That title, well a bit of it, ‘a jug of wine, a loaf of bread’ that bit (normally followed by ‘thou’) is a steal from our old friend Edward Fitzgerald, who used it in his translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. (Actually there are several different translations and that part comes from the final version of his twelfth quatrain, which is my favourite. So there.). I added the bit about the gossip because that’s really what I wanted to talk about. Well kind of…. No wine here today, but the kettle is on, the biscuit tin is open, freshly baked and very squidgy brownies are sitting on a pretty plate in your honour. Or you can cut a slice from that loaf and make some toast and pull up a pew.
I have been reading. Anyone who knows the slightest bit about me will understand that this is not unusual. I’m always reading so no gossip there, but I am indebted to Mark Forsyth, who has written a couple of the most fascinating books on words that I have ever come across. And I’ve encountered more than a few.
If you are the sort of person who can look up just one thing in a dictionary or an encyclopedia, if you’ve never spent a happy couple of hours browsing Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, if you care not a jot for which particular word you use in any given sentence, then you may not be interested in either the Etymologicon or the Horologicon, and you can stop listening and just chomp on the bikkies. But if this kind of thing is your wont, then I commend them to you.
Especially the Horologicon, which I recently acquired for my Kindle. A Horologicon is apparently a Book of Hours and the admirable Mr. Forsyth suggests we might all once have had such a book at our disposal. According to the hour of the day, say, when in need of a prayer to liven up an evening, we could have consulted our Book of Hours and lo, there would be something appropriate to offer up. The Horologicon is not a book of prayers, but ‘A Day’s Jaunt through the Lost words of the English Language’ and a very jolly jaunt it is too. There is much to amble through, but I thought I would share with you a few thoughts on gossip, as there are lots of words pertaining to this activity which appealed to me and which might find their way into a story or maybe just provoke one.
For instance, according to a dictionary of late eighteenth-century slang, the expression
‘Firing a Gun’ means introducing a story by head and shoulders. A man wanting to tell a particular story, said to the company, Hark! did you not hear a gun? – but now we are talking of a gun, I will tell you the story of one.
Now isn’t that a pip? Isn’t that what we all do as story-tellers? And while the rumours are spreading around the kettle, the people doing the spreading are the rawgabbits and spermologers.
A Rawgabbit is the person who speaks in strictest confidence about a subject of which they know nothing.
spermologer’s use in English is a metaphorical one for a gatherer of gossip and a seeker after scurrilous rumours.
Actually, according to my erudite friend Mr. Forsyth, all the best rumours are not started standing by the kettle, but in the lavatory, the technical term for which is a latrinogram. Apparently wartime lavatories were a great source of gossip. No wonder there was all that wartime stuff about not talking, because walls have ears: every woman knows that loos are dangerous places to discuss anything. Those little cubicles are not private. The reasons women go in packs is to make sure there is nobody left behind at the table to talk about them. But –
Elsan gen: news which cannot be relied upon. (Literally, ‘news invented in the gentlemen’s toilet’, Elsan being the trade name of the excellent chemical lavatories with which bombers are equipped.)
Now, this was interesting to me on several fronts: firstly, because it is always women (and these days journalists) who are blamed for those juicy snippets known as gossip and secondly, because I have never thought about bombers having any sort of lavatory at all. My father was a bomber pilot and he never mentioned such a thing, but then considering how long some of those sorties into enemy territory lasted, I suppose they had to have something of the sort, especially as fear can do such…… OK, we won’t go there.
If the tales you hear are tales you’ve already heard, then there is a reply you can give to the rawgabbit: Queen Anne is dead. Actually, she snuffed it back in 1714, but apparently the phrase is still current in journalistic circles, and, let’s face it, they should know, especially if they work for the British tabloids.
Of course all of this may be old news to you. You may have devoured the Horologicon already and be totally familiar with where, how and to whom to gossip, in which case I apologise for detaining you and give you permission to call me a blatherskite or a clanjanderer. I will forgive you and just so you will be too inebriated to talk about me on your way home, I’ll break out a jug of wine to appease you.