Archive | November, 2010

How shopping centres started life as a croquet mallet* (*ish)

18 Nov
Pall mall - Project Gutenberg eText 14315 - ht...

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We’re all familiar enough with the concept of a ‘shopping mall’ and I’m sure there are one or two people who have swung a croquet or polo mallet in their time – but most of us are probably unaware that the two share a common origin

I had a little time to kill recently before a job interview (I didn’t get the job), so was browsing in a nearby bookshop.  They had a specialist ‘London’ section and on flicking through one of the books, I noticed a section on Pall Mall, one of London’s most prestigious addresses.

For those not familiar with Pall Mall, it’s a posh street in central London that has traditionally housed many of the most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs.  Or for those of us plebs, it’s one of the pink streets on the Monopoly board, yours for a mere £140.

The street Pall Mall was effectively a sporting arena in the 17th century; it was the alley where people played the popular game of pall mall or paille-maille, which seems to be a hybrid between croquet and golf.  The terms ‘pall’ and ‘mall’ come from the Italian ‘palla’ (ball) and ‘maglio’ (mallet).

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the game of pall mall as thus: “players use a mallet to drive a boxwood ball through an iron ring suspended at the end of a long alley in as few strokes as possible, or within a given number of strokes.”

Even Samuel Pepys mentions in his diary in 1663 that, on walking through St James’s Park, he had been “discoursing with the keeper of the Pell Mell who was sweeping of itwho told me of what the earth is mixed that doth floor the Mall, and that over all there is Cockle-shells powdered.” And this is a comparatively late reference – the first mentions of pall mall occur about 100 years earlier.

This game of pall mall also gave its name to another nearby London location – the Mall in St James’s Park.  When playing pall mall fell out of fashion, the Mall prospered in the 17th and 18th centuries as a fashionable tree-lined path for promenading – the art of walking about so one could see and be seen.

‘Mall’ then became a generic term for any kind of covered walkway, and in the middle of the 20th century, we start to see this term applied in the US to a group of shops clustered within the same building.  The OED records the first usage of ‘mall’ to refer to a shopping centre in 1959 – nearly four hundred years after the first mention in English of the game of ‘pall mall’.  It’s an extraordinary journey for one little word!


Can you ‘nick’ it? Yes, you can!

15 Nov

The 'Do Not Nick' bin

Our council provides us with these giant bins for our waste, each large enough for a person to hide inside them.  And we don’t just get one; we get three – a black for general rubbish, green for recycling and brown from garden waste.  They’re pretty ugly and given the design of many of the houses, there’s often nowhere to keep them other than the front garden.

These bins are pretty hard to miss, so when out walking Mr Dog, I glanced into someone’s front garden and noticed one of these bins with the ‘DO NOT NICK’ painted in giant letters on it.  I did wonder if a prospective thief might be put off by such an instruction?  If you’re planning to steal something, do you stop because someone has left written instructions not to?

It got me thinking – just why do we use the word ‘nick’ for steal?  Was there a legendary thief called Nick?   I know the most famous ‘Nick’ of all, St Nicholas, is perhaps guilty of breaking and entering, but he’s definitely a giver, not a taker.

And what relation does it have to ‘nick’ (steal) have to ‘nick’ (cut) as in to nick the skin?  Or ‘nick’ (condition) as in ‘to be in good nick’?  Or ‘nick’ in the sense of ‘in the nick of time’?

So, using my free online access to the OED, I’ve looked ‘nick’ up.  There are far more uses of this word, both as a noun and verb, than I had ever imagined, but interestingly, its origins are obscure.

The earliest recorded usage of ‘nick’ as a verb appears to be in conjunction with the sense of ‘to make an indent or groove’, which the OED dates the earliest citation as around 1440.   It seems to have been particularly used with counting – someone would nick notches into a stick to count a flock, for instance.

This then develops into a more general sense of ‘cut into or through’ or ‘snip off’ at the end of the 16th century and appears in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1623) in this meaning: “ The itch of his Affection should not then Haue nickt his Captain-ship at such a point”. But it doesn’t appear in the sense of cutting into skin until the 20th century where James Joyce’s Ulysses is the first citation of using ‘nick’ in this way.

The OED then classifies a second sense of ‘nick’ as related to precision.  Perhaps this originates from the precision of counting (nicking the notches) and it’s from this sense that we get phrases like ‘in the nick of time’.  ‘Nick’ was also used to mean ‘just caught’ (we nicked the bus before it left) and also to hit or catch at just the right moment.

The final sense of ‘nick’ as a verb given by the OED relates to stealing.  Interestingly, the first usages of the word in this sense related specifically to cheating or swindling, which dates back to the late 16th century.  The sense of ‘nicking’ as meaning ‘pilfering’ only came in in the early 19th century.

