Friday, 27 March 2015

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates.


Kohr-i-juh-buhl: Adjective: capable of, or submitting to, correction

Related forms: corrigibility, noun; corrigibly, adverb; corrigibleness, noun

From Latin, corrigere, to make straight, which is equivalent to cor- (as with com- and con-), a prefix meaning with, together or completely, plus regere, to keep straight, guide, lead or rule. Thus giving us something that can be, or is willing to be, corrected. Alas, corrigible, as a word, has sadly slipped from favour and it is now far more likely – especially if you’re anything like us, and particularly if you’ve enjoyed the same kind of kind of doting partner as we have – that you will have encountered the term (well, more accurately, had inflicted upon you) in its negative form: incorrigible. Uncorrectable, obviously. Very much with the sense of being “hopelessly depraved” or an utterly lost cause. Not to be confused with irascible, however, which managed, on one memorable occasion (at least), to find itself sharing the same sentence with incorrigible, along with a veritable plethora of other such adjectival pejoratives (some infinitely less printable and far more wounding), simply because the blackguard they referred to had had the sheer audacity to quibble over the justice of his cheek having just been soundly warmed via the swift administration of her well-aimed palm. Have no sympathy for him whatsoever, ladies or, indeed, gentlemen, for the fellow thoroughly deserved what came so rapidly and unexpectedly in his direction: after all, there he had sat for the better part of an hour with his jacket on, ready to go out, while she was in the bathroom “applying the finishing touches” and yet, when she finally does emerge, resplendent, with her inexorable inquiry as to “how do I look?” despite having been furnished with sixty full minutes to devote entirely to amassing superlatives to fling about, all he can manage is “fine.” Given the brutal and instantaneous aftermath of such a lapse, “stunning” may well have been a good deal more apposite. All of which is an example of incorrigible in its modern sense: beneath contempt. But we digress so, before we do start to wander off in search of a term that means “bitterly anecdotal”, let’s get back to the point, shall we?

Both these words – corrigible and incorrigible – came into being around the early to mid-fourteenth century, as did a whole host of kindred terminology that sprang up from the same regere root and which have a similar kind of resonance. So, before we find out what those other related ones are, it might be as well to have a quick peek back in time to see if we can discover a possible reason why they might have needed so many words for situations requiring a firm guiding hand and a bit of straightening out of wrongsters and ne’er-do-wells.

Unless you did happen to be an umbrella vendor, things didn’t get off to the best of starts when, in 1315, a wet spring was followed by a rotten summer and then a decidedly miserable autumn, all of which helped to kickstart the Great Famine, which would last until 1317 (with Europe not fully recovering until 1322), during which time millions of people starved to death or were driven to extreme levels of crime, infanticide and even cannibalism. No sooner had the skies begun to clear, the sun come out again and the people start to emerge at last from beneath their dripping eaves to congratulate themselves that they “might just get lucky enough with the weather to manage a week in the caravan at Skegness this Whitsuntide,” than up pops the Medieval equivalent of Michael Fish to advise them to not to pack away the winter woollies quite yet because things were about to turn decidedly nippy for a while. For the next five hundred years, in fact. From 1350 to 1850, as the Medieval Warm Period waned away to leave the Little Ice Age (which was neither an ice age nor little, with scientists still bickering about when it actually got started). It might have eventually provided Pieter Brueghel the Elder with an idea for something new to paint but it was still a bit of a bodyblow all round. Especially seeing Europe had only just got over the ravages of the Black Death, which did for another third of its population (possibly two hundred million) during an outbreak lasting from 1347-1351, though it was called the Great Pestilence back then and only started to be known as the Black Death around 1631 time and in England not until 1823. In fairness to rats everywhere, it should be made abundantly clear that it was actually fleas that did the damage and, whilst they were at it, they also did for the rats (or the gerbils, depending on how Norwegian you’re feeling) that had so obligingly carried them all the way from the Orient, which left the fleas themselves with nothing to feed on, so they died out too. This is all starting to sound a tad Ukip to us: rather like they hadn’t really thought the whole thing through.

Some time before that, however, 1327 in fact, Edward III had ascended to the English throne and, what with the invention of a highly-improved longbow and him being the sort of fellow you wouldn’t want to be accidentally spilling the pint of down the alehouse if you could help it, he was simply itching for a fight and, just to make sure his archers would be good and ready when the time came to get stuck in, he even banned football for a while. Now all he needed was any old lame excuse for giving some poor wretch and his countrymen a bit of a bloody nose. And, as luck would have it, Charles IV of France just happened to peg out at exactly the right moment (1328), so Edward was able to dust off the traditional English claim to the French throne, which he believed he was entitled to via his mother, who was none other than Isabella (the She-Wolf of France and about as incorrigible a piece of work as you’re likely to come across in a crown-wearing situation), her parents (and thus his nan and grandpa) being Queen Joan I of Navarre and King Philip IV, with her three brothers all having had a go at the kinging business too. Which was why Edward thought it was about his turn now, keep it in the family and all that caper. Though he didn’t so much leap into action as dillydally and prevaricate and drag his heels for simply ages. For nigh on ten years, as it goes, until the French decided they were going to be good pals with the Scots, upon whom Edward was just then inflicting another instalment of the Hammering Of work instigated by his other grandfather, Edward Longshanks. That did the trick. Now that he had finally summoned up the energy for it, the ball he set rolling was a war that would continue for the next hundred and sixteen years, though they did have to pack up for a while when the Black Death was in town, which is maybe why they ended up calling it just the Hundred Years’ War.

