Oh, Whistle…

I finally, on a whim, read one of the most famous ghost stories in English, M. R. James’s “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad,” and was surprised to find two words new to me in the first few paragraphs:

‘I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full Term is over, Professor,’ said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography, soon after they had sat down next to each other at a feast in the hospitable hall of St. James’s College.

The Professor was young, neat, and precise in speech.

‘Yes,’ he said; ‘my friends have been making me take up golf this term, and I mean to go to the East Coast—in point of fact to Burnstow—(I dare say you know it) for a week or ten days, to improve my game. I hope to get off to-morrow.’

‘Oh, Parkins,’ said his neighbour on the other side, ‘if you are going to Burnstow, I wish you would look at the site of the Templars’ preceptory, and let me know if you think it would be any good to have a dig there in the summer.’

A preceptory is (per the OED, revised 2007) “A subordinate community of the Knights Templars; the provincial estate or manor supporting such a community; the buildings in which such a community was housed”; it’s from post-classical Latin praeceptoria, perhaps short for praeceptoria domus ‘preceptory house.’ And ontography, to my astonishment (I just assumed James had made the word up to provide an amusing fake scholarly specialty), is “A description of, or the branch of knowledge which deals with, the human response to the natural environment”; it is first attested in 1902, just two years before the story was published, and doesn’t seem to have been much used (“Chiefly with reference to the work of W. M. Davies”). The expresson “full term” was also new to me; it means “The full period of a term or session of a court, or the main part of a university term during which lectures are given (esp. with reference to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge)” (1886 Oxf. Univ. Cal. 51 “Full Term begins on the Sunday after the first Congregation, that is on the Sunday after the first day of Term”). And the story’s “Burnstow” represents the seaside town of Felixstowe, whose Felixstowe Ferry Golf Club “is amongst the oldest in the UK.” (Mild spoiler for the story below the cut.)

I found a discussion of the inscription on the whistle in Literary Ghosts from the Victorians to Modernism, by Luke Thurston (p. 63):

There are at least two ways to construe the Latin here: either as three verbs, second person indicative future tense – furbis, flabis, flebis – meaning “you will go mad,” “you will blow (i.e., whistle),” “you will weep;” or as a noun (fur, “thief”) plus two imperative verbs and the adverb bis, “twice.” The latter version would give either “Thief–whistle–twice–weep,” if we read it clockwise; or “Thief–weep–twice–whistle” if anti-clockwise.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I, too, assumed that James invented “ontography.” I think he may have invented it, even though it’s an actual word; I’ve occasionally invented words myself that unexpectedly turned out to be real.

  2. Peter Maydell says

    “Full Term” is still a current expression at Cambridge, incidentally — https://www.cam.ac.uk/about-the-university/term-dates-and-calendars

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Furbis cannot be “you will go mad”, which would be fures. Why do people think that they can say any old rubbish about Latin?

  4. Atrox!

  5. David Eddyshaw says


  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    “Full Term” is still a current expression at Cambridge, incidentally

    At Oxford, too: https://welcome.ox.ac.uk/academic-life

    The idea of a term of exactly 8 weeks is very much built in to the way of expressing dates. No one says “There is a meeting on Wednesday 8th November”, as no one will know when that is, but if they say “There is a meeting on Wednesday of 4th week” then everyone will know. No one knows what the calendar date is, but everyone knows which week one is in. My impression is that at the other place it’s less rigid.

  7. one of the most famous ghost stories
    I’ve never even heard of it, but I will read it now.

    I dearly love made-up names for obscure scholarly disciplines. Others which come to mind are “ornitholography”, in the movie The King of Hearts, and “paleology” (which is perfect in many ways) in the early comic strip The Kin-der-Kids.

  8. Furbis cannot be “you will go mad”

    Clearly, a haplographic error was made, and Furbies was intended.

  9. “The full period of a term or session of a court, or the main part of a university term during which lectures are given (esp. with reference to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge)”

    The reason to not simply talk about “term”, as you would at a school, is that university-related stuff starts happening before the start of Full Term and keeps going after the end of it. For example, Freshers’ Week is Noughth Week of the Michaelmas (autumn) term; the freshers arrive, get themselves sorted out, get introduced to college life and so on, and then on Monday of First Week the lectures start. And a lot of sports events in particular go on into Ninth and Tenth Weeks – not least because no one’s got any lectures to attend, so it’s easier to arrange fixtures.

    The discussion of the inscription is, to my eye, very oddly flawed, because it seems obvious that the inscription is meant to read “FUR – FLABIS – FLEBIS” – thief, you will blow, you will weep.

  10. Yes, that was my reaction too.

  11. @Y: there’s nothing made-up about pal(a)eology. Sure, it’s about four orders of magnitude less frequent than arch(a)eology, but that doesn’t make it any less real

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    To be carefully distinguished from paleologology, “the study of late Byzantine emperors”, though the form paleology does sometimes occur by haplogy.

  13. Off topic, but given the audience of this blog:

    “The legendary Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon has created a wonderful limited-edition, unisex fragrance that has the smell of old books with hints of other earthy scents. This bespoke scent evokes a sense of timelessness and history found in the countless numbers of pages within the store. And it is perhaps similar to what visitors smell when first walking into the store.”


  14. Interesting. You might be right, or in the context of the comic, it could have been an independent creation suggesting musty old things and the musty old things who study them, but nothing more specific.

  15. I remember when Powell’s was cramped and disorderly, with pictures of Big Brother on the ends of the aisles, and surrounded by sex shops, bars, and auto body shops. Now that gentrified neighborhood is called the Pearl District. I’m not at all nostalgic for the old, sketchy Burnside; it’s just stunning to think how much a place can change.

  16. Powell’s was as big (at least the visible part, dunno about warehouses), and it had more used books in the mix. Even though it’s still a great bookstore, it stocks less obscure used stuff (as I gauge from the “other” section of the foreign language section) and more new stuff. It doesn’t smell as strong. But it’s still a major draw for me.

    P.S. Dept. of Eheu Fugaces: University Press Books in Berkeley closed this year. It was one of the most over-the-top scholarly bookstores I have known, specializing in books by university presses, situated across the street from the UC campus. Its closure was a deep wound for those of us whose souls wear elbow patches. The pandemic was the last straw-bale on top of a nearly unbearable rent.

  17. Ontography is clearly the scholarly pursuit of writing about justly-forgotten US army tank destroyers of the 1950s.
    While other US armoured vehicles are called after generals – the Abrams tank, the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle and so on – the M50 was so awful that it was simply called “The Thing”.

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    And I thought people who concerned themselves with ontology were nancy boys ????

  19. @Y: The old Powell’s was only had about half the floor space of the modern store. It originally only occupied three quarters of its block, but with the 1990s renovation, they took over the whole block and added additional stories over most of the structure.

    @ajay: I looked at that contraption and saw the specs listed six recoilless rifles, which appeared to need hand loading from outside the vehicle. (The Wikipedia article confirms lower down that it was indeed hand loaded.) And I thought, Gee, what possible problems could there be firing six high-caliber recoilless rifles simultaneously? Well, actually,

    When all six weapons were fired at once, the back blast from the firing knocked bricks out of a nearby building and knocked the rear windows out of several cars. The prototype and testing stage was completed by 1955, at which point the Army canceled its order.

    It could only carry ammo for three complete salvos, but I imagine it must have been extremely effective against any enemy tanks it hit.

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