This week’s word: “random”

David Parry and I looking rather random

It’s about time this blog had a “random” post.

OK, yes, that is a rather lame lead-in to this week’s word, which also happens to be random, as it were, which can be found, as usual, on The Cambridge’s Student‘s site, in its usual corner on its usual page, but also below:

“As one might imagine, the meanings of words tend to change, not always randomly, but sometimes seemingly so. I must thank my decidedly non-random friend Neil Simpson for suggesting that we investigate “random.”

Something or someone that acts in a random fashion, as we know it today, does so rather chaotically, without purpose or guidance. This contemporary meaning has its roots in a much less random meaning of the word, stemming directly from its origins in clashing knights on war-horses.

That is right: chivalry, and all that jazz.

The original Anglo-Norman and Old French word, “randoun,” dating from around the 12th century, and then the later Middle French word, “randon,” refers to “speed” or “haste,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED), and also to “impetuousness” or “violence,” from “randir,” meaning “to run fast,” or “gallop.” It might be related to the Germanic word “rand” (as in the Old Saxon, or Middle Low German) meaning “shield,” or, alternatively, “border” or “edge,” and thus “shield-rim” or “shield-boss” (the knobby thing in the middle of round shields, and handy for hitting).

As such, and as noted by the OED, the word can be found in as old a text as “Beowulf” (which itself dates to between the seventh and tenth centuries) with this rather undecipherable line, “He under rande gecranc.” An Old English translation of Exodus from the 10th century describes the parting waves of the Red Sea as the “randgebeorh,” or “shield-wall.”

We also find the Middle-French expression, de randon or “at speed,” and the Anglo-Norman phrase, a grant randun or “in great haste.” To strike “with great random” was to do so with great force while riding or running, as in the medieval joust, though “at the random” probably refers to the wilder jousting that did not include such niceties as barriers. Additionally, in falconry, “flying at speed” was said to be “at random.” These now obsolete meanings, as the OED tells us, referring to a “an impetuous rush” or a “rapid, headlong course” were its predominate senses until the 17th century.

By the end of the 1500s, the meaning behind the phrase began to change, and meant something less directed, and more out-of-control, perhaps stemming from the idea that running at a full gallop was not always the picture of serenity and restraint. Thus we have the Bard using this line in his Venus and Adonis (c. 1592), “But hatefully at random dost thou hit.” Alexander Pope (1688-1744) later used the word in his Dunciad, which attacked hack writers, with the line in question being, “She shows … How random thoughts now meaning chance to find.”

Finally, in a bit of nostalgia, Mark Twain (i.e. Samuel Clemens; 1835-1910), used the word in 1889, in its older sense, in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with the line, “Two knights came together with great random.”

Well, I hope that was not too terribly random, as it were. If you have any (random) word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

Being asked if I am an American …

find the American!

It is strange that such a simple question can make your heart jump into your throat.

“Are you an American?” people will ask, as soon as you open your mouth, or just act in your typically overly gregarious American way, which sometimes involves using your hands to eat, looking people in the eye, laughing out loud, or just smiling because you want to (from what I can tell, the far more reserved Brits usually don’t do these sorts of things, not normally).

“Why, yes,” you reply, with perhaps too much obvious pride, and in my case, maybe slowing down your syllables so much that you’d make John Wayne grimace.

“That I am, ma’aaam,” (or “sir,”), adding, “I am an Am-er-ic-an.”

Now, I feel like a fairly patriotic fellow. I do love my country, very much, and its people, despite our flaws, because of what we stand for, and what we represent. We can do better, of course, and should. To barrow shamelessly from G.K. Chesterton, ‘”My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.'” Chesterton also talks about how a love of one’s home and country, put in a proper perspective, can help you to learn and look forward to Heaven.

“How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” asks C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves. “Once you have realized that the Frenchman like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs – why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everything else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.”

Though I know very little, and perceive even less, I do sense that people the world over, even in England, do look to us for leadership (no pressure!). All my American friends in Cambridge have stories of being grilled about our foreign policy, even here, by our closest friends and allies.

But to continue.

“I could tell,” whoever asked you if you’re from America, usually says, “because of your accent” (not adding, “and because you’re loud and silly and are smiling like a nutter”); this is quickly followed by, “Where in the States [they like putting it this way] are you from?”

“Seattle, Washington!” I’ll announce, with pride.

