from the Greek euphonos ‘pleasant sound’.

Glockenspiel – a recent instrument, not seen until the nineteenth century, and derived from the German for ‘bell play’.

Guitar – a surprisingly modern term for an instrument which is certainly much older than the name. A 3,300-year-old carving of a Hittite playing a stringed instrument is the oldest known, although that particular item is referred to as a chordophone. English ‘guitar’, German ‘gitarre’, Spanish ‘guitarra’, Arabic ‘qitara’, and even Latin ‘cithara’ are all thought to originate from the Ancient Greek ‘kithara’, itself a kind of lute with just two strings.

Jew’s harp – suggestions that this should be jaw’s harp are untrue as the instrument existed thousands of years before the word ‘jaw’ was ever heard. In the same way the term Jew’s harp is also nothing to do with the Jews for the instrument was almost certainly known well before the Jews were called such and no link between the two has ever been found.

Lute – brought to Europe by the Moors when they came to Spain in the eleventh century, the name can be traced to the Arabic al-ud meaning literally ‘the wood’.

Lyre – from the Macedonian Greek ruratae meaning ‘the lyricists’ and thus named for those who produced the words which were accompanied by lyre.

Oboe – named from the French haut bois ‘high wood’.

Ocarina – this egg-shaped instrument is named for its appearance, coming from Italian oca or ‘goose’.

Panpipe – named from their association with the Greek god Pan but certainly not their original name as this simple instrument was certainly known in Neolithic times.

Piano – originating in piano e forte, Italian meaning ‘soft and loud’, a good description of the qualities of this instrument.

Piccolo – another of Italian derivation, here the name describes the ‘small flute’.

Sackbut – the precursor of the trombone, this was named from its resemblance to an earlier weapon known as a saqueboute which described its use to pull riders from the saddle.

Saxophone – invented in 1840 by Adolphe Sax.

Sistrum – a jingling percussion instrument known to the Egyptians and named by them from their word meaning ‘to shake’.

Sitar – ultimately from the Persian and Urdu, itself composed of two words: sih ‘three’ and tar ‘string’.

Tambourine – actually gives the opportunity to define two instruments. The tambourine is derived from the tambour, the circular frame used to hold embroidery and to which small cymbals were attached to produce a tambourine. The tambour was named as it resembled the tabor, a small percussion instrument from the Persian tabira meaning ‘drum’.

Trumpet – from the Old French trompette which simply describes the flared shape at the larger end.

Tuba – derived from the Italian for ‘trumpet’.

Ukulele – a name which is derived from the Hawaiian meaning ‘jumping flea’, possibly because of the movement of the fingers when it is played. However, there is a traditional explanation that it comes from the nickname of one of the best players of the ukulele. One Edward William Purvis, an officer of King Kalakaua, was apparently known as ‘jumping flea’ because of his small stature and his propensity for fidgeting.

Violin – thought to ultimately derived from the Latin verb vitulari meaning ‘be joyful’.

Xylophone – known by the ninth century in Africa, its popularity in Europe grew from the fifteenth century. The modern name is derived from the Greek xulon ‘wood’ + phone.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Pronunciation Problems

I came across an old photograph the other day. A family I lost touch with years ago. Oddly the first thing which came to mind about them was their mispronunciation of just one word. They thought the word ‘filthy’ was pronounced ‘thilthy’. Clearly this is similar to the archetypal Cockney in Ealing comedies where the eighth letter of the alphabet was dropped when it should be there but preceded every word which should begin with a vowel.

On the subject of the eighth letter, the same reason has led to the letter H being pronounced ‘haitch’ when the dictionary clearly states the word is ‘aitch’. Such a mispronunciation must have been a problem at some earlier time for it to have been included in the dictionary. Today it seems to be the most common word beginning with a vowel to be mispronounced as beginning with the ‘h’. Ironically while previous generations corrected their children for dropping their aitches, today nothing is done about adding ‘haitches’ to aitch – if you get my point.

Similarly nobody seems to correct the name of the second month. This is of course February and not Febuary, although at least the UK has not suffered the similar American problem of library instead of library – or should I say has not yet had that problem.

On the subject of our American cousins, we so often hear the word ‘supposedly’ said as ‘supposably’ in broadcasts it is now catching on in the UK, too.

While mentioning UK broadcasting, I must be eternally grateful to the BBC for giving Lorne Spicer the elbow from a daytime slot which I was subjected to on my weekly visit to a relative. No longer am I subjected to this woman making a mockery of the English language and constantly saying jew-le-ree instead of jewelry. I also hold her responsible for ‘collections’ losing a syllable and rarely heard as anything but ‘clections’ today.

