Leaving Coventry behind us, we’ve just one more stop to make before we head back to London to complete our trip. We’re travelling a hundred and twenty miles southwest as the crow flies, passing by Stratford, Gloucester, Bristol and the border with Wales and heading down into the far southwest corner of England.
The English southwest is one of the richest etymological seams we can mine. Its place names crop up in all manner of words and phrases, from Cornish pasties (an etymological relative of pâté, no less) to the Plymouth Brethren (an Evangelical Christian movement that, despite its name, originated in Irelandt). If it’s linguistic gold we’re after, however, then we need look no further than the enormous array of bizarre proverbs and curious sayings that the place names of the southwest of England has produced over the years.
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When the tiny Cornish village of Mousehole was attacked by four Spanish galleys in 1595, for instance, no one from the nearby town of Penzance came to their neighbours’ aid for fear of attracting the Spaniards’ attention. As a result, not a word of Penzance became a proverbial expression for a total lack of help when help is most desperately needed.
To be like the mayor of Falmouth is to be in the wrong mood for the current state of affairs, or to celebrate something that in retrospect is none too celebratory. Lurking behind this bizarre expression, according to local folklore, is the fact that an unnamed mayor of Falmouth was once overheard celebrating that the town’s gaol was finally being enlarged: a welcome development, certainly, but not a great sign that the town was heading in the right direction.
On the subject of criminals, Lydford law, named after the town of Lydford in Devon, is an ancient expression referring to summary justice – the execution of someone before a fair trial can be carried out. Reportedly, the cells in the Lydford jailhouse were so foul that those imprisoned in them died as a result of the awful conditions long before their trial could be heard.
And ‘That’s ExeterI’ said the old woman when she saw Crediton is an eighteenth-century Devonshire expression referring to that terrible moment when you think your work is done, but then find that even more needs doing. According to the story behind it, an unnamed old woman set off one day on the long walk from her home to Exeter market. On the way, she reached the top of a steep hill and finally saw on the horizon the impressive spires of Crediton’s Church of the Holy Cross. Mistaking the church for Exeter Cathedral, the woman gleefully exclaimed, ‘That’s Exeter!’, believing that her arduous journey was almost at an end. In fact, Crediton is a full eight miles from Exeter, and so her journey was still a long way from being complete.
Our journey, however, is almost over. We’ve no Crediton Hill to climb here – only a man to visit in nearby Porlock.
Some 40,000 miles ago, back in China, we heard how Samuel Taylor Coleridge, fuelled by opium and a copy of Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimes, imagined Kublai Khan’s legendary capital of Xanadu. When he awoke, still fresh from his dream, Coleridge instantly put pen to paper and in the throes of inspiration composed some of the most
famous lines in all English poetry. That, however, is only part of this story.
Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ is only fifty-four lines long; its author apparently never finished it. When the poem was first published in 1816, Coleridge himself (writing in the third person) explained what happened:
On awakening he [Coleridge] appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!
The identity of the ‘person from Porlock’ – a town on the Somerset coast – who disrupted Coleridge’s creative flow is unknown (and indeed some later commentators have suggested that the visitor did not exist at all). Nevertheless, the expression person from Porlock, or merely a Porlock, eventually fell into general use in English to describe someone who interrupts a writer’s creative flow or, more loosely, someone who arrives at a wholly inopportune moment, or at the least convenient time turns up at your home.
As a word for a pie-like pastry, cooked without the need for a dish to enclose it, pasty derived from the French paste, which in turn comes from the French word for the meaty pâté (originally venison) that was baked inside them. Incredibly, in written English the word pasty was first recorded more than seven centuries ago in a document dated 1296. Even more incredibly, the earliest record of it comes from the surname of a gentleman from Warwickshire named ‘Simon le Pasteymaker’.
The name Plymouth Brethren, not chosen by the group itself, alludes to the fact that their first English meeting took place in Plymouth in 1831.
It’s certainly possible that Coleridge merely invented his intrusive ‘person from Porlock’ as an excuse for not returning to, completing or tidying up the poem, or for not wanting to alter its off-the-cuff style. If this is the case, it would not be the only time Coleridge invented a distraction: chapter 13 of his Biographia Literaria (1817) opens as follows:
CHAPTER XIII On the imagination, or esemplastic power Thus far had the work been transcribed for the press, when I received the following letter from a friend Coleridge goes on to write out the ‘letter from a friend’ word for word; he later revealed that he had written the letter himself.