Friday, 22 May 2015

Word to the Wise

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


Puhr-spee-kas-it-ee: Noun: keenness of mental perception and understanding; discernment; penetration. It also has the archaic meaning of keen vision.

From Latin, perspicax, sharp-sighted, having the power of seeing through, which comes from perspicere, which itself is formed out of per-, through, and specere, to look at.

Related forms: perspicacious, adjective; perspicaciously, adverb; perspicaciousness, noun.

Perspicacity as a word leapt into being around 1540-50 time via the Middle French, perspicacité, so it seems that it would have been our Gallic chums who first found themselves in need of a term for sharp mental perception or discernment, which would’ve been sometime during the reign of their Henry II, a man whose hobbies included giving the Huguenots a generally miserable time of it by having them burned at the stake or cutting their tongues out for uttering heresies. Unhappily for our masochistic monarch, Henry was to come to a sticky end himself whilst indulging in his other favourite pastime of jousting, when a Scotsman put a lance into his head – he didn’t see that one coming, did he? – which pretty much put an end to the sport but may be one of the first instances on which someone remarked, with all the sagacity of hindsight, “you’ll have somebody’s eye out with that if you’re not careful.” His fifteen year old son took over the throne and was promptly married off to Mary, Queen of Scots, possibly to show there were no hard feelings over the lance incident. Henry was a bit more perspicacious when it came to the matter of patents though, seeing he thought the idea up and granted the first one to a certain Abel Foullon for his Holometer, an instrument for making angular measurements in surveying, which was probably what was responsible for the appearance all those hordes of bods you see in hi-viz vests and hardhats holding up striped sticks for their mates to peer at whilst squinting through said instrument for no discernible reason.

Hard alongside perspicacity in the dictionary is perspicuity, and such a near neighbour, in fact, that he probably pops round to borrow the lawnmower of a Sunday morning, and they’re actually also very closely related, so much so that if they were any more inbred we’d have to call them Hapsburgs but, nonetheless, the two should never be confused. Perspicuity’s much older for a start off, having sprung up around 1470-80 time and, whilst they share exactly the same root of per and specere, they are actually opposite sides of the same coin: perspicacity refers to the power of seeing clearly, to insight and judgement (as in, “that looks like a lance hurtling ominously in this direction – best get well out the way afore it does some mischief”), whereas perspicuity is something that can be seen through (like a Medieval helmet visor, right up until the very moment a lance gets thrust savagely through it), meaning it has lucidity or clearness of expression, freedom from obscurity.

Perspex is another one not far away, although this is a trade name adopted by ICI, as they were then, under which they decided to market their new acrylic safety glass back in 1936. When it comes down to it, it still basically means “see through,” though perspex is still a far catchier title for a transparent thermoplastic to be known by than the technical but soulless polymethyl methacrylate, PMMA to its mates. The “poly” bit there means many, of course, which is interesting in comparison to what our American cousins went for in naming the same product – actually, it was a German scientist, Otto Röhm, who came up with it after he’d discovered the substance – which was Plexiglas, the plex- part there signifying “having many parts” (as in multiplex, those cinemas with endless screens on offer but never a decent film anywhere in sight), which comes from plectere, to plait or braid, ultimately to fold. But, if their safety glass is actually as “complex” as they’re trying to make out, how come it scratches to begorrah if you so much as get a feather duster within three feet of it? He was certainly no one-trick-wonder, our Otto, because he also came up with an enzymatic leather staining process that replaced the fermented dog dung which was formerly used for bating leather, which must have come as something a blessed relief for all the tanners involved, though it must surely have led to the cruelly ironic twist of the bottom dropping right out of the dog dung market. Instead of the other way around, that is. To get technical for a moment, it’s actually only “bating” when using hen or pigeon droppings; the use of dog dung is known as “puering” and its action is said (by the Leather Processing & Tanning Technology Handbook, at any rate) to be “vigorous.” It’s apparently particularly efficacious on goat skin, softening it up a treat, so it comes in handy for making kid – think about that next time you employ the phrase “treating someone with kid gloves.”

