How can something be ‘unspeakable’?

This Thursday’s Thought from Word of the Day comes as promised from the Vatican itself (via an intermediary): how can something be ‘unspeakable’ if we can speak of it?

Yes, we managed to secure the good offices of the Holy See – even though the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and James Murdoch all clamoured for today’s word to be ‘hindsight’. So last year, chaps: ‘with hindsight’ was Friday’s Phrase in February 2010. I expect some of them wish they could wind the clock back to then – which is all the more reason for them to subscribe to Word of the Day. (I don’t see any of them on the Twitter followers list….)

Frock ‘literally taken off’ on High Street? What will chaps and chapesses think?

Yesterday’s Guardian featured some worn out words: ‘expressions that have become such clichés that they have lost all meaning’. Aphorist James Geary nominated literally:

Why? One of the great testaments to the power of metaphor, and the malleability of language, is the metaphorical use of the word “literally”…. It’s a worn-out word, though, because it prevents people from thinking up a fresh metaphor for whatever it is they want to describe.

Geary points out, with the kind of detail that lends fascination to the humblest word, that literal

is derived from the Latin verb linire, meaning “to smear”, and was transferred to litera (letter) when authors began smearing words on parchment instead of carving them into wood or stone. Thus, the literal meaning of “literal” is to smear or spread, a fitting metaphor for the way metaphor oozes over rigid linguistic borders.’

Literally was perhaps not so fitