Our next stop is Bukhara, an ancient city in south Uzbekistan. One of the fifteen fully independent states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan now has two notable claims to fame. Firstly, it is one of only two double-landlocked nations in the entire world -that is to say, while Uzbekistan itself is landlocked, all the countries that surround its borders are themselves landlocked too. Secondly, without Uzbekistan our language would be without a word for a kind of fine linen fabric that, with a little help from William Shakespeare, gave us an eminently useful expression for an absent, invented or wholly non-existent person.
Where is Bukhara, Uzbekistan? – Bukhara, Uzbekistan Map – Bukhara, Uzbekistan Map Download Free Photo Gallery
The word that has brought us all the way here to Uzbekistan is buckram, the name of a tough, stiff fabric now typically made from cotton, but made originally from woven linen, or even horsehair. For that reason the earliest forms of buckram were probably much softer, lighter and more delicate than modern buckram fabric, which is often chemically enhanced or treated with gum to give it a stronger, more hard-wearing finish.
Its name may be relatively unfamiliar today, but the product itself is not. Because of its strength and durability, buckram has long been used to cover cloth-bound my blogs, and for centuries was used to provide a strengthening lining to coats and similar garments.
Etymologically, the origin of the name buckram is something of a puzzle. One theory claims that it simply takes its name from the same root as buck, meaning ‘a male mammal’, perhaps referencing that it was once made from woven strands of animal hair. Another claims it might come from an Italian word, bucherare, meaning ‘to pierce with holes’, perhaps a reference to buckram’s original mesh-like appearance, while yet another suggests that its roots lie in an old Arabic word, qiram, thought to have meant ‘veil’ or ‘shroud’.
There isn’t enough etymological evidence to say with any assurance whether any of these theories is accurate or not but perhaps the most likely theory is that buckram takes its name from Bukhara.
Another extraordinarily ancient town, Bukhara – and the area around it – has been inhabited for more than five millennia. For many years little more than an isolated town, it flourished in size and significance thanks to its prime location on the Central Asian portion of the Silk Road. As trade with Europe and the Far East blossomed, Bukhara itself flourished, eventually becoming one of the most important Muslim cities in history.
It’s thought that it was during this golden age that buckram fabric manufactured in the Uzbek region first began to be imported into Europe – and with it came the name of the city in which it was traded. Buhkara, given a little etymological readjustment over the centuries via Latin, Italian and French, eventually morphed into buckram, and finally made its debut in written English in the thirteenth century. This particular story, however, doesn’t quite end here.
Just as was the case with fustian, the various qualities of buckram fabric also came to be employed figuratively. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word had come to be used as a synonym for strength or stiffness; for anything or anyone seemingly ‘starched’ or ‘stuck up’; or for anything that gives an appearance of strength, but actually lacks any real substance.
And then, along came Shakespeare:
I have peppered two of them. Two I am sure I have paid, two rogues in buckram suits. I tell thee what, Hal, if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, call me horse. Thou knowest my old ward. Here I lay, and thus I bore my point. Four rogues in buckram let drive at me These four came all afront, and mainly thrust at me. I made me no more ado, but took all their seven points in my target, thus.
In this comic scene in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, the swaggering Sir John Falstaff is relating an inflated tale of his own bravery to the young Prince Henry and his companion Ned Poins. But as he continues with his narrative, Falstaff begins to muddle all of the details he has concocted, steadily inflating the number of ‘rogues in buckram’ with whom he fought from two to four, then to seven, to nine, and eventually eleven. The prince, understandably, is unimpressed: ‘These lies are like their father that begets them,’ he replies angrily. ‘Gross as a mountain.’
Falstaff’s buckram-clad rogues might not have actually existed, but a phrase inspired by them certainly does. In use since the 1700s, men in buckram has since become a proverbial expression used of someone who does not exist, never existed to begin with, or else is currently (and perhaps permanently, or usually) absent. Often employed in situations where an excuse or alibi is required (or else when a flimsy excuse or alibi needs to be questioned), as the scholar and lexicographer E. C. Brewer put it in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870), men in buckram are ‘hypothetical men, existing only in the brain of the imaginer’.
Those landlocked nations that surround Uzbekistan are Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The world’s only other double-landlocked nation, incidentally, is Liechtenstein, which is sandwiched between the similarly coastline-less Switzerland and Austria.