However the gold medal will be awarded to newsreader Alistair Stewart OBE. Joining ITN in 1980, he has been the mainstay of ITV’s news broadcasts ever since. You would think this a man whose credentials show his knowledge of his native is tongue better than most. However on many occasions I have heard him speak of someone being charged or convicted of ‘burgle-ree’ instead of ‘burglary’.

I often find pronunciation a problem when it comes to place names. There is the argument as to whether it is Shrewsbury or Shrowsbury, although this is by no means the only one and when travelling around giving talks on the origins of place names have heard Fowey, Leominster, Knaresborough, Warwick, and many others mispronounced.

A professor once told me how no place name was mispronounced until the majority could read. Of course this was not entirely accurate but does point out it is invariably the spelling which is wrong.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Mythology in Place Names

It is quite surprising to find the number of subjects which have contributed to our modern place names. I recently penned an article examining those places named as they were where certain culinary supplies could be found. Believe it or not there is a village in England named for being where a certain kind of tree was renowned as a source of skewers, of all things!

One of the more interesting sources is, as the title of the post indicates, the mythologies of our islands. A little thought and I recalled some interesting names and the stories behind them. I have taken examples from around Britain. Included are stories from the Cotswolds, the Pennines, the Lake District, Cornwall, the principality of Wales, and north of the border to Scotland.

The Devil’s Churchyard, Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire Hyde Farm gets its name from that Saxon measurement of land, the hide. Most often said to equal 120 acres, this is simply an average because the ‘measurement’ refers to productivity and not area. It is extremely difficult to quantify a hide, the reason can be seen in the accepted definition of “the amount of land required to feed one family for one year” where there are so many variables – the size of the family, quality of the soil, skills of the farmer, choice of crops, all have to be taken into consideration. During the twentieth century Hyde Farm had been associated with flight. Today it is owned by the local gliding club but was once a base of operations for the Royal Air Force. This military presence had the effect of isolating the farmworkers as much as it did the official personal who had made it their temporary home. Even after the end of the Second World War rationing remained in force for a number of years, making life hard for all and particularly so for those who were just starting on married life. It was a warm day when one farmworker broke for lunch. Recently married, both he and his wife worked long hours and would have looked forward to the few hours each day they spent together. Perhaps that was where the young man’s mind went when he entered a small copse away from the heat of the sun and cab of the tractor to open his lunch box. Having just taken a second bite his thoughts were interrupted by a most awful noise from the depths of the copse. Looking up he saw a mist and, as he watched, it began to gather into a most unnatural form. This was enough for the poor man who fled, leaping into his tractor and driving off as fast as the lumbering farm machine would allow. Not being a local man he was unaware of the reputation of the copse as a place of evil. An area where no bird was heard to sing, of inexplicable darkness, where chills were felt on the warmest of days. Many years before the community, tired of trecking to neighbouring villages for Sunday worship, had asked for their own church to be built and this field had been selected. Agreement was reached and eventually work started. Foundations were laid down and walls rose reaching half their eventual height. During the night something happened and the sight which greeted the workers when they returned next morning astonished them. Before them were no walls but a collection of stone blocks strewn around the site but not seemingly having fallen. They built them back up again but, once more, they returned next day to find the walls dismantled. Four more times this happened and the workers abandoned the site. No reason was ever found for this act of superhuman vandalism, yet the community soon offered their own explanation. Ever since this field has been known as the Devil’s Churchyard. N ear here is Hanging Hill Field where Edge Farm takes its name from the hamlet, itself referring to its position on the edge of the Cotswold Hills. The field name comes as no surprise, there are many ‘hanging’ names coming from Old English hangra describing it as ‘overhanging’ or looming over the land below. Many of these names have attracted ominous and macabre definitions, examples where creative etymologies have survived as they are much more interesting than the true definition. Yet in the case of Hanging Hill Field, which seems so obviously to be situated in an area where the less glamorous definition fits perfectly, the reverse is the case. During a discussion one evening a labourer was bragging of his prowess with the scythe. He boasted long and loud of how this particular field posed no problems and could be mown by him on his own in but a single day. Remember he had no modern equipment, merely a scythe which he wielded by hand. Likely much of his purported ability came from the bottle and his companions at the local inn had soon wagered heavily against him accomplishing such a formidable task. It will come as no surprise to learn he failed. The next time he was seen he was dead, hanging from a tree at the end of a noose. Whether his suicide was due to embarrassment or because he could not afford to settle his losses, we shall never know. No mention of the name of Hanging Hill Field is found before the story. To this day reports continue of the ghostly sound of the labourer, an eerie swishing of his blade as he continues to cut the stems as midnight approaches.

