Friday, 16 January 2015

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.


Kon-tyoo-mey-shuss: Adjective: stubbornly perverse or rebellious; wilfully and obstinately disobedient, especially to authority.

From Latin: contumax, insolent, unyielding, stubborn; from con, with, plus tumere, to swell up.

When it comes to related words, it must say something about our attitude towards authority that we need quite so many variations in order to cover any and every possible situation in which one of us will thumb the nose in the general direction of the high and mighty in their corridors of power. They include: contumaciously, adverb; contumaciousness, noun; contumely, noun (an insulting display of contempt in words or actions, much like a LibDem election pledge); contumelious, adjective; contumeliously, adverb; contumeliousness, noun; and contumacity, noun; plus a whole host of negatives, such as noncontumaciously, though it’s a mystery why (or even when) you’d use that when we’ve got such sumptuous words as subservient, obsequious and obeisant, even bootlicking at a push, that would make a much better job of it for occasions when we’re tugging at the old forelock.

Contumacy is a legal term for the wilful refusal of a person to appear before a court or to comply with a court order: lovely little word but a tad ticklish for the judge to slide impressively into his concluding remarks if the defendant hasn’t actually bothered to turn up. When Charles I was put on trial on 20 January 1649, he claimed that the court had no jurisdiction to try him, which is blatant contumacy in anyone’s book and something he exhibited most wantonly by refusing to take his hat off, the blackguard. In fact, it seems like he was bent on outright contumeliousness from the very beginning: as soon as Solicitor General John Cook rose to announce the indictment, standing right next to the King, as it happens, he hadn’t got more than a couple of words in when Charles tapped him, with some vigour by all accounts, on the shoulder with his stick, ordering him to “Hold.” Needless to say, Cook wasn’t having any of that sort of carry-on and went right on speaking, so the monarch gave him a second regal taste of the royal cane, Cook contumaciously ignoring it again, at which point the King lost it rather, striking the Solicitor General so forcefully across the shoulder with his stick that the ornate silver tip broke off and clattered to the floor. Charles was obliged to pick it up himself. On 27 January, having been excluded from hearing the evidence against him and also barred from questioning any of the witnesses, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On Tuesday 30 of January, his head was severed from his body by a single blow, but then the next day they sewed it back on again, by which time it was rather too late, though it did show that the whole affair had been something of an all-round stitch-up. It was the first occasion on which had been used the term “High Court of Justice” …

Also from the same tumere root are: tumult, noun, an uproar; tumour, a swollen part or protuberance, a neoplasm, and also (though archaic) inflated pride or haughtiness, pompous language or bombast; tumescent, adjective, to become swollen; and, if you happen to be in the building trade, intumescent, as in intumescent mastic (no nonsense!), mastic itself being a putty-like substance used as a sealant or filler, the word coming from the Greek, mastikhe, which was a resin and their form of chewing gum (a bit hard to imagine Plato and Socrates chomping away like your average Premier League football manager, but there you go); and tumulus, noun, an ancient burial mound. Eventually the root gets right back to the Greek, tylos, a lump, but generally meaning fat or thick, from which we finally arrive at thigh, literally the thick part of the leg. The same applies to thumb, via Old English, thuma, this being the stout or thickest finger.

The common-or-garden thumb is a fascinating customer, seeing it started life ending with an M and then somewhere between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries – nobody’s quite sure when exactly – it had the extraneous B appended to the end of it, though there is no etymological reason whatsoever for this, unless it was simply to bring it more in line with limb, which always did end that way, limb originally meaning any protruding or even visible part of the body. For better or worse, the thumb has also managed to get itself inextricably entangled with several of our more commonly used and, you could say, well-thumbed, phrases. But we won’t, seeing that resorting to any of them is mere linguistic indolence, though we’ve all of us done it a time or two, that is for certain. There’s to be under the thumb for starters, by which we mean subject to the total control of another, with the added implication that this domination is easily maintained, seeing it wouldn’t require much struggle to get out from under the pressure of a single thumb, now would it? (Compare it with inculcate, which literally means to trample down with the heel: that’s Latin and your brutal Romans, of course). Under the thumb first turned up around the 1580s, so they must have been in dire need of such a term at the time and, indeed, Shakespeare penned Taming of the Shrew between 1590 and 1592.

Then there’s the appallingly blasé rule of thumb, meaning a principle with a broad slapdash application of the that’ll do, let’s not worry too much about accuracy or reliability just now sort, in which the person uttering the “as a rule of thumb” might just as well have said “in some cases, not always, sometimes hardly ever, but trust me on this one.” Where it came from nobody is exactly certain, though we can safely ignore those who insist it originates from some alleged and apocryphal law that allowed the head of the household (they mean us blokes) to apply “moderate correction” unto his wife with a stick, so long as said weapon was no thicker than his own thumb. A patently absurd notion altogether! For one thing, a cane of such weight and heft could inflict serious physical damage and you’d then end up having to do the washing up yourself and where would be the point in that? Others still blame its provenance on those eternal scapegoats, the Builders, carpenters in especial, who were wont to use the width of their thumb, supposedly an inch, instead of a ruler for measuring up jobs, which proved remarkably reliable, seeing much of what they built that way still stands today. Bizarrely, thumb and inch share the same word in many languages, including Dutch (duim), French (pouce), Italian (pollice), Spanish (pulgada), plus Portuguese, Swedish, Sanskrit, Slovak, Czech, Hungarian and Thai.

