My first trip to London had Foyles as its destination. I was studying the little known pseudo-science of anthroposophical agriculture and there was a dearth of books on the subject out in the shires, so off I went to Charing Cross Road, to what was once considered the biggest (by number of volumes) bookstore in the world.
I didn't realize I was visiting the store during its most cranky historical period. I just assumed that all English shops were like Foyles, but later learned that it was considered quirky even by its most loyal customers. Christina Foyle, who for reasons understood only by herself, refused to modernize, was running it. Perhaps she was, to borrow a word from Foyle's Philavery, a collection of odd words put together by her nephew and current CEO of Foyles, a
perjink (fussy old maid). Books were arranged by publisher, and used books were stuck in with the new ones. When Americans now think of bookstores, we picture a spacious, admirably well-arranged warehouse with comfy chairs and computerized filing, not to mention the coffee. Foyles was nothing like that. It was, as the Philavery would say,
farraginous in the extreme.
But Foyles' clientele were not the mardy (whining) type. They went with the bizarre flow, and being British for the most part, simply put up with the chaos in search of rare and hard-to-get tomes possibly unavailable anywhere but there. Foyles was started by two brothers who failed their exams and decided to sell off their textbooks, and there was simply no saying what one might find in the nooks and crannies.
I always enjoy word collections, and this is a fine one. The book itself is attractive, meant to look old-fashioned, with William-Morris-type floral cover paper and a red ribbon appending to mark one's place. And the selection is both amusing and informative. I'm not sure I'll be adding
callipygian (having buttocks that are beautifully proportioned or finely developed) or
batterfang (to attack with the fists or nails) to my working vocabulary, but I enjoyed reading them and, with some help from the author, sounding them out to myself. I may, however, pick up the cobbled together
maritodespotism - domination of a wife by her husband – to use in my next spousal dispute, and I like the onomatopoeic feel of
plap (to fall or drop with a dull sound).
Foyle's Philavery helped me understand the mysterious but useful "bellwether" – the lead sheep in the herd, often the one wearing a bell, hence, a "ringleader." Some of the words seemed quite ordinary –
gallivant, carom, prestidigitation – and were probably included simply because they roll trippingly off the tongue. Others were satisfyingly Latinate and could be readily pieced together:
exsanguinate, narcosis, metanoia.
But I was most intrigued by words that seemed to have no provenance except that someone must have just made them up at some point. "Bragly" for proud, "yaffle" for eating and drinking noisily, and "perkin," a type of weak cider. And I shall cherish
borborygmus, a medical term for the rumbling sound that emanates from the intestines. That's another one I'll try on my spouse, when the next borborygmal occasion arises.