Skinks, swanks and butter shags: Mark Forsyth serves up a feast of wonderful words

"So familiar are eggs to us that in the 18th century they were referred to as cackling farts, on the basis that chickens cackled all the time and eggs came out of the back of them."

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Skinks, swanks and butter shags: Mark Forsyth serves up a feast of wonderful words
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There is a cornucopia, some might say a veritable pelf, of hidden words in the The Etymologicon, revealed some of the very weirdest and their even stranger roots and meanings. Now he has returned to tempt our intellectual palates with more tasty morsels to savour every day, beginning with…

BREAKFAST

The Greek for breakfast was ariston, so the study of breakfast is aristology, and those who devote their lives to the pursuit of the perfect morning meal are aristologists. The subject had a brief vogue in the mid-19th century, and there was even a book published called Cookery for the Many, by “an Australian Aristologist”; but it is now a forgotten art. This is a shame, as breakfast presents a wide buffet to the enquiring mind. Who but an aristologist would be able to tell you that a ben joltram was “brown bread soaked in skimmed milk; the usual breakfast of ploughboys”, that a butter shag was “a slice of bread and butter”, or that opsony was strictly defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “any food eaten with bread” (plural: opsonia).

If you have time on your hands and a hole in your stomach you can cook yourself a proper breakfast. So familiar are eggs to us that in the 18th century they were referred to as cackling farts, on the basis that chickens cackled all the time

and eggs came out of the back of them. We can have them fried, boiled, scrambled, coddled, poached, devilled, Benedict or Florentine.

A much grander eggy word is vitelline, which means “of or pertaining to egg yolk”. The 17th-century poet Robert Herrick once wrote: “Fain would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg/Which is as white and hairless as an egg.” Which shows an unsettling erotic fascination with breakfast and also misses the point that, though egg whites sustain you, it is the vitelline parts that yield the true glory. It is the vitelline yumminess into which you can dip what Mr Herrick’s contemporaries would have called ruff peck, which to us is merely a rasher of bacon.

LUNCH

It is the amell, which is to say the hour between one and two o clock, when all right-thinking creatures rush joyously from their labours to lunch. You hardly need a clock to know that this grand hour is at hand, as your own belly will chime with impatient borborygmi, the rumbling noises produced by an empty stomach.

HG Wells once wrote that: “...elephant hunters say they can tell the proximity of a herd by the borborygmic noises the poor brutes emit, and Glasfurd describes a tiger’s life as an alternation of uncomfortable hunger and uncomfortable repletion.”

Better, as the saying goes, to live one day as an uncomfortable tiger than a hundred years as a borborygmic elephant. Humans are famelicose (constantly hungry) creatures. And so to lunch!

Mrs Beeton (1836-65) was the tragic goddess of the British kitchen. She had four children, wrote a book containing 900 recipes, and dropped down dead at the age of 28. In her authoritative gospel, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, she recommends the following light luncheon:

“The remains of cold joints, nicely garnished, a few sweets, or a little hashed meat, poultry or game are the usual articles placed on the table for luncheon, with bread and cheese biscuits, butter etc. If a substantial meal is desired, rumpsteaks or mutton chops may be served, as also veal cutlets, kidneys, or any dish of that kind.”

It may be best to simply cut that paragraph out and calmly hand it to your one o’clock waiter.

DINNER

It is time to sidle supperward, although first we ought to sort out the difference between supper and dinner. Supper is, according to the OED, the last meal of the day. Dinner is the main meal of the day. Supper can therefore sometimes be dinner and dinner can be supper. It all depends on the size of your lunch, or indeed breakfast.

Once the guests are gathered, the first thing to ask is “Who skinks?”, which is an old-fashioned way of asking who the hell is meant to be pouring the drinks. When passing the wine, you must try to predict who’ll be left with the swank, an early-18th-century dialect word meaning “that remainder of liquor at the bottom of a tankard, pot or cup, which is just sufficient for one draught; which is not accounted good manners to divide with the left-hand man”.

If you have the swank, guzzle it down fast. If someone else has it, you may suggest doing the decent Victorian thing and buz: To share equally the last of a bottle of wine, when there is not enough for a full glass for each of the party.”

But what of the food? As the dinner draws to a close it is vital to remember to leave a tailor’s mense. In the days when a tailor came to fit you in your own home, it was customary to provide him with a light meal. The tailor would leave a little bit on the side of the plate to show you had provided enough and he was stuffed. Mense was another word for tact or politeness, so this tactful gobbet of food was called a tailor’s mense.

One book of 1872 specifies it should be “one-ninth part of the quantity required for a man”. The recommended daily intake for a man is 2,500 calories, so divided into three meals a day, that makes a tailor’s mense 92.6 calories, which is about the same as one large fried egg.

Now all that remains is the duty of thanking whoever has bedinnered you, bedinnering being providing with dinner. My own standard phrase here is to say that I have been golopshusly (or deliciously) bedinnered.

Bene gastronomia, dear reader, bene gastronomia.

Book of the Week: The Horologicon is on Radio 4 Monday - Friday at 9:45am