Let’s not forget thumbing the nose while we’re at it, or cocking a snook or, for our American colleagues, the Five Fingered Salute, which may go back as far as 592(ish) BC, turning up in Ezekiel 8:17: “Behold, they put the branch to their nose.” Nothing more than putting the spread hand up to the nose and waggling the fingers, preferably with crossed eyes but, like most such gestures, only insulting if you know it’s intended to be insulting. Around about the same sort of time, as we all know, is when thumbs up and thumbs down started to emerge from the Roman amphitheatres as signals for whether a defeated gladiator should be spared or slain. This, it now seems, is more myth of the Wifebeater & the Inchthick Stick variety, as it is believed that the Romans’ signal either hid the thumb in the hand or extended it, the Thumbs Down (pollice verso in Latin) being popularised by the painting of 1872 by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Rather picturesquely, our Thumbs Up sign may possibly have evolved from the way the coachmen of old used to greet each other when they had their hands otherwise full of reins.

Turning vaguely back in the direction from where we first set out, tumid and its derivatives (tumidity, tumidness, tumidly) also share the tumere root and mean (of an organ or part) enlarged or swollen, bulging or protruberant; or (of prose) pompous or fulsome in style. Still, essentially, swelled up. Not content with a single term for it, Latin also has turgere, from which we get turgid, which means pretty much the same thing in both cases, organ or prose. Perhaps not so much now, but to the fusspot Romans there was a slight but critical difference between tumere and turgere: turgere denotes being swollen with fullness or corpulence (that is, filled with an actual something), whereas tumere refers to a concealed nothingness. Thus billowing sails could be accurately described as being both turgid (full of wind, something) and tumid (full of merely air and thus nothing). So also, for that matter, could any speech made recently by our beloved Prime Minister, for precisely the same reasons: turgid (full of wind) and tumid (concealing – not very well, granted – a vacuous nothingness), though one can’t help but have a sneaking admiration for the man: anyone who can stand up before a packed House of Commons in a Tintin hairdo and expect to be taken seriously can’t be all biscuit, now can they?
Talking of inept government policy and plutocratic oligarchy of a truly astounding inanity, that brings us nicely round to this time’s True Tale. You’ll probably be raising the Eyebrow of Incredulity when we reveal that this will combine and juxtapose our Word, contumacious, with the nefarious and tawdry world of the JobSeeker, but that’s what we’re going to attempt for you now. Any of you out there now who happen to have suffered this particular heinous and ritualised indignity (we sincerely pray there are none, then, now or ever) will be aware that there is no perceived lower form of life and that anyone you are obliged to come into contact with will know only too well that they’ve got a good firm handgrip on your tenderest parts and, being the kind of person to have taken that sort of job in the first place, they’re sure as heck going to squeeze until the tears roll down your cheeks. Should contumacity ever raise its ugly head above the parapet, then that will be your benefits stopped, matey, no questions asked. And no quarter given. Of course, JobSeekers is the rather passé term of way back when given to these itinerant ne’er-do-wells of the popular imagination, whereas in these days of Coalition enlightenment, if you’re at all de rigueur with an eye to the fash, the modern and more descriptive phrase is Benefits Scroungers so, if you’re happy to go with that, you use it instead.
At the end of twelve months of such an existence, the JobSeeker (we’re of the old school and somewhat archaic, we fear) miraculously transmogrifies into an entirely new creature, the Longterm Unemployed, at which point he actually counts in the figures for the out of work. Naturally enough, any government worth its salt (that’s our first oxymoron, which could’ve been our Word, seeing there’ll be more along shortly) deplores any such rise in the statistics, not for any humanitarian reasons so much as it tends to make them look like nothing but a bunch of incompetent charlatans when they’re actually a body of well-meaning men and women. Not quite so well-intentioned as they are well-watered, well-fed and well-paid perhaps, but you can’t have everything. The cry goes up that something must be done, and so it is. Nothing constructive or worthwhile like creating jobs and stimulating growth (not with this deficit “inherited from a previous administration” – why does that always sound exactly like “Mam, a big boy did it and ran away”?), of course, but a magical, almost mystical solution, and the simplest sleight of hand: they pack you off to an employment agency (oxymoron two, by no means last). By this simple expedient, from the moment you’re “with” them you’re no longer “signing on” anymore and no longer Longterm Unemployed and, hey presto, the out of work figures instantly drop by one. But it’s much more sophisticated than just that: assuming you do survive this excruciating and pointless ordeal, when you do emerge at the other end it will be a further twelve months before you ever grace the statistics again. All by having done nothing but send you to a shedlike building in Elephant & Castle
The agency concerned in our particular case study was Reed Employment (there is no G at the beginning of that, cynics please note) and along we trudge one ill-starred morning to be enrolled as a “member.” In quite what sense they are using the term is unclear, though a very short time is enough for one to suspect it is because they like to toy with you in their idle moments, with which they seem richly endowed. The sole purpose and objective of this outfit, it would appear to the layman, is to shovel you off at the highest velocity into the nearest job to hand, for which achievement they are rewarded with a big fat governmental cheque and a sibilant but unspoken sigh of One Less.

