Friday, 26 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.


Am-buh-skayde: Noun: a trap in which concealed persons lie in wait to attack by surprise; the persons so concealed or their position. Verb: to attack from a concealed position.

From Middle French, embuschier, to place men in ambush, literally an embushment, a hiding in the bush or woods, which was then Italianised to imboscata, (in + bosco, wood or forest) and then re-Gallicised, complete with the -ade suffix for action or people acting (as in cannonade, escapade, renegade).

Related forms: ambuscader, noun; ambuscaded, ambuscading, verbs.

 Ambuscade is essentially a late Sixteenth Century variant, or up-to-dating, of the word ambush, which had existed in Middle English since around 1250-1300, which also happens to be, oddly enough, when the term chivalry began to be used in English. Difficult to see anything so very chivalrous about this new tactic of leaping on your opponent from out of a bush, we’d’ve said. Though it didn’t necessarily have to be an actual bush; any old copse, coppice, weald, forest, boscage, thicket, sylva or grove would do. And, if push really came to shove – and, in such cases, that seems to be pretty much par for the course – even a shrub could be pressed into service. Hence the old saying, “A bird in the hand is better than two men lurking in your shrubbery.”

If you’ve ever wondered what the difference between a bush and a shrub is, well, wonder no more. It seems that bush (Old English bysc) generally refers to the shape that the plant forms, as in the horticultural description, 'forms a bush.' 'Shrub' (Old English scrybb), on the other hand, denotes a plant that retains structure above ground all year round, growing from a single set of roots and thus cannot be divided. The Shrew in Shrewsbury – whichever way you choose to pronounce the name – also comes from the same scrybb root, the Old English name being Scrobbesburh and meaning “town of the bushes.” This later evolved into Sciropscire, for Shropshire (thus county of the shrubs), and Sloppesberie, which is how ended up with Salop.

And, whilst we’re almost literally beating about the bush – a phrase dating back to at least 1440 and coming from the practice of startling game out of undergrowth with sticks so that others, armed with nets, could do the more important (and, presumably, more lucrative) business of actually catching them, though that would then only make the saying beating the bush; the around or about part originating from the fact that, back then, if you had any sense, you’d suspect that a wild boar, complete with vicious tusks, or some other such nasty piece of work, might be lurking in there and you wouldn’t want that coming full pelt at you when you’ve only got a stick for protection, so you’d beat around the bush first so as not to make said boar any wilder than he already is, which tends to suggest some wisdom behind such procrastination, we’d’ve said – anyhow, back at our bush, what grazing is to grass, browsing is to buds: bush-eating, in other words. Browse comes ultimately from an early word, bhreus, to swell or sprout, before going through Old French, broster, and Middle French, brouster until it made it into English, where we mistakenly thought the T at the end signified the past tense and lopped it off, leaving us with browse, to feed on buds. Which is, ironically, what rather too many folk do whilst browsing the old Internet. Talking of which, breast is from the same bhreus root, being in Old English breost and Old Saxon briost, showing it to have been a two-syllable word back then, our modern monosyllabic version coming from the Scottish and northern English way of saying it. Breast: one up to us Northerners there, we’d’ve said, and all’s as it should be …

And now we come to this week’s True Tale, which takes us all the way back to the longlost days of the Wishing Well once more.

For a long time I went to the pub late.

 If you do happen to recognise from which distinguished novel’s opening line that has been distorted (and ten points if you did, but lose all ten again for being so insufferably smug about knowing it), then fear not, this is not going to develop into some anfractuous narrative on not quite getting round to dipping the hovering madeleine into the awaiting cup of coffee – it’s Proust, by the bye, for any who might still be feeling somewhat in the dark (or the cork-lined room, as it were) – but merely a recounting of the smallest incident from an otherwise insignificant evening of many years ago.

Had you ever visited the Well in the halcyon days, you would recall it as a lively local full of regular and familiar faces, some of which were even worth sharing an hour and a glass with. However, like any other pub throughout this great country of ours (and in many a nation further afield, we have no doubt), the mere act of entering such an establishment is ever fraught with the most dire risk of the gravest imperilment. That is, of ambuscade: in the ubiquitous and unrelenting form of the Pub Bore. In this respect, we Wellians were lavishly provided for, in characters such as Sexy Steve (ironically benamed), Bob the Gob (not even faintly ironic, trust us) and the undisputed all-time Champion of Ennui, Bernie the Bore himself (which barely even begins to hint at the mindnumbing ghastliness of the experience lurking in wait for any poor wretch unfortunate enough to be collared by him, as we can most certainly verify). There was also another member of that illustrious cast, Scouser Skid, though not so much your out-and-out Bore as your Pub Centrist, someone who liked nothing better than to address the entire assembly whenever he held forth. On one particular occasion, he happened to be discoursing on matters concerning his previous evening, which, apparently, had involved some despicable outrage or other being inflicted upon his own good person, a fact that he was bemoaning loudly and with some vigour. However, in describing the appalling events that had unfolded, it would seem that he was in some doubt as to whether or not his audience really appreciated the full horror of what had befallen him, so he laid it bare before them, in one pithy epigram:

“I were that upset I bought a kebab.”

