About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

An Elizabethan scare-cure

A mouse rotted and given to children to eat remedieth pissing the bed.

The Widowes Treasure, 1595

Careful reading makes it clear that the children were given the mouse to eat, not actually directed to eat it. Presumably the intention was to provoke the response - 'No, I honestly won't wet the bed, ever again, Only don't make me eat the rotten mouse.'

However, given the nature of Elizabethan medicine we cannot be sure. People were regularly pouring down their throats water distilled from other people's body parts, oils derived from boiled frogs and toads, powdered snail-shells and fish-bones and glass, and goodness knows what else. It is not unlikely that some brave children took a deep breath and a courageous bite of rotten mouse, and no doubt were very, very ill. And were treated appropriately.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Hiccups, folk etymology, and a treatment for the plague

It was while looking at Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1823 edition) during a workshop on change in English that we found ourselves discussing hiccups (we being myself and students and staff from Redborne Upper School).

Walker gives two pronunciations for the word spelt as ‘hiccough’ – hik-kup and hik-kof (his spellings, but without the stress marks or vowel sound indicators). Given that the previous usual words for this were ‘yexing’ and ‘hickit’, which were clearly onomatopoeic, it looks likely that ‘hiccup’ was also onomatopoeic, but given a folk-etymology spelling; this would be on the basis that ‘hiccup’ did not mean anything, but could be thought of as fairly close to ‘hiccough’; and as the phenomenon happened more or less in the throat, ‘cough’ was an extremely plausible word to bring together physical location, sound and spelling. Keep the spelling ‘cough’ and the pronunciation ‘cup’ and all requirements are satisfied.

This seems to be the way that folk etymology works. Generally you have a spoken word to describe something, and the linguistic signifier has no integral connection to the signified thing/action/feeling/whatever. But in some cases there appears some sort of magnetic urge to bring together the received sound and some known word or words to try to make sense of the thing in your hand.

For example, you have something looking like a nut that comes from Spain or France, where it is called castaña or châtaigne, both of which sound vaguely similar to the English words ‘chest’ + ‘nut’; the thing looks enough like a nut (though it is not), to justify creating a word made up from perfectly good English components that we can all understand, though the combination is meaningless, even misleading. The fact that the combined meanings may have little or no sense does not matter at all – asparagus used to be called sparrow-grass, despite there being no basis for any connection between the plant and sparrows; and it is not a grass. Occasionally there occurs a made-up word or phrase in which the vague similarity of sound is reinforced by some other similarity – avocado pears were for some time ‘alligator pears’, the similarity of the skin between animal and fruit urging the usage of ‘alligator’. Its phonic distance from ‘avocado’ isn't so far - two similar vowel sounds in the right place, and the same number of syllables.

My most alarming recent folk-etymology find has been a medical one, in a treatment for the plague. A Joyfull Jewel, T Hill’s translation of Leonardo Fioravanti (1579), recommends dealing with plague buboes thus:

Also you shall open the sores quickly that the matter may come forth, and when they are broken you shall put therein our caustic once only, because it purgeth it divinely.

I have updated the spelling, but the original of ‘caustic’ was ‘cow-stick’. I imagine a printer for whom this was an unknown word (and of course spelling at this time was a free–for-all), working from a mysterious spelling and getting the pronunciation, and from this building a word made from known components. What this led to in terms of possible actual treatment is very scary. I assumed that a cowstick would be a long, pointed stick used for prodding and guiding cows. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries cows were not uncommon in city streets, and would need to be guided and herded around – with cow-sticks.

What stopped me at first seeing the folk etymology was the possible scenario in which it would be advisable, when dealing with a bursting bubo, to use a long stick. A bursting bubo sometimes would visibly spray outwards, so it would be natural to want to keep your distance to avoid infection – or at least unpleasantness. Given that most physicians at this time wore long black gowns, broad hats and beaked masks, the use of a cow-stick would have been by no means the most disturbing aspect of treatment. Once again, it’s good to be alive in the twenty-first century.

By the way:

Take thy finger ends, and stop both thine Ears very hard, and the Hickop will surcease immediately.

A Rich Storehouse or Treasurie for the Diseased, 1607

I tried it and it works. Don’t be tempted to use a cow-stick.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Public administration in the time of pestilence

Hereafter I will wright what Magistrats and their officers should doo in time of pestilence, to preserve the people from great ruin.

All Magistrates and their officers when the pestilence doth reign should with all diligence govern and rule their subjects, unto the which there appertaineth five things.

The first is not to put them in such feare, as now a dayes the most parte do, taking them from their houses feafully carrying them unto the Hospitalls, where a number sick of the pestilence are, for the which cause if they were not infected, that terror were enough to kil them, and this is the first thing to be considered.

The second thing is to cause the Phisitions to helpe them, for there is no such cruel disease, but that the Phisitions in short times may finde remedy for it.
The third is to visit them often times and to comfort them with good words and not to let them lack victuals, least that the necessities and feare might cause the infirmitie and death.

The fourth is to let them remaine in their houses and to give them those things that are necessary for them so that they may be cheerful and wel willing.

The fifth and last thing that should be done is to leave their goods, and not to take and burn them, but to preserve them from the other people, and this doing they shall not be afraid, for this is the best way that can be found in the worlde; and therefore happy shall that Cittie be and those people where the Magistrats and officers do use these orders that I have heer prescribed.

From A Joyfull Jewell, Leonardo Fioravanti, trans John Hester, 1579

Fioravanti was working in Bologna in the mid-sixteenth century. What is noteworthy is the need to state these points, with the implication that on occasions they were ignored; so that plague-affected cities must have been left without administration, doctors, and with looting and forcible removal. He has a perhaps naive trust in doctors’ ability to find a cure, but this is an early example of a public health administration programme in a time of crisis.