Sometimes, just for a moment, there’ s a bit of confusion … perhaps surprisingly, not everyone knows exactly where Seattle is, and the mention of “Washington” makes even the more geographically astute pause.

“You mean Washington state?” they’ll ask, for clarification.

“That’s the one!” you’ll add, still beaming with more than your fair share of pride (“I got asked if I was an American!” you think, ” and how cool is that?”).

Ah, but sometimes I am forced to add, “it’s near Vancouver,” or “just across from British Columbia, where we use the names of Indian chiefs and tribes,  as well as dead English sea captains, to name our cities and mountains.”

I mean this is as a sort of joke, but I usually get a thoughtful nod of the head (“what did he say about dead sea captains?”).

ah, there's one of those American-types!

It’s not just British people who ask if you’re an American, but people from all over the world, including lots of students from Asia, but it’s especially fun, I think, to be asked by someone who is quite English.

We were, after all, their colony not too long ago (certainly not by their standards of history), but instead of being their sons or daughters, we are now their “cousins.” It really does feel like we are part of some kind of extended family, complete with eye-rolling at the others’ behavior.

My friend Neil, for example, bemoans my habit of resorting to folksy Americanisms.

At a meeting the other day, I was about to cheer our little editorial board for a journal project we’re working on with some Davy-Crockett-esque phrase: “Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead …” and my fellow American (well, half-Danish, but still mostly American) friend Christian hopped in, “when your backs against …”

“Ah!” Neil sighs, in his Glasgowian-Scots brogue.  “There you Americans go again, with your folksy backwoods sayings …”.

You smile: “he said ‘you Americans’! how often does that happen?” you wonder … .

P.S. I must include a shout-out to my grandma for her box full of snacks she sent all the way from Florida; thanks grandma!

This week’s word: “merry-andrew”

trying to, everyday!

I am a merry-andrew, about many things.

It’s true.

Starting with writing about rugby; I happened to be going to the Royal-Navy-Cambridge game on Wednesday night, and was drafted by the sports editor at The Cambridge Student to write something about it. Their real sports reporter couldn’t make it; I was silly enough to mention that I was going to be there.

“Do you want cover the match, Will?” my editor asked, turning from his computer to face me.

“You do realize I know nothing about rugby, having never seen a live match, or any sort of match, for that matter?” I implored.

“Oh, that’s fine, it’ll be fun!” he enthused, adding, “it’ll be an experience!”

“But I don’t even know the rules!”

“Oh, just write down who scores what and when,” he assured me, “and just do your best.”

So your vainglorious etymology columnist set off to write not only his first story about rugby, but his first sports story, ever.

With lots of help from my editor, and my friend Werner, who came to the game with me and who used to play rugby, and was thus a sort of interpreter,  it turned out all right (indeed, a far more experienced sports-reporting friend of mine said I exercised some “1920s sports writer lingo”). I should also give a shout-out to the Green family from Tennessee; they were part of our little group too. Their dad, Dr. Brad Green, is here on sabbatical at Tyndale House.

he's not a merry-andrew

Regarding the word, I was inspired to write about it after recalling a scene from Kate and Leopold (and yes, it’s a romantic-comedy, but I’m still manly … I have a beard … that makes me manly, right?). You can find it in its usual spot, on the left-hand side of p. 16 (the rugby story is on the back, on p. 32) as posted on The Cambridge Student‘s site, but also here:

“In the film, Kate and Leopold, Hugh Jackman’s character (the titular Leopold) warns his friend Charlie that he is acting the part of a “merry-Andrew.”

“A what?” asks Charlie, who, unlike Leopold, was not born in the 19th century, literally.

“Everything plays a farce to you,” replies the debonair duke. “Women respond to sincerity. No one wants to be romanced by a buffoon.”

Certainly not! Hello there, fellow word-fans; taking a break from our etymological trek into contemporary idiom, let us spend a few minutes pondering … buffoonery.

The Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) identifies this (apparently) formerly proper noun with the antics of a crowd-pleasing clown, a foolish jokester or a mountebank’s assistant (more on that in a moment). While I am sure we have all felt like merry-andrews (or Merry-Andrews) at one time, or even acted like one, the actual origin of the phrase, and its connection to clownish behavior, can be traced back to London’s infamously rowdy Bartholomew Fair.

