"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Thursday, 28 February 2013

The mills of God grind slow...

"The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small" (sometimes quoted as "The mills of God grind slow, but they grind exceeding small") is a well known English proverb.

Its meaning is that divine retribution is slow but certain.  

Its origins are less well known. I had always assumed it arose from The Bible or some early holy text.  But it comes from "Retribution", a short poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882):

Though the mills of God grind slowly;
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting,
With exactness grinds he all.”

Longfellow derived this from the poetical works of 17th century German poet, Friedrich von Logau.  

 Von Logau, in turn, was translating a hexameter from Adversus Mathematicos (Against the Mathematicians) by a Greek sceptic physician and philosopher, Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210 AD)

As if that were not labyrinthine enough, Sextus Empiricus was himself quoting an unknown poet! So we haven't a clue where it first came from!

Wednesday, 27 February 2013


To cag is to insult or to offend.  The word is an old dialect one but appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Sadly, not there is the noun cagamosis which is a word that was once around and which meant an unhappy or unpleasant marriage. I’m glad I’m not in a cagamosis.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013


Aboiement, pronounced ab-bwah-MENT, is the involuntary blurting of animal noises, such as quacking or barking. Although it is not quite involuntary GB and I suffer from a mild form of aboiement, but then our duck noises are something to be beheld – or rather 'beheard' if there were such a word.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Mind your 'p's and 'q's.

As a child it was not that unusual – especially if going visiting people – to be told to “mind your 'p's and 'q's.”.  The phrase simply meant to be on your best behaviour – to act politely and not mess around in any way. 

There is a variety of suggestions as to the origins of the phrase all of them amusing but none of them conclusive.  The first is that ‘p’s and ‘q’s was simply a shortened form of ‘pleases and thankyous’. 

The second was that it arose as an admonition to innkeepers.  They would chalk up whether their customers owed them for a pint or a quart.  It would therefore be reasonable to ask them to be well-behaved and mind they didn’t mark up ‘q’s instead of ‘p’s.   

A third suggestion is that it arose from the days when Frenchmen had to be advised how exactly to bow and not mix up their pieds (feet) and queues (wig-tails).  This sounds like a typical anti-French remark from the days of the early nineteenth century.

But that latter idea is rather scuppered by the fact that the first use of the expression is claimed to be 1602 but it is not clear if the phrase/usage there is the same. In a Thomas Dekker play of that year the following appears:-

    Afinius: ...here's your cloak; I think it rains too.
    Horace: Hide my shoulders in't.
    Afinius: 'Troth, so thou'dst need; for now thou art in thy Pee and Kue: thou hast such a villanous broad back...

'Pee and Kue' in that context seems to be referring to a form of clothing, but that is somewhat ambiguous.  Dekker later used the term in West-ward Hoe, a joint work with John Webster, 1607:

    “At her p. and q. neither Marchantes Daughter, Aldermans Wife, young countrey Gentlewoman, nor Courtiers Mistris, can match her.”