What's bugging you

This time we have the deceptively simple seeming word "bug":

This is kind of a mysterious one, and the etymologies presented here (and anywhere else you might see) are tentative and uncertain. The "puffed up" origin is perhaps further strengthened by the Norwegian dialectal word bugge meaning "an important man" (think puffed up or big). Another etymology entirely that has been suggested for bug, which I didn't mention in the video, is that it might come from a West African word bagabaga meaning "insect",  being imported into English during the West African slave trade, along with another West African word bugu meaning "annoy". The insect word comes into English at around the right time for this West African connection, so it's at least plausible, though few etymologists seem to pick up on this idea. On the other hand, if the goat/buck etymology of bug is correct, that would I suppose connect the various boggarts, bogeys, and bugbears to the Julbok I mentioned in the "Yule" video.

On the subject of slang senses for bug, they're quite numerous with some twenty or more listed in various slang dictionaries, between the noun and verb. Some of the more well known senses and expressions I didn't mention are an enthusiastic interest or person (as in " to catch the acting bug" or fire-bug), to bug out or make a hasty retreat (which seems to come from US military slang), and the bug-eyed monster of scifi fame, which really means bulging eyes but is also taken in the insect sense sometimes.

An interesting older slang sense takes us back to the world of criminal lingo: "Bailiffs who take money to postpone or refrain the serving of a writ, are said to bug the writ". This is reported in the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue originally compiled by 18th century antiquarian and lexicographer Francis Grose, also the source of the bugaboo sense "a sheriff's officer" that leads to the burglar alarm. Grose's slang dictionary continued to be added to after Grose's death (you can access the two different editions here and here), and it's one of those later editions that gives us these two senses (though the earlier Dictionary of Slang by Nathan Bailey also lists the bribery sense). Edward Bulwer-Lytton uses the word bugaboo to refer to the police in his novel Pelham: "Many a mad prank ... which I should not like the bugaboos and bulkies to know." I've mentioned Bulwer-Lytton, coiner of many now clichéed phrases, in my previous video "Beef". Pelham, Bulwer-Lytton's first big hit, tells the story of an upper class dandy, and thus reflects the language (like bugaboos and bulkies for the police) and fashion of the hip set of the day, and apparently even set one fashion trend, the wearing of black evening wear by men, which has been the norm ever since the novel came out. So you can thank Bulwer-Lytton next time you don a tuxedo to avoid the fashion bugaboos, I mean, police!

On the topic of burglars and burglar alarms, that word comes into English from the medieval Latin word burgus which is itself a loan from a Germanic root that means “fortified place”, and is related to the words burg and borough, and might be more distantly related through Proto-Indo-European to the word “fort”, which came into English through French, from the Latin adjective fortis meaning "strong". And speaking of Latin, I mentioned the use of guard animals, most commonly guard dogs, but there is also the famous story of the geese in the Temple of Juno in Rome who awoke the sleeping Romans, warning them of a nighttime attack by the Gauls, according to the Roman historian Livy.

I mentioned that Edwin Holmes came up with the idea of using existing telegraph lines to connect his burglar alarms to a central monitoring station. In fact the idea of a central monitoring station was probably first developed by Edward A. Calahan, but Calahan's idea was that the houses would have emergency call boxes, rather than window and door sensors, as in Holmes's burglar alarm system. The story goes that Calahan came up with the idea after the president of the company that was formed to implement his previous invention was burgled. And that previous invention was also an adaptation of telegraph technology, the stock ticker, which transmitted stock and gold prices over the telegraph system and printed them out on ticker tape. (Presumably Calahan wasn't given a ticker tape parade for his work.) As it happens, the clockwork powered telegraph printing system necessary for Calahan's stock ticker had been invented by our old friend David Edward Hughes (inventor of the carbon microphone). It looks a bit like some outlandish musical instrument:

