Friday, 5 September 2014

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates. With a True Tale by way of illustration.


Peck-yuh-lait: Verb, obsolete: to steal or take dishonestly (money, especially public funds, or property entrusted to one's care); embezzle.

From the Latin: peculatus, to embezzle, literally, to make public property private, from peculium, private property, all stemming from pecu, cattle (which itself comes from the Greek, pokos, fleece). It wasn’t just the Greeks and Romans who thought in these terms because the Old English feoh (from which come fee and feudal) means not only cattle but wealth in general, as they all do in the end.

Related forms: peculation, noun; peculator, noun; unpeculating, adjective (but just you try slipping that last one casually into conversation).

From the same root (of property and ultimately cattle or fleeces), we also get Pecuniary, an adjective meaning consisting of or relating to money; also Peculiar, Peculiarity and Peculiarise, in the sense that the attribute or quality being referred to belongs to only that particular individual, rather than meaning that something is odd per se, as it is sometimes understood.

Whilst it may seem somewhat strange (peculiar, even) to have a word coined simply for crimes committed by those in public office, what is even odder is that it should have fallen into such wanton desuetude today, especially given the shabby shower who walk the corridors of power in Whitehall and Westminster right now, with their duck ponds and their bell towers and their claiming for HobNobs et al. But let us not judge them too harshly, shall we, for Penury and Parliament are words ofttimes linked together and, only recently, one poor wretch was forced to abandon his whole ministerial career because he was unable to make ends meet on £120,000 a year. That’d be Mark Simmonds, of course (he of the FO, as we’ve seen), a Worksop lad born and bred and, make no mistake, we’re just as proud of him up there as any of the rest of you out there. Surely no coincidence, but the word peculation sprang into life (1740-50) right around the time of the Inclosures Act, when the landed gentry, who also happened to be the only ones who could hold a seat in Parliament, made it legal to fence off all the common land and make it their own, meaning not only that they couldn’t spell but that they were a right bunch of crooks into the bargain. How things have changed since then … 

Once we understand the root of the word (the cattle and wealth and all that business), it becomes far easier to see why, Biblically speaking, it was such a bad thing to covet one’s neighbour’s ox, cattle being the ultimate must-have property back then and the mark of just how well you were doing. No Bentleys, Rolexes or villas in Tuscany for them, just a few head of Aberdeen Angus to really make the neighbours sit up and take notice. The commandment (Number Ten) actually is: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” Though a simple “no coveting” would’ve covered it, we’d’ve thought. But notice how once again the property comes first: house before wife, who just scrapes home ahead of slave. Male slave, that is. It seems that the testosterone factor counted for a good deal more back in those prophet-ridden days.

“Every British subject . . . active in the discovery of peculations has been ruined.”

Edmund Burke, of course, (that's him, right) who was extremely keen on the word, especially in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke in Twelve Volumes, Volume the Eleventh, which is on the trial of Warren Hastings. Hastings was the first Governor-General of India and after his return Burke laid into him, egged on enthusiastically by Sir Philip Francis. Whom Hastings just happened to have wounded in a duel. So, no ulterior motive there, then. The word peculation appears no less than 25 times in the said volume, with peculate and peculator chipping in with another one a-piece but, sadly no sign of unpeculating. The trial of Hastings began in 1787 and lasted until 1795, eating up most of his (allegedly) peculatory gains in the process, no small thanks to Burke’s unremitting efforts. At the end of which Hastings was acquitted. Which is how we come to have the phrase today: “You utter Burke!”

 Also to suffer under the same charge was John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, hero of Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706) and Malplaquet (1709). His accuser was the green-eyed Harley, an insignificant blighter who would be largely forgotten today if they hadn’t named a London street after him. Though he was Prime Minister (even if it wasn’t called that then and would be coined as a term of abuse) and got Walpole sent to the Tower for much the same as he was trying to stitch up Marlborough with, Harley getting a taste of his own medicine when he was sent there in 1715. Two main charges were brought to the House of Commons against Marlborough: first illegally receiving £63,000; second, that he had taken 2.5% from the wages of the foreign troops in English pay, amounting to £280,000 (for which he had a warrant signed by Queen Anne in 1702 to OK it, for secret-service money). Before ever the charges had been examined, Anne herself, who owed to him the success and glory of her reign, sacked him out of hand.


