Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Political words of 2010

Bigotgate, Cleggmaina, rodents and Spoonerisms. A summary of some of the words that featured in the reporting of UK politics this year: BBC News - 2010: A political year in words

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Lickety splits: two nations divided by a common language

The 1950 Manchester Guardian stylebook gravely listed "Americanisms" to avoid, including "aim to do" (instead of "aim of doing"), "balding", "to call" (rather than "to telephone"), "to contact", "to date" (rather than "so far"), "to help him finish the job" (instead of "to help him to finish the job"), "high-ranking officer", "to pinpoint", "teen-ager" and many similar outrages that no doubt exercised letter writers of the time.
In 2010, its readers object to brownstone, duke it out, lickety split, pony up and suck. Can't see the problem myself. English has a long and glorious history of sucking up new words like a sponge. Far better to do that than to worry endlessly about foreign imports as the French seem to do.

More on The Guardian:

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Who's more "progressive"? David Cameron, Hegel or Rick Wakeman?

It's a word that's starting to get on my nerves. Just before the last general election in the UK, the word 'progressive' was barely a soundbite away from spittle-flecked lips of politicians of every shade of political opinion. In the sense that no politician would wish to be regarded as regressive, I suppose it is natural that they would like to be thought of as progressive. But why did they all start using the word? And what, other than a vague notion that going forward may be better than going backward, does progressive really mean anyway?

There is an interesting article on the BBC web site that sheds a little light. Political reporter, Brian Wheeler, explains that politicians use 'progressive' to describe two very different things (though to the rest of humanity the distinction may not be at all obvious):
"When applied to taxation," (says Wheeler), "progressive simply means hurting the rich more than the poor by taking a progressively bigger slice of their earnings."
The other meaning of 'progressive' is, he concedes, harder to define.
"The first progressive movement emerged before the First World War, when followers of the philosopher Hegel promoted the idea of history as progress out of ignorance and division towards peace and prosperity. But the term began to gain currency again in British politics during the Blair years - when many Labour politicians felt uncomfortable about describing themselves as 'socialists' or even 'left-wing'."
Left wing politicians initially adopted the term 'progressive' to describe social liberalism. This was supposed to be a left-wing ideal. But now even the right-wing Conservative Prime Minister tends to favour this kind of liberalism - he thinks women and gay people are jolly decent sorts and doesn't actively frown upon the poor and working class either - so he too is happy to be called progressive. In fact, he now talks about something called "progressive conservatism".

All of which leads Brian Wheeler (and me and probably most other people of a 'certain age') to think back to another notable movement which once adopted the word 'progressive'. When rock music came out of the 'underground' and into the arena in the late '60s and early '70s, it was proud to call itself progressive. So-called "prog-rock"" bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Yes championed 'serious' rock music that demanded a long attention span and the ability to sit through ten-minute drum solos without squirming.

I am not sure that prog-rock really had any greater claim to being truly progressive than prog-politics. When punk came along in the mid-to-late '70s prog rock seemed to vanish almost overnight. The market simply dried up. Maybe that was indeed progress? But it probably wasn't the sort of progress that prog-rock stars such as Yes's Rick Wakeman had envisaged.

Who knows, maybe what we need next is a good dose of punk politics? Who, I wonder, might be the political counterparts of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious?

Read more on the BBC site: So what exactly is 'progressive' in politics?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

What is The Third Age?

Listening to a broadcast of ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ on BBC radio earlier today, I was interested to hear the presenter say that the team had been the guests of the University of The Third Age. I’d heard of this organisation before and had supposed it to be some sort of educational establishment for retired people. But, if so, why is retirement considered to be “the third age”?

The Seven Ages Of Man (an engraving by H Bourne from a picture by William Mulready)- but which is the third age?
The obvious source of the idea that a person’s lifetime is divided into numbered ‘ages’ is Jaques’s ‘All The World’s A Stage’ speech from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. So which age dies he define to be the third? Let’s take a look....
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. [1] At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms;
And then [2] the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then [3] the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow"

So there we have it. the third age is the lover. So is the University of The Third Age aimed specifically at lovers? If so, sign me up!

Let’s see what they say on their site:
“U3A membership is not related to a specific age but to a period in one’s life (the third age) after the second age of full-time employment and parental responsibility. Anybody in their third age can join U3A and this includes people who are working part time. There is no lower age for membership.”

So, contrary to my expectations, they say that, first, the ‘age’ in the name of the university doesn’t say anything about the age of their students and, secondly, that the ‘third age’ is some time after retirement or bringing up children.

This seems a bit arbitrary. Also a bit vague. For a more precise definition I turned to an academic paper called ‘Third Age Guidance: research into guidance needs and methodologies’ by Dr Pamela Clayton of the University of Glasgow. She directly refers to the Jaques’s speech but rapidly dispenses with three of its ages, claiming that “we can conceptualise at least four ages of man” and goes on to do so:
  • First Age: to the end of formal education
  • Second Age: of potential membership of the labour force
  • Third Age: or the later stages of active life
  • Four Age: frailty and greater dependency

I suppose, then, this definition of ‘third age’ blends ages 5 and 6 (justice and pantaloon) of Shakespeare’s version. I have no idea who decided to use the term ‘third age’ to mean this. If anyone knows, please tell me. It strikes me as a bit of a cop-out, frankly - a wishy-washy way of saying not very much. In spite of the U3A’s insistence that there is no lower age for membership, the definition “after the age of full-time employment and parental responsibility” suggests, to my cynical mind, that what mean to say is “retired” or “old”. However, both those words might be regarded as carrying negative connotations whereas phrases such as Dr Clayton’s “later stages of active life” sound wholly positive. The Collins World English Dictionary takes up this positive theme in its definition of ‘third age’ as “old age, esp when viewed as an opportunity for travel, further education, etc.”

Personally, as I get older I do not intend to enter the ‘third age’. I plan, simply, to get old. That does not, of course, mean that I might not avail myself of educational opportunities and travel – I just plan to be an old student and traveller. As I’ve never been a soldier (Jaques’ fourth age) I am probably ready to pass straight on to the fifth age of the ‘justice’. The very existence of this blog demonstrates well enough that I am already full of “wise saws and modern instances” and I am perfectly prepared to aim for the “fair round belly with good capon lin'd”.

Here, then is the rest of Jaques’ speech:
Then a [4] soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then [5] the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin'd,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the [6] lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav'd, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
[7] Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Thursday, 4 November 2010

What is a 'shellacking'?

Apparently President Obama was shellacked recently. I must say I have never heard the verb used this metaphorical sense before. Shellac is a type of resin used in varnishing wood and in the creation of old gramophone records. But when the President used the word he apparently intended it to mean "been defeated" or, to use another odd metaphor: "received a pasting".

According to the BBC, this sense of shellac goes back to the 1930s in America: "Its original meaning was 'to beat or thrash' - to give someone a physical beating - and some early citations come from organised crime or gangster slang."

See: BBC News - Who, What, Why: What is a 'shellacking'?

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Rat me! I Do Love A Good Oath!

Gadzooks! Split me! and Stap me vitals!

I have always had a fondness for Restoration oaths. These days, alas, nobody apart from pantomime pirates and members of the Royal Family (Prince Phillip, apparently exclaimed “Gadzooks!” upon viewing a portrait of himself) uses them.

I have no idea why the these fine exclamations flourished with such vigour in the Restoration. They appear with great frequency and in great variety in the works of Restoration dramatists such as Vanbrugh, Congreve, Etherege and Farquhar. A great many of these oaths end with the word ‘me’ as in: Split me! Stap me! or (as Captain Brazen says in Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer and Lord Foppington says in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse) Rat me!

Split me!, I suppose, might be taken literally (Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang gives “Split my windpipe!” as a variant); Stap me! is sometimes given as an affected pronunciation of “Stop me!” though I can’t help wondering if “Stap me vitals!” (a favourite expression of Vanbrugh’s Lord Foppington) suggests ‘stab’ rather than ‘stop’? (I’ve just discovered that at least one actor who has played Lord Foppington agrees). But as for ‘Rat me!’ – I am at a loss to account for its meaning. Cassell' s Dictionary compares the expression with the simple Rat! which is given as an alternative to Drat! which is said to be a euphemism for “God rot it!” - though why anyone should have wanted to say “God rot it!” in the first place I cannot imagine.

This brings me to some of the best known oaths: Zounds! and Gadzooks! These generally derive from blasphemous expressions such as “God’s wounds” and “God’s hooks” (the ‘hooks’ in question often explained as being the nails used in the crucifixion, though I am not aware of any conclusive evidence for this). At any rate, there is a whole bunch of similar oaths: 'Sbody, (God’s body), 'Snails (God’s nails), 'Sblud or 'Splood (God’s blood!) Od’s bodkins (God’s body) and so on.

There are even a few oaths of this sort which survive to this day as in, for example, Struth! or Strewth! (God’s truth) and “Gawd, Stone The Crows” which I have always assumed to be an elaboration upon "God’s stones" (testicles) though this is merely surmise.

What is clear is that fashionable oaths go out of fashion rather quickly (in more recent times, we’ve seen this with once-trendy exclamations such as “Groovy!” and “Fab!”). In Farquhar’s Love and a Bottle, there is a lovely scene in which Mockmode (‘a young Squire, newly come from the University, and setting up for a Beau’) tries to learn how to “swear the most modish oaths”.
“Pray,” he asks, “What are the most fashionable oaths in town? Zoons, I take it, is a very becoming one.”

Rigadoon (a dancing master who, presumably, keeps up with fashion) replies: “Zoons is only used by the disbanded officers and bullies: but zauns is the beaux’ pronunciation....

"Yes, sir, we swear as we dance; smooth, and with a cadence. – Zauns! - ‘Tis harmonious, and pleases the ladies, because ‘tis soft. – Zauns, madam! – is the only compliment our great beaux pass on a lady.”

A few moments later, after taking snuff, Mockmode tries out the fashionable pronunciation: “Zauns, I must sneeze!” But, having sneezed, he makes the error of exclaiming “Bless me!”

Rigadoon at once corrects him – “Bless me!”, it seems, is distinctly not à la mode: “O fy, Mr. Mockmode! what a rustical expression that is! – Bless me! – You should on all such occasions cry Dem me! You would be as nauseous to the ladies as one of the old patriarchs, if you used that obsolete expression.”

Thursday, 28 October 2010

BBC News - 'Haitch' or 'aitch'? How do you pronounce 'H'?

BBC News - 'Haitch' or 'aitch'? How do you pronounce 'H'?

Some interesting observations on the changing pronunciation of British English from the BBC. Personally, I am very much an 'aitch' person.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Green's Dictionary of Slang - from raspberry to rannygazoo

I have the Partidge Dictionary and I have the Cassell Dictionary. Now, however, it looks as though the new gold standard in dictionaries of slang will be the new three-volume Green's Dictionary. Writing in The Telegraph, Jeremy Noel-Tod (a contributor to the dictionary) describes how it was compiled from a variety of sources including the works of P G Wodehouse:
Training began with a pile of early PG Wodehouse novels. These related the adventures of Psmith, the man about town who revelled in such phrases as “last night’s rannygazoo” several years before Bertie Wooster began to bounce them off the silver-plated English of Jeeves.

Rannygazoo (“nonsense; irrelevant, irritating activity”) was an easy spot. And because Wodehouse is full of such exuberance, marking up the books seemed a breeze. I remember my disappointment when I learnt that I was regularly missing useful citations.

When you begin to study it, much more familiar language reveals itself as slang. A few pages on in the new dictionary, for example, Wodehouse yields a citation for the “coarse, dismissive, jeering noise” that most people would call a “raspberry”. As the definition indicates, it doesn’t have another name – I had always dimly thought of it as a more fruity sort of “rasp”. But it actually derives from rhyming slang, where phrases are often shortened to exclude the rhyme that reveals the word intended – and, in this case, the thing imitated (“raspberry tart”).
I would love to have a copy of Green's Dictionary. As it costs almost £300, however, I may have to do without - unless some kind Bertie Wooster-type Aunt decides to buy her beloved nephew a copy for Christmas, that is....