Held in Smithfield, in the ward of Farringdon Without, from roughly the 12th to the mid-19th centuries, this was not an innocent country fair, but rather a rancorous gathering of all manner of crazy entertainments, including prize fights, acrobatic exercises, music and puppets. Yes, puppets, as well as bawdy ballads, an especially silly character from which probably inspired the original idea, which had enough popular cachet by 1668 to be recorded by that prolifically observant diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), when he noted in his entry for Aug. 29, “I … took her and Mercer and Deb to Bartholomew-fair, and there did see a ridiculous, obscene little stage-play called ‘Mary Andrey’, a foolish thing but seen by everybody.”

The word’s use by a  pair of poetical playwrights, John Dryden (1631-1700) and Aphra Behn (c. 1640-1689), shows how it had caught on by the end of the century, with the former using it in a 1684 poem with the line, “Th’ Italian Merry-Andrews took their place, And quite Debauch’d the Stage with lewd Grimace.” The latter used it in a more descriptive sense, with this line from the 1678 play, Sir Patient Fancy, “I am made a John A-Nokes of, Jack-hold-my-staff, a Merry Andrew Doctor to give Leander time to marry your Daughter.”

As for acting like a mountebank’s assistant, to understand that, you should know that historically, a “mountebank,” as related by the OED, was “an itinerant charlatan who sold supposed medicines and remedies, frequently using various entertainments to attract a crowd of potential customers.” The word comes from the Italian phrase, “monta in banco,” or “mount on bench,” as such roguish tricksters were wont to do as they sold their quackery, and a merry-andrew or two could come in handy.

You definitely do not want to be a merry-andrew, or worse, a mountebank’s sidekick.  Having been forewarned, if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

Finally, here’s the group of us from the rugby match:

my friend and the other Will, Werner and the Green family at the rugby match

Paperwork

Trinity College: built on ... lots of paperwork

My first inclination was to apologize, which was very English … as instead of finally writing about my recent trips to some of the villages surrounding Cambridge (which I still promise to do), I wanted to mention one very British bugaboo: paperwork.

Amazingly, the UK has a bit of a bureaucracy. Shocking? Not quite. Nonetheless, I am used to paperwork. Growing up in a military family, we did a great deal of paper-pushing, form-filling and question-answering, and as my parents used to say (and still do, even though I ought to know better), “God doesn’t fill it out for you” (usually used as an encouragement to apply to something I know I don’t have a hoot and a holler of winning, but should apply to regardless; another saying of my mom’s: “the only way you can make sure you don’t get something is by not applying for it!”).

Really, I have some empathy when it comes to writing in block letters in little boxes on piles, nay, veritable swaths, of dead trees (err, I mean paper).

Yes, I am slight environmentalist; I love to recycle, and therefore feel bad using so much paper … But the British have taken it to a whole new level: they love the stuff! Forms in triplicate, forms for forms, signatures, notarized copies … it’s all very Proper and Procedural, of course, sort of like politeness turned pulpy, or queuing on stationary. If they were good at it, I wouldn’t mind so much. But the sad truth of the matter is that they’re not.

For example, I ordered a mini-fridge for my room a long time ago (back in October). I waited for the proscribed amount of time (about five weeks or so) and then checked to see where it was … it wasn’t quite ready, they said. So I told them not to worry, but to deliver it to my room for the first week or so of this term … ah, but no fridge was forthcoming. I checked again. Several weeks later, a sincere apology is made, but “sorry, sir, but it seems we never actually ordered it …” . Ugh!

Now I just assume that processing all that paper will just take time. If they say something will be ready by Thursday (in this case, my student-loan checks), I realize nonchalantly that they won’t really be here until Monday.

“They’re not in yet … sorry.”

“Oh, that’s all right …” I saw out loud, but to myself: “didn’t expect them to be, you silly Brit!”

With internal dialogue like that, it’s a wonder I haven’t lost what remains of my sanity. I’ve come dangerously close on several occasions, mind you, but several good cups of tea and several dozen sugar cubes usually sets me right again. I realize that just to be here I had to slay whole forests.

Going back home and hiking in the woods will my chance to atone for all the paperwork I’ve done: “I am sorry, my arboreal friends, for taking so many of you down in my mad quest for a Cambridge MPhil!”

In the end, however, I can agree with Treebeard: “My home is deep in the forest near the roots of the mountains.” I do miss you all back in the Northwest, and hope to see you soon.

For now, however, my road (or rather rail) leads to London; I am hoping to go down on Friday, to visit a few touristy spots, and take some photos.

This week’s word: “hep-cat”

"I am hep?" probably not ...

Behold! This week’s word continues my recent series (that sounds quite serious, doesn’t it? to have a series, I mean) on slang; you can read it below, or look on pg. 16 on the left-hand side of the version posted on The Cambridge Student‘s site. A quick note though: “hippy” and “hipster” are cousins of “hep,” just in case you were wondering (now that you know, you are “hep,” ha …):

“Since we have been on such a slangy roll in this column, I thought we ought to continue it this week with “hip,” or, rather, “hepcat.” I must thank my friends James and Erica for suggesting it, in Grantchester, of all places.

By “hip” as an adjective, what is really meant is “hep,” a classic piece of mysterious American slang that has its roots in jazz (just like “cool”), when to “be hep” is to be “well-informed, knowledgeable, ‘wise to’, up-to-date [or] smart,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED).

Hence a “hip-cat,” or a “hep-cat,” is “in the know” as an avid aficionado of jazz, and all its hep derivatives, including swing. It appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896-1940) posthumously published novel (in 1941), The Love of the Last Tycoon, with the line, “Suddenly they were at work again – taking up this new theme in turn like hepcats in a swing band and going to town with it.”

A “cool-cat,” incidentally, is much the same thing, defined as “an admirably fashionable or stylish person,” a fan of jazz and swing, says the OED. Now, how cats become cool, and learned to dance, is another matter entirely.

But the fact remains that cats and cool and dancing, along with dancing cool cats, became synonymous in the swing scene in early 20th-century America, so much so that Louie Armstrong could declare in 1932 that “All the cats were there,” and a May 23, 1942 issue of the Chicago Defender could say that “Perry Givens played a cool cat at the May dance Friday,” two of the earliest attributed examples of “cool-cat.”

As far as hep-cats are concerned, in 1938, the academic journal American Speech defined the word as a “guy who knows what it’s [the swing music is] all about.” As related by the OED, a 1940 issue of the same journal contains this anecdotal bit of speculation: “‘Tis said that back in the 1890s Joe Hep ran a saloon in Chicago… Although he never quite understood what was going on, he thought he did… Hence his name entered the argot as an ironic appellation for anyone who thought he knew but didn’t. The ironic sense has now largely disappeared … in … to ‘get hep to.’”

Your etymological columnist thinks that explanation is more than a little spurious, but it is interesting, and helps to illustrate how such theories make a sort of sense, even when nonsensical.  Technically, however, “hep” proper first showed up in written English in the Dec. 5, 1908 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, with the line, “What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn’t hep.”

Yes, that is most puzzling indeed. I hope you enjoyed that hep slang, and if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

The English, their Scaffolding and a resolution

As I have been a bit remiss in getting posts up this week, and before I have a longer meditation on meandering out to the World War Two memorial at Madingley, I wanted to put up a quick reflection on … scaffolding.

scaffolding along King's Parade

Yes, scaffolding. The British seem to love it, as it’s all over the place in Cambridge. Now, it might just be because the buildings tend to be a bit on the older side (OK, very, very old indeed, which is cool, of course, for someone who fancies himself a historian, even if he is in many ways just a wannabe’ one, or at least a fledgling in the historical trade); older buildings tend to fall apart, of course, but from what I can tell, it sometimes seems like they throw scaffolding up just because there’s some excuse to do so … come to think of it, I’ve never seen any sort of crane about town, which might explain why methodical and very orderly metal-and-wood carapaces tend to sprout up all the time, all over the place.

it's practically ubiquitous! (I've been wanting to say that in a caption)

Along King’s Parade near the city centre (yes, “centre” with an “r” before the “e”), for example, scaffolding has lined the row of shops facing King’s College since the beginning of Michaelmas (autumn, or what we Americans call “fall”) term. I can’t quite tell why, but it’s still there, looking very official, and thus very English. Walking past it any number of times, I’ve theorized (and they would spell that with an “s,” as in “theorise”) that there must be something wrong with the roofs, or gutters, or something up high, and therefore requiring layers upon layers of orderly scaffolding right along the road. Back home, scaffolding seems to go up at construction sites and therefore away from the sidewalk, but here it’s very much part of the path. You are expected to saunter right through it. Just don’t stumble and shove the pylons too hard … .

I’m sure there’s quite a few good reasons for this affection (or what C.S. Lewis might call storge, pronounced with two syllables and a distinct “g”) for scaffolding, but I do suspect it’s very English in the sense that one schedules (“shed-ules,” yes, they really do say it that way, and declare, “you must be from the States!” if you pronounce the “sched”) scaffolding periodically.

It’s true that many of the buildings here predate our country’s independence from its motherland (notice that we’re now “cousins,” and no longer children). But many of them only do so because they’ve been rebuilt and remodeled and just generally redone dozens of times. So a “part” of a building might date from the Middle Ages, but big chunks might have been renovated by a king or queen a century or so after that, and then the south or north or east wing or floor or foundation or something like that was replaced by one of Cromwell‘s comrades (his head is here, by the way; I shall find it and blog about it soon, I promise), and then finally redone “recently” in the 19th century.

inside the grounds of Trinity College

Many of the “new” Georgian wings of buildings are really what we would consider old, in that regard. Some of my local friends roll their eyes with stories of dumb Americans (being one, I have empathy) who ask the perturbed porters if a truly medieval portion of their colleges is “prewar,” or it dates from “Queen Elizabeth’s time,” to which the porters will gruffly reply, “sir, this is from before the colonies became states and left us.”

But for all of its sometime silliness, I have been continually humbled by the history here, and feel calmer in Cambridge this quarter, realizing that my time here is rather limited, really, and therefore resolving to make the most of it.

I have been trying to explore the city and its surrounding environs more thoroughly this term, but I also want to venture a bit further afield, if possible, and get over to Oxford sometime later this month to see where the Inklings spent some of their time, at Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College (without the “e”) and the Eagle and Child (pub); I also want to get down to London at least a couple of times before I go home for the longish break (very much a working break, I assure you, from March 12 to about April 19).

To that end I’ve managed to procure a student “rail card.” All this is very new to me, as it’s my first time overseas, and so I am learning the hard way more often that not, but I am learning, a lot, all the time, which I suppose is the point of this self-reflecting exercise. Next term, however, I’d love to get up north, to Scotland, and maybe even over to Normandy, if at all possible, but I’ll save the fun stuff for later, once I get more done on my paper, Lord willing.

I sometimes remember that’s why I’m here (at least in theory): “oh yes, that paper … hmm … well, I guess i should work on that a bit more, I suppose …” .

This week’s word: “doldrum”

looking Serious as I Study

My apologies for not being so prolific with posting this past week. I was blindsided and then thoroughly becalmed by a nasty cold through the weekend and have only just now started to feel better. I promise to finally put up a new post on my long walk out to Madingley, and at least another fresh one soon on a silly Englishism or two (scaffolding, anyone?).

But for now, here is this week’s word, doldrum, which you can find on The Cambridge Student‘s site, on page 18, but also here:

“It now being well and truly wintertime, the cold and the chill in Cambridge can either serve to inspire the studious to press on toward the greater glories of spring, or leave them wallowing in the frigid academic doldrums. Singularly “inspired” by a recent, and maliciously stubborn, head cold, this columnist has been enduring a bit of a doldrum (yes, singular), of his own, which brings us not-so-coincidentally to this week’s word.

A “doldrum” was once defined, as the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) reminds us, as a “dullard; a dull, drowsy, or sluggish fellow.” As such, its first appearance in recorded written English, in this now-obsolete form, comes to us in the Sept. 7, 1812 edition of a publication called the Examiner, with the line, “A doldrum is, we believe, the cant word for a long sleeper.” But the April 13, 1811 edition of the London-based Morning Herald contains the first use of the plural form, “I am now in the doldrums; but when I get better, I will send you.”

Interestingly, a slight shift in meaning had occurred, as the OED defines the plural as “a condition of dullness or drowsiness; dumps, low spirits, depression.” We can hardly blame slang for changing, of course, as that is part of its nature. As for the actual etymology of the word, it is old, derivative slang from “dull,” which may come from an old Germanic root word (“dwel-”) meaning, “to be foolish.”

George Gordon Noel Byron, aka Lord Byron (1788–1824) gets the credit for using the word in its more becalmed, nautical sense for the first time in The Island, with the line, again thanks to the OED, “From the bluff head where I watch’d to-day, I saw her in the doldrums; for the wind Was light and baffling.” From this more generalized sense it took on a more specific meaning, to the region near the world’s equator where the trade winds tend to nullify each other, to the annoyance of sailors, who, well, use sails still. More cerebrally, to be in a doldrum can mean that one is “intellectually nonplussed,” or, to borrow a handy cliché, that one has hit the proverbial brick wall: mentally, of course.

