Friday, 21 November 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.


Gal-uh-maw-free: Noun, chiefly used to indicate a jumble or confused medley, generally of an absurd kind, the essence being “a bit of a mess,” though the word can also mean a kind of stew, often made of leftovers, this being the original meaning of the word.
And what a wonderfully good word it is too, though perhaps a touch on the challenging side for easing casually into conversation, but don’t let that put you off having a go at so doing. It’ll be well worth it, just to see the awestruck and admiring expressions on the faces of your companions, though it would probably be best to have your coat on ready, just in case. It was our Gallic cousins, the French, who were first bestow it upon us, seeing it comes from the Middle French, galimafrée, probably a conjoining of galer, to make merry or amuse oneself (as in gala, gallant and gallivant), plus mafrer, to eat much and gluttonously, to be something of a greedy pig. Which is quite odd really, seeing that what they were making such edacious gourmandizers of themselves over back then in the sixteenth century, when they found themselves in need of such a term, was basically stew. And it doesn’t get much more basic than stew, does it? And something else that is rather strange is not the vast number of terms that we have at our disposal for describing making a hash of things but the fact that so many are related to victualling, which doesn’t say an awful lot for the culinary prowess of our forefathers, now does it? Or for our own levels of success, for that matter. Making a hash is one, just for starters – well, perhaps not in the sense of as an opening course, but you know what we mean. Having said that, it seems that in some places people actually do have it for breakfast, particularly in the USA where they refer to such a dish as hash browns. Hash is basically diced meat, potatoes and spices with maybe some onion thrown in there somewhere before all being fried up together, often with an egg or two plonked on top, the word itself coming from the French (again), hacher, to chop, as in hatchet.
Hotchpotch: there’s another one for pointing out when a raight pig’s ear been made of matters (often out of a silk purse, that saying coming from the hard fact that the only thing you’ll make out of a pig’s ear is a pig’s ear). Though all you Law-minded folk out there will no doubt be leaping up and down at this very moment ready to insist most vociferously that hotchpotch was originally, and still is, a legal term – strictly speaking, hotch-pot – dating back to as long ago as 1292, when it really was a bona fide great big pot, which, in very simple terms, was used for gathering together the belongings of a deceased person in order to distribute it evenly amongst the kith and kin. The word comes from the French (yet again), hocher, which they nicked off the Germans (well, from Germanic, seeing there was no Germany back then, in the days before penalty shoot-outs) and meaning to shake, so literally a shaken pot, or one in which the whole lot is bunged in together and then thoroughly stirred up to make sure everybody gets a bit of everything that’s in it. Nowadays, it usually arises in cases of divorce (and things rarely get messier than there, let’s face it) or to allocate the shares of a deceased person's estate:

In English law, Hotch-pot or hotch-potch is the name given to a rule of equity whereby a person, interested along with others in a common fund, and having already received something in the same interest, is required to surrender what has been so acquired into the common fund, on pain of being excluded from the distribution.”

But, by the fifteenth century, the word had once again come to mean a stew, often thickened with barley. Then there’s salmagundi, of course, another mixed dish rather like hash and containing chopped meat or fish and various other ingredients, often served as a salad but commonly used to refer to any mixture or miscellany. Once more, it’s the French at the back of it, seeing it comes from salemine, or salted food (salami is from the same Latin sal – salt – root) plus condir, to season (hence condiment). And even salad has the same root, salad to the Romans being vegetables served in brine – seawater – which sounds utterly ghastly but, apparently and rather bizarrely, they loved it and couldn’t get enough of it, though do bear in mind that this was a people whose other pleasures included crucifixion, scourging and (allegedly) throwing Christians to the lions, something that, in all probability, never actually happened. Bet they just gave them a helping of their salad instead.