Robert Clive (“of India”) was another one, and he was also a mate of Hastings’. He returned to England with a fortune of £300,000, much of which was given by a grateful ruling elite who threw open their jewel houses to him. When accused, Clive defended himself by saying: "By God, when I think of the wealth and riches that were placed at my disposal, I stand astonished at my own moderation". Though how he got all that out with his tongue so firmly in his cheek is another matter.

Having been no nearer to high office than working as a decorator painting a flat on the fourteenth floor, this time’s True Tale has to take a broader view, in the shape of common-or-garden robbery. Some names have been changed, in order to protect the guilty.

Whilst we were at Coleridge Road, which borders the notorious North Peckham Estate, we were robbed. Well, burgled, actually. Twice. The first time, there we were in our upstairs living room, watching a Clint Eastwood film and, despite the noise of the blazing gunbattle, she “thought she heard something down below.” Mind you, her hearing was honed to batlike sharpness: she could hear a wallet being opened at two hundred yards. (For that matter, she also owned two purses: one for keeping her money in and one for producing empty when it was her turn to get a round in.) It took her some goodly time to make a credible case of her theory – due to scepticism, you understand, and certainly not to a craven reluctance to encounter face-to-face some knifeweilding intruder – but eventually the Y-chromosomes found themselves descending the stairs as duty (not to mention her upstairs) demanded, to find the leather jacket and its contents strewn all across the floor. Even yet utterly unconvinced of the remotest possibility of break-in (burglaries, as we all know and believe, only happen in other people’s houses), the first thought to spring into the old grey matter – of which there was apparently very little and what there was not getting much done at all – was, “What’s she done that for?” And then a breeze from the open kitchen window told its tale of entry and exit, making things all too clear. Kids, it would seem, seeing they’d ignored the credit cards and taken nothing but cash. Oh, and one large and very sharp kitchen knife. As luck would have it, her bag was safely upstairs, never leaving her side or out of her sight. They did say that she used to sell tickets to the annual opening of her purse, but they were, of course, wrong. That was a Vampire Purse, that was: it never saw the light of day …

The second time the perisher simply let himself in with the keys. We must’ve disturbed him before he’d been in long by coming home unexpectedly, though he had the cool to remain concealed – and unsuspected – in the only room he’d been into, as we went past and into the kitchen. On returning to answer the ringing phone, there was the front door being closed by a departing someone. Crises demand swift action so, quick as a flash, it was out the same door to see that same individual rapidly diminishing into the distance. Only one thing for it now: to do what any rational being would under those circumstances: that is, to bellow, “Oi! You!” in his direction. Sadly, however, this tactic is not only ill-considered but also entirely ineffectual. Indeed, rather than curtailing his velocitous decampment in order to discover what might be wanted of him – the return of the camera, if you wouldn’t mind – it actually accelerated his flight, with the additional unforeseen bonus of alerting him to the fact that there was a presence on his trail. With which he disappeared into the warren of the North Peckham estate.

Obviously, the landlord had to be informed. He actually was a Lord, a genuine member of the ermine-clad brigade: Lord Jesty of the Labour Party. “Oh yes,” was his response on hearing. “The keys were stolen from my car near Westminster a while ago.” And handily labelled with the address too, so the miscreants wouldn’t have too much trouble locating the property. They don’t just make anyone a Lord, you know.

Some good while later, two freshfaced detectives turned up to inspect the scene of the crime. No more than lads, they were. Leading them into the room where it had occurred – what we referred to in those days as her “Dressing Room” – we watched their faces as they surveyed the scenario. What a state! Things strewn and scattered everywhere, garments, underwear, knick-knacks and what have you, open drawers with rummaged and spilling contents, mayhem and disarray wherever the eye was turned. For a while they remained in astounded silence and then, at last, one of them said, with as much sympathy as he could muster:

‘They’ve made a right old mess here, haven’t they?’

‘Actually,’ she replied, ‘this is how it always is.’

[For “Her,” with great affection still. All views expressed herein are entirely personal.]


"Mark Simmonds, October 2009 1 cropped" by Credit: Uploaded to Flickr by The Health Hotel. - Cropped version of File:Mark Simmonds, October 2009 1.jpg. Original source image Tackling_Cancer12 on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -,_October_2009_1_cropped.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Mark_Simmonds,_October_2009_1_cropped.jpg

"LordClive" by Charles Clive - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

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