Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Mafflers, manducation and a mug of mobby

Some of the more sharp-eyed of you have probably realised by now that English is my mother tongue. And what an amazing language it is, or rather combination of languages; for over the centuries we have begged, stolen or borrowed words from other languages to supplement our own. When William the Bastard landed in England in 1066, the native Saxons were busy farming their cows, pigs and sheep, but it was the Normans (who were originally from Scandinavia themselves - literally North Men) who introduced the terms beef, pork and mutton; an indication, perhaps, that it was the Saxons who reared the livestock but the Normans who got to eat it. Subsequently, the rise of Empire and international travel brought words as diverse as bungalow (Bengali), curry (Tamil), gabardine (Breton), cravat (Croatian), bludgeon (Cornish) and robot (Czech) to the language. At the time of writing, we're still half-inching words from across the globe.

There are many different kinds of English. There are the dialects in counties such as Devon, Yorkshire and Norfolk, where accents are so thick that you could cut them with a knife. Then there is the formal language of the courtroom and of Parliament, where business was originally conducted in Latin or Norman French. There is the BBC Radio 4 presenter, with his or her clipped accent (albeit this has been much watered-down over the last few years - except for newsreader Charlotte Green!). And we must not forget the language of the majority of us, with its informality, its slang, its nuances and its ability to talk utter rubbish. 'If it's not one thing, it's another!' True. If the thing on my plate is not a sausage, it must be something else. 'I'm all fingers and thumbs today!' Well, what else is there?

Speaking of sausages, I suffered, or rather encountered, a curious coincidence today. A couple of days ago I was perusing the website of a magazine that rejoices in the name of The Oldie, when I came across a book entitled Fopdoodle and Salmagundi in their recommended books list. Now, you will be aware that the former word refers to a fool or insignificant wretch, and the latter to a mixture of chopped meat and pickled herrings with oil, vinegar, pepper and onions, and equally you will be aware that both words appear in Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictionary, and it seems only fair to give a nod to the good Doctor in this the tercentenary of his birth. Anyway, today, whilst sorting out my rather extensive collection of books, I came across an 1837 copy of the dictionary aforesaid. And, despite a suggestion to the contrary in the Blackadder episode entitled 'Ink and Incapability', the dictionary does contain the word 'sausage', which is described as a roll or ball made commonly of pork or veal, minced very small with salt and spice. So that's alright then.

The dictionary was published in 1755, six years later than intended. This is mainly due to the fact that the Doctor produced the whole thing almost single-handedly. For this incredible piece of lexicography, he received the princely sum of 1500 guineas (that's £1575), so he effectively earned £175 per year; this at a time when a footman could earn £8 per annum, an artisan £40, and a gentleman of the 'middling sort' would be happy with £100 a year. Doctor Johnson could have used some of his hard-earned cash to buy himself a suit of clothes (£8), rent a set of rooms (his friend Boswell paid around £40 a year for his), or pop down to the barbers' shop, where he could get a shave and have his wig 'dressed' for sixpence.

My dog-eared copy of the dictionary runs to 732 pages. Dear reader, I shall not weary you with a plethora of definitions, but here are three that may amuse:

Lexicographer - "a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification, of words". (Johnson is describing himself!)

Camelopard - ''An Abyssinian animal, taller than an elephant, but not so thick". (He was talking about a giraffe - hi Raph!)

Gastromyth - "One who has the faculty of speaking out of his belly". (I couldn't explain this one until I saw Johnson's definition of a ventriloquist - "one who speaks in such a manner as that the sound seems to issue from his belly". Goodness only knows what the dummy looked like!)

Oh, and the words in the title of this post; a maffler is someone with a stammer, manducation is the act of chewing, and mobby was apparently an American drink made from potatoes. Nice.

One final question. Would Samuel Johnson have made use of the computer, had it been available to him? I think so. He was of the opinion that 'The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book'. The good Doctor would certainly have found the internet extremely useful in this context. He also believed that 'no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money'. (So what does this blog make me?) A computer would have allowed him access to a whole world of books, and would certainly have speeded up the process of producing his dictionary. And I think the computer's 'cut and paste' facility would have seen a fair amount of use. Johnson said, 'read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out'. Oh, and the word computer appears on page 123 of the dictionary. It's another term for an accountant.


Comedy Goddess said...

I don't know about you, but whenever I chantpleur it always leads me to wanting some bellytimber!

chris hale said...

I had no idea you were a student of both Middle French and Victorian slang!

Dr. J. does not have chantpleur However, I did find Char-woman - a woman hired accidentally (?) for odd work. Very odd.

Madame DeFarge said...

I've never read the good Doctor, which given how much I enjoy words is rather strange. I may now have to go and acquire this for future delectation and delight.

You remain an education in yourself Mr Hale.

Emerson Marks said...

Bloody Hell, that post was like going back in time to a lesson in school I didn't hate. I imagine catching sight of a giraffe back then would've put the fear of God into you.

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

I don't know how/when you post your items but they never seem to appear further than half way up my favourite blogs list!!

As for:

"There are the dialects in counties such as Devon, Yorkshire (my italics) and Norfolk, where accents are so thick that you could cut them with a knife."

I resemble that remark!

chris hale said...

MDF - Thanks...I think. As I believ you live in the throbbing metropolis it may be worth visiting Dr. Johnson's house this year; it's in Gough Square, just off Fleet Street.

Emerson - welcome to my humble blog! Yes, exotics must have been pretty scary then.

Derrick - perhaps your blog is trying to tell us both something. Oh, and by the way, I enjoy hearing regional accents; why, I'm a Norf Londoner meself, gor blimey and strike a light guv'nor!

Comedy Goddess said...

Chantpleur means to sing and cry at the same time. Ta da!

chris hale said...

CG - Another word to add to the vocab! And may I offer you my heartiest contifibularities!

Dedene said...

What good fun! Don't you think that mutton came from mouton?
I really enjoy your posts.

chris hale said...

Dedene - You're absolutely right; mutton is derived from mouton, but in England mutton came to mean the 'dead meat' rather than the live animal.

And thanks for your kind words!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I wonder if this means thick in girth or intelligence, Chris?! (I'm glad I'm not a computer any more!)

I've always liked the phrase 'head over heels'. 'Head over heels' in love must mean unmoved status quo!

chris hale said...

Raph - I think Dr. J was talking about thickness of skin!

Head over heels - this expression is related to two other expressions in Dr. Johnson's dictionary: 'topsy-turvy', and the rather naughtier 'arsy-versy'(!)