I sincerely hope that if you are in such a sate, that you can get out of such a doldrum, or doldrums, as soon as possible. If you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

Getting asked for directions, a sighing bridge and some Pooh

in the library's tea room

I am not quite sure what it is, but I get asked for directions often in Cambridge. Perhaps because I look deceptively trustworthy, with a rapidly developing winter beard and “space-cadet” jacket complete with nerdy flag patch (my dad’s boss was a space tourist), or maybe because I still retain the  very American habit of smiling for no apparent reason and looking people in the eye when they approach me, usually looking quite confused; for whatever reason, however, I get queried every few days.

“Where am I?” or “Where is such-and-such?” or “Where is the river?” are common questions. Since my college’s neighborhood (Newnham) is on the western edge of town, it tends to collect lost fellow foreigners, or, what is more amusing, lost British tourists.

“Ah, well, you’re near Wolfson College,” I’ll usually begin, as that’s all I really know. This usually elicits an even more confused look. I go to one of the “lesser” colleges (as a taxi driver once reminded me), as I sometimes forget.

“Well, OK, you’re on the west side of the city,” I’ll quickly add. This brings some relief to face of the poor person I am attempting to help.

“Yes, but how do I reach (fill-in-the-blank) road?” they’ll ask again.

“Hmmm…” not wanting to admit that I don’t know where I am half the time, I’ll ask them a question, typically out of slight desperation, but with a firm and commanding voice as I stroke my nascent chin hair: “Ah … is it near anything? A notable landmark, perchance?” (OK, so I may not say “perchance,” but I am definitely thinking it).

Well, of course it’s near something, as you might imagine, namely, the something they want to find, which they remind me, sometimes looking over to their fellow passengers or driver in suspicious annoyance, if they’re in a car (as if to ask, “does this dumb American know where the hell he even is?”).

Seeing this sudden twinge of skepticism, I will typically hasten to add something like, “ah, yes, but of course, that road …”  at which their countenances brighten (truthfully, I sometimes do know roughly where they want to go).

“Take two lefts and a right, at the moss-covered pub,” I’ll declare, pointing with a manly karate-chop with confidence, half-blinking, in the direction, more or less, of where they are trying to get (or “two rights and a left, at the fork in the road” but never “three lefts,” or “three rights,” as they’d know I was making it up for sure then).

At this point, they’ll toodle off, probably satisfied that they know more about where they are than I do, but perhaps, every once and a while, really knowing a bit more about where they want to go. I suspect that I have inadvertently caused more harm than good, and gotten people more lost than last year’s misplaced Easter eggs. But such are the nature of accidental adventures.

To borrow shamelessly from G.K. Chesterton, “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” As I’ve experienced them myself, in places as varied as parking lots, ferries, airports and English alleys, yes, he’s right. And as a certain Hobbit put it: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Speaking of being swept, before work on Wednesday afternoon, I spontaneously opted to play the part of a tourist myself, and trekked out to the Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s College, and then the Wren Library at Trinity College, to look for a bit of “Pooh.”

There are signs warning tourists to stay away, unless you’ve paid an entrance fee. As a student, of course, you don’t have to worry about such things, but the best way to avoid being stopped by the vigilant porters (or, rather, the porter’s adjuncts, manning booths like unarmed guards, who invariably ask for your ID, to make sure you’re not a visitor who hasn’t coughed up the fee), is to look exasperated while muttering into a book as you march into the entrance to the college in question.

I managed to do so without fanfare on two occasions on that particular afternoon, with my pantomime aided by an increasing fever brought on by a head cold (probably my own fault, for stumbling around in the rain).

yes, a sighing bridge

Anyway, I located the famous bridge, so named after an even more famous bridge of the same name in Venice, took the appropriately cheesy tourista shots, and sighed quickly on it (oh, the wonderful literalism of sighing on a sighing bridge: how often to you get to do that? perhaps not the best logic, I’ll admit, to inspire yourself to do things, but even still). The original bridge was supposedly the last thing that prisoners saw before they went to jail (or, more melodramatically, were executed, or so Byron thought when he imagined the sad name in his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (published in the 1810s) from the fourth canto:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, thron’d on her hundred isles
!”

Ah, alas, no one is executed in Cambridge these days, except for those who dare to walk on the grass uninvited, or worse yet, those who don’t vacate the tea room in the library on time … I’m just kidding, of course … I hope.

