F is for Foyle’s Philavery

  F is for Foyle’s and the alliterative sounding word Philavery which completes the book’s title. You won’t find philavery in the Oxford English, Webster’s Collegiate, or any other dictionary that I know of because the mother-in-law of Christopher Foyle, the author, made it up during a game of Scrabble. She constructed the word from the Greek verb phileein, ‘to love,’ and the Latin noun verbum, ‘a word.’

I had no idea what Philavery was, so here’s the definition in his book: “an idiosyncratic collection of uncommon and pleasing words.”

Foyle began collecting uncommon or unfamiliar words when he heard Norman Schwarzkopf, the US commander in the 1990 Gulf War, refer to information he deemed of no value as “bovine scatology.” Foyle knew the word bovine, which refers to cows, but needed a dictionary to understand scatology which, naturally, made it into his 2007 compendium:

  1. (in medicine, paleontology, etc.) the study of excrement or dung
  2. a morbid interest in excrement or excretory functions
  3. obscene language or literature, especially that concerned with excrement or excretory function

For the third category, the OED, always my standard, simply (and amusingly) uses the words “filthy language.” It’s a bit ironic that a linguistically proper person like me would focus my last blog on the f-word and now this column begins with excrement. Time to move on!

To discover “uncommon and pleasing words,” Foyle reads six newspapers a day. He’s a Brit, so five of them are what he calls “British broadsheets.” The sixth is the International Herald Tribune. He also reads The Spectator and The Economist, plus publications representative of his diverse interests: archeology, history, travel, aviation, genealogy, parapsychology, genealogy, and ancient civilization.

Since today’s alphabet letter is F, I’m listing some of Foyle’s F-words  🙂 which I find uncommon and pleasing.

  • feak: a curling lock of hair, especially one that is dangling
  • fogle: a silk handkerchief
  • frendent: gnashing the teeth
  • frippet: a frivolous or flighty young woman, who is inclined to show off
  • furphy: a false report or improbable story; a rumour

If you’ve been to London, the name Foyle might trigger recognition. Christopher Foyle worked as a teenager in the Charing Cross Road bookstore managed by his father Richard and started by his grandfather William Foyle in 1903. Christopher stepped away from the family business to travel and establish a cargo airline. Meanwhile, his Aunt Christina took over the business, then turned it over to Christopher six days before she died. in 1999 Read the store’s fascinating history here.

Foyle concludes the introduction to his book like this: “It is satisfying to be following in the footsteps of earlier generations of Foyles, but it has one drawback––easy access to so many books has swelled the piles of books, and subsequent philavery-bound cuttings around my house and office to almost unmanageable proportions! I hope you will find the journey around the words listed here as fascinating, intriguing and inspiring as I have.”

My thanks go to my long-time friend Wendy McHenry, herself a former bookstore owner and a philaverer, for sending it to me.

E is for Elucidation: “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk”

In “D is for Detective,” I left OED former editor John Simpson’s discussion of the f-word dangling. He titled chapter nine of The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk.” I read it right away.

Then I went to the online version’s current listing, in which the f-word is identified as “coarse slang,” first used in sixteen century Middle English, “Be his feirris he wald haue fukkit.” Subsequent variations include fukkand, fucke, ffuck, f-k and today’s easily recognizable four-letter expletive.

Simpson asserts that the best way to see how editorial policies are employed in practice is to study a specific word. I stretched to find an “e” word—elucidation—to continue the discussion on this blog. Simpson’s efforts are all about elucidation as the OED defines it: “the action or process of elucidating, throwing light upon, making plain or intelligible.”

Yeah, I know, judging from many overheard conversations, people just want to use the four-letter word––or do it––not learn about editorial policies and etymological history. If you are interested, read on.

The first edition of the OED omitted the f-word. The editors didn’t even work on it. “If the editors had worked on fuck,” Simpson writes, “it would have been published in 1898 which was when the entry immediately preceding was published (fucivarous: eating, or subsisting on seaweed.)” Dictionary readers could stomach details of seaweed-eating, but the cultural climate was unfriendly to candid language. Says Simpson:

The closing years of Queen Victoria’s reign in Britain were not known for their liberal and enlightened attitude towards sex, and the inclusion of fuck would have probably involved the editors and the publishers in a short walk to a long stretch in prison.

