25 June 2015


So. The other day, we tweeted this:
It’s another one of those “seriously?” words:
HaggardHawks make something up? The very idea of it. Well, there was that one time, but that was entirely different. No—seriously, this is true. And not only that, but there’s a brilliant story behind it.

Smellfungus dates back to 1768. For once, we can be absolutely positive about the date of a word, because we know precisely who invented it, when, and why. So no need to play etymological Cluedo here—it was Laurence Sterne, in the Sentimental Journey, aided and abetted (albeit indirectly) by Tobias Smollett.

Smollett was born in Dunbartonshire in Scotland in 1721. A prolific and well-respected writer, perhaps best known for his comic novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), Smollett’s output covered almost every literary genre and influenced many later literary giants, including Dickens, George Eliot, and William Thackeray. Even the normally unforthcoming George Orwell wrote a glowing essay calling him “Scotland’s Best Novelist”.

Wait—what?! Had Orwell not read any Sherlock Holmes?! Disgraceful. But, I digress.

In all, Smollett’s vast back catalogue includes plays, a non-fiction History of England, several volumes of poetry, half a dozen novels, and even English translations of the likes of Voltaire and Cervantes. But in 1766, he added one more genre to his literary checklist when he published his Travels Through France And Italy, an account of a two-year journey he and his wife embarked on from spring 1763 to summer 1765. Stopping off in the likes of Paris, Nice, Cannes, Pisa, Sienna and Rome, to many it would have been the trip of a lifetime—but Smollett, by and large, remained unimpressed.

Of Florence’s magnificent San Lorenzo chapel, for instance, he wrote that it “will, in my opinion, remain a monument of ill taste and extravagance”. The Pantheon left him “much disappointed”, because “after all that has been said of it, [it] looks like a huge cockpit.” He dismissed Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, painted behind the alter in the Sistine Chapel, as “a mere mob, without subordination, keeping or repose”, and likened it to “a number of people talking all at once”. Even the Vatican itself didn’t escape unscathed:
[Its] relicks of pretended saints, ill-proportioned spires and bellfreys, and the nauseous repetition of the figure of the cross (which is in itself a very mean and disagreeable object, only fit for the prisons of condemned criminals) have contributed to introduce a vicious taste into the external architecture, as well as in the internal ornaments of our temples.
Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: Crap, apparently

Unsurprisingly, when Smollett’s Travels were published, his fairly tactless and hypercritical attitude, as well as the disdainful way in which he wrote about many of the people he encountered (“At Brignolles … I was obliged to quarrel with the landlady and threaten to leave her house before she would indulge us with any sort of flesh-meat”), outraged his contemporaries. But his apparent arrogance and peevishness also made him a prime target for satire—which brings us to Laurence Sterne.

Sterne was born in Ireland in 1713, but spent much of his childhood in England. After graduating from Cambridge, he became the Anglican priest of a small church in rural Yorkshire where he remained for more than twenty years, dabbling in freelance writing in his spare time. In 1759, he self-published his first major work—two volumes of a vast satirical novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman—and within months was one of the most famous authors in the country.

Flushed with success, Sterne quit the church and moved to London in 1760. But in the dank and dreary capital his already precarious health quickly deteriorated, so he and his wife left on a rejuvenating trip to the Mediterranean. They arrived in Montpellier in 1763—where, the following November, they were joined by Tobias Smollett.

It’s unclear exactly how much time Smollett and Sterne spent together, but a number of meetings and engagements are recorded in the letters they sent back home to England, before Smollett decided Montpellier’s cool mountain climate wasn’t for him and he continued on to Nice in early 1764. It’s also largely unclear how well the two men got along, but given what happened next, we can presume the pair hadn’t always seen eye to eye.