And finally a little more on the early history of patents. While authorship was important in the ancient world, control of intellectual property, the example of Sybaris not withstanding, was generally not. Craft secrecy, however, was important in the middle ages, particularly in the context of the craft guilds. Apparently the earliest mention of the windmill in Europe is in a diploma in 1105 CE granting the right to build them in a particular area, but it's unclear if this was as a newly invented technology. Certainly monopolies could be granted in the middle ages, but the earliest monopoly for a newly invented technology seems to be the Brunalleschi patent mentioned in the video. The penalty for violating Brunalleschi's patent, by the way, was burning. Harsh! The systematic patent laws that started in Venice before spreading throughout Europe seem to have been initially particularly associated with glassblowing technology and techniques. The first patents in England came under Queen Elizabeth I, while the idea that a patent needs to have an element of novelty seems to have been introduced by King Henry II of France. Design patents also date back to the early modern period with a patent for italic type granted in 1502 to the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, who also invented the modern use of the semicolon and the modern appearance of the comma -- not a bad hat trick! The earliest literary reference to a patent seems to be in Ben Jonson's comedic play The Devil is an Ass, which makes fun of "projectors", that is inventors/swindlers. One of the character, Meercraft, is trying to get patents for individually wrapped hygienic toothpicks with instructions for their use, and forks, which were only then being imported from Italy into England. Jonson seems to be poking fun at real-life travel writer Thomas Coryate who did in fact introduce the fork to England, as well as the word "umbrella", both from Italy. For importing the fork, by the way, Coryate was given the highly amusing Latin nickname 'Furcifer'.

A last note, I'm grateful to my friend Madhava for pointing out to me Linus's Law that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". However, if there are any bugs in the video or this blog post, the fault is entirely mine.

Greek myth has its fingerprints all over the word "Clue"

This week's video explores the etymology of the word "clue", from Greek myth to detective fiction:

The idea for this one obviously came from the narrative metaphor of the Ariadne story leading to current meaning of the word clue, and the interesting references in Agatha Christie's writings to Greek myth made for a nice closed loop. The story of the development of fingerprinting, with the nice visual analogy between the contours of a fingerprint and the labyrinth of the Minotaur, became the centrepiece, and looking backward from clew "ball of thread" to the Proto-Indo-European root *gel-, leading also to clay and glia, gave some additional connections. I've already touched on the importance of narrative and metaphor, and for that matter on detective fiction, and Sherlock Holmes specifically, in "The Story of Narrative", "Paddle Your Own Canoe", and "A Detective Story" respectively, so in a sense this video is a culmination of that initial series of videos. Oh, and speaking of sailing technology in "Paddle Your Own Canoe", another meaning for the word clew is the bottom corner of a sail. And while I'm on the subject of links to previous videos, Chaucer has come up before, not only in "Paddle Your Own Canoe" but also "Cuckold", and Erasmus Darwin in "Coach" and "Gimlet". The illustrious Darwin-Wedgwood family will no doubt come up again.

And speaking of Geoffrey Chaucer, I should stress his importance along with other medieval and early modern writers for associating the word clew with the Theseus and Ariadne story. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the passage quoted in the video as the earliest with specific reference to the Labyrinth story. The passage is from Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, which recounts the stories of various virtuous women, several of them drawn from Greek myth. I mentioned some of the most obvious reference to weaving and other textile arts in Greek myth, the Fates, Penelope, & Ariadne, but it should also be noted that Athene herself, who appears in the story of Theseus leading him away from Ariadne, and in The Odyssey helping Odysseus as he arrives home to Penelope, is also particularly associated with weaving. For instance, there is the story of Arachne, a talented weaver who wins a weaving contest against Athene, and as punishment is transformed into a spider (hence "arachnids" as a term for spiders).  Athene is the goddess of wisdom, which for men expresses itself as strategy -- she was thus a goddess of that side of warfare as opposed to Ares who represented the bloodlust of war -- and for women expresses itself as weaving and other domestic arts. A double standard that reflects Greek patriarchy, but it shouldn't be forgotten that wisdom is being anthropomorphised as female, with her mother Metis also being associated with wisdom. There is indeed a thread of clever and cunning women running through Greek myths. Penelope is an ideal match for the cunning Odysseus (who was for instance the one who came up with the Trojan horse idea) because she too is clever, tricking the suitors to keep them at bay until Odysseus returns home.