I next meandered back to Trinity, where hapless half-lost grad student that I am, I had failed to find the Wren Library earlier. The Wren contains lots of old and priceless things, including copies of old bits of the Bible and Shakespeare, and notes from Milton and Newton (along with some of the latter’s hair and walking-stick collection … oh yes, this is Cambridge, they like old things here); the reason they have lots of these things to begin with is because some of these men went to Trinity (though not the Bard).

the way up ...

Despite my addled mind, I did finally manage to find the library.  There were only a few minutes left until it closed (it only being open from 12-2 each day), so I had to move quickly to find what I was looking for: their manuscript copy of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh,” which is quite unique to the library.

despite the glare, it's there; the manuscript on the top, the first printed copy on the bottom; can you spot Owl?

I found it and even managed to snap a slightly illegal photo of the document(s) in question before leaving. By this point, I was verging on the delirious, and thus retreated, not wanting to experience any truly inconvenient inconveniences (I wouldn’t want to test my theory of the Bridge of Sighs being only a symbolic last sight, and not a literal site of execution for grass-walkers, tea-room loiterers or Pooh photographers …).  I hope to keep you posted, as it were, on these sorts of adventures as they develop; in the meantime, have a good weekend, and good night from England.

This week’s word: “knackered”

the open hall under the Wren Library at Trinity

For those of you reading back in the New World, an early “good evening” from England. Please forgive my lack of preamble, as I am not feeling so very well. This week’s word can be found again on page 16 of The Cambridge Student, but also here (having the same length in both places this week):

“Venturing off the beaten etymological path this week, I figured it might be rather fun to look at a bit of slang as we head deeper into the heart of Lent term, in this case, British slang. As an American, I must confess to being quite bewildered and even baffled by ordinary words here, let alone slang. I even get “knackered” by it all sometimes. I have to thank my friend Whitney Little for suggesting that we look at it.

To be knackered is, of course, to be thoroughly exhausted or worn out. It comes from the noun, “knacker,” or someone “whose trade it is to buy worn out, diseased, or useless horses, and slaughter them for their hides and hoofs, and for making dog’s-meat, etc.; a horse-slaughterer,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED).

By itself, a “knacker” can additionally refer to the worn-out horse proper (as well as to a part of a fellow’s anatomy that shall remain nameless), but also to those who purchase old houses and ships for salvage; this business takes place in a knacker’s yard. To get truly knackered is thus technically a fatal fate, as it were, or at least a recycled one: you might be tired, but at least you are not glue or a broken-up ship’s keel.

The older meaning of the word, from the 16th century, was that of a harness-maker, possibly, as the OED speculates demurely, from the small “knacks” that composed the harness. In this case, though it has other meanings (such as “trick,” hence “knacker” as “trickster”), a “knack” is, or rather, was a knick-knack in the obsolete sense of trinket or bauble, found in a knackatory, or a knick-knackatory, a place for such trifles. “Knack” has an imitative origin as a word for an abrupt, clacking noise (and hence from the Norwegian “knekkja,” meaning “to break, snap”).

The first use of “knacker” in written English comes to us from back in about 1573, from Thomas Tusser’s rustically poetical treatise on farming, Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie, with the line, “Plowwrite, cartwrite, knacker and smith” (a definition, seemingly).

Tusser (c. 1524-1580) spent a brief time at Cambridge at first King’s and then Trinity Colleges as a sizar scholar (working for his courses) before embarking on a somewhat uneven career in farming that nonetheless inspired his Hesiod-like thoughts on the subject. Finally, the first more modern use of “knacker” appears in an 1812 issue of Sporting Magazine, with the line, “He was a knacker [note, A purchaser of worn-up horses].”

I hope you are not knackered out after that bit of knackery. If not, and if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

English warnings, an introduction to polite absurdity, and two Scotsmen

from a table in the library

It is a quiet night in Cambridge, as most nights are here, and all through the college, not a grad student is stirring, except me, of course.

Some of my precious chocolate pudding sent from home is chilling, literally, on my angled window sill as I type this; I’ll soon eat it to ease a sore throat. As the minifridge ordered long, long ago has yet to arrive (more on bemusing, bungling British bureaucracy later), I’ve found that my “chilling sill” is a rather nice place to cool things such as soda and pudding.