In 1768, in response to Smollett’s Travels, Sterne published his own Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. Again, Sterne’s Journey was based around his own tour of the continent, but unlike Smollett his travelogue was also a part-fictionalized follow-up to his earlier novel, Tristram Shandy

Narrated by a genial English reverend named Mr Yorick (Sterne’s literary alter ego), the aptly-titled Sentimental Journey comprises a light-hearted series of comic episodes and romantic encounters, as Yorick travels down through France from Calais and on into Italy. Along the way, he meets a whole host of unusual and whimsical characters—including a glum, overcritical zoilist known only as “Smelfungus”:
The learned Smelfungus travelled from Boulogne to Paris, from Paris to Rome, and so on; but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted. He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.
Smelfungus—spelled with only one L by Sterne—is clearly a fairly unsubtle and unflattering caricature of Smollett, right down to his acerbic views on the architecture of Rome:
I met Smelfungus in the grand portico of the Pantheon—he was just coming out of it. ’Tis nothing but a huge cockpit, said he.
Unfortunately for Smollett the Sentimental Journey was an enormous success, even surpassing Tristram Shandy both critically and commercially. Nowadays it’s seen as having helped to establish travel writing as a respected literary genre in its own right—while Sterne’s acerbic lampoon of Smollett as “Smelfungus” gave the English language a whole new word for a carping, unhappy critic. 

Sadly, however, Sterne didn’t live to see any of the influence his novel would eventually have: he died just twenty days after its publication. And as for Smollett, well, his reputation as a glum, unimpressed tourist—“the most embittered and cantankerous Englishman that ever travelled abroad”, according to one account—might now be permanently installed in the language, but more recent commentators on his work have been considerably more understanding. They quite rightly point out that his Travels were written at a particularly difficult time in his life: both he and Sterne were suffering from the aftereffects of tuberculosis, and he and his wife were still reeling from the death of their only child, their 15-year-old daughter Elizabeth, the previous year.

Not only that, but modern readers who are aware of Smollett’s nit-picking are often surprised to discover how much admiration and positivity his Travels contain alongside the famously tactless criticisms. Indeed despite Smollett’s reputation, the Continent must have held some kind of attraction to him—having retired to Italy in his late 40s, he died in Livorno in 1771, and is buried in the Old English Cemetery in Tuscany.

24 June 2015


Earlier this week, HaggardHawks tweeted this:
Aside from giving us the chance to tweet that fantastic NASA spaceshot, again this is one of those weird facts that almost sounds too strange to be true:
“Infuriatingly interesting” might just be the finest compliment we’ve ever received. But our blushes aside—this factoid is indeed completely genuine. And here’s why.

The arch– of archipelago is the same as in words like archangel and archbishop: derived from the Greek word archos, it essentially means “ruler”, “chief”, or “first and foremost”. It’s also the same arch– we have in words like patriarch (in the sense of a “ruling” father, or an earliest ancestor), anarachy (literally “without a leader”), and even archaeology (which is the study, quite literally, of our “first” artefacts).

The –pelago part, meanwhile, comes from the Greek word for the sea, pelagos, which is similarly the origin of a whole bunch of fairly esoteric geographical terms like bathypelagic. Put these two halves together, and you end up with a word that literally means something like “chief sea”.

The Aegean was (for obvious geographical reasons) the “chief” sea of the Ancient Greeks, so (for obvious etymological reasons) the word archipelago simply began life as another name for it. This was also the meaning that the word had when it first appeared in English back in 1503—but how did we get from there to the meaning we have today?

If you know your European geography, you’ll know that the Aegean Sea is absolutely full of islands. Well, not exactly full, because then there’d be no water. But there are, nevertheless, quite a few of them:

In fact, from the Adelfoi group in the west to the tiny rocky outcrop of Zourafa, there are almost 2,500 islands in the Aegean Sea that together form one-eighth of Greece’s entire land area and are home to one-seventh of the Greek population. So, yes—that’s a lot of islands. And explorers in the sixteenth century knew it.