OED Editors considered including the word in its 1933 supplement, but, as in Queen Victoria’s day, they would have been arrested for “gross indecency.” In 1960, Penguin, the British publishers of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, beat legal action that would have prevented them from publishing an “obscene book.” In 1964, the Penguin English Dictionary included the verb fuck, thereby freeing others to publish what they felt compelled to publish and to sidestep incarceration.

Both audacity and caution prevailed at the OED, however. The 1972 OED Supplement used the more delicate word “copulation” instead of “sexual intercourse,” as well as, Simpson reports, a few “colorful” examples. For the OED3, published in 1989, the editors mounted an ambitious search for the earliest usage. The result: the word fuck, though concealed in code, was included in a religious context.

“Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk comes from this sentence from 1500 AD: “Non sunt in oeli, quia gxddbovxxkxzt pg ifmk.” The first part is Latin: “They [the monks] are not in heaven because…” The rest, Simpson says, was a cypher. for “fuccant uuiuys of heli,” “they are are enjoying sexual intercourse.”

Simpson says, “It seems likely—from the fact that the whole expression  was endrypted—that it wasn’t the word itself that had to be hidden from public view, but rather the insalubrious activities of the monks.”

And, that’s about all I want to say about a word I never use and don’t even want to hear.

A is for Anu

Anu Garg, that is.

You haven’t heard of him? Well, there are a quarter million word lovers in 200 countries who subscribe to his  A-Word-A-Day column (AWAD) which The New York Times calls “the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass mail in cyberspace.”

I signed right up after I heard him speak about The Dord, The Diglot, and An Avocado or Two: the Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-so-Common Words (2007) at my local independent bookstore, Village Books in Bellingham, Washington.

Here’s the entry on “avocado” which should give you a tasty sample of his style:

The word originated in the Aztec language Nahuatl, where it was called ahuacatl, meaning “testicle” because of its shape. When Spanish conquerors invaded South America, they pronounced the name of the fruit as aguacate. The name also morphed into avocado, influenced by the now obsolete Spanish avocado, meaning “lawyer” or “advocate.”

Garg addresses seventeen other words starting with “A.” Some are unusual like “accismus” and “Anagnorisis” and some are ordinary like “antibody” and “admiral.” There’s always something to learn. An “Annie Oakley,” for example, is a free pass to an event. To find out why, I guess you’ll have to read The Dord, The Diglot, etc, but I can’t resist relaying what a “diglot” is: somebody who speaks two languages. Like Garg, for example.

English is Garg’s second language. He comes from Uttar Pradesh (literally “Northern State”), the most populous state in India. While he was a computer science student at Case Western University in Cleveland, he became interested in words, wondering about their origins and development, so in 1994 he started A-Word-A-Day––AWAD as he refers to it.

Even though almost ten years have elapsed since I heard Garg speak, I remember this statement, “I don’t pick words. They raise their hands and say ‘Pick me.’ In the introduction to The Dord,D he writes, “Each word has a biography. It tells us about its parents, where it was born which corners of the world it traveled, and what twists and turns it took to reach where it is today. That biography of a word––the story behind it––is called etymology (from Greek etymos: true)

Here’s what’s true for me: I love Anu Garg’s daily dispatches and I love studying words. That interest explains why my wife gave me a subscription to the online Oxford English Dictionary this year and why we have a collection of books on words. So, my 2017 A-Z Blog Challenge will derive material from those sources. I hope you’ll enjoy references to Foyle’s Philavery, The Superior Person’s Book of Words, The Word Museum, and others.

Meanwhile, Anu Garg’s half century birthday is coming up on April 5th. Why not sign up for his column, buy, or check out from the library, one of his books (The Dord…, A-Word-A-Day: A Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in the English Language or Another Word-A-Day) . P.S. He’s also written the foreword to Limericks in the Time of Trump.

What better thanks could there be for an individual who has brought such positive attention to the English language?