Best not leave out our Scandinavian cousins, the Swedish, whilst we’re at it – a people who gave their name to a root vegetable cross between a cabbage and a turnip, the Swede (strictly the Swedish Turnip), which may go some way to explaining the unrivalled and bloodthirsty savagery of the Vikings and Norsemen (later to become the Normans also) – who have a word of their very own, (now ours also) smorgasbord, which is actually a variety of cold or hot savoury dishes, such as pâté, smoked salmon and so on, served as hors d'oeuvres or as a buffet meal, the word being derived from smörgås, sandwich, and bord, table. The term actually reflects a more cultured and organised approach on the part of the Swedish to catering, avoiding as it does the ‘bung whatever’s closest at hand into the pot and hope for the best’ (giving us our “potluck”) and has come to mean a very wide, and generally desirable, variety and choice.

We English, on the other hand, have our shambles, often used with an adjective such as utter or complete, and conveying a scene of horrific mess or carnage, though the word really means a butcher’s shop or stall (or a row of such) and possibly a slaughterhouse, where things may look grisly and “shambolic” but are usually in good functional order. The word comes from Latin, scamellum, meaning a small bench or stool. Legend has it that Robin Hood had his shambles in the Major Oak in Nottinghamshire, where he would hang up the deer he’d poached off the much maligned Sherriff of said county but, seeing that another legend also has it that Little John is buried in a nine foot grave in Hathersage, Derbyshire, then rather like the Roman carrot, we need to take it with a generous pinch of salt. Hathersage, by the bye, was used as a setting in parts of Jane Eyre.

Then there’s the word mess itself, used for both an untidy and disordered jumble, and for a meal taken together or the people taking such a repast. So, why do we eat in a mess, then? Go and stand at the back right now and have a good hard think about yourselves, all you ladies out there who just said, “because you’re blokes, that’s why.” It’s down to the French once again, of course, by way of the Romans, the Old French word, mes, meaning a dish of food, as in a course, which comes from Late Latin, missus, “what is sent”, making it a placing on the table of what has been sent out from the kitchens. Missus in itself comes from Latin, mittere, which means to send forth, to set out or to let go. Which is how mess also comes to mean something that has rather let itself go. Message and mission are from this same root.

And so we come now to farrago, which, in its truest meaning is literally a mash or mix of grains for feeding cattle, from Latin, far, corn, plus the suffix -ago, denoting of a kind or nature but, once again, now used for an incomprehensible mixture or complete mish-mash. Even so, not to be confused with Farage, which is an unpalatable compound of roughage and other coarse detritus fed to the less discerning and undomesticated livestock that inhabit the lowland areas of south eastern England. Next up, miscellany: yet another word for a jumbled collection or mixed bag of possibly dubious quality or worth but, before we hear any grumbles or dark mutterings about “what’s that got to do with affairs culinary when it’s at home” (and, presumably therefore, not in the kitchen), we had better point out that, whilst the term gained use around the 1590s to mean "a writing on miscellaneous subjects," from the Latin, miscellanea, this was originally the word for the meat hash or hodgepodge that was fed to gladiators. Well, you wouldn’t want to be going into the arena to do bloody battle with nothing in the old tum but a load of chopped vegetables that have been marinated in nothing tastier than seawater, would you? 

Mind you, perhaps the Romans really were onto something with their version of salad, seeing that the word marinated is ultimately rooted in mare, Latin for sea. Miscellanea eventually, and if you’ll forgive the phrase, boils down to miscere, to mix, from which we also get (via the Old French, medler, to mix or quarrel) the words medley (which they used for hand-to-hand combat), meddle, melee (brawling this time: the French seemed to need a lot of terms for fighting amongst themselves at one stage) and melange (by which our geologist colleagues mean a metamorphic rock formation created from materials scraped off the top of a downward moving tectonic plate in a subduction zone, as you already knew, though what they’re actually getting at is a load of rocks, no two of which are the same). And we can hardly finish this time’s pot pourri of verbiage without giving a well-deserved mention to that fellow himself, the good old pot pourri, often used to denote those teabag-like affairs full of herbs that we whack into the casserole in the delusional belief that it will somehow provide some vague hint of flavour. Once again, it’s the French to blame, though the Spanish may have had a hand in it too with their olla podrida (another term for an incongruous mixture), both of which mean nothing more edifying than, quite literally, rotten pot, being from the Latin, putrere, to be rotten, as in putrefy