Thanks to the Aegean’s notably island-studded appearance on maps and navigational charts, when ever more daring journeys of exploration began to be made in the 1500s and 1600s, its name, archipelago, began to be used as a byword for any newly-discovered patch of water that likewise appeared full of islands. 

So when the English explorer Martin Frobisher’s third voyage to uncover the Northwest Passage in 1578 led him into the frozen, island-strewn Canadian Arctic, his lieutenant George Best (no, not that George Best), appropriately noted that:
These broken landes and ilandes, being very many in number, do seeme to make there an Archipelagus, which as they all differ in greatnesse, forme, and fashion, one from another, so are they in goodnesse, couloure, and soyle [soil] muche unlike.
By the 1600s, however, this meaning had altered so that archipelago no longer referred to an island-strewn stretch of water, but to the islands themselves—as in this English translation of the Portuguese explorer Fernão Mendes Pinto’s journey to southeast Asia:
For then he might have means, with less charge, to shut up the Straights of Cincapura [Singapore] … and so stop our Ships from passing to the Seas of China … and the Molucques; whereby he might have the profit of all the Drugs which came from that great Archipelague.
Pinto’s account was translated into English in 1633, and the meaning of archipelago his remained unchanged ever since. 

17 June 2015


Blimey! So HaggardHawks added its 10000th follower yesterday. Seriously, thank you all for following—especially those of you who have been there since Ethan the Hawk (for that looks to be his name, according to the ballot below…) first fluttered into life on Twitter in December 2013. 

So what better way to celebrate than with a good old HaggardHawks quiz? Same rules as last time—20 fiendish language-related multiple choice questions, the answers to which have all been tweeted or written about at some point in the past (though if you can remember them all, you’re doing better than me). Best of luck, and thanks again—everyone—for following. There would be no HaggardHawks without you. 

11 June 2015


The other day, we tweeted this:
Frankly, it sounds made up:
But, in fact, this bizarre quirk of legal terminology is entirely true.

The word immemorial literally means “unrememberable”, or “beyond memory”. Although it’s occasionally found on its own (Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Princess, for one), by and large it’s now considered an example of a “fossil” word—an archaism that only survives in the language in one solitary fixed expression or cliché, like the beck of “beck and call”, the kith of “kith and kin”, or the riddance of “good riddance”. (Shameless plug: there’s more on that in the book.)

The sole expression this particular fossil finds itself embedded in dates back a little over 400 years: the OED has unearthed the earliest record of time immemorial in a document drawn up by Richard Cosin, a sixteenth century ecclesiastical lawyer, in 1593. But the legal concept of time immemorial—referring to a time beyond legal memory, which can be used to establish long-term rights of ownership—dates back considerably further than that.

During his 35 year reign from 1272-1307, Edward I oversaw the institution of three so-called Statutes of Westminster, a set of formal legal documents that attempted to codify all the laws of England and thereby establish a new and fully comprehensive English legal system. Ironically, the foundations of this fully comprehensive English legal system were written in French—or rather Old French—which, two centuries after the Norman Conquest, was still the language of the law and government in England.

Edward I: Hammer of the Scots. Holder of the Long Thin Stick.

The First Statute was drawn up in 1275, and comprised a total of 51 clauses or “chapters”, each of which set out various rules, writs, laws, and legal definitions. Clause 4, for instance, outlined the legality surrounding shipwrecks:
On a wreck of the sea, it is agreed that when a man, a dog, or a cat escapes alive from a ship, neither the ship nor the boat nor anything that was in them shall be adjudged a wreck.
Clause 5, The Freedom of Election Act, is still in force in England and Wales, seven centuries later:
Because elections ought to be free, the king forbids … any man, great or otherwise, to interfere by force of arms or by malicious conduct with the making of a free election.
Clause 34 outlawed slander:
Because many [people] have often invented and told lying tales … it is forbidden … for anyone henceforward to be so bold as to utter or repeat false news or fabrications whence any discord, or intention of discord or slander could arise between the king and his people.
And Clause 39, known as “The Limitation of Prescription Act”, set out to define a standardized cut-off point for legal ownership—a precise date against which all grievances over ownership of land or property could be measured and determined:
No one is to be given a hearing to claim seisin [feudal ownership of land] by an ancestor of his further back than the time of King Richard, uncle of King Henry, the father of the present king.
Effectively, this meant that if you had your ownership of a given property or plot of land challenged by writ of right, all you had to do to quash the challenge was prove that you and your ancestors had maintained ownership of said property since before Richard I became king. The First Statute of Westminster ultimately established the date of Richard’s ascendancy—6 July 1189—as the cut off point for living memory, or the time “whereof the memory of Man runneth not to the contrary”. Anything that occurred before that date was thereby deemed to be beyond living memory, or, in legal parlance at least, time immemorial.

