Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Debonair - Of Good Air

James Stewart: a man of famously good disposition


Adjective & noun. Also debonnair, debonaire. Middle English.
[Old French debonaire (modern débonnaire), from de bon aire of good disposition.]

A1 adj. obsolete. Of a gentle disposition, meek, gracious, courteous. ME-L17

A2 adj. Pleasant in manner, affable, urbane,; cheerful, carefree, unembarrassed. E18

B1 noun. obsolete. A courteous being or person. Only in LME

B2 noun. Debonair character or disposition. LME-M18

One might think of debonair as simply denoting style, perhaps with a dash of suave confidence and charisma thrown in. It runs deeper than that, however, for to be truly de bon aire, a gentleman must also be of gentle disposition, courteous, gracious, and a thoroughly corking chap to be around. Which is rather like the word itself; debonair could, with its cultured French roots, think rather too much of itself. Never a word to cause a scene, however, it lets you spell it debonnair, debonaire or debonair, all without making the slightest fuss and still looking spiffingly ab fab at the end of it. What an absolute peach of a word.

Do please leave your airiest comments in the box below.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Davy Jones & His Infernal Locker

A Shipwreck
Jean Louis Theodore Gericault (1791-1824)


Noun. Nautical slang. Early 18th century.
[Origin unknown.]

The evil spirit of the sea.
Chiefly in Davy Jones's locker, the deep, especially as a grave of those who perish at sea.

The Superstitions That Will Lead to Davy Jones' Locker

Sailors are a superstitious bunch, although not a bunch of bananas, which are considered extremely unlucky to have on-board a ship. Therefore, if you want to avoid a watery grave in the dank depths of Davy Jones' locker, take heed and man up. Oh, and you really should man up, because women are unlucky too.

The origin of these bizarre rituals and superstitions is hard to fathom. Having no women on board is perhaps a easier, as it served to distract sailors from their work and would be a source of tension and strife. Interestingly, if a woman was on board, it was better if she were naked, as her bouncing bosoms were said to calm the sea. Again, there is an odd, cabin-feverish logic to this - "Lads, if we're gonna bring bad luck on board, then she might as well be naked." Hence, the figureheads on ships are often shamelessly topfree.

As for bananas, this might sound bananas, but there could be a modicum of reason behind it. For one thing, bananas spoil quickly, and their ripening accelerates the spoiling of other foods; therefore, boats with a cargo of bananas would have to travel more quickly to their destinations, thus (perhaps) making them more prone to accidents. Other explanations include bananas floating at the site of a sinking, thus giving the impression to anyone arriving after that the bananas had somehow survived the disaster and were now taunting the rescuers; banana skins are slippery, so might have been the cause of accidents; consignments of bananas housed exotic insects, which might have bitten a crewmember and made him mysteriously sick. Whatever the ultimate root, bananas are a no go at sea, so don't slip up on this simple piece of maritime etiquette.

Another piece of advice for the would-be aquanaut is about scheduling - if you're really serious about avoiding Davy Jones and his locker, then don't set sail on a Friday (especially not on a maiden voyage). Yeah, yeah, you're thinking that's just because sailors want a three-day weekend. Reasons for Friday's ill-boding are unclear, but oft-quoted is that sailors believed it to be the day of Christ's crucifixion. And if you think this is al just a load of hokum, then consider that the Royal Navy was so determined to quash this superstition that it commissioned a ship called HMS Friday, a ship that tellingly disappeared on its maiden voyage. Actually, this story is a maritime legend with no basis in truth, as are any stories about a HMS Bananas, HMS Bint and a HMS Certain Sinking. Still, Friday, the day of bad luck, is best avoided.

And just in case you now think you're safe, having lobbed all bananas, women and calendars showing Friday overboard, remember this: whistling, flowers, green plants, pea soup, left-handed people, red-haired people, black bags, saying 'goodbye', saying 'good luck', sharks following a ship, rats leaving a ship and albatrosses being killed on a ship are all definite fast-tracks to a tête-à-tête with Davy Jones. You have been warned!

So Who Is Davy Jones?

The identity of Davy Jones and his locker is a mystery. There are theories, however. One of the most common is that it's a corruption of Devil Jonah, from the Biblical story of the prophet that was thrown overboard by sailors when they realised his presence on-board was causing God to throw up a storm. Another story is that Davy Jones was a British pub owner in the habit of locking up drunk sailors in his locker before selling them to be press-ganged onto ships. Finally, it's sometimes said to be from a famously myopic sailor called Duffer Jones, who was so hopelessly short-sighted that he was constantly falling overboard.

None of these theories are backed up by any real historical evidence. However, Davy Jones had come to represent the evil spirit of the sea, and his locker the final resting place of all drowned sailors. And just in case you're now planning to set sail, challenging Davy Jones and all the idiotic sailors' fanciful superstitions, consider this: the infamously ill-fated RMS Titanic set sail on the 10th April 1912, a Wednesday, which is only two days before a Friday. And they allowed women and red-heads on board. And I just bet one of them smuggled on a banana. There. Think about it.
Alexey Bogolyubov (1824-1896)
Do you know of any other maritime superstitions?

What do you do to avoid Davy Jones' locker?

Do please leave your most nautical comments in the box below.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Dasypygal - Having Hairy Buttocks

What? You didn't think I was actually going to show a picture of hairy buttocks, did you?
(photo of the cheeky "I'm dasypygal and I know it" chimp by Tambako)


Adjective. Late 19th century.
[from Greek dasupugos, from dasus hairy + puge buttocks.]

ZOOLOGY. Having hairy buttocks.

Despite corpulent builders having had a crack at it for decades, no one rocks the hairy bum look. It's different for apes, of course; the dasypygal variety are definitely more pleasing to the eye than the brazenly bald-buttocked baboons that so love to strut their wares on nature documentaries. Still, be it callipygian or dasypygal (pronounced dah-see-pie-gull), the English language does love its bum words, and I rather love this one.

Oh go on then! Here's the dasypygal duff of a silverback gorilla. Satisfied?
(photo by Rob Bixby)
Do please leave your cheekiest comments in the box below.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Dastard - The Incredible Skulk

Image by Fred Seibert


Noun, adjective & verb. Late Middle English.
[Probably from dazed, past participle adjective of DAZE verb + -ARD, influenced by DOTARD noun & adjective.]

A1 noun. obsolete. A dullard; a stupid person. LME-M16

A2 noun. A mean, base, or despicable coward,
especially one who does malicious acts in a skulking way. L15

B adj. Dastardly. L15

C verb trans. Dastardize. L16-M17


Adjective. Mid-16th century.
[from DASTARD.]

1 obsolete. Dull, stupid. Only in M16

2 Resembling or characteristic of a dastard;
showing mean or despicable cowardice. L16

Dastard and dastardly are two words that must not be allowed to slip into obscurity. The very definition of dastard - 'one who does malicious acts in a skulking way' - is too delicious, too gloriously apt, too pointedly penetrating, to fade from our vocabularies.  For all the two-faced malicious schemers of the world, for those whose actions go far beyond any excusable level of human weakness, for all the politicians that peddle fear and blame and target the most vulnerable sections of society, there is a special place in the English language for you and your special brand of mean, despicable cowardice. A bunch of dastards, the lot of 'em.

Do please comment in the box below.