I figure it’s OK, as there are no explicitly polite warnings about it … yes, warnings. It seems like the English are very polite when it comes to warnings. All the colleges have little signs, some in multiple languages, warning you off the grass. Only the dons and a select other few can walk on the lawns, which are laying mostly fallow this time of year, but which are otherwise kept more manicured than a typical American golf course.

they really do mean it, really

Even my more laid-back graduate college, being one of the “lesser ones,” according to my taxi driver (who quickly apologized, explaining that Wolfson is simply new, and “new” as in not hundreds of years old and founded by a king, queen or other member of the royal family) still forbids you from alighting on the grassy realms carefully maintained by our head gardener (oh yes, we have a whole team; it’s a very serious business here, you know, gardening).

Some warnings are apologetic. “Sorry,” the intercom in the University Library cheerfully announces in the late afternoons (if I recall correctly), “but the tea room will be closing in 20 minutes.” Other warnings beg your pardon, as in, “sorry, but there is no such machine,” as the electronic letters on the device in the laundry room scroll apologetically. In the U.S., the same machine would probably just say “error” when you punched in the wrong number. Even the buses say, “Sorry … not in service.”

Even the homeless people, and I do always feel for them, as it is very cold outside, tend to be impeccably polite when you say “no-thank-you” to their requests for “spare pence.” One said to me the other day, “no worries, sir, have a good day.” Another not-quite homeless man, selling magazines (like the Real Change salesmen in Seattle), when I told him sorry, that I’d rather not have one, told me not to feel sorry, but  “be happy.” But the subject of the legendary penchant for extreme English politeness  is worthy of another post unto itself (or many posts), for some other time soon, though it will probably pop up as a recurrent theme.

this one's a bit more insistent

Back to apologies. If you added the words, “… or you will be shot” to most of them, it would sound quite natural. “Please do not take photographs on the college grounds … or you will be shot.” Or “please form orderly queues … or you will be shot,” and so on. People would obey them no less promptly, for following decorum and not making a fuss are an important thing in England, from what I can tell. Warnings are not really so much passive-aggressive, as they might be back home, just well regarded.

To put it another way, Cambridge is a silly place, or, as my friend Neil always says upon experiencing the latest silly English custom (as they are just as new to him as they are to me most of the time), “this would have never happened at Edinburgh.” Neil went to the university there, and is an introspective Scot who stands a head taller than me, adding to the gravity of his practical pronouncements. We share an affinity for the 18th century, and for American history, which Neil is studying here in our program.

I’ll close with a wee bit of a note about another Scotsman I met.

Last Thursday I was reading in my room, as I am wont to do. I had not seen anyone yet that day besides myself (which is becoming less common, actually, which I don’t mind at all, as God provides opportunities to get out and see friends, or at least colleagues when I can’t meet friends, more often this term). But it was a very slow day, last week, and grey too. I was feeling somewhat mellow, and more lost of Serious Thought that even Neil can summon at his most pensive.

“Knock-knock.”

A grandfatherly workman from Glasgow in Scotland named Harry was painting the doors on my floor.

“I’ll be done in a jiffy,” he says, after I let him in. “You can stay if you’d like.”

I told him I would like to, if he didn’t mind, and kept reading. He didn’t mind at all, he said. He painted in silence; I read some more. But after I while I realized that it’s not too often that you have a gray-haired Glosgowian painting your door, so I figured it’d be fun to try to get to know him a bit better.

A Korean war veteran, Harry had been married for 37 years to a wife some 7 years younger than he, a lady he met in Cambridge in the 1950s coming up from working in London, or what they call the City. He has two sons, one of whom works for a bank in the city, and a granddaughter. They visited Disney World with her last year, and Harry was impressed by the wide streets and open spaces in Florida. I learned that His father was gone for six years during the Second World War, fighting the Nazi’s from North Africa Africa to Italy’s Monte Cassino; his family didn’t see him during all that time.

Harry told me this while painting contentedly, with a soft “aye” thrown in every now and then in assent (being a budding historian, I loved talking to a man closer to the history I study; he was a patient listener, and also had some good advice).  When he had finished, he called me “lad” when I thanked him for doing such a good job on my door (“you’re welcome, lad,” says he). As we said goodbye, I told him I hoped to see him around the college, and he said he hoped the same. A kind man, that Harry.

I’ll try to post a few more times this week, albeit perhaps a little shorter. The word for this week should be “knackered,” incidentally, so look for that Thursday. Good night, and God-speed from England.