I finished David Mitchell’s wonderful Cloud Atlas, and I was so taken with it I immediately started rereading his first novel, Ghostwritten, which my brother gave me a decade or more ago and I devoured just as eagerly. I don’t have anything special to say about Cloud Atlas except that it’s a heck of a read (warning: it does get grim and sad in spots), so I’ll just mention as a point of linguistic interest that like any author worth his salt Mitchell uses interesting words, and at one point (on p. 8 of my edition) he seems to have invented one — the “Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” includes the remark “an unseen hand emptied a tankard of sheog over my person,” and the only Google hits for it are readers of the novel trying to identify it. (There are Google Books hits for an Irish sheog = sidhe ‘fairy mound,’ which is pretty clearly irrelevant.) Excuse me, I’ve got to get back to devouring Mitchell’s compulsively readable prose…


  1. Yes, but how many languages are there in the book, and how many scripts?

  2. …a portmanteau of sherry and grog, maybe?

  3. ‘ . . .compulsively readable’ is bloody right!

  4. The only plausible explanation I’ve seen suggested is that it stands for sheoak (a fine word by itself), referring to casuarina trees, but also Australian slang for beer.
    (Is there any word that isn’t Australian slang for something, especially beer?)

  5. Y – Interesting and it does sound plausible – apparently beer barrels used to be made from this Sheoak wood?

    Google even returns some hits for people spelling the wood as “sheok”, which is even closer to Mitchell’s spelling.

    As for Mitchell, he’s one of the rare authors that my wife and I both really enjoy reading. We just tore through “Slade House” (which could stand on its own but which I viewed as excellent kind of postscript or side story to his equally excellent “Bone Clocks”) in a couple of sittings last week. It’s quite scary, at least the first half or so.

  6. According to the OED (she(-)oak),

    The semantic motivation for sense 2 [‘beer brewed in Australia’] is unclear, but in the late 19th cent. it was apparently sometimes associated with a place name She Oak Hill, the supposed site of the first brewery.


  7. Found this interesting tidbit about sheoaks:

    1898 E. E. Morris Austral Engl. s.v. She-Oak, s.v. Beech, The prefix she is used in Australia to indicate an inferiority of timber in respect of texture, colour, or other character; e.g. She-beech, She-pine.

    Now, that’s pretty sexist…

  8. I didn’t expect my readership to turn up a plausible explanation of “sheog,” but it seems I misunderestimated the collective wisdom of the Hatters!

  9. There’s an interesting interview of Mitchell where he talks about writing in archaic / period dialects, where he points out that 17th century English in a contemporary novel should appear to be 17th century English, while also being readable by contemporary readers — ergo not “real” 17th century English.

  10. That’s the only sensible attitude. If people want to read “real” 17th-century English, let them read real 17th-century books.

  11. If you like “Cloud Atlas”, you’ll probably like “Bone Clocks”, though it’s not quite as good.

  12. I confess I was put off by James Wood’s review; the supernatural stuff in his novels has always been the least interesting to me.

  13. To give credit where due, the she-oak explanation was mention by Mauro Gatti, in a comment here.

  14. mentioned.

  15. Or they can read David Masson’s stories (which you praised, despite one of them being in 17C pastiche).

  16. I love David Masson’s stories, and I love his 17C pastiche; not sure why the “despite.”

  17. Well, that’s it: in your eyes, what makes Masson’s 17C pastiche acceptable and even delightful, and Eddison’s 16C pastiche “craparoonie”? I really don’t understand your seemingly inconsistent point of view. (If it’s just a question of your individual preferences anent specific authors, that’s another matter.)

  18. Don’t know; I guess one feels fresh and therefore pleasing to me, the other stale and therefore irritating.

  19. David Marjanović says

    but it seems I misunderestimated the collective wisdom of the Hatters!

    This is madness!

  20. I started Cloud Atlas this morning and so naturally googled “sheog” at the appropriate point. I should have known I’d end up here.

  21. Ha!

  22. At least I didn’t find that I had already commented.

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