Now, before we lose all sense of perspective, we’d better get to perspective itself, hadn’t we? Very much out of the selfsame stable and even boasting the same sire and dam in per and specere, though in this case it’s not so much looking through as a way of looking at a subject and, as such, it’s open to a number of interpretations. There’s the technique of depicting volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface for one thing, which is what they teach us at art schools, using the so-called Vanishing Point, on which all lines receding through space should converge – and anyone who has attempted it will know from bitter experience that it never looks anything like how it should when you’ve finished – though Piero della Francesca seems to have made a pretty decent fist of it in his portrayal of the Flagellation of Christ. Mind you, he seems to have spent so long concentrating on getting that right that he’s forgotten all about the fact that it’s actually a scourging that’s about to take place in the background, which is an extremely severe form of brutal and barbaric torture involving flogging with a whip that’s had lead balls and sharp fragments of sheep bone added to it, just to give it a little extra zest in the flesh-ripping department, and likely to result in a fair amount of blood seepage as a consequence – not the sort of activity you’d imagine your average Renaissance gent would want going on in his forecourt, especially if his lovely marble tiles have just been nicely buffed up. Then there’s the sense of a view, usually one where you can see for miles into the distance, or what’s commonly known as a vista (Latin for a view or a sight) or a panorama (Greek for see all). And let’s not forget the “keeping things in perspective” sense, the mental outlook one, as in, “Come on, Harry, it’s only a lance in the eye – it’s not as if you’re going to die or anything, is it?” Though that usage is only recorded from 1762, so that couldn’t’ve happened way back in 1559 at all, so it sounds suspiciously like a shamelessly transparent device by which to get us on to the next bit. What they call a seque, isn’t it? From the Latin, seguire, to follow, as in the legal terms sue and suit.

1762 also happens to be when the last remaining buildings were finally cleared from London Bridge, which must’ve altered contemporary perspectives no end, seeing there were over two hundred of them standing by Tudor times, some of them towering seven stories high and some dangerously overhanging the river, including all the open-plan toilets and public conveniences that had been situated there for as long as there had been bridges to put them on, one of them funded by no less a figure than Dick Whittington (who really was thrice Lord Mayor of London Town), his House of Easement, to give it its euphemistic official title. Which followed the general scheme of such places back then, with no segregation between the sexes, no private cubicles, and nothing below the seat except a clear drop straight down into the Thames. So, it was simply a case of in you go, down with the old tights and chocks away, as it were, and let the bargeman beware, if he happens to be passing underneath at the time, seeing it proved to be a regular hazard to shipping in those days. It was our old friends the Romans who first put up a bridge there, to make a shortcut between the ports in Kent and Colchester, with London springing up merely as an opportunistic by-product of its construction, making fleecing the tourists the city’s original raison d’etre and still a particular favourite amongst the locals. When the Romans had to go and deal with the shenanigans of the Germanic tribes, the Vandals and the Alans, all of whom were causing mayhem and strife back in Rome, the bridge fell into disrepair until Alfred the Great (though it might’ve been Ethelred the Unready) rebuilt it, only for the beastly Vikings to destroy it out of sheer badness. Then William the Conqueror had a go, but his blew down in 1091 during the London Tornado, so his son, William Rufus, built another version, which promptly burned down in 1136. Finally, not before time you’d think, Henry II had the bright idea of “this time, instead of timber, why don’t we build it in stone?” and it can also be a kind of sorry to Thomas Beckett at the same time, for having ordered his brains to be gouged out in his own cathedral. So that’s what they did, only it took ‘em thirty three years, by which time Henry had long since pegged out.

At that time, the bridge ran from the old walled city of London down to Southwark Cathedral on the opposite bank, so folk could pop across whenever they fancied indulging in something a little untoward and nefarious, such as visiting a “stew” or taking in a Shakespeare play, being reminded in no uncertain terms that they were Now Entering South London (unlike any taxis ever after) as soon as they reached the southern gatehouse, where they would be greeted by the grisly sight of the heads of executed traitors, suitably tarred and boiled for longevity, spiked up on the walls. William Wallace, Jack Cade, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell would all spend time taking in the view from that unhappy vantage point, and the practice actually outlived the buildings, heads being seen on public display right up until 1772. Fifty years earlier, things had gotten so bad trafficwise on the bridge that the Lord Mayor decided that “something must be done,” like Lord Mayors tend to do, and decreed that all the carts, carriages and coaches coming out of Southwark should stick to the west side and the ones coming from Olde London Towne had best keep to the east, which may be where the British idea of driving on the left originated from. By 1799 and over six hundred years old, the bridge was pretty much decrepit, so they held a competition to design a new one, which was won by John Rennie, though it still took as long to build as the one it was replacing, not opening until 1831 and even then only lasting a miserable one hundred and thirty six years, by which time it was a wreck that was slowly sinking. At which point a councillor by the name of Ivan Luckin had the bright idea of selling it to an American called Robert P. McCulloch for two and a half million dollars, meaning our Ivan was Luckin by name and very much by nature. Though there’s no evidence to support the tale that McCulloch actually thought he was buying Tower Bridge. So Luckin always insisted, anyhow.