Another interesting instance of weaving in Greek myth is the story of Procne and Philomela. As the story goes, when Philomela was visiting her sister Procne, her brother-in-law Tereus raped her, and in order to conceal the attack he cut out her tongue. Philomela, however, was able to communicate the crime by weaving it into a tapestry, and the two sisters are able to exact their revenge. Chaucer also includes this story in The Legend of Good Women. An interesting modern parallel to the idea of communication through textiles is the idea of knitting in code. During the Second World War, the British government banned the sending of knitting patterns out of the country for fear that they might contain coded messages, and in Belgium the resistance recorded the movement of trains in their knitting. And in a more literary example, Charles Dickens wrote of the macabre Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, who sat by the guillotine recording the beheadings in her knitting.  (See here and here for this and these and other knitting trivia from QI). An often repeated though unfortunately apocryphal story is that Irish knitters used the intricate patterns of Aran sweaters to identify the bodies of men drowned at sea. The story seems to have grown out of a passage in the play Riders to the Sea by the Irish playwright J.M. Synge, where a drowned man is identified not by a knitted sweater but by his knitted stocking: "It's the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three-score stitches, and I dropped four of them." (See here and here for more details.) Too bad too, because that story would make a nice parallel to the use of fingerprints for identification, tying clew and clue together again.

So back to fingerprints; the original motivation for the fingerprinting system in the 19th century was not so much detection but for identification of repeat offenders, who were supposed to receive harsher penalties. As a result of increased population and greater mobility throughout the country due to the industrial revolution, while it used to be the case that local repeat offenders would be quickly recognized, repeat offenders who moved around a lot were much harder to track. Before fingerprinting was settled on, a number of other systems of identification were mooted, most significantly anthropometry, a the detailed measurement of a person's physical characteristics similar to what we now call biometrics. A system for this was worked out by the French policeman Alphonse Bertillon, unsurprisingly attracting the attention of Francis Galton, who was interested in quantifying human heredity through both physical and mental characteristics. Edward Henry had also been using Bertillon's system in India, until Galton's book was forwarded to him. And speaking of Bertillon, he and his system are referenced twice in the Sherlock Holmes canon, in "The Naval Treaty" and The Hound of the Baskervilles, as being admired by Holmes, who is himself referred to as the "second highest expert in Europe" behind only Bertillon. And in a fictional crossover going the other way, Edmond Locard of Locard's Exchange Principle fame was known as the Sherlock Holmes of France. And of course, as is well known, the character of Sherlock Holmes is based on the real-life Dr Joseph Bell, a former medical school teacher of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was himself a pioneer of forensic science.

As for Francis Galton, the archetypal 19th century gentleman-scientist, though it should be noted that Galton himself was not directly related to Josiah Wedgwood (Wedgwood was Charles Darwin's grandfather on the other side of the family -- Erasmus Darwin was their common grandfather), the whole Darwin-Wedgwood clan was full of illustrious go-getters. Galton's other grandfather, Samuel Galton, was a founding member of the Lunar Society (previously mentioned here), along with Erasmus Darwin, as well as Joseph Priestly (previously mentioned here), in whose former house Galton was born. The Darwin-Wedgwood family also later includes the likes of composer Ralph Vaughn Williams and Anglo-Saxonist Simon Keynes (a connection of particular interest to me as an Anglo-Saxonist myself).  In addition to his important work on fingerprints and statistics, and his rather more questionable work on the pseudoscience of eugenics and that crazy beauty map of Britain, he is also significant for his pioneering of the science of meteorology. You can read more about him and his contributions to science in this article. One last bit of trivia about him: he worked out through careful study the ideal procedure for brewing tea, which you can read below, take from the excellent website galton.org, which has collected works available online:

Edward Morse is another fascinating Victorian polymath. In addition to his important work as a naturalist studying shells, as noted in the video he made pioneering contributions to the study of Japanese pottery, particularly the cord-marked pottery of the Jomon period (pictured in the video) which dates as far back as 16,000 years ago. He also wrote the book Japanese Homes and their Surroundings, which described the construction and furnishings of Japanese houses, including sections on bonsai and flower arrangement, and as a result of his friendship with astronomer Percival Lowell he wrote Mars and Its Mystery about the possibility of life on Mars.