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Oscar Wilde and Heroin

“Will he be all right?” asked Gabrielle, as Oscar helped her up into our waiting carriage.
Oscar laughed. “I think the heroin will see him through.”
I was reading Gyles Brandreth’s book, “Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile” (a rip-roaring page turner in which Oscar Wilde solves some dastardly crimes) when I read the words quoted above. Brandreth is normally very good at period details but one particular detail struck me as a bit fishy - namely Oscar’s reference to heroin.

Given the fact that the book contains numerous references to cocaine, opium and tincture of laudanum, why not heroin? The answer is simple: the events of the book are set in 1883 but the name ‘heroin’ was not used until 1898 (see, therefore Brandreth’s use of the name ‘heroin’ at that period is anachronistic.

The history of heroin turns out to be quite interesting. Initially, it was marketed by the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, as a cough medicine. The chemical name of the drug is diacetylmorphine but Bayer decided to give it the catchier name, ‘heroin’, to emphasise its heroic medicinal qualities . Towards the end of the 19th Century, morphine was widely used to treat coughs, and heroin was thought to be a safer alternative (being, in theory, less addictive than morphine). Initially the biggest market for heroin was the USA where it was used in many popular cough medicines . But it soon became apparent that heroin was becoming a favourite tipple of many people without coughs - and its claim to be non-addictive was thrown into considerable doubt.

As a side-note, while it may seem odd that Bayer were so wrong in their belief that heroin would prove to be a safe ‘wonder cure’, they were pretty much spot-on with another drug which they were promoting at the same time. This was a drug called acetylsalicylic acid for which Bayer coined the name, Aspirin.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Spivs and Bankers

The word ‘spiv’ has, rather surprisingly, come back into everyday usage in the UK. The Government’s Business Secretary, Vince Cable, made a speech in which he referred to some bank employees as ‘spivs’ and gamblers.

While the word ‘spiv’ has never completely gone away, until Mr Cable’s speech, I had assumed that it was a quaintly antiquated word. The heyday of the spiv was during the second world war. Typically, a spiv was someone who, while not an out-and-out villain, was not entirely honest either. When luxuries were in short supply, the spiv could find some way of obtaining them - at a price.

Four classic spivs (from top-left, clockwise): Flash Harry (George Cole), Max Miller, Private Walker (James Beck) and perhaps the ultimate incarnation, Arthur English

Partridge’s Dictionary Of Slang defines ‘spiv’ as “One who lives by his wits - within the law” and dates the word to about 1890. By 1946, the word more specifically described “small town touts and racketeers”. Partridge gives the word the same origin as ‘spiffing’ (neat, smart, dandified), presumably in reference to the spiv’s habit of dressing in loud and flashy suits - a habit which has been portrayed by well-known fictional spivs such as Private Walker (James Beck) from the BBC TV comedy, Dad’s Army and Flash Harry (George Cole) in the St. Trinian’s films. Two comedians, Arthur English, and Max Miller, also adopted variants of the classic ‘spiv’ image. The thing about all these spivs is that they are ‘likeable rogues’ (Max Miller was called ‘The Cheeky Chappie’, Arthur English was “The Prince of the Wide Boys”).

The classic version of the spiv generally wears a double-breasted suit with big lapels, a loud kipper tie and a small trilby hat set at a jaunty angle.

The Cassell Dictionary Of Slang believes that the word ‘spiv’ may either derive from Romany (spiv=sparrow, a term for someone who picks up the leavings of others) or else from the inversion of VIPs or from SPIV - a police abbreviation Suspected Persons and Itinerant Vagrants. None of these explanations sounds entirely convincing to me and, moreover, would seem to contradict the Partridge’s claimed ‘spiffing’ derivation. The OED, incidentally, gives ‘spiff’ as (1959) “the percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock”. That sounds a credible source for ‘spiv’ in the wartime sense.

But whatever its derivation, I very much doubt if the wartime spivs ever imagined that the term might one day be applied to city bankers earning eye-watering bonuses!

Geekdom and Nerdcore

I wrote recently about the curious origins of the word ‘geek’. I see from an article on the BBC web site that geeks now have their own subculture which goes by the name of ‘geekdom’ while nerds have embraced a musical idiom called ‘nerdcore’.
"Nerdcore is like every other sort of hip hop, just considerably less cool," said MC Frontalot, one of the founding fathers of the scene.

The subject matter stands in contrast to that traditionally explored in hip-hop, he explained.

"Topics include video games, science fiction, dungeons and dragons, but the deeper themes also look at feelings of alienation, paranoia and inadequacy that must always be battled in order to leave your apartment." 
The BBC article (Nerdcore: hip-hop for rhyming geeks) tends to use the terms ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ indiscriminately as though there were no real difference between them. I’m not sure that is the case. It seems to me that ‘geek’ has slightly cooler overtones than ‘nerd’. Hence the expression ‘geek chic’. I can’t imagine a word as positive as ‘chic’ being applied to a nerd.

But then again, maybe that’s just the sort of thing a nerd like me would say...?

Monday, 20 September 2010

The 24 Letters Of The Alphabet

Sitting in a dusty stack of old and tatty books on one of the shelves in the corner of my office is a disintegrating copy of The Works Of Ben Jonson. My copy was published in 1879 and, in addition to the well-known plays such as Volpone, The Alchemist, Epicoene and Bartholomew Fair it also contains the text of Jonson’s ‘The English Grammar’.

Most of Jonson’s plays are still to be found in modern editions available in bookshops or as digitised texts on the internet. The Grammar, however, is something of a rarity and I am mightily pleased to have a copy of it.

I happened to be browsing through the opening pages of Jonson’s Grammar earlier today and one of the first things that struck me was this statement: “In our language we use these twenty and four letters.” Twenty-four? Not twenty-six? Where, I wondered, were the missing two?

Jonson goes on to list the letters of the alphabet minus the ‘j’ and the ‘u’. Unfortunately, my 19th Century edition of the Grammar ‘corrects’ the original spelling by putting ‘j’ and ‘u’ where the modern reader expects them to. I haven’t seen a copy of the original, uncorrected, version, so I uncertain whether the modern characters ‘j’ and ‘u’ were used. At any rate, even if they were, they would have been considered to be mere stylistic variants of the letters ‘i’ and ‘v’. If you look at facsimiles of the old editions Shakespeare plays, for example, you will see examples of both characters:

Jonson explains that Iis a letter of double power” since it is used both as a vowel and as a consonant: “For where it leads the sounding vowel, and beginneth the syllabe, it is ever a consonant; as in James, John, jest, jump, conjurer, perjured.

