Friday, 27 November 2015

Word to the Wise

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


Pahr-suh-moh-nee-uhs: Adjective: characterized by parsimony; frugal or stingy.

Related forms: parsimoniously, adverb; parsimoniousness, noun; parsimony, noun

Arrant meanness, that’s what we’re talking about here. The odd thing is that parsimonious – and the parsimony it sprang from – is just one of a collection of similar-minded words that all arrived on the scene around about the same sort of time in History: that is, from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries. Quite what was going on to instil this desperate need for such a wide choice of terminology to describe the various degrees of tight-fistedness isn’t precisely clear, though the Black Death had seen the common people empowered to demand a better quality of life (comparatively speaking) and then along came the English Renaissance with its eye for culture and beauty, so anyone still practising Medieval stinginess was going to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

As it goes, the English Renaissance lagged some goodly way behind its Italian counterpart, which was already hitting the Baroque by the time we finally got going somewhere around 1520 or so (and, even then, not all that convincingly), though attempts have been made to create a “historical convenience” by putting the off-time down as right after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, which ended the Wars of the Roses and ushered in the House of Tudor, as if Henry VII, still in his bloodied armour and standing over the mutilated body of the vanquished Richard III, the crown freshly plucked from under the thorn tree to be plonked onto his skull, had shouted to his army, “Right, lads, we’ll have five minutes sit down to get our breath back, then we’ll make a start on this Renaissance thing, shall we?” Seems a bit unlikely really. That’s the main problem with “historical conveniences”: they’re not all that convenient most of the time. Take the Armistice that signalled the end of the carnage that was the First World War: that came into effect at the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Month, all so History could be provided with a pretty mnemonic, even though the Great Men had gathered in the railway car as early as six that morning, which left five whole hours of fighting, in which lithe young men did indeed make their futile sacrifice and went cold. Not all that convenient for them, we’d’ve said …

Back with parsimony, that got off to a flying start and was already up and running by the early 1400s. It comes from the Latin, parcere, to use sparingly, with a –mony suffix to indicate a state or condition (as in matrimony, acrimony, alimony, not necessarily always in that order). There is said to be no connection with parvus, small, or parum, too little (as in cheese-paring, another term for tightness) and originally it was free of the pejorative sense that it has since gained. Best make clear, right from the outset, that the word parson is also in no way related to parsimony, parson merely indicating a person (holding a church office), the two words sharing the same root. Seems it was Chaucer and his ilk that started using the term people for the plural of person, though it caused one heck of a to-do, which was still raging well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with publishers of news and books and other such irritating pedants strictly forbidding the use of people instead of persons. Rules have been attempted on this, such as when counting just a few, it would be persons, and indicating many would be people, but either way is acceptable, though people tends to sound less stilted these days.

Parsley also seems to be a word equally free of any such opprobrious insinuations, though the sole function of the (as the poet put it) “ghastly” green matter itself seems to amount to no more than turning up uninvited with your meal in an eatery, in the guise of what is sardonically referred to as “garnish,” a word evolved from warning, as if anyone really needed alerting to the fact that parsley is revoltingly vile stuff which should never, under any circumstances, be put into the mouth. So why do they do it to us, these so-called “chefs” with their despicable parsley-inflicting practices? Unless it’s simply to fill up some of the otherwise glaringly empty spaces stretched across the ceramic wilderness of your plate, upon which the sole other occupant is some sorry shrivelled specimen cowering lonely and miniscule over to one side that will eventually, by a process of elimination, turn out to be your main course. 

If you do indulge in the parsimonious, then you’re undoubtedly something of a miser, a person who lives in wretched circumstances in order to save a bob or two, which comes from the Latin (again), miser – as does miserable, obviously – meaning unhappy, pitiable or in distress, the miser presumably having inflicted such conditions on himself. The original sense also included (though now obsolete) a connotation of “intense erotic love” – so we’re told – rather in the way that we use “he’s got it bad” to indicate someone so in love that it makes them wretched. Not to mention a complete pain to anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity. It seems that it was, for this reason, a favourite word of the poet Catullus, who sounds like a right bundle of laughs to have about the place. That’d be Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 – 54 BC), of course, who kept himself busy during the late Roman Republic by writing verses in the “neo-erotic” style. Mucky poems, that’s what they mean, which is probably why they’ve lasted so well and continue to have influence. Ovid, Horace and Virgil certainly sat up and took notice but, rather than just dirty, the poems are regarded as downright shocking, meaning that school curriculums, whilst coping (just about) with Chaucer – hairy backsides stuck out of windows, breaking wind and all that – blench at studying Catullus so generally leave that to graduate programmes, when it hopefully won’t cause quite so much tittering. It seems that this Catullus sort fell deeply in love with the Lesbia of his poems (we could’ve told him he was batting on a sticky wicket there), this being a pseudonym for his lover, Claudia Metelli Celeris, who put herself about a bit, by all accounts. Catullus managed to shoehorn her into at least twenty five of his one hundred and sixteen surviving poems (talk about milking it), which take the usual course of romantic love, starting with tender affection and euphoria, then moving quickly through doubts, sadness and disappointment (“who’s toga might this be, then, Claudia?”) to end up with separation, loss and bitter sarcasm. Never mind, Catullus, old lad. We’ve all been there. Plenty more fish in the sea. Mind you, the minute they come out the sea, some clot with a frying pan will’ve covered the blighters in parsley.

