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.


Monday, 29 July 2013

Wonderful news from Buckinghamshire, 1677

A quick post: while looking through Early English Books Online for an early example of a dream book  (more later on that) I came across a truly wonderful title. I give the title page more or less as it appears:


How a young Maid hath been for
Twelve years and upwards possest with the
D E V I L ;
And continues so to this very day in a 
Lamentable Condition.

With an Account of several Discourses with the said Evil
Spirit, and his Answers: attested by Ear-witnesses; and other
strange Circumstances from time to time relating thereunto.
Published for the Awaking and Convincing of Atheists and
modern Sadduces, who dream that there is neither
Angel nor Spirit.
Licensed according to Order
London : Printed for D.M.  1677

Stirring stuff. Apart from the startling difference in the meaning of 'wonderful', I like the 'ear-witnesses' - we have eye-witnesses, so why not ear-witnesses?

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Seventeenth century flintlock flint

Some photographs of the incredibly beautiful flintlock flint we found today on the foreshore of the Thames by the Tower of London. Staff reckoned it to be from the seventeenth century. It's larger than I would expect a flint to be for this purpose, but may have been for a large mechanism for a large gun, or conceivably as a model for flintworkers to work from. Either way, the thought of the care required to create something so precise by the process of flint-knapping makes it a thing of wonder. Thanks to the staff from the Museum of London and COLAS who were at hand, for their expertise and enthusiasm.


Friday, 19 July 2013

Perfumed Candles, 1705

Perfumed candles, to make them 

Perfumes of this kind are very grateful for the entertainment of company, when they have a double advantage of pleasing two senses by it, one in seeing the cheerful light and the other in smelling the delightful odours, it disperses from its beams. To do this, take dried charcoal made from the branches of willow an ounce, wood of myrrh, storax, calamita and aloes of each an ounce and a half, of labdanum an ounce, of amber and musk each seven grains, oil of spikenard two ounces, spirit of wine wherein gum tragacanth is dissolved two ounces, bees wax four ounces, make these by a gentle heat so soft that you may rowl them up like small candles over a cotton wick, and when you see your time light one or more of them and they will give a tolerable good light, and perfume the place with a very pleasing odour; but if they give not light enough for the entertainment, you may set common  candles amongst them, and these burning by the bedside of a sick person, will be a great refreshment to the fading or drooping of spirits. 

You may make this composition, leaving the wax out, into little cakes or balls, and burn it in the day time for being set on fire, it will burn out without putting on any live coals; but rather in such a case, make it up into little rowls the length of your finger.

Beauties Treasury 1705 

I have been trying to make sense of the use of the comma in this text. The first paragraph seems to be straightforward, with commas between clauses, or marking good places to take a breath, until the very odd comma between 'odours' and 'it'; odd that is until I realised that with the addition of 'which' before 'it' there is no problem at all. There does seem a serious need to have a comma between 'time' and 'for' in the second paragraph, for there is a definite change of direction in the sentence, as there has been in this one. The comma between 'ounces' and 'make' in the first paragraph would now be replaced by a semi-colon; and that between 'person' and 'will' is needing only its counterpart between 'these' and 'burning' to satisfy modern sensibilities (i.e. mine). 

Punctuation, and particularly the locating of commas, seems a very personal and idiosyncratic business, to do with how we make meaning as we write: the weight we give to clauses and the connections we wish to emphasise. Originally designed to indicate to an orator where to take a breath, the comma still carries something of this, as well as indicating a break between blocks of closely connected meaning in a sentence. At my school one teacher taught us that if you could read five consecutive words within a sentence and they 'made sense' there was no comma needed; and if they didn't, then one was. But I don't think this can be much more than a rule of thumb, or perhaps it was designed to get unruly boys to think about how to communicate effectively.

How pleasant to see that people were making scented candles in 1705. But shouldn't there be an apostrophe there - Beauty's Treasury rather than Beauties Treasury? That's another story.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The Britisher’s back-bone

The Britisher’s back-bone

Very powerful muscles along the back support a man’s back-bone, and if the correct balance and poise of the body is to be attained, they must be cultivated with that object. How often do we hear the statement that so-and-so is man with “plenty of back-bone”? Sometimes the phrase may be meant to imply that he is a man full of pluck, sometimes to suggest that he possesses staying-power and endurance; sometimes it may even be used in an attempt to describe him as possessing the essential qualities of a Britisher. Yet a man with a good back-bone is merely a man who supports himself in the upright position with dignity and carriage. Such a one is reckoned within the British Empire to be typical of his race and tradition.

Physical Jerks, Thomas Lowe, 1921  

Captain Lowe was clearly a man with a mission: in the preface he states 'The war proved that the British were a C3 nation in physique and an A1 nation in ideals.' Had the War stiffened the British back-bone? Was there a need for the British male to get fit or to keep fit? Had those endless exercises at the Bull Ring at Etaples actually improved the physical fitness of the British serviceman, or made him so resentful of physical training that any form of PT was to be avoided?