V, too, he says “is like our i, a letter of double power. As a vowel, it soundeth thin and sharp, as in use; thick and flat as in us.” But “When it followeth a sounding vowel in a syllabe it is a consonant; as in save, rave, prove, love etc. Which double force is not the unsteadfastness of our tongue, or uncertainty of our writing, but fallen upon us from Latin.

Ah, yes, Latin - a language in which the letter V also doubled-up as a U. This reminds me of the 1976 BBC dramatisation of Robert Graves’s books, I, Claudius, which was ‘Latinized’ in the title sequence as ‘I, Clavdivs’ - something which caused much mirthfulness amongst my chums at school who hilariously (for we were easily amused) insisted on pronouncing the name with consonant ‘v’s to rhyme with ‘Have-gives’!

According to the OED, the letter J in English, and in other modern languages, is a rather recent addition to the alphabet. Until the 17th century, the letter I represented both the vowel (as does the modern i) and the consonant (now replaced by the modern j) and that the letter j was originally a no more than a variant of i adopted by scribes.

The letter U has a longer history. While, in classical Latin, U and V are not differentiated, according to the OED, the rounded U can be seen in some 4th Century Latin manuscripts and also in Anglo-Saxon texts.

By the middle of the 18th century, the letters seem to have started to live schizophrenic lives, uncertain of whether they were each one letter with two sounds or two letters with their own distinct identities. Dr Samuel Johnson in his ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ (1755) groups words beginning with ‘J’ with those beginning with I; similarly, he groups words beginning with ‘U’ with those beginning with ‘V’. In essence, he treats ‘j’ as a type of ‘i’ and ‘u’ as a type of ‘v’. Of the letter ‘I’ he says: “I is in Englifh confidered both as vowel and confonant; though, fince the vowel and confonant differ in their form as well as found, they may be more properly accounted two letters.”

In my quotations I retain his use of ‘f’ for ‘s’ (and I shall leave discussion of that curiosity to a future date). He goes on to give examples of the ‘consonant’ version of ‘i’ in words such as ‘jade; and ‘jet’ where, he says, it has “invariably the fame found with that of ‘g’ in giant”.

By the way, you can download Dr Johnson’s Dictionary in two volumes here:

Here are Dr. Johnson’s comments on ‘V’ and ‘U’:
“V, Has two powers, expreffed modern Englifh by two characters, V confonant and U vowel, which ought to be confidered as two letters; but as they were long confounded while the two ufes were annexed to one form, the old cuftom ftill continues to be followed. .

“U, the vowel, has two founds; one clear, expreffed at other times by ou, as obtufe; the other clofe, and approaching to the Italian u, or Englifh Oo, as obtund.

“V, the confonant, has a found nearly approaching to thofe of b and f. With b it is by the Spaniards and Gafcons always confounded, and in the Runick alphabet is expreffed by the fame character with f, diftinguifhed only by a diacritical point. Its found in Englifh is uniform. It is never mute.”

So there you are: Ben Jonson didn’t use I and U at all. Samuel Johnson did use them in a fairly apologetic manner. And we use them all the time - which is why we have two more letters in our alphabet than Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare had in theirs.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

My Grammar’s Better Than Your Grammar

Why I Won’t Be Buying Simon Heffer’s Book

UK newspaper columnist, Simon Heffer, has recently been promoting his book, ‘Strictly English’, which is all about the rules of English grammar. If you think I am overjoyed, think again. I haven’t read the book and, frankly, I am not inclined to do so. However, I am unimpressed by the extracts printed in The Telegraph.

Mr. Heffer’s views on grammar are distinctly of the “What I say is right, what you say is wrong” variety. In other words it is prescriptive, authoritarian and dull. He seems to work on the assumption that grammar is a set of inviolable rules and to ‘talk proper’ all you have to do is learn those rules. He states (and this I find jaw-dropping) that: “Our language is to a great extent settled and codified”. Well, your language may be, Mr. Heffer. Mine certainly ain’t!

In my long career in journalism, I have come across a few editors and subeditors who share Mr. Heffer’s views. When in doubt on some point of grammar they refer to the ultimate distillation of the knowledge of the Ancient Grammarians - a Holy text known as ‘The Style Sheet’. The Style Sheet contains such gems of wisdom as: “Thou shalt not use the passive voice” and “Refrain from using first person singular for this is a vile and egregious sin.

Mr. Heffer’s inviolable rules of grammar are more numerous and more restrictive than any Style Sheet which I have had the misfortune to encounter. On the radio the other day, he waxed red in the face on the horrors of mixing up your ‘shall’s with your ‘will’s. According to the BBC web site, he also believes that the sentence "The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary" is grammatically incorrect (more on this later). He goes on to argue that the word ‘viable’ should only be applied to organisms since the dictionary defines viable as "capable of living". In fact, this is not true. I’ve just checked in my copy of the OED and it gives Mr. Heffer’s preferred definition first, followed by a much looser figurative definition “Of immaterial things and concepts” and it quotes an example from 1848: “the viable medium, the medium of harmony”. Possibly Mr Heffer considers the figurative meaning to be a bit too modern for his tastes?

By the way, if you are still wondering why Mr. Heffer asserts that "The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary" is ungrammatical, I recommend this article from excellent Language Log - which also explains why Mr Heffer is wrong. Language Log has another (rather effective) go at Heffer HERE.

My own view is that grammar describes language; it does not impose a set of rules upon it. Mr. Heffer is peculiarly reverential of the Oxford English Dictionary of 1928 and English grammars written at the same time. He says: “But” (yes, he really does begin the sentence with a conjunction!) “But we have had a standard dictionary now ever since the OED was completed in 1928, and learned men, many of whom contributed to the OED, wrote grammars a century ago that settled a pattern of language that was logical and free from the danger of ambiguity.”