In 1381, along came the Peasants’ Revolt, which all started because the new king, Richard II, still only a boy of fourteen, needed to add to the dwindling coffers in order to fund what was proving to be a cash-guzzling Hundred Years’ War, so he thought to himself, I know, let’s impose a poll tax on the already beleaguered citizenry, poll being the old word for head. Well, strictly speaking, it meant the hair of the head (or even of a beast), but signified “the many”, as it comes from the Greek, polloi (as in hoi polloi, in which the hoi actually means “the,” – thus, referring to the common people as “the hoi polloi” (as some snooty writers are wont to do) merely shows that they don’t know what the term means (they are effectively saying “the the many”) and, by extension, they don’t know what they’re talking about – and it’s also where we get all those words beginning with poly (of which, dare we say, there are many), such as polysyllabic, polymath and so on. Poll, as in collection of votes, wasn’t used until 1620, and as a canvassing of opinion not until 1902. Even poll tax didn’t come about until 1690, so all young Richard II can have said is, “get some cash off of everyone, and be quick about it.” Greed and avarice were incorrigible vices in him and, in the end, they would do for him. Meanwhile, however, his tax-gatherer, John Bampton, had arrived in Essex and decided to ask the people of Fobbing (no kidding) why they hadn’t yet coughed up the lucre, to which they said they already had but Bampton, probably aware that the word fobbing comes from an archaic term for to cheat or trick, wasn’t having any of that and told ‘em so, at which unkind words were exchanged, one thing led to another, things soon got pretty ugly and, before anyone really knew what was happening, the Peasants (who mostly weren’t peasants at all) found themselves stamping Londonward to sort things out with the King. Who, when he heard they were on the way, valiantly hid in the Tower, hoping they’d just turn round and go away again. When they didn’t, he eventually had to come out and meet their leader, Wat Tyler, at Smithfield (smooth field) and, during negotiations, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, ended up stabbing Tyler, who was then beheaded and his head stuck on a pole (a poll on a pole, one might say, but won’t). Tyler only had a small blade, whereas Walworth had a whacking great sword to flourish, plus he’d come armourplated, almost as if he’d been expecting a fracas. Or intending it all along. He’s still got a London road named in his honour, as reward for being the murdering mayor, though these days a Mayor of London is highly unlikely to indulge in any such activities and would probably confine himself to cynical mendacity about no ticket office closures in order to gain a second term, reneging almost instantly, once he’d got what he wanted. Which might be an idea he lifted directly from 1381, because Richard told the gathering of hoi polloi that he’d agree to all their demands, just so long as they went away quietly and disbanded. So they did. It seems the Boy King must’ve had his fingers crossed because, by November, he had recanted all his promises and had fifteen hundred of the rebels executed for good measure.

Six hundred years later, a deluded and entrenched government would find themselves thinking how unfair it was that “a family of thirteen paid only the same rates as the little old lady living on her own next door” and so (rather than asking what’s this greyhaired old biddy doing with sole occupancy of a property big enough to house thirteen – a problem they would only address many years later with their infinitely equitable Bedroom Tax) they decided the best thing to do all round was to introduce a similar idea in their cuddly-sounding Community Charge. Nothing could go wrong this time. Well, there was a bit of skirmishing, rioting, uprising and general lawlessness for a while but it all ended up happily: with the Tax being scrapped and a grasping old power-crazed baggage being unceremoniously booted out of power. By her own party.

And, to the Medieval mind, the reason behind all this death and disaster* was perfectly obvious: it was all down to sin and fornication. Which, ironically enough, was what did for Tories too, after they’d dabbled with their own version of the poll tax: sin and fornication. Oh, and something to do with a Chelsea strip, gratuitous adultery, toe-sucking (the mind fairly boggles) and an actress, all of which would, ironically, later be proven to be no more than the vile imagination of another hideous sinner and fornicator now rotting happily in jail. What it all boiled down to was that, if the fourteenth centurions were going to avoid another infestation of Famine, Pestilence, Plague and Conflict, a firm hand would be needed on the tiller. Which meant they’d also be needing some words for what they were up to and to let folk know what was going on. So what were they?