Just time for a very quick True Tale, which, for any of you who have been unfortunate enough to spend any length of time on the dole, will be all too familiar; for those who have not, and for our overseas friends, it may perhaps provide a useful insight into the rigorous thinking of those who tread the corridors of power, by which we mean the government in general and the good old Department of Works & Pensions in particular, currently in the capable hands of that intellectual heavyweight, Iain Duncan Smith: he may not have much on top of his head but, by golly, there’s a durn sight less going on inside it.

 Now, those of you who have been absolutely fascinated by the triumphant landing of Philae on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko recently and who also might also be aware of the absurd stories once headlined in the Sunday Sport (allegedly a newspaper) such as Double Decker Frozen in Antarctic Ice or World War 2 Bomber Found on Moon, you might have been tempted to speculate on when all these events might be melded together into one achievable project. Don’t mock. The whole idea may sound as ludicrous as Iain Duncan Smith and the entire output of that worthless softporn rag, the Sport, all rolled together into one into one gigantic buffoon, but stick with it and together, someday, we will see Man land a bus on the moon. The work is already underway.
Back with, or on, the dole, government policy appears to be as sensible and well-thought-out as it has ever been, with ministers firmly of the view that, rather than let their army of JobSeekers (as we were then, back in the day) spend their days searching for gainful employment, much more could be achieved by having a large number of them (or a Sponge, as the official collective term seems to be) foregather in some abandoned office space or other to then be coached by a team of enablers, themselves still JobCentre fresh (and this the best they could aspire to), who will then attempt to coax and cajole, slowly and painfully, from their reticent and reluctant victims, a rehearsed, especial and, ultimately, pointless hotchpotch of words or phrases in an excruciatingly designed and ill-considered exercise along the lines of What Are the Barriers Back into Work? The glib and entirely erroneous answer to which is, of course, There Are None but, instead of just saying that at the outset, we are put through the tedious palaver of muttering out suggestions that are then daubed in large felt-tip letters across a page until an entire flipchart has been sacrificed to this meaningless endeavour.

At which point we come to the particular morning in question, the poser being set to our own gallimaufry being What Do I See Myself Doing? One by one we are interrogated: what do we want to do and how will we go about attaining that goal? A tangible, almost visible, gloom settles lead-heavy over the entire room as, with dread and loathing, we each see our own turn inexorably approaching along the serried rows, the usual predictable unambitious but ultimately realistic responses appearing one after another: hairdresser, bartender, machine-operator, chef, waitress, chippy or bricky, on into oblivion …

And then we reach the bright-looking Indian fellow, who states clearly and categorically, with outrageous aplomb and effrontery, the heights that he intends to scale, at which the entire congregation inhales a collective breath of awe and wonderment as he informs us that:

‘I’m going to be an aeronautical engineer.’

This rather takes the apocryphal wind out of the enabler’s sails, seeing this was about the last thing he had ever dreamed of, let alone expected. After a moment of flabbergasted silence, he returns, with a brave stab indeed.

‘OK. And how do you intend to go about that?’

Well, obviously, university, get the right qualifications and experience, study hard and apply yourself, you would imagine. Not a bit of it. The plan is astoundingly simple, as he now goes on to outline his mapped-out route into aeronautical engineering:

‘I’m going to become a busdriver, learn how to mend the bus and find out how planes work that way.’

Simple …
Gluttony: Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pig: By Dick Culbert from Gibsons, B.C., Canada (Sus Barbatus, the Bornean Bearded Pig) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Nighthawks: Edward Hopper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Normans: By alipaiman (The Bayeux Tapestry) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Comet: DLR, CC-BY 3.0 [CC-BY-3.0-de (], via Wikimedia Commons
IDS: By Work and Pensions Office, via Wikimedia Commons

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