Friday, 23 October 2015

Word to the Wise

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


In-uhn-ish-uhn: Noun: exhaustion from lack of nourishment, starvation; lack of vigour, lethargy; mental or spiritual weakness

Related forms: inane, adjective, senseless, unimaginative, or empty; inanity, noun, lack of intelligence or imagination; a silly remark; inanely, adverb

The word inanition comes from the Latin, inanis, which means empty or void but with the added implication of useless or of no worth. It first appeared around 1400 time and was probably much needed just then, seeing this was just after the Black Death (1346-1353) had been doing its business of thinning down Europe’s population by about seventy five to two hundred millions, so there wasn’t much tuck around (what with nobody left to grow it), though there was a good deal of hunger and starvation. This was then followed by the Peasants Revolt of 1381, when the yeomanry (not peasants) rose up, mainly to object to the imposition of a Poll Tax to fund the Hundred Years War but also to moan about the unfairness of serfdom in general. The boy king, Richard II, rode out to meet the mob with a cry of “I shall be your captain,” – which was handy, seeing his men were, at that very moment, butchering the one they’d arrived with: Wat Tyler – and then agreeing to all their demands, just so long as they went home quietly. Which they did. Only for Richard to swiftly renege on his promises and to make them much worse off than they had been before. In other words, he behaved like a government. Exactly six hundred years later, in an act of almost breath-taking stupidity, a Conservative administration decided they’d wheel out the Poll Tax for another airing, which would prove just as popular, provoke another rebellion and end up with the hated Thatcher having to tearfully resign, though she did stop short of jetting off to live in exile in Chile under the leadership that she claimed was doing such a marvellous job there. As for Richard II, inanition would later come back to bite him …

Inantion was a particular favourite word with the Bronte sisters, seeing it turns up in Wuthering Heights and at least twice in Jane Eyre:

… how glad I was to behold a prospect of getting something to eat! I was now nearly sick from inanition, having taken so little the day before.


My head swam as I stood erect. I perceived that I was sickening from excitement and inanition; neither meat nor drink had passed my lips that day, for I had taken no breakfast.

Other especial favourites of theirs – which we should maybe consider reviving – include: penetralia, which appears to mean the innermost parts or secret matters (Gosh! Has it suddenly got very hot in here?), though the Haworth usage tends to refer to the rooms within a building; inly, much like your inwardly but, whereas inwardly implies “in the vague direction of inside,” inly is more your slapbang internal, what you might call intimately or sincerely; lief, as in gladly or willingly, but archaic even when they were using it; fain, much the same but a bit trickier to pin down, seeing it’s more a case of only gladly or willingly “under the circumstances,” with a smidgen of being compelled or obliged to do something and thus having to put a brave face on it while you’re at it. We would fain confess, it makes you wonder how we get by these days without such terminology to turn to. Mind you, back then, what with all the inanition they had to put up with, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the talk would come back round to hunger and to food in general, which is when another word of theirs pops up (only the once, as far as we know), though it will prove devilishly ticklish to slip seamlessly into conversation. It appears in Wuthering Heights and it’s thible.

It racked me to recall past happiness and the greater peril there was of conjuring up its apparition, the quicker the thible ran round, and the faster the handfuls of meal fell into the water.

Nobody can really be doing without a thible, of course, and, to be brutally frank, our own specimen has taken such a hammering lately it’s about worn down to the stump, we don’t mind admitting. A thible turns out to be a stick for stirring porridge and, for such a specialised implement doing a job for which almost any stick would do, there are an awful lot of variations on the term: thivel, thyvelle, thyvil, thyvel, thieval, theevil, thibble, thybel, thavel, thaivel, thabble and theedle. If none of those suit you, how about spurtle or spirtle, much favoured by the Scots, who also happen to be keen imbibers of said oatmeal ambrosia, the term coming from the sixteenth century. No two spurtles are alike (they claim), being turned on a lathe from various hardwoods but generally having the Scottish thistle on the handle. Judging by some of the bemused faces on display out there now, some of you are wondering why on earth anyone should resort to a thible in the first place when we’ve got the perfectly utile wooden spoon in our culinary armoury already. These sceptics will probably also be blissfully unaware that there are certain deadly sins one can commit in the preparation of porridge, all of which should be studiously avoided (unless, like us, you were raised in the misguided belief that the glutinous lumpen masses you found therein were actually somehow obligatory). First up, adding the salt too early: this hardens the grain, preventing it from swelling; secondly, using a bogstandard spoon, though there’s more than a suspicion this is mere rumour put about by thible manufacturers; then there’s stirring widdershins (no kidding!), which is basically stirring in the wrong direction, or anti-clockwise, when you should be doing it deiseal, in the same direction as the sun. (You see how complex this porridge business really is now). If you do go at it widdershins, in which case more fool you, it’ll end up bringing bad luck or even invoking the devil, and you wouldn’t want that, now would you? After all, isn’t it bad enough that you’ve ended up with porridge for breakfast? Again.