Let’s not get carried away with the idea that it was just the Romans who were obsessed with misers and miserliness. The Greeks had their own word for it too, kyminopristes, which translates into a phrase we should definitely bring back, seeing it means a “cumin seed splitter” and conjures up wonderful imagery of someone actually attempting such a task (and we all know folk like that). By sheer coincidence, cumin happens to be related to parsley …

Disappointingly, stingy (with the J sound) has no Catullus-like figure lurking love-lorn in the wings and seems to be merely a dialect version of stingy (with the G sound), indicating someone biting, sharp or bad-tempered, most likely from all the effort involved with hanging onto their cash so grimly. There is, however, the legend of Stingy Jack, if you’ve got a minute (with the J sound, by the bye). Coming from Irish folklore, it boils down to this Stingy Jack being something of a lush and a cheat and an all-round disreputable sort (which you’d tend to be to end up with a name like Stingy Jack), who manages to convince Satan to turn into a coin so Jack can pay off his tab down at his local, telling the Horned One that he can always turn back into his demonic self and escape once the landlord’s wiped the slate. Really, you’d expect Beelzebub to have slightly more nous than to fall for something like that but stick with it. They end up making some kind of dodgy deal involving Satan getting Jack’s immortal soul in lieu of payment, so Satan agrees and takes on coin form, at which Jack bungs him in his wallet, where there also happens to be a crucifix, thereby trapping the Prince of Darkness good and proper (you’d’ve thought he’d’ve seen that one coming). Anyhow, Jack agrees to let Lucifer (ironically, “bringer of light”) off the hook once the bill’s settled, on the understanding that he gets to keep his own soul. Comeuppance time arrives for Jack when he finally pegs out, only to discover Old Nick and St Peter embroiled in a heated argument, with both of them refusing to have such a scurrilous rogue polluting their premises, thank you very much, so the Devil (finally living up to his name) gives Jack a single ember from Hell, to put inside his lantern (actually a hollowed-out turnip) to light his way as he roams for eternity between the living and the dead, trying to lure people to their deaths with his spectral lamp. This appears to be the origin of the Jack O’ Lanterns synonymous with Halloween, the Irish having started it off when they could only get their hands on turnips but, once they started fleeing the Famine by going to America, they found pumpkins a whole lot easier to deal with in a lantern-making situation. 

Then there’s niggard, of course, which is another early starter, dating as it does from the late fourteenth century. The –ard suffix suggests it might be the work of the French, though it’s more likely to have come from an Old Norse word, hnøggr, which means stingy or grasping. Some folk get a tad uncomfortable about using the term niggard, what with it sounding not entirely dissimilar to another, highly offensive, word but there is absolutely no connection between them, so it’s fine to go right ahead and call someone a niggard if you feel like it. But only if you happen to be gifted in the running away quickly department, mind. Whilst not being exactly akin to today’s theme of the tightwad, wretch and wretched have already cropped up enough to take a closer look at now. This is one that we can safely claim, being as it sprouts from Old English, wrecca, a banished person or exile, the sense of a vile or despicable fellow in a deplorably sorry state no doubt being down to his straitened circumstances of enforced wandering. Another Old English variant, wreccan, to drive out or punish, survives in the form of wreak. Its original meaning was on the personal side, with the sense of inflicting punishment or vengeance (thus on a specific person or persons) but, by 1817, had come to mean any old damage or destruction.

Wherever you find wreak, havoc is likely to be hovering in close attendance somewhere in the vicinity, which is another from the late fourteenth century, when it was generally applied in the phrase “cry havoc,” so that when someone shouted the word havoc, that was the Medieval equivalent of saying to the soldiers, “Rightho, lads, let’s get stuck into a spot of full-blooded pillaging, plundering, looting and raping, shall we? Then we can get back home in time for tea.” The probable source is Latin (the Romans went in for those sort of activities bigtime), habere, to have, possess or grasp, the general sense of devastation having been arrived at by the late fifteenth century. Shakespeare uses the phrase in Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

Floating at the periphery of out-and-out meanness, yet still dipping a toe in nonetheless, are frugal and thrifty, both of which come complete with more than a hint of caution in the management of money. Frugal is another one born of Latin, frugalis, useful, proper or worthy, which itself derives from frux – as does fruit – fruit or produce, thus (figuratively) value or success, the sense evolving, even in Latin, from useful to profitable to economical. Which makes it all sound exactly like a Conservative policy initiative. Talking of which brings us neatly onto thrift, a particular favourite of the Thatcherite regime – they’re the ones who won an election, you’ll recall, on the back of the slogan “Labour isn’t working.” And then promptly trebled the number of unemployed. Which, even we have to admit, is spectacularly thrifty, even if it was mainly with the truth. Though they were pretty thrifty when it came to hospitals, mind, most of which probably needed shutting down anyway. There used to be school playing fields back then too but nowadays, thanks again to thrift, none of our children will ever suffer the indignity of being singled out as the “fat kid.” Thrift is from the Middle English, thriven, which, as it sounds, is closely akin to thrive (to do well or prosper) but whose meaning was originally more like to grasp to oneself or to clutch in a rather selfish-sounding way. Which sounds very much like your average practitioner of thrift, we’d’ve said. After all, let’s face it, whatever faintly positive spin they try to put on those two terms, which of us would actually relish the idea of an invitation to a dinner party thrown by a host known to be “frugal” or “thrifty”? Doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? “More parsley anyone?” Your spendthrift, by the bye, put in an appearance around 1600, which has a nasty edge of insinuation to it (of waste and prodigality), whereas the term it ousted, scattergood, beat the cotton socks off it in every respect and should be reinstalled instanter.

Now, your skinflint – one who employs contemptible economy in order to hoard money – he first turned up as a slang term around 1700 or so, though the original in this case also was way better: flay-flint, both of which indicate “the kind of person who would skin a flint to save or gain something.” And, talking of the Chancellor, has anyone else noticed how George Osborne (or Gideon Oliver Osborne, as he was christened) seems to have based his whole persona on that of Captain Darling from Blackadder Goes Forth but with every last vestige of warmth removed? Show him a specimen of the working classes and that man could sneer for England. To be fair to him, however, he is the one comparatively skinny kid among a Tory Front Bench of ostentatiously and overly well-fed porkers, each complete with a generous padding of unsightly lard, who spend their days legislating in order to ensure that the less-privileged always go hungry to their beds. Which is what we mean by the phrase, “Conservative values.”

Whilst we’re in that particular ball-park (or would be, if they hadn’t sold them all off), a quick glimpse at that hoary old chestnut of austerity. Now, that’s a term we’ve all become very familiar with lately but what does it actually mean? It rather depends whether you go for the Old French, austerite, harshness or cruelty, or the Latin, austeritatem, severe self-discipline, or even the Greek, austeros, bitter, sour or tart, the result is always the same: it’ll leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. And you might end up in Penury, which turns out not to be a coastal town in Cornwall after all ...

The most famous miser of them all is, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge, though Dickens (who couldn’t abide a flay-flint) didn’t so much invent him as lift him from a real-life person who, like so many of the other notorious tightwads of History, was actually extremely rich, being highly adept when it came to collecting cash but remarkably reluctant to ever part with it again. This was John Elwes (1714-1789), born John Meggot (you can imagine why he’d change that, but you’d be wrong) and also known as Elwes the Miser. He came from a family of misers and was only four when he inherited his first fortune from his father and then, when his mother popped her clogs – allegedly starving herself to death rather than spend good money on food, despite the fact she was worth eight million in today’s money – he got hers too. Not content with that little lot, he then turned his attentions to toadying up to his equally well-heeled and just as tightfisted Uncle Harvey Elwes (that’s why he changed his name: to get his mitts on Uncle’s loot), the two of them spending their evenings condemning the extravagances of others whilst sharing a single glass of wine. Or “lashing out,” as they’d’ve called it. It did the trick: he got the cash, making him worth about eighteen million at current rates. It almost goes without saying that he was an MP …

Elwes is supposed to have once snatched a dead moorhen from a rat that had dragged it from the river and then to have eaten it himself. And, on another occasion, consumed a two month old pancake he happened to come across festering away in his pocket. We don’t need to go to quite such extreme lengths ourselves: if anybody is still hungry, we could always share a cumin seed between us. Will anyone be wanting garnish with that … ?

[All views expressed herein are entirely personal - especially if you do happen to be George Osborne]

Parsimony (John Elwes): See page for author [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Young Man Among Roses (possibly Earl of Essex): Nicholas Hilliard [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Geoffrey Chaucer: See page for author [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Gordon Ramsey: By Dave Pullig [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Catullus at Lesbia’s: Lawrence Alma-Tadema [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jack O’Lantern: By Toby Ord (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Norsemen: [Public domain], via Wikimedia
Mrs Thatcher: By work provided by Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation (Margaret Thatcher Foundation) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
John Meggot Elwes: [Public domain], via Wikimedia

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