This definition remained in force in England and Wales right through to 1832, when it was finally figured out that being compelled to demonstrate ancestral ownership of something for 643 years could prove somewhat tricky. As a result, shortly before his death, William IV passed The Prescription Act that shortened the legally required length of ownership or use of a contested property to anything between 20 and 60 years, depending on its use

This remains the standard requirement for disputes of ownership in England and Wales, and consigned the legal definition of time immemorial to the history books. Although the phrase itself—albeit a fossilized one—still lives on.


6 June 2015


Today marks the seventy-first anniversary of the Normandy Landings—perhaps better known as D-Day. Etymologically, there’s a longstanding myth that the D of D-Day stands for something along the lines of “disembarkation”, “decision”, or “deployment”, or even “Deutschland” or “Doomsday”, but in fact:
So if the D doesn’t standing for anything, why is it there at all?

The fact is that while military operations are being planned, it’s not always clear from the outset when they’ll actually take place. As a result, their future start date—whenever that may be—is simply referred to as “D-Day”, and this title acts as a placeholder until a specific date can be finalized. (Shameless plug: there’s more on this in the new book.) 

If anything, the D of D-Day could be said to derive from the word ‘day’ (indeed the French equivalent is J-Jour, and the exact time an operation takes place is known as H-Hour) but it certainly can’t be said to stand for it.

Not only that, but the term D-Day is also a lot older than most people think. The earliest record we have of its use dates not from the Second World War, but from the First, and an American military order sent out on 7 September 1918:
The First Army will attack at H-Hour on D-Day with the object of forcing the evacuation of St. Mihiel salient.
Saint-Mihiel is a small town in the Meuse department of north-eastern France, that for three days in September 1918 was the site of one of the most important United States military operations of the entire First World War. Under the command of US Army General John Pershing, an enormous body of American Expeditionary troops—including thousands from the newly-formed United States Army Air Service, now the US Air Force—secured a decisive Allied victory over an ill-prepared and chaotic German contingent.

The Battle of Saint-Mihiel lasted from 12-15 September, during which more than half a million US soldiers, alongside 110,000 French troops, fought to secure the strategically significant Saint-Mihiel “salient”—a technical term for a narrow, isolated strip of land projecting from one region into another—in the hope of eventually recapturing the larger French city of Metz. As it happens, the attack on Metz was never realized, and as the German forces continued to crumble the War came to an end just weeks later, on 11 November 1918.

The term D-Day continued to be used intermittently throughout the 1920s and 30s, until it became all but permanently attached to “Operation Neptune”—the military codename of the decisive Normandy Landings—on 6 June 1944. 


When it came to being amazed, those Victorians really knew how to respond:
If ever an old fashioned phrase needed bringing back into circulation, it was this one. But where does a saying as bizarre as this one come from?