I’m not sure why the learned men of 1928 should be regarded as greater authorities than those who preceded them? Grammar changes as the use of language changes. 1928 is neither a starting nor an ending point for that process of change. Ben Jonson was surely an author of sufficient greatness to compete with the learned men who contributed to the OED. So why should I not refer to Jonson’s Grammar of 1618? Or maybe I should go back further still? How about William Bullokar’s Grammar of 1586?

I may return to Ben Jonson’s Grammar in a future post. I suspect I would find it more illuminating than Mr Heffer’s book.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Tuffets and how to sit on them

"Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet..." - it’s a nursery rhyme that’s familiar to most English speaking people. But do you know what a tuffet is? If I asked you to go and sit on one, where would you look - in the living room, maybe? Or out in a field?

Arthur Rackham (1922) shows Miss Muffet sitting on a grassy knoll
Leaving aside the meaning of the rhyme itself (who was Miss Muffet, why was she eating curds and whey, why was she frightened of spiders and why should anybody care?) let me return to that curious word: ‘tuffet’.

According to Wikipedia, ‘tuffet’ is a synonym for pouffe or hassock - a small stool or low seat. It also gives an alternative definition: “an inflatable landing area for precision accuracy parachute landings” - though in Miss Muffet’s case I think that may be safely discounted. This seems to place Miss Muffet in the living room whereas I had always assumed she was sitting out in a field.

It turns out that both the words ‘tuffet’ and ‘hassock’ were originally used to describe grassy knolls (so my version of Miss Muffet may, after all, be correct). The OED gives the origin of the word as ‘tuft’ which underwent a suffix change to ‘tuffet’ and used to be used to describe, ‘a tuffet of hair’. By the 19th century the word was being applied to grassy mounds (“Here were six little grassy tuffets”) and its application to footstools came later - “perhaps due to a misunderstanding of the nursery rime” comments the OED. This misunderstanding may have been brought about by confusion with the word ‘buffet’ which, since at least the 15th Century was used to describe a low stool.

Since the ‘low stool’ meaning of tuffet seems to date only from the late 19th Century, maybe the date of the nursery rhyme may give us a clue as to whether or not this is likely to be the object that was intended?

The rhyme is often interpreted either as a story about Mary Queen of Scots being frightened by a spider or about Patience Muffet, the daughter of a 16th Century entomologist. Both of these interpretations require that the poem be dated from the 16th Century. These are attractive theories apart from the fact that there appears to be no evidence that the poem does, in fact, date from that time. The first known appearance of the rhyme was in 1805.

Nevertheless, as far as I can determine, 1805 is an early enough date to make it fairly safe to assume that the tuffet in the rhyme was a grassy mound and not a stool. Even as late as 1900, the word tuffet is used with this meaning in a parody of the original poem by Guy Wetmore Carryl.
Little Miss Muffet discovered a tuffet,
(Which never occurred to the rest of us)
And, as ’twas a June day, and just about noonday,
She wanted to eat—like the best of us:
Her diet was whey, and I hasten to say
It is wholesome and people grow fat on it.
The spot being lonely, the lady not only
Discovered the tuffet, she sat on it.

I think it is reasonable to assume that Miss Muffet in this version was far more likely to chance upon a grassy mound in a lonely spot (the next verse tells us that “A rivulet gabbled beside her”) than a low stool.

We can search for more evidence for the meaning of tuffet in paintings and illustrations. Most 19th and early 20th century artists appear to favour a grassy mound. Amongst the artists who have illustrated the rhyme, the following all show Miss Muffet sitting on grass: John Everett Millais (1884), Kate Greenaway (1881), L. Leslie Brooke (1922), Arthur Rackham (1922) - as do several unnamed artists from the late 19th/early 20th Century whose work I’ve found on various web sites.

By the early 20th Century, however, there has clearly started to be some disagreement. This web site shows a number of illustrations (the earliest being from 1902) which show Miss Muffet sitting on a stool.

This picture by Jessie Willcox Smith (1912) shows that Miss Muffet was sitting on a stool when the spider appeared.

The first mention of tuffet as a stool in the OED is by (E F?) Benson (1895) from the July edition of the Contemporary Review: “Little Miss Moffat (sic) ... hastily got up from the tuffet - which turned out to be a three-legged stool”. The fact that he has felt the need to explain the meaning suggests that ‘tuffet’ was by no means an everyday word at the time. I am left wondering whether his explanation was intended to be humorous - that is, was he deliberately misdefining the word for comic effect? If so, could it be that Benson is responsible for the whole ‘a tuffet is a stool’ school of thought that since followed?

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find the full article from which the quotation is taken so the OED’s brief excerpt remains to tantalise me...

For John Everett Millais (1884), Miss Muffet's tuffet is definitely a grassy knoll and not a stool

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Of Mice and Muslims

...not to mention homosexuals and spiders.

Yes, these, and many other things, now have their very own phobias!

As anyone who has watched a Tom and Jerry cartoon will know, people who suffer from musophobia tend to jump onto a chair and scream whenever they see a mouse. People suffering from arachnophobia do the same when they see a spider.

So, do people suffering from Islamophobia or homophobia jump onto chairs and scream when they see a Muslim or a homosexual?

I had always thought of phobias as essentially irrational fears of entirely harmless things (‘fear, horror or aversion, esp. of a morbid character’, according to the OED). Being scared of a harmless house spider for example would be a phobia (arachnophobia) whereas being scared of a poisonous black widow spider would be an entirely rational reaction and, therefore, not a phobia.

Mice, small spaces and foreigners all deserve their own phobias (musophobia, claustrophobia and xenophobia) just so long as we accept that they are all harmless. But if they were not harmless - say, if the mice were plague carriers, the small space happened to be a locked and airtight container and the foreigners were enemy forces armed to the teeth with guns and grenades - then fear of them would be completely rational and would not be described as a phobia.

In fact, it seems to me that terms such as ‘homophobia’ and ‘Islamophobia’ are frequently applied to people who a) are not scared of homosexuals and Muslims - they don’t jump on chairs and scream - but may have reservations about their beliefs, actions or lifestyle and b) those reservations are rational - they have been ‘reasoned’ and are capable of explanation. That doesn’t mean to say that the reasons are correct or that the explanations may not be refuted, but that’s beside the point. It is my contention that if someone can supply a reasoned argument to support a criticism, it is not correct to say that they are suffering from a phobia.