Devil’s Mustard Hill, Stenkrith in the Pennines Place names can be transferred from one feature to another. Hills can be named from rivers and vice versa and in the Eden Valley is just such an example. Nearby Kirkby Stephen is Stenkrith Park and Devil’s Mustard Hill. Here we find a hill named from a feature in the valley below. Here the River Eden tumbles over rocks and boulders on its way to the sea at the Solway Firth. Even during the summer months when the river level is at its lowest this is still a turbulent river. When in spate the current is a frightening sight to behold. For those who know where to look among the tree-lined banks it is possible to see a feature either in or out of the stream bed, depending upon the water level, which is the origin of the name of the hill above. The crystal-clear water enables us to see strange circular holes in rocks here. This is the result of untold centuries of erosion by pebbles swirling around in the current. Although the origin of these holes is clear, it has not stopped the idea of these being a result of the Devil milling his mustard being perpetuated down the centuries.

Dunmail Raise in the Lake District Dunmail was the last king of Cumberland. Whilst he may or may not have existed little of what is known seems to have any basis in fact, making him as legendary as King Arthur. What is fact is the historical record from the year 945AD. The Saxon King Edmund I led an army which conquered Strathclyde and enabled him to cede the Dunmail’s kingdom to Malcolm I of Scotland, Edmund’s ally in the campaign. From this point legend takes over and speaks of the beaten Dunmail retreating into the Lake District with the combined Saxon and Scots forces in hot pursuit. Heavily outnumbered, Dunmail decided to face his opponents in most defensible spot he could reach, a pass linking Grasmere and Thirlmere. However his position was hopeless and he was killed, some stories say at the hands of Edmund himself. His sons were blinded and his supporters ordered to pile the rocks on top of the dead king’s remains. Those rocks can still be seen today as the cairn known as Dunmail Raise. The second element is from Old Norse hreysi or ‘cairn’. Not all Dunmail’s men were captured or killed. Some made good their escape with the crown of the king of Cumberland. They made for the 3,117 feet high Helvellyn or, more precisely, Grisedale Tarn which is found on its slopes 1,400 feet below the summit. Here the crown was flung far out to sink into the depths of this mountainside lake. It is said the souls of the long-dead warriors return once each year to Grisdale. Having retrieved the crown from the lake they march to Dunmail Raise, rap on the stones with their spears and hear the reply from their king: “Not yet, not yet; wait awhile my warriors.”

The Merry Maidens, Cornwall Near St Buryan is this ring of stones also known as Dawn’s Men, itself from the Cornish Dans Maen or ‘stone dance’. This circle is comprised of nineteen granite megaliths, each approximately four feet in height and approximately ten to twelve feet apart. These form a circle a little over eighty feet in diameter. This is not a perfect circle. A larger gap to the east gives the impression of a missing stone but archaeological evidence does not support this, indeed it suggests there were probably only eighteen stones originally, perhaps the extra megalith coming from a second circle to the south just 250 yards away but this was destroyed before the end of the nineteenth century. Legend has it this was the result of nineteen maidens punished by being turned to stone. Their only crime was dancing on the Sabbath. To the northeast are two standing stones, each ten feet high and known as the Pipers. Again turning them to stone was their punishment by being turned to stone for playing for the dancers on a Sunday. Of course the three hundred yards between the two would make hearing the pipers rather difficult for the dancers, yet folklore has the answer there, too. It is said the pipers heard the church clock in St Buryan strike midnight, thus making it Sunday. The pipers turned and ran up the hill, away from the dancers, who continued their dance without music.

Bryn Saith Marchog can only be in the principality of Wales A place name meaning ‘the hill of the seven horsemen or knights’ and named from a local legend. It recalls the seven men left here by Bran the Blessed to guard his lands while he was away in Ireland. Earlier Bran had given the hand of his sister Branwen to the Irish king Matholwch. Much feasting ensues to celebrate the betrothal but the arrival of their half-brother Efnisien puts an end to the festivities for he is greatly displeased he was not consulted. He takes his anger out on Matholwch’s horses who are mutilated. Bran ensures peace is restored by offering a magical cauldron to his Iish counterpart, it having the power of restoring life to the dead, although the individual is left mute for the rest of his or her days. When Branwen travels to Ireland with her husband she is treated badly, despite bearing him a son named Gwern. She summons help by taming a starling and sending a message across the Irish Sea to her homeland. When the British king and his forces are spotted, the Irish retreat, destroying every bridge to prevent pursuit. Yet the giant form of Bran lays himself down for his men to use him as a living bridge. Matholwch tries to appease the invaders but eventually terrible bloody war is waged. Eventually just six individuals remain alive, Branwen and five of her brother’s men returning home with the severed head of Bran the Blessed. Not an Irishman remained and the race would have been extinct had it not been for five pregnant women found residing in Wales, who returned to repopulate their homeland. Branwen dies of grief that two lands have been decimated solely because of her. Meanwhile the head of Bran the Blessed was given the burial he had instructed. First his men feasted for seven years in Harlech, accompanied by three singing birds and their former king’s cranium. Travelling to Gwales in Penfro they make camp for four score (eighty) years, then finally head to London where the head is buried in the White Mount ensuring it it faced France. Legend maintains that as long as the head is undisturbed no invaders could cross the sea to Britain.