The earliest record we have of this beats my grandmother! dates back to 1833, when it first appeared in a comic poem included in an American elocutionary reader, The United States Speaker. The poem, “Logic”, outlines a light-hearted back-and-forth conversation between a young schoolboy—“an Eton stripling”—who has just returned from boarding school, and his uncle, Sir Peter, whom he is visiting:

“Well, Tom, the road; what saw you worth discerning?
How’s all at college Tom: what is’t you’re learning?”
“Learning?—Oh, logic, logic; not the shallow rules
Of Lockes and Bacons, antiquated fools!
But wits’ and wranglers’ logic; for d’ye see
I’ll prove as clear as A, B, C,
That an eel-pie’s a pigeon; to deny it
Is to say that black’s not black;”—“Come, let’s try it?”
“Well, sir; an eel-pie is a pie of fish:” “Agreed.”
“Fish-pie may be a jack-pie:”—“Well, well, proceed.”
“A jack-pie is a John-pie—and ’tis done!
For every John-pie must be a pie-John!”
“Bravo! bravo!” Sir Peter cries,—“Logic for ever! 
This beats my grandmother, and she was clever!”

Tom’s grandmother-beating argument is that the eels in an eel-pie are fish, as are the jacks (an old nickname for a young pike) in a “jack-pie”. Jack is a pet form of John, and “John-pie” when reversed gives “pie-John”— hence, “pigeon”. Ipso facto. Quod erat demonstrandum. Logic forever, indeed.

The poem is unfortunately anonymous, which makes it hard to pin down the precise origin of this beats my grandmother. Its appearance here in an American textbook makes it tempting to presume it’s an American invention, but the reference to Eton College confuses things, as does the fact that the entire “pigeon”/“pie-John” argument is apparently considerably older than this poem might suggest: a reference to it here, for instance, from a book published in London in 1821, suggests that it was already fairly well known even by then.

But regardless of its American or British ancestry, one question remains—why on earth does it beat my grandmother? 

Well, oddly enough, this beats my grandmother! was just one in a long line of bizarre eighteenth-nineteenth century slang expressions that emphatically alluded to the speaker’s grandmother. So all my eye and my grandmother! meant “don’t talk rubbish”. So is your grandmother! was the Victorian equivalent of that schoolyard favourite, “I know you are, but what am I?” And to shoot your grandmother meant to find out a juicy bit of gossip, only to discover that everybody else already knows it. (Shameless plug: there’s more on this here.) 

Some of these expressions even made the leap from everyday colloquial English into hard-copy literature. Dickens, for instance, used the emphasizing expression not even to your grandmother in Our Mutual Friend (1865). Anthony Trollope dismissively used your grandmother! in his novel Phineas Redux (1873), as did Mark Twain in his short story How I Edited An Agricultural Paper Once (1870). And chances are you’ll have heard someone warn not to teach your grandmother to suck eggs—which Henry Fielding used in Tom Jones as far back as 1749.

As well as being the only one of these phrases to still be in use today, this egg-sucking grandma is also the oldest—and as such provides the best clue to the origin of this entire clutch of expressions. It’s earliest record dates all the way back to 1707, but before then, seventeenth-century speakers were telling each other not to teach their grandmothers “to sup sour milk”, “to make milk-kail” (a type of cabbage soup), and even “to grope a goose” (meaning to poke a goose’s rear end to see if it’s ready to lay an egg—which is likely the origin of the egg-sucking grandma).

Some geese: boy, has grandmother got a surprise for you...

The implication of all of these sayings was the same—don’t try to tell an informed, experienced person how to do something they already know how to do. Tellingly, a similar meaning is implied by another expression, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, which has been found in a list of proverbs dating back to 1636 but is probably much, much older: a book on animal husbandry written in 1534, for instance, advises that “it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe [i.e. be compliant]”. The same book also explains the best technique for greasing sheep. Truly, it’s an indispensable read.

The implications in the old dog new tricks and grandma to suck eggs might be different, but there’s only a slight semantic sidestep from “old dog” to “old person”, and hence to “grandmother”—so it’s likely that the one inspired the other, and, eventually, its plethora of later variations. 

And if that doesn’t beat your grandmother, I don’t know what will.