Well, if you suspected that correct was in there amongst them, you’d be, well, correct. And direct, as in to tell people what to do, set them straight kind of thing. And erect, of course, to stand up straight. And rectify, don’t forget, which they did quite a lot of, usually involving dangling ropes or stakes and faggots in some form or other. Then there’re rectitude (uprightness or straightness of character, which you needed if you wanted to avoid flogging, burning or hanging) and rector, the top bloke in a parish. Rectum, strictly speaking, is also from the same root, but here there was a bit of a botch-up: it refers to the lower (or straight) intestine, so called by a Greek physician bod named Galen, the mistake coming “because he dissected only animals whose rectum (in contradistinction to that of man) is really straight.” So Klein reckons, anyhow. Even right, as in correct, comes to us that way, the Old English being riht, meaning just or proper. Right, in association with left, originally only referred to hands and did, indeed, mean the correct hand, or stronger. The Latin for right hand is dexter, the Greek being dexios, from which we arrive at dexterity, a skilful right hand, while in heraldry dexter means on the right, the opposite (left) being sinister. French for right is droit, as in adroit. Right in the political sense of “conservative” was first recorded in 1794, which is the only sense in which that lot ever will be.

Then, of course, there’s a whole bunch of your unalloyed bossing and ruling ones descended from regere, like regiment, regimen and regime, all fourteenth century. Regulate, regulation and regular, even rectangle, originally a triangle with an upright (rect, or right) angle. At which we arrive at the daddy of ‘em all in this sphere: rex, the regere root more obvious in the feminine version, regina, and which has spawned a set of its own offspring, such as regalia (once just the togs and trappings of an actual royal, now any old finery); regent, the ruler in place of an absent, underage or, in the case of George III, barking mad, monarch, and as in Regent Street, a street of brickbuilt terraced houses that the ostentatious owners don’t seem to realise are simply brickbuilt terraced houses with a fancy kind of cladding, just like those hideous monstrosities every street in every town boasted not so very long ago; reign too, though not rein; and regal, kinglike. Oh, and region, fourteenth century too, “a tract of land of a considerable but indefinite extent,” (a little kingdom, as it were), thus giving us the world’s most inaccurate unit of measurement: “in the region of.”

Library folk are currently jumping up and down, wondering if and when we’re finally going to mention one of their very own specimens of shibboleth, by which we mean, of course, corrigendum (noun) an error to be corrected, especially in print; plural corrigenda: a list of corrections of errors in a book or other publication, also called erratum (by hoi polloi), a slip of paper inserted into a book after printing, listing errors and corrections. All of which just about covers it, we think …

*The makers of the fourteenth century have asked us to point out that it was by no means all bad news back then. In fact, that’s when the Italian Renaissance started to get going, helped on its way by, of all things, a banking crisis. Fairly makes you want to spit, don’t it? The Italians have a banking crisis and end up with Leonardo, Michelangelo and some of the finest works of the classical period; we have one and do we get? A truly appallingly dismal and utterly inept coalition government, that’s what. The fact that we somehow ended up with not only the heartless Tories but the unprincipled LibDems as well is rather like being savaged by a poodle and then being told it’s got mange …

With the Renaissance, what happened was this. As we’ve seen, first there was the Great Famine, then Black Death, followed by the Little Ice Age setting in, all of which led to a European recession. The Hundred Years’ War had already been disrupting trade all over the place and then Edward III – the Crècy bloke mentioned earlier – started coming across all Greek by deciding not to pay back his debts, which meant that the two largest Florentine banks collapsed, those of the Bardi and Peruzzi, all during the time of Dante, Giotto and Petrarch (who then had the bare-faced cheek to call the preceding nine hundred years the Dark Ages). Now that there weren’t the opportunities for businessmen to invest their money in dubious banking schemes, they thought they might as well splash out on a spot of art and culture instead (this is all starting to sound like quite astute thinking now) and, before anyone knew where they were, up popped the House of Medici who, amongst other things, provided no less than four popes from their ranks, only to later fall back to the bad old ways. By becoming bankers. It was Shakespeare who said (in Henry VI), “the first thing we do, let’s kill all bankers.” Or was it lawyers? Whichever, he definitely had the right idea …

[ALL opinions expressed herein are entirely personal]


Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera: By Movie still scan ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hunters in the Snow: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edward Counting the Dead at Crecy: By Virgil Master (illuminator) (Jean Froissart, Chroniques (Vol. I)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
William Walworth killing Wat Tyler: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Thatcher in the White House: By White House Photographic Office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Four Horsemen: Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Galen: Pierre-Roch Vigneron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Execution of Lady Jane Grey: Paul Delaroche [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Poodle: By Belinda Hankins Miller (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Virgil & Dante in Hell: By Eugene Delacroix (26 April 1798 –13 August 1863) Jonathanriley at en.wikipedia Later version(s) were uploaded by Jappalang at en.wikipedia. [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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