And the use of ‘nick’ to mean to catch someone (he was nicked by the police) is first found in the mid-17th century, around 50 years after it was recorded in association with criminal activity.  ‘Nick’ meaning the police station originated in Australia in the late 19th century.

And finally, ‘nick’ as in ‘condition’ doesn’t appear in writing until the late 19th century.  I wonder if it’s related to ‘nick’, the small cut in an animal’s ear to indicate ownership?

This very short summary is ignoring the wealth of other meanings for ‘nick’ including genitals, dice playing, cross-breeding, biochemical reactions and a precise moment in time.   Do you think the chap with the ‘DO NOT NICK’ bin realised he tapped into a linguistic goldmine?

How to access the full Oxford English dictionary online from home, for free and entirely legitimately!

15 Nov
Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...

Cover via Amazon

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the granddaddy of all dictionaries.  It’s not only the most comprehensive dictionary in the world, but it provides much more than simple definitions. What the OED does is show word histories – when did a word first enter the language, what did it mean when first used, how has the word’s meaning changed over time and so forth.

If you wanted to own a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, you’d not only need a lot of money, but you’d need plenty of room.  The last full printed version (1989) ran to 20 volumes and 21,730 pages!

But it is possible to access the OED online – although paying for individual access is expensive.

However, there is a way to access the OED for free, from your own computer and it is entirely above board.  All you need is a card for your local library (this is UK only).

If you search on Google, or talk to your librarian, you’ll find that your local library has paid for access to the OED and many other resources – and all you need is the relevant web page on the library’s website and the number of your library card.

Once you click on the resource that you want, you’ll be asked to enter the number of your library card – and hey presto!

I’ve tried this with my local library service (Northamptonshire), which I found by googling ‘Northampton’ and ‘OED access’, and I can confirm that it works perfectly.

Among the other resources are:

and many more.  Give it a go!

Why Rum Ram Ruf?

15 Nov
Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales share...

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The name of this blog, Rum Ram Ruf, is a quote from “The Parson’s Prologue” in Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales.

When asked to tell a tale, the Parson responds that, as he’s a ‘southerner’, he doesn’t know how to ‘rum, ram, ruf’.

But trusteth wel, I am a Southren man;

I kan nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by letter

What the Parson is saying is that he has no skill at creating the alliterative style of verse that had once been commonplace in all English poetry.

Alliterative verse repeats the same sound at the start of key words within a single line of poetry.  Take this example from the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem from the Midlands that was written at roughly the same time as Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century.

The burgh brittened and brent to brondes and askes

The tulk that the trammes the tresoun there wroght

But in London where Chaucer was writing, it had become much more fashionable to write poetry using rhyme, rather than alliteration.  Rhyming poetry typically repeats a sound across the last words in successive or alternating lines of poetry, such as these opening lines from The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droughte of March hath perced to the roote

This change from alliteration to rhyme was brought about by the influence of French culture and language following the Norman Conquest of 1066.  Chaucer was a high-ranking civil servant, working in courtly circles in London, right at the epicentre of all things fashionable, so his choices reflect what was ‘in’ in the late 14th century.

And alliterative verse hadn’t quite died in England at the time, but was now only found in the ‘fringes’ away from the south-east, like the Midlands and North, hence the Parson’s comment.  But in case anyone thinks the Parson is discriminatory against northerners, he also goes on to point out that he’s not much cop at rhyme either, so tells his tale in prose.

I chose this name for my blog as not only is it perhaps the earliest mention of the north-south divide in the English literary record, but it’s also a rare contemporary comment about how language was changing.

And the irony is that English poetry has arguably come full circle with alliteration once more in the ascendancy.   I don’t know much about rap music, but you can hear the alliteration loud and clear. The earliest poetry was always performed, rather than read, and when you see a rap star stand up and perform his or her poem, they’re working in a tradition of English verse that is at least 1,500 years old.

Blackalicious – “A to G”

We’re going to learn to hear words with vowel “A” sound … Listen with care

(Gift of Gab)
I be the analog arsonist, aimin at your arteries
All-seeing abstract, analyze everything
Adding on, absolutely abolishing
Average amateur’s arsenal just astonishing

–Next, we’ll learn words that begin with letter “B”

I be the big, bad body rockin Bombay to boulevard bully BACK
Better bring a bomb to the battlefield
Bloody black beats bringing bottoms that boom
Basically build barriers bewilder buffoons

–Listen now to words that begin with letter “C”

Crazy character, constantly creating concontions
Catalyst, a cannabalistic rhymes conqueror
Correctly connecting, craniums crumble down
Consistent capacity