All too often, describing reasoned criticism as a phobia is no more than a verbal trick to invalidate an opposing argument before it is made. If somebody puts forward a critical argument relating to some aspect of Islam, for example, it is easy to say “I don’t have to argue with you! You’re an Islamophobe!” (this requires no intellectual effort at all) whereas it may be quite hard to engage in a critical argument point by point and attempt to find flaws in it (this may require a good deal of intellectual effort).

Christopher Hitchens expressed this well in a recent article: “This is why the fake term Islamophobia is so dangerous: It insinuates that any reservations about Islam must ipso facto be ‘phobic’. A phobia is an irrational fear or dislike. Islamic preaching very often manifests precisely this feature, which is why suspicion of it is by no means irrational.”

As a means of defusing dissent by abusing your opponents, calling them a something-phobe is often a more effective tactic than it really deserves to be. So much so that lots of groups are being thrown onto the something-phobe bandwagon. Apparently there are Christianophobia, Heterophobia, Judaeophobia and other phobias too ludicrous to mention. My personal favourite, however is Luposlipaphobia, which was coined by the Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, to describe “fear of being pursued by timber wolves around a kitchen table while wearing socks on a newly waxed floor”.

Now that’s a phobia I can understand!

Friday, 27 August 2010

Why Bavarian is not the Language of Love

Did you know that Bavarians have no word for love? That’s what the BBC claims at any rate. Reporting on the work of a Yorkshire academic, Anthony Rowley, who is an expert on the Bavarian regional language, Bayerische, the BBC says that the nearest the language comes to expressing love is “I like you” (I mog di) though it does have a colourful range of insults (Oide Zwidawur'n = Grumpy old git; Beiss Zehnd zam und machs Mei auf, wendawosnedbasd! = Like it or lump it (or, literally: Clench your teeth and open your gob if you don't approve).

Read more on the BBC site.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Out, Out Damned Apostrophe!

I had thought that I had a pretty decent command of the apostrophe. But this week, a particularly egregious apostrophe has caused me a few headaches. I had just written a Reviewer’s Guide for one of my company’s programming software products. Yes, that’s right - a Reviewer’s Guide. Or then again, maybe that should that be a Reviewers’ Guide?

The second version (Reviewers’) suggests that this guide is intended to be read by more than one reviewer (which it is), whereas the first version (Reviewer’s) suggests that I expect only one reviewer at a time to read it (which I do).

So which should I go for? Reviewers’ in the plural or Reviewer’s in the singular?

I tried to think of some comparable examples. You would say “a child’s toy”, wouldn’t you? So maybe it should be “a reviewer’s guide”? But then you would say “a children’s book” so that means it should be “a reviewers’ guide”!

No, no, this is madness! Why is a toy aimed at a single child but a book aimed at a whole load of them? Let’s try to think of some better examples...

If I said “Butch Omi” is a Men’s Magazine, that would mean it is a magazine aimed at a male readership (thus men, plural). I could equally say that it is a Man’s Magazine but if I were to do so I think I would be most likely to qualify ‘man’ in some way - for example, “It’s the working man’s magazine” or “the thinking man’s magazine”.

I am not at all sure that there is any hard and fast rule to determine where the apostrophe should be placed when you are describing something that is aimed at an individual who is also a member of a group. In most cases, the pronunciation of the singular and plural nouns is identical so it would be impossible to distinguish between them in spoken language (reviewer’s guide or reviewers’ guide; dog’s lead or dogs’ lead). In the examples above, I deliberately chose words (man/men, child/children) whose sounds change from singular to plural to try to make the distinction more obvious.

Just to add to the confusion, glancing along my bookshelf, I notice copies of those two invaluable reference works for the freelance writer: the Writer’s Handbook and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. What am I to deduce? That the first assumes a lone reader while the latter expects to be passed from hand to hand among a multitude?

Well, the time has come to make a decision. I think I’m going to stick with Reviewer’s Guide (and assume that each reviewer believes the guide was written for him or her alone). Mind you, this bothersome matter is probably not something worth losing sleep over. The apostrophe is such an ill-treated punctuation mark these days that I suspect a great many people won’t know why I’ve put one there at all: Reviewers Guide anyone...?

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Geek - from Monster to Nerd

“Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek.”
Thus begins William Lindsay Gresham’s wonderful novel Nightmare Alley (1946). And, just in case you have any doubt on the matter, I should explain that the geek in question is not a spotty-faced computer programmer with bad breath and glasses held together with sticking plaster. The modern meaning of geek (which I think might be described as a more intelligent and intense relative of the ‘nerd’) came much later.

Gresham describes the geek in lovingly repulsive detail. He is a wretched man wearing brown-dyed long johns and a curly black wig. His face is covered in brown greasepaint, presumably intended to make him into the caricature of some sort of exotic savage. The carnival caller outside his enclose tells the crowd that the geek was found on an uninhabited island five hundred miles off the coast of Florida. In his pen he is surrounded by lethargic snakes.
“Stan liked snakes,” (Gresham writes), “The disgust he felt was for them, at their having to be penned up with such a specimen of a man.”

Here in the outer pen, carnival visitors can see the geek surrounded by snakes for free. But that isn’t the main attraction. What people really want to see is the geek feeding. And to see that, they have to pay. Once he has a paying audience, the carnival caller takes a live chicken from a basket and throws it to the geek. Then the geek eats...
“How do you ever get a guy to geek?” (Stan asks) “Or is this the only one? I mean, is a guy born that way - liking to bite the heads off chickens.”
The rest of the novel is, essentially, an answer to that question.