Cheek by jowl with Perspicacity and Perspective comes Perspiration, which comes from the Latin perspirare, to blow constantly (said of the wind), but which means to breathe through, gradually evolving into to sweat imperceptibly or to evaporate through the pores. A perfectly natural human phenomenon, there’s no denying that, though it’s hardly the first thing you’d want to be drawing any attention to, unless you do happen to be a medical man of any sort, that is. It seems that they have a startlingly unhealthy interest in the subject altogether down the ages and have even attempted to maintain a distinction between what they term “sensible” and “insensible” perspiration, the former meaning your common-or-garden sweating, of course, stating that: “It is sufficient for common use to observe, that perspiration is that insensible discharge of vapour from the whole surface of the body and the lungs which is constantly going on in a healthy state; that it is always natural and always salutary; that sweat, on the contrary, is an evacuation, which never appears without some uncommon effort, or some disease to the system, that it weakens and relaxes, and is so far from coinciding with perspiration, that it obstructs and checks it.” That was Charles White in 1791, writing in “A Treatise on the Management of Pregnant and Lying-in Women,” no doubt on having observed that it don’t half seem to flood out of these womenfolk when they get to the business end of labour and thinking it might be “obstructing and checking” their perspiration somewhat, which can’t’ve been good for ‘em. All of which seems to suggest that what our Charlie (by name and by nature) is pussyfooting around and not actually saying in so many words is, “Come on, love, at a time like this what you need to do is just calm down.”

Which pretty much brings us round to lay a misguided finger squarely on the hackneyed head of the old adage: Horses sweat, men perspire and women glow. It seems that it was those infinitely wise and never-knowingly-mistaken Victorians who came up with that old chestnut, in a handbook on etiquette, though that was no reason whatsoever to stop the boffins from having a bit of a poke around to find out if there was any truth in it at all and then calling what they were up to research. Horses keep their side of the bargain sure enough, seeing they don’t so much sweat as positively froth, in vast foaming crests of brightly dripping ooze, and from places you wouldn’t even think it was possible to have pores. Any racegoer worth their salt knows that. Especially if they’ve suffered the sublimely piquant misfortune of seeing the one that’s carrying their money arrive down at the start in just such a state, which then transforms it into the nearest thing you’ll ever get to a certainty in racing: it ain’t going to win. But don’t take our word for it. The boffins certainly didn’t. A bunch of scientists from Glasgow University decided that they were going to stick their noses into what was going on here and they made the startling discovery that the horse has developed a waterproof pelt for itself, which is handy enough for all that standing around in the rain they seem to do. Mind you, we do our own share of enduring the incessant precipitation ourselves and we never bothered with anything like that. Isn’t it flippin’ marvellous? Thousands of years of evolution and civilization, and what do we come up with to deal with it? The anorak. One up to the horse there, we’d’ve said. Though there is one decided downside to the whole waterproof hide caper, as the Scottish eggheads found out: it’s waterproof both ways, which tends to make the sweating business somewhat problematic, if can’t get out through the skin. But you can always rely on the horse to come up with a solution (if not always to run quite as fast as you’d ideally like it to in a final furlong situation) and what it hit on was having sweat that was protein-rich, one component of which acts like a surfactant, reducing the surface tension of water, rather in the way that detergent does. And, much like when you use washing-up liquid (or, indeed, listen to a Tory), what you end up with is a load of lathery froth, which explains why the horse sweats like it does. In a kind of does-what-it-says-on-the-tin way, this substance has been imaginatively christened by the boffins as … latherin. Humankind, by the bye, decided not to go down the protein-rich route and thought it would be a tad better all round if our sweat was mainly made up of salt, whilst most other mammals think the whole business over-rated and don’t go in for it at all.

That resolved the equine part of the Victorian-set poser at least, but what about the rest of it, the perspiring and glowing question? Well, you can always rely on scientific research to unenigmatise that little riddle for us one way or another, especially if it seems like there isn’t anything better to be getting on with just at the moment, which is precisely what a group of Japanese boffins set out to do on our behalf and not minding a jot what manner of armpit they’d be plunging themselves so deeply into, which is dashed decent of them, we must say. To cut a long story short, they gathered up an experiment’s worth of men and women various, put them in a room they’d heated to thirty degrees and then set them cycling for an hour. The results were decisive: men sweat almost twice as much as women under those conditions, though we had a pretty fair idea already that such might be the case, didn’t we? Though now it’s official, scientifically proven, no question about it anymore, eh lads? Oh, women will argue all that sciencey mumbo-jumbo about how they generally have less body-fluid than us chaps, so this is a cunning strategy they’ve developed to avoid dehydrating in sticky situations (such as cycling in overheated rooms, for one) but the fact of the matter, whether they like it or not, is that when it comes down to the art of sweating, we blokes are indisputably best. Fair makes you proud to be a man, don’t it? Plus, at long last, it finally gives us something else to go with reverse parking and reading a map. A touch sexist, perhaps, but such is what happens if you dabble in being perspicacious about perspiration …

Henry II of France: After François Clouet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Maximillian I (Hapsburg): Albrecht Dürer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Flagellation of Christ: Piero della Francesca [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lexus Perspex Car: By shopman [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Old London Bridge: By Claude de Jongh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Old London Bridge from Southwark, showing spiked heads over the gatehouse: By Angr [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen: Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Foals at Worksop Manor: author
Johannes Kepler: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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