Novar is north of the border to Scotland. A place name from Scottish Gaelic taigh an fhuamhair and describing ‘the house of the giant’. Local legends point to just one individual associated with this place, the fabled giant Fingal otherwise known as Finn MacCool. This legendary hunter of Irish mythology was named Deimne as a child but acquired the nickname Finn when his hair turned white prematurely. The Scottish name Fingal does not appear before the eighteenth century and the writings of the poet James Macpherson, this probably indicates the poet chose the name to fit the legends. Finn MacCool’s best known exploit sees him up against the giant Cuhullin. While sucking his thumb, this enabled him to see anything he chose no matter where, he saw his rival intended to confront him. Knowing he was sure to lose in direct competition, he turned to his wife Oona for assistance. First she dressed Finn as a baby and hides him away, then turned her hand to make griddle cakes. When Cuhullin arrived he tried to intimidate the giant’s wife by breaking rocks with just his middle finger. However she has the last laugh when Cuhullin bites into one of her griddle cakes and chips his tooth. Oona accused Cuhullin of being boastful and weak, saying her husband eats the cakes every day without trouble. When Finn apparently returns, he eats a griddle cake without any problem. Cuhullin suspects foul play and Oona did indeed hide griddle irons inside the cake she offered him but not that of her husband. When Cuhullin put his finger into the mouth of Finn to see for himself how sharp these teeth really were, the latter bit off the tip of the middle finger, the source of his rival’s great strength and size. Cuhullin shrank down to the size of a mere man and fled lest he be beaten by the giant Finn.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Taxes not to Pay

Hearing of the so-called ‘bedroom’ tax, I was reminded of other levies applied by governments over the centuries which were never paid because they never existed – at least not officially. It seems over the years we in the United Kingdom have developed terms for taxes which, whilst they may be more accurate, are not correct.

For example the most recent is the Bedroom Tax. Correctly this is not a tax at all but a penalty imposed on those claiming benefits for houses deemed under-occupied. I’m reminded of Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who gave his name to Parkinson’s Law – “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Perhaps we will have Cameron’s Law – “Families expand so as to fill the space available in the home.”

Road Tax should be referred to as Vehicle Excise Duty, although it is also known as vehicle tax and car tax. First introduced in 1888, the modern idea was not introduced until 1920 when the monies raised were earmarked specifically for the building and maintenance of roads, hence the former term of Road Fund, although this was changed in 1936 and has since been a general form of taxation.

Poll Tax was, as with bedroom tax, a misnomer coined by the media and opponents of an idea introduced in 1990 to replace the old rates system. Correctly called Community Charge, the popular name came from the new levy which charged each adult in the property for the services provided by the local authority, when the old rates system charged each property, irrespective of the number of occupants. It’s unpopularity saw this replaced inside three years by council tax, which is effectively the same as the old rates system, itself seen as grossly unfair (hence the change to community charge). This was by no means the first Poll Tax in England and Wales, such were imposed by Charles II in the seventeenth century and John of Gaunt in the fourteenth. That the term ‘poll’ is now used in elections is due to it being an early English word for ‘head’ and, after all, an election is simply a head count.

Window Tax may have levied a charge on houses with windows, but the name of ‘Window Tax’ was never officially used. However it is easy to see why “An Act for granting to His Majesty several Rates or Duties upon Houses good for the Deficiency of the clipped Money” would have required a snappier title. All houses were charged two shillings from 1696, those with ten to twenty windows saw this increased to four shillings, while those with over twenty paid eight shillings annually. In order to avoid paying money to the government many houses from this period which are still standing can be seen to have bricked up windows. These were never returned to their original condition when the act was repealed in July 1851.

Income Tax in the United Kingdom was never called such when first seen in 1188 and introduced by Henry II when he was raising money for yet another Crusade to the Holy Land. When everyone was expected to pay a tenth or ‘tithe’ of their income to the nation to help pay for wars and battles which the layman had no interest in. While an effective income tax was introduced around the same time as the window tax, the idea of declaring one’s earnings was not popular as this was seen as personal information. It was not until 1799 that the modern idea of income tax was first seen in Britain in 1799 to help finance the Napoleonic Wars. Repealed in 1816, opponents demanded all references to this loathed taxation were burned – and got their wish when no less a figure than the Chancellor of the Exchequer publicly set light to the documents. He omitted to inform the assembly a copy was retained and hence we are still paying it today – although I’m sure we might not object to a return to the original rates of a minimum of 0.83% and a maximum of 10%.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.