I'll leave you with one last bit of trivia, concerning Agatha Christie. Reasonably well known is Christie's disappearance for a little over a week during the break-up of her marriage (the subject of a Doctor Who episode no less). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, surprisingly a proponent of the occult, even enlisted the help of a spiritualist to assist in locating her. But perhaps less well known is that she was one of the first Brits to surf standing up, a pastime she took up while on holiday with said former husband. Here she is with her surf board, apparently named Fred:

The course, career, and currency of Coach

In this week's video I trace the course of the word "coach":

The surprise in this word's etymology is that so common a word comes from the name of relatively obscure town in Hungary. A word derived from a place name is sometimes referred to as a toponym (a term which also refers to the place name itself). There are of course many such words in English, such as armageddon, bikini, bohemian, champagne, hamburger, marathon, tuxedo--the list goes on. Tracing the town name back further to a word meaning "ram" made the tempting connection with the many sports teams named the Rams (not only the American football team -- here's a list on Wikipedia).  The further interesting etymological detail is the figurative use of the word "coach", in the sense of the type of wagon, to refer to an academic tutor and then a sports coach. (For a larger discussion of metaphor, see my earlier video "Paddle Your Own Canoe".) And along the way, there are some bonus etymologies like carriage, academia, and Oxbridge. Thackeray also coined the parallel word Camford in the novel Pendennis, by the way, but it didn't catch on the way Oxbridge did. For more on the technological history of the coach wagon, have a look at the sources listed on the show notes page.

The main story I wanted to tell through the lens of this etymology was the history of learning and academics, from Plato's Academy, through the Italian Renaissance and compilation of libraries, to Oxford and Cambridge, with their tutors and graded exams. I first heard that fact about William Farish inventing the graded exam, by the way, from QI (possibly their Twitter stream, if I'm remembering correctly). And one of the subplots is the history of women's education, with books on the subject from Erasmus Darwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and the later efforts by Anne Clough at Cambridge.  Darwin's ideas on women's education are quite interesting. He was against sentimental novels and the sort of false refinement that Wollstonecraft argued against as well. Instead he had in mind very practical and pragmatic subjects such as the sciences, industry, finances, and foreign languages. A later detail that ties in with this story is Virginia Woolf's use of the word Oxbridge in A Room of One's Own, in which she tells a hypothetical story of a woman's experience at such a university. And finally, the epilogue to the video's story is the relationship between academics and athletics at universities/colleges. This has been discussed in many venues, but I'll leave it with this one clear example from PHD Comics.

Speaking of Erasmus Darwin, by the way, he is a fascinating character. In his long poem The Temple of Nature, he describes his conception of evolution through natural selection, preceding his famous grandson Charles Darwin:

Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in Ocean's pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.

And though I couldn't find a rights-free image I could use in the video, here's a picture of the mechanical bird constructed from his design:

And here's a reconstruction of Darwin's speaking machine, which apparently at the time Darwin built it was good enough to fool people into thinking it was a human voice:

And here's the reference to Mary Shelley's inspiration for Frankenstein, from the preface to the novel:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

One other detail you'll often hear about Darwin, is that he was quite a large man. He apparently hollowed out a semi-circle in his table to sit closer to his food, and because of the rather shoddy construction of the houses of his patients he often visited he would send in his driver (remember all those coach rides), who was also a substantial man, to test that the floors would hold before he himself entered. We'll be hearing a little more about Erasmus Darwin in an upcoming video, so stay tuned...

Speaking of which, for those like me who like to keep track of recurring nodes and references across the videos, in this one there are quick name checks of Florence Nightingale and Mary Shelley, who were previously mentioned in my videos "A Detective Story" and "Yule" respectively. Also, in "Cocktail part 1" I mentioned that the Old Fashioned cocktail was invented in the Pendennis Club, which was indeed named after Thackeray's novel Pendennis, in which we find the first occurrences of the the verb "to coach" (in its figurative sense) and Oxbridge.