Shocking, we know, and enough, perhaps, for you to form an unsettling idea of just how grim events must have been that night but, reader, that is by no means the worst of it, for then came the coup de grace, as he added, “I don’t even like kebabs.”

Of course, simply through the fact of them having names (such as Sexy), all potential victims thus became forewarned of their presence and they themselves debushed, as it were: left in clear enough sight for all to steer well clear of, if they knew what was good for them. It is the unknown ones, the surreptitious, stealthy, furtive Bores, therefore, that present the realest menace, the ones that lurk in ambuscade, waiting to pounce, and who are upon you before ever you know what’s what. As some means of defence, therefore, and an almost physical barricade at that, the tactic was adopted of coming prepared with pad and pen in order to progress a little with the novel then under construction, whilst enjoying a quiet pint and keeping any such soporifics literally at arm’s length. Alas, this was to backfire badly. By attracting, as if by Bore magnet, disgruntled sorts of a generally thuggish aspect, who would demand to know, “Watcher writing about, mate?” More often than not followed by the enraged suspicion of, “Are you writing about me?” Having never set eyes on the blighter before, this would seem highly unlikely, though a response in the negative appeared to cause as much affront as if one had been writing about them. A line of thinking rather like that of dear old Oscar: “The only thing worse than being written about is not being written about.” Sadly, in most cases, their Wilde had no E on the end. Porlock must indeed be an immensely large township.

Coming (at last) to the evening mentioned earlier, during which we were giving the old ballpoint its customary industrial warming, there grew an unnerving awareness of a pair of drunks engaged in some species of philosophical wrangling close by, each substantiating the veracity of his own argument via the simple expedient of stating it at a higher volume than his opponent, trading blow for blow in ever-decreasing circles, until one of them eventually staggered away in defeat. Uh-oh. There is little to be feared, ladies and gentlemen, from the drunk in company (drunk being synonymous with bore). But he cannot sit alone. The writing is now very much on the wall, and situated not far from where the fan is expecting to shortly become bespattered.

‘Wotcher writing, mate?’

Usual response: a novel. For once, this seems to have the desired effect, for a silence ensues. Alas, this is merely pause in which to refuel, which he does by taking a long slow swallow of Guinness, his throat rhythmically undulant. Like a snake. And then it begins.

“You’ve been coming in here for a few years,” he observes (well, accuses). “Sneaking in right at the end to have a couple of pints. What’s that all about, then?”

Sneaking in? But, before ever the breath can be drawn to waste in response, he runs onward.

“Don’t you like a ssschallenge?”

Interesting point: are we to gather from this that getting legless drunk is a challenge, whereas writing a novel is not? But no time to ponder that: the inquisition (for that is what it becomes) must continue, in a barrage of interrogation, as if he has determined to wring a confession out of an obviously guilty party, whatever that might take. Questions such as: How old are you? Where do you live? How long have you lived there? And then:

“Any marriages?”

Nope, not even a one. The head shakes ruefully: oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

“Any kids?” Again, No. Again, oh dear, oh dear, only more so.

“I’m a nurse and a carpenter,” he explains, in a This Is How It’s Done sort of way, but also painting a pleasing image of him being so drunk he forgets which one he’s actually doing. “So what do you do?” It is ambuscade. We can even see the trapdoor he is inviting us to step onto and yet still we blunder on, into the second most calamitous mistake of the evening. The first being not having pretended profound deafness from the very outset. We tell the shocking truth: that of redundancy.

“You’re on the dole?” he screeches, in case anyone at the far end were unaware of the fact, this being the final straw of abject failure in his bleary and bloodshot eyes. “You’re on the dole? You’re happy to just sign your name and take the money? I’ve got no respect for you, I really haven’t. No respect at all. Sucking off of other people like that. Why don’t you get yourself a job and stop scrounging off the rest of society? You and your kind make me sick, they really do. I think you should be forced to work instead of just taking the money like the parasites you are. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You ought to be! Your sort make me sick.”

With that, he stands, to drain his glass to the last dregs, swallowing the bitters as he sets it down empty, the frothy rings within slipping gently downward.

“Well,” he says, putting on his coat, “it was nice meeting you, mate.”


"Mosaico de Las Tiendas (MNAR Mérida) 01" by Flickr: Man Kills Mosaic Boar. Author: Helen Rickard, 7 August 2007.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

 "Marcel Proust 1900-2" by unknownderivative work: Morn (talk) - Marcel_Proust_1900.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"The Square, Shrewsbury" by Gnesener1900 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -,_Shrewsbury.JPG#mediaviewer/File:The_Square,_Shrewsbury.JPG
"Leonid Pasternak 001" by Leonid Pasternak - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"John Everett Millais - Christ in the House of His Parents (`The Carpenter's Shop') - Google Art Project" by John Everett Millais - KgHTjZxC7spFMQ at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum Tate Images ( Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

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