Gresham was fascinated by the carnivals in 1930s and ‘40s America and, in addition to the fictional carnival of Nightmare Alley, he wrote a non fiction book on the subject called ‘Monster Midway’ (1953). This book also describes the pathetic life of a geek.
"How do you find guys that will do things like that? I mean, biting the heads off chickens. Good God, man, do you find a guy doing that behind a barn somewhere and ... ?"
"Kid, you don't find a geek. You make a geek."
"But how?"
"When you get hold of one of them fellows, he ain't a geek—he's a drunk. Or he's on the morph. He comes begging for a job. You tell him, ‘Well, I ain't got anything regular, but I got a temporary job. My wild man quit on me, and I got to get another to fill in. Meanwhile you can put on the wild man outfit and sit in the pit and make believe you're biting the heads off chickens and drinking the blood. 'Course you won't be biting the heads off. You'll have a razor blade hid in your hand, and when you pick up the chicken you'll give its neck a slit and let the blood run down your chin. Mind, it ain't a good job, but it'll give you a place to sleep ...’ "
"Well, you let him go on, faking the geek for a few days, and you see that he gets his bottle regular. Or his deck of 'M' so he can bang himself night and morning and keep the horrors away. Then you say one night after the show closes, 'You better turn in the stuff and hit the road after we close tomorrow night. I got to get me a real geek. You can't draw no crowd, faking it that way.' You slip him the bottle and you tell him, 'This is the last one you get.' You tell him that. He has all that night and all the next day to think it over. And the next night when you throw in the chicken—he'll geek."
The Cassell Dictionary of Slang claims that the word ‘geek’ was used in 19th Century America to mean ‘a clumsy, eccentric or offensive person’ and was only applied to carnival performers in the 20th Century. It suggests that the modern sense of the word came about in the '80s on US campuses and was initially used to describe someone who devotes too much time to his books.

Partridge’s Dictionary Of Slang says that ‘geek’ may have been a shortened form of ‘give us a peek’ and was used in Australia World War I. Possible derivations are German ‘gucken’ (to peep or peek) and Cornish dialect ‘geek’ (to look intently at). It suggests the possibility that the geek of the carnival was the lowest type of fairground performer, one that was merely stared or ‘geeked’ at. The French version of Wikipedia also quotes the Oxford American Dictionary (I don’t have a copy of this so have been unable to check) which suggests that the word derives from the middle German, ‘Geck’ (a fool). According to the Collins/German Dictionary, however, the modern German meaning of ‘Geck’ is a fop or a dandy, which seems to be miles away from either a chicken-eater or a computer programmer.

I’m not sure how to account for the meaning change from ‘a man who bites the heads off chickens’ to a person obsessed with technical stuff and computers. If it’s true that the word ‘geek’ started to be used for over-earnest students in '80s America (in other words, as a synonym for what I would have called a ‘swot’ when I was at school here in the UK), I suppose we might hypothesise that this was a general term of abuse for “one of life’s losers” (for some reason, many school students have a strong prejudice that study must be bad for you). In which case, when computing became an area of academic study, throughout the '80s, a ‘computer geek’ might simply have been a specific type of geek. Over time, the special designation might have been dropped so that any type of geek was likely to be good with computers. That said, specialist geek variants still abound as in ‘film geek’, ‘comic book geek’ and so on - to describe anyone who takes a nitpickingly obsessive interest in some particular subject. I guess I must be a ‘word geek’?

That, at any rate, is one possible explanation of the link between computer programmers and men who bite the heads off chickens. If you have any more information on this subject, please let me know.

Nightmare Alley was, incidentally, made into a pretty good film (1947) with Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. If you enjoy film noir, this is one the best.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Why 'Wurfing' is not a word (yet)

How many words, I wonder, have entered our everyday language over the past few years thanks to the influence of computing and the Internet?

Here are a few that spring to mind:

Blog (short for ‘web log’)
Podcast (like a broadcast that can be downloaded onto an iPod)
To Google (to search for information often, though not necessarily, using the Google search engine)
To Surf (to browse the Internet - in which case wearing brightly coloured swimming trunks and standing on a board is entirely optional)

Then there are those technical words which, a decade ago, would have seemed like impenetrable jargon to many people, but which are now almost universally understood. I’m thinking of words such as upload, download, email, attachment, virus and (of course!) Monty Python’s greatest contribution to the English language: Spam!

In addition, there are acronyms and abbreviations: lol, rofl, imho, roflmao and so on....

I wonder why some terms caught on whereas others were consigned to the recycle-folder of history? ‘Audio-blogging’ was around long before the iPod, but that term now has been pretty much erased by the word ‘podcast’. Before Google, there were lots of search engines. Why did none of these generate a verb? ‘To Hotbot’ perhaps, or ‘to Altavista’?

I chanced upon two stories about ‘new words’ recently. One, from the BBC, called ‘How the internet is changing language’, muses on such oddities are ’rickrolling’ and WTF. The other, ‘When is a word not a word? When it doesn't make it into the dictionary’, comes from The Daily Telegraph. It considers the problems with which the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary have to grapple when deciding which new words are sufficiently established to merit an entry and which are purely transient and may therefore be ignored.

The Telegraph article says...
‘A researcher at Kingston University, London recently described his fascination at discovering a vault full of millions of “non words” that had failed to made the grade. They included “wurfing”, the act of surfing the internet at work; “polkadodge”, the awkward dance performed by pedestrians trying to pass each other on the street; and “nonversation”, a pointless chat.’

I rather like ‘wurfing’. Maybe if we start a campaign to get people using it we might manage to sneak it into the next edition of the OED. Come on, people, get wurfing!

Monday, 16 August 2010

Shampoo and Curry

What’s the connection between curry and shampoo? Yes, really is one, strange as it may seem...

Many and varied are the words that have passed into English from the Indian subcontinent such as pyjamas, Juggernaut and thug. It is perhaps less well known that ‘shampoo’ came into English from Hindi (chāmpo चाँपो).

I discovered this recently while browsing through my well-thumbed copy of ‘Hobson-Jobson’ the Anglo-Indian Dictionary compiled by Henry Yule and A C Burnell in the late 19th century. This defines ‘shampoo’ as “to kneed and press the muscles with the view of relieving fatigue” and it quotes several examples. The author of 1748 book, A Voyage to the East Indies, believed it to be of Chinese origin - “Shampooing is an operation not known in Europe, and is peculiar to the Chinese...” The procedure was clearly a bit scary. “Had I not seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I should have been apprehensive of danger, even at the sight of the different instruments.”

Various other writers quoted also express the belief that shampooing is Chinese. However, by 1813 one writer says: “There is sometimes a voluptuousness in the climate of India, a stillness in nature, an indescribable softness, which soothes the mind, and gives it up to the most delightful sensations: independent of the effects of opium, champoing, and other luxuries indulged in by oriental sensualists.”