We members were all furnished with our very own personal Job Advisor (oxymoron three and, if we were going to rank them in order, a strong championship contender indeed). After all, if they’re such expert Job Advisors, how come they ended up in the one they’ve got? It may be disparaging to say that, when it boils down to it, what they were doing was no better than an entry-level administration post, but it’s a point necessary to make and to file away for later. In order to protect the guilty, we’ll refer to the Job Advisor in question as Maht, though you could probably have strategically shaved a gibbon and not noticed any real difference in effectiveness, and certainly have got more sense out of a jellied eel.

So there we are that morning, Maht leaning back in his comfy office chair and his member in front of him, across the desk on a much harder, less luxurious version altogether. He is casting a highly supercilious eye over the paperwork (sneering dismissiveness is one thing they are all highly trained in) and he has already taken umbrage into high dudgeon over the fact that the word “Member” on the front of the shiny folder provided has been contumeliously scrubbed out and replaced with the word “Victim.” Not an auspicious start. Then he looks up and across, inquisitorial, accusative
‘Why,’ he asks, pausing for dramatic effect, to unnerve, ‘have you put down such a high figure for the minimum salary you are willing to accept?’

The amount concerned was £17,000, enough to cover the rent etc and maybe have a button or two left over. He is clearly not impressed
‘Are you seriously trying to tell me,’ he asks, in what seems like genuine anguish, ‘that you wouldn’t take a job just because it wouldn’t pay your rent?’

There was no really adequate response to that one. He kindly suggests that half the (one bedroom) flat might be sublet to make ends meet and is once again visibly underwhelmed by the objection that this would be in breach of the tenancy agreement, at which point he realises he is dealing with a difficult and uncooperative member indeed. One who probably needed his benefits stopping, given half the chance. Meanwhile, back at the paperwork:

‘I see you’ve put here that you’re looking for an administrative post,’ he observes, drier than a Pinot Grigio, though with rather less taste – just how he managed to shoehorn quite as much sardonic and condescending disdain into the two simple words “administrative post” remains an unfathomable mystery of miraculous proportions, even implying that this was implausible aspiration of the greatest folly, something he was about to crush.

‘How fast can you type?’ he demands, the gloves now off as he readies himself to give his member a darn good pounding.

Well, that depends on what we’d be typing of course. A biblical text in the original Greek translation, not so fast at all; emails, pretty nippy actually; averaging the two, that’d be about twenty five a minute or so.

‘Twenty five?’ comes the response, again with the unflinching ability to imbue two straightforward words with sheer unadulterated contempt. ‘Not really fast enough for an admin post, is it? Well, is it?’

Again, there was no possible response to that, other than to sit back (most contumaciously, let it be said) and to watch with disbelieving eyes as he transposed this information into the computer records, so that the world might later know of the outrageous claims and expectations of his uncooperative member. It was not even with the faintest, frailest hint of irony, nor with the vaguest hint of discomfiture or humility, that he then proceeded to enact this task with slow, painful jabs of a single finger, each excruciating stab punctuated by a tedious pause as he searched for the next key he needed, which often didn’t appear to be anywhere on the keyboard at all. His Member looked on in abject and unsullied derision but heated no breath into actual comment, remembering merely that revenge is a dish best eaten cold. Getting one’s own back on this pompous and overinflated windbag would be extracted in small (and, crucially, unprovable) stings, so that he would be aware that he was being got at but wouldn’t be able to put his finger on quite how. Like providing him with a cv in a Publisher file, which he couldn’t possibly open but wouldn’t admit he didn’t know why; or providing lists of jobs applied for, all of which are fictitious; and, above all, not attaining the gainful employment that would furnish him with the lavish bonus he so lasciviously drooled after. All very childish and immature, of course, but:

Reader, I harried him.

[All opinions expressed herein are entirely personal]

Uriah Heep: By Fred Barnard (1846-1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charles I on Trial: By After Edward Bower, died 1667 (Historical Portraits) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (He let his beard and hair grow long because Parliament had dismissed his barber, and he refused to let anyone else near him with a razor.)
Death of Socrates: Jacques-Louis David [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Shrew Katherina: By Edward Robert Hughes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Medieval Builders: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down): Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Battle of Ushant: By Théodore Gudin (1802-1880) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Parliament: By Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) (after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819), Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812), Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838), J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Serfs: By anonymous (Queen Mary Master) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Eel: By opencage ( [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Charlotte Bronte: George Richmond [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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