Archive for June 21, 2019

On Bumfodder

Posted in Books, History with tags , , on June 21, 2019 by telescoper

It’s not quite the end of the week for me, as I am on duty all day tomorrow for the Summer Open Day at Maynooth University, but I thought I’d end the penultimate working day of this week with a post about a piece I read in the Times Literary Supplement a few weeks ago. I subscribe to this mainly for the crossword, but also because some of the reviews are extremely interesting.

In the May 31st issue of said organ, I came across a review of a book charmingly entitled Bellies, bowels and entrails in the eighteenth century, which is published by Manchester University Press. I’m not planning to buy a copy as it costs £96, but it I was intrigued by the review, which includes such vivid insights as

Stomachs and bellies, hiccups and flatulence dominate the last third of the book…

The thing that really caught my attention however was the issue of toilet paper. As far as I am aware, paper in a form specifically designed for the use of wiping one’s bits clean after defecation wasn’t introduced until the middle of the 19th century, but waste paper was commonly used for that purpose much earlier. In the 18th century it was apparently commonplace to tear pages out of cheap books to use as lavatory tissue, and it appears some people would buy books both to read when on the job and for cleaning up afterwards.

This practice gave rise to the word bumfodder, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as:

  1. Toilet paper. Also occasionally: a piece of this.

  2. attributive and allusively. Worthless or inferior literature; any written or printed material that is perceived as useless, tedious, or unnecessary.

In case you didn’t know, this is also the origin of the word bumf, which the OED gives as

  1. slang (originally in British public schools). Paper (of any kind). Now rare.

  2. Toilet paper. Now somewhat archaic.

  3. orig. Military slang. Written or printed material that is perceived as useless, tedious, or unnecessary, as bureaucratic paperwork, advertising, etc. Also occasionally: worthless or inferior literature.

I have to admit I’ve used the word `bumf’ in the third sense on a number of occasions without realizing quite how indelicate is its origin.

The first instances of `bumfodder’ quoted in the OED date from the mid-17th Century, which surprises me a little because I was under the impression that paper was an expensive commodity then. By the 18th century, however, it was obviously much cheaper, presumably because of mass production, and so consequently books and newspapers were much less expensive. Waste paper was then used quite frequently not only as toilet paper but also for wrapping groceries and other goods. I should mention, however, that paper was used at toilet tissue in China as far back as the 6th Century AD, so Europe was obviously a bit behind on the matter.

Anyone who has read any 18th Century literature – the humour in which is often rather coarse – will not be surprised by the number of scatalogical jokes about bumfodder going around. Obviously I couldn’t repeat any here.

P.S. Now wash your hands please.


The Summer Solstice 2019

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on June 21, 2019 by telescoper

The Summer Solstice in the Northern hemisphere happens today, Friday 21st June 2019, at 16.54 Irish Time (15.54 UTC). Among other things, this means that today is the longest day of the year. Days will get shorter from now until the Winter Solstice in December. Saturday June 22nd will be two seconds shorter than today!

This does not mean that sunset will necessarily happen earlier tomorrow than it does today however.  This is because there is a difference between mean solar time (measured by clocks) and apparent solar time (defined by the position of the Sun in the sky), so that a solar day does not always last exactly 24 hours. A description of apparent and mean time was given by Nevil Maskelyne in the Nautical Almanac for 1767:

Apparent Time is that deduced immediately from the Sun, whether from the Observation of his passing the Meridian, or from his observed Rising or Setting. This Time is different from that shewn by Clocks and Watches well regulated at Land, which is called equated or mean Time.

The discrepancy between mean time and apparent time arises because of the Earth’s axial tilt and the fact that it travels around the Sun in an elliptical orbit in which its orbital speed varies with time of year (being faster at perihelion than at aphelion).

Using a rapid calculational tool (Google), I found a table of the local mean times of sunrise and sunset for Dublin around the 2019 summer solstice. This shows that today is indeed the longest day (with a time between sunrise and sunset of 17 hours and 10 seconds), but sunset on 22nd June is actually a bit later than this evening, while sunrise is a bit later.

In fact if you plot the position of the Sun in the sky at a fixed time each day from a fixed location on the Earth you get a thing called an analemma, which is a sort of figure-of-eight curve whose shape depends on the observer’s latitude. Here’s a photographic version taken in Edmonton, with photographs of the Sun’s position taken from the same position at the same time on different days over the course of a year:


The summer solstice is the uppermost point on this curve and the winter solstice is at the bottom. The north–south component of the analemma is the Sun’s declination, and the east–west component is the so-called equation of time which quantifies the difference between mean solar time and apparent solar time. This curve can be used to calculate the earliest and/or latest sunrise and/or sunset.