Shampoo massages (for head and body) were introduced into Britain by Sake Dean Mahomed, a surgeon from Bengal, who moved first to London and then to the seaside resort of Brighton in 1814 where he opened a ‘shampooing baths’ - these being a variant on the then popular Turkish baths. Sake Dean Mahomed is also credited with opening Britain's first curry house, The Hindoostanee Coffee House in George Street, central London. Hence the connection between shampoo and curry. Sadly, however, his curry house appears to have been less successful than his shampoo baths. The British at that period did not have the taste for vindaloos and chicken korma which they subsequently developed.

While shampooing in the original sense, may have involved a head massage, that was not obligatory. According to The Victorian Turkish Bath web site (yes, there really is one!) any part of the body might have been massaged. It quotes a description of a shampoo treatment from The Illustrated London News of 1862:

“As soon as the skin of the bather exhibits a flow of gentle perspiration a tellak, or bathman, commences the manipulation which characterises the native tellak. ... We are softly handled instead of being violently pinched. The bathman follows the line of muscles with 'anatomical thumb' to render them supple and to ascertain that they are so before the next operations are proceeded with. With a camel's-hair glove on his hand he sweeps over every inch of the body from the neck to the heels, starting the skin and planing it off in successive rolls, his dextrous hand missing no portion of the body. Legs and arms are cleared of every superfluity. Every part of your body is then cracked with surprising skill—an alarming operation to a novice, but a perfectly safe and necessary one when performed by experienced tellaks.”

Think of that the next time you have a shampoo. Or a curry...

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Victorian Polari!

Polari is a gay/theatrical argot known in the UK from the Julian and Sandy sketches of the 1960s radio show, Round The Horne. This is a sample...
HORNE: I'm interested in booking a holiday.
JULIAN: Would you like us to do something exciting for you in a cheap package?
HORNE: Yes. What would you recommend?
SANDY: Well, how about Juan in the S of F? That's Les Pins. Bona, ennit Jules?
JULIAN: Divine. Sitting, sipping a tiny drinkette, vada-ing the great butch omis and dolly little palones trolling by, or disporting yourself on the sable plage getting your lallies all bronzed - your riah getting bleached by the soleil.
I had always assumed that Polari was a language confined exclusively to the homosexual and theatrical subculture of the early to mid-20th Century. It appears, however, that I was wrong.

I happened to be reading a book called The Victorian Underworld about life on the seamier side of Victorian Britain. In one chapter, this mentions The Nanty Polone Ironclad firm of bookmakers. Now both ‘Nanty’ and ‘Polone’ are Polari words. “Nanty Polone” means "No women". I’m not sure if 'ironclad' has any special meaning in Polari. I suspect it is simply used in the commonplace metaphorical sense (as in an ‘ironclad’ or ‘unbreakable’ guarantee) deriving from ‘ironclad’ in the sense of a wooden ship covered with iron plating. Which may tie in nicely with the naval connection which also features in the history of Polari, as I’ll explain shortly.

As in other types of slang such as Cockney rhyming slang or French ‘Verlan’ (backslang), Polari functioned as a secret or coded language. It not only permitted Polari speakers to talk to one another without being understood by the people about whom they were talking (“Vada the lallies on that bona omi” = “Look at that good looking man’s legs”) but it was also an expression of membership of an exclusive group - often on the fringes of ‘acceptable society’ (homosexuality was still completely outlawed in the UK until 1967).

Polari uses a broad mix of words from a variety of sources. Quite a bit comes from Italian (‘nanty’ from ‘niente’, ‘bona’ from ‘buona’, ‘polari’ from ‘parlare’. There's some Yiddish, German and French (e.g. ‘bijou’) and possibly even some Welsh (I can’t help wondering if Polari’s ‘latty’ meaning "lodgings/digs" is related to the Welsh word, ‘llety’ with the same meaning?). There’s some back-slang too (‘ecaf’=face, ‘riah’=hair).

Given the fact that Polari was a typically gay/theatrical slang in the 20th century, how come it was being used by a bookmaker in the 19th? According to the Liverpool Museum site: "In the eighteenth century it was mainly used in pubs around the London dock area", later spread to merchant seafarers and only in the 1930s made its way into gay pubs and theatrical circles.

Polari is a fascinating (and, more important, funny!) argot and I shall no doubt return to it in future posts. In the meantime, if you’d like a more extensive sample, I recommend that you read a few Julian and Sandy sketches. You can find some here:

Sir Courtly Who...?

Sir Courtly Nice: Wherever I go, all the World cries that's a Gentleman, my Life on't, a Gentleman ; and when ye'ave said a Gentleman, you have said all.
Servant: Is there nothing else belongs to a Gentleman ?
Sir Courtly Nice: Yes, Bon mien, fine Hands, a Mouth well furnish'd
Servant: With fine Language-
Sir Courtly Nice: Fine Teeth, you Sot ; fine Language belongs to Pedants and poor Fellows that live by their Wits. Men of Quality are above Wit ; 'tis true, for our Diversion sometimes we write, but we ne'er regard Wit. I write, but I never writ any Wit.

Sir Courtly Nice was the invention of the dramatist, John Crowne (1641-1712). Sir Courtly is one of that type of Restoration comedy characters (other notables being Etherege’s Sir Fopling Flutter, Vanbrugh’s Lord Foppington) generally known as the ‘fop’ - a man whose opinion of himself far exceeds his talents.

So what has he to do with this blog...?

Well, this blog is about words. It’s very easy to be pompous about words. Even the words that describe words tend to sound highfalutin’: literature, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, consonance, assonance... I like Sir Courtly’s opinion on the matter: “Fine Language belongs to Pedants and poor Fellows that live by their Wits...”

If I find myself waxing pompous, I’ll try to remember that. If I forget it, you will see a very handy ‘Comment’ link which gives you the opportunity to remind me.

One thing I shall warn you of in advance: this blog will ramble. I will write about whatever takes my fancy on the day. That might be rhyming slang, backslang or Polari; it might be style, grammar or the humorous potential of the semicolon. It might be my thoughts on the ten funniest words in English or the twenty-three filthiest ones.

More anon...