In this day and age, however, at least in this country and despite the best austerity efforts of Caring Conservatism to revisit the Workhouse and Famine via a Foodbank culture in which the streets of London are paved with myriad homeless whilst elsewhere colossal luxury edifices stand empty as icons to foreign investment, there is still little actual inanition – physical debility caused by lack of food – and the only effective occasion on which we might employ the term is when we ring in to say we won’t be in the office today as we’re suffering from a touch of inanition, the spiritual weakness therein being caused by an inability to overmaster the comforts of the duvet. We might claim to be starving or ravenous or famished or just plain hungry (all of them oddish words, when you look at ‘em) but the worst it ever gets for us is feeling a bit peckish. Now, that is a strange word, but pretty much what it claims to be: disposed to peck. Though it can mean rather irritable. As in: having been repeatedly asked awkward questions about the hypocrisy of selling arms to a brutal Saudi regime bent on dishing out a public lashing to a pensioner found with a drop of homebrew, Mr Cameron became a tad peckish. (Though, to be fair, despite the lardy corpulent physique, the PM knows all about going without – many’s the occasion on whic he’s risen from the lunch table before the dessert trolley’s come round a second time). Peck is a variation of pick, the use of a beak part coming from Middle Low German and the eating in small bites sense coming in around 1580. 

So, what of the peck of pickled pepper picked by Peter Piper? Did they mean a mere beakful? Or were they referring to the other sort of peck: a unit of dry measure equal to eight quarts. Which is a mighty lot of pickled pepper, given the risks of botulism involved. Four pecks make a bushel, of course, the Americans favouring the Winchester bushel, whilst we in this country are devotees of the Imperial (stands to reason) bushel, or 36.38 litres. Bushel, it seems, is derived from the Gaulish, bosta, or palm of the hand, which makes it a mighty impressive hand, if it can hold thirty six litres in it. The bushel for hiding your light under – or, rather, not – is something altogether different and comes from the Bible, the parable of it appearing in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. (John was obviously off that day – a touch of inanition, maybe?) The bushel in this case, according to William Tyndale’s English translation (for which he would eventually be burned at the stake, though his executioners were caring enough to strangle him beforehand, save him any suffering) was a bowl and the light actually a lamp, the message therefore being, don’t light a lamp and then bung it under a bowl, Tyndale favouring putting it on a candlestick so it “lighteth all them which are in the house.” Wise move, especially if they’re just about to make some porridge …

Whilst inanition is the effect produced by lack of food, hunger is the (usually compelling) desire to do summat about it. It’s an Old English word, so we were clearly used to going without back then, except for our toffs, who went on gorging themselves like Cabinet Ministers, which still obtains today. Gorge comes from throat and meant eating greedily as early as 1300. Starving is also Old English – by heck, we had it tough in them days – meaning to die (of cold, usually), though its original sense was stiff (as in corpse), to which it’s related, and stare is along the same lines. The sense of to die of hunger dates back to 1570. Someone who is ravenous is also a person prepared to do something about his hunger, not merely by standing in the queue at Greggs but by seizing using force, not always foodstuffs either, from Latin, rapina, plundering or robbery, but with a touch of rapidus, rapid, thrown in, thus making it snatching and eating greedily – not the sort of behaviour you expect down Greggs, especially as their pasties are heated to take the roof off your mouth. Famished was originally famen, from the Latin, affamere, to bring to hunger, up until around 1400, when the –ish ending was added, famyschen, to make it chime with words like ravish, anguish, banish and thereby emphasise the do deliberately nasty work to element of it.

Talking of famished brings us back round to Richard II, who knew all about it in the having it done unto sense, not to mention being able to describe just how inanition felt from the inside perspective. What happened was that after his triumph over the Peasants’ Revolt, and once he’d got through with executing about two thousand of the rabble to make sure they didn’t do it again, he got just a tad too big for his boots. By introducing terms like “Highness” and “Majesty” for people to call him by. And then having himself portrayed in the Wilton Diptych with three saints admiring him and wearing expressions of “This lad’s a good ‘un all right,” whilst the Virgin, accompanied by a horde of angels, all sporting Richard’s white hart badge, look benignly on as Mary meekly offers him the Christ child, like she’s asking him, “What do you reckon, then?” Such colossal arrogance could only come a cropper, especially once he started nicking other people’s lands for himself. The last straw came when he fell out with his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (John of Gaunt’s lad) and ordered him to fight the Duke of Norfolk but then called the whole thing off at the last second, just as they were squaring up to each other, banishing them both instead. John of Gaunt happened to be a massive landowner and so, when he died, Richard couldn’t resist the temptation of adding the Gaunt acreage to his own. Fatal error. Naturally enough, Bolingbroke was none too chuffed about this development and came steaming back hotfoot from exile to sort things out. As it goes, much of the nobility had been getting a tad edgy that the same thing might happen to them so, when Henry appeared on the scene in fighting mood, they lent their not insubstantial weight to giving the kingly backside a right royal kicking. Once they’d nabbed him, they didn’t want to do anything unseemly like kill him, so they bestowed an even worse fate upon the hapless Richard: they sent him to Pontefract. There, they locked him up in the castle and simply let him starve slowly to death.

Now, what Richard could’ve done with just then was a cook. Any cook. With the possible exception of Richard Roose (or it may have been Rouse, Rose or possibly even Rice), who wore the chef’s hat for John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, in the time of Henry VIII. This Roose fellow (or shall we call him Rice?) was clearly something of a joker because he added some powders to the ecclesiastical supper pot (a porridge – let’s hope he used a thible – or a potage) for a laugh – he would later claim he thought they were laxatives, the wag – but, come time to dish up, the good bishop’s lost his appetite, though his guests still tucked in heartily enough. And paid the price, two of them dying. Unfortunately for Roose (or Rice), it turned out the joke was on him when they caught him straight away and he confessed. Henry VIII took a very dim view and decided that a new punishment ought to be devised for the culinary comedian – not because the crime was particularly heinous but more likely due to the fact that Henry couldn’t stand Fisher since the bishop had got in the way of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, thus it was Roose’s failure to do him in that had so got up the King’s nose – and he was boiled to death. It seems they didn’t go for the sticking him in cold water and then slowly heating it up method, preferring to lower him in for a dip before hauling him up and then dunking him again until he was dead. Apparently, there was a good turn-out but the poor fellow “roared mighty loud, and divers women who were big with child did feel sick at the sight of what they saw, and were carried away half dead.”

So that’s inanition. Now, who’s for Boiled Rice ... ?

Mayor Walworth murders Wat Tyler (Peasants’ Revolt): [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charlotte Bronte: Author, taken in the church at Haworth from an original on display
Top Withens: Author
Porridge: William Hemsley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Workhouse: By Photograph donated to library by Perry, Jean, fl 1985, of Crumpsall, Manchester (see - considering the photograph's date (late 19th century) it seems unlikely that Jean Perry (who seems to have been a medical illustrator at Crumpsall Hospital) was the image's creator. The photographer's details will be extremely difficult to ascertain, and judging from the image's age, I would say that copyright has long expired. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tyndale: By John Foxe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Eric Pickles: By Communities and Local Government Office [OGL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Wilton Diptych: By Unknown (English or French) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Gordon Ramsey: By Dave Pullig [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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