Wednesday, November 26, 2008



Thanks to Eric Thomson for the following erudite and entertaining comments on some recent blog posts.

Seize the Day, Don't Fash Your Thumb

On the subject of 'lexicon totius Anglicitatis', a subsense of 'blaw' in the DSL seems to have escaped your eagle eye:
BLAW, BLA', BLAA, Blyave, Blyaver, n.1
5. A pull of liquor.
  *Sc. 1808 Jam.:
  Blaw. A pull, a draught; a cant term, used among topers.
  *Edb. 1772 R. Fergusson Sc. Poems (1925) 9:
  Then come and gies the tither blaw Of reaming ale.
Fergusson's poetry is awash with booze.

Apropos of 'carpe diem', Alan Ramsay put it even more succinctly than Fergusson: "And since our life's sae unko short/ Enjoy it a', ye've nae mair for't" Ode to Robert Forbes 39-40.

The stark dates you supply for Fergusson betray the poet's own dismal 'weird', death in a madhouse at the age of 24. There were precious few days for him to seize, though seize them he did, in ways of which Horace would have approved, with oysters and haddock, gin and ale:
When big as burns the gutters rin,
Gin ye catcht a droukit skin,
To Luckie Middlemist's loup in,
And sit fu snug
O'er oysters and a dram o'gin,
Or haddock lug.

When auld Saunt Giles, at aught o'clock,
Gars merchant lowns their choppies lock,
Then we ajourn wi' hearty fock
To birle our bodles
And get wharewi' to crack our joke,
And clear our noddles.
(from 'Caller Oysters').

Lucky Middlemist's was not far from the Isle of Man tavern, where under the pseudonym 'Sir Precenter' Fergusson used to attend meetings of the Cape Club (Ramsay dedicated his Soracte ode to another of these drinking clubs, the Phiz Club). Christopher North's Noctes Ambrosianae gives a flavour of what they must have been like.

Fergusson worked as a copyist of legal papers in the office of the commissionary clerk of Edinburgh, 'a situation miserably inferior to his talents' according to his biographer, who speaks of him 'obtaining the means of a scanty subsistence by servile and unworthy drudgery, and cheering his leisure moments in mingled intellectual exertion and convivial dissipation. To many persons he was recommended by his fascinating conversation, his modesty and his gentle and affectionate character.' Shades of CL as Leigh Hunt used to refer to him. I'm sure there's a bit of MG there too.

The quotation is from the very interesting entry on Fergusson in Robert Chambers: A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen (1870) vol II. I've got the 1971 Georg Olms Verlag 1971 reprint, but the old editions are on Internet Archive.


I know Martinmass has come and gone and you sensibly opted for a minimalist gloss of 'dock' but I thought you might like to know that Rumex obtusifolius is the likely culprit. They used to grow in abundance at the back of our house when I was a boy and we used to use them to rub on nettle stings. 'Docken' is the Scots form. One of the quotations in Wright's EDD is 'Now springs the docken by the dyke' Smart Rhymes (1834).

'Dyke' is a curiosity as my default reading is always 'wall', originally from the earth thrown up by the digging of a dyke/ditch. As both trough and peak I suppose it must qualify as a contranym. 'Stays' in the Fergusson's Ode 1, 11 is another; it really means the opposite of what it seems to. Gash too has a bewildering array of not easily compatible meanings. The OED actually has four different entries for the adjective.

The Clare poem can apparently be pinned down quite closely, if only from the verbal parallels with his prose piece Autumn (Northborough MS 6) a snippet of which can be read in Google preview of The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare by Margaret Grainger (Oxford University Press, 1983). There are two walks round Northborough described there, both from November 1841. I don't know if lapwings, wild geese and starlings can be seen there now. Starlings I know are in steep decline. The dykes are probably concrete and pesticides will have done away with the docks.

Two Latin Genitives

It's just occurred to me that the botched genitive 'smelloci' may not be a genitive at all but a dative and 'gratia' not an ablative but a nominative. Isn't Gould trying to say 'thanks to smellox' in Latin? Perhaps he'd remembered 'gratias ago tibi' from somewhere. It's still a botch but not quite such an egregious one.


I'm not sure someone who can convert x to c in oblique forms would be likely to confuse his declensions. If the form had been smelloxi, case proven but smelloci for me presupposes some knowledge of how third declensions work. On the premise that a polymath who knows a bit of Latin is more likely to make a minor mistake than a major, I'd guess he meant dative, but who knows? Alas, he's no longer around to shed any light on the matter. Wickedpedia says he died in his library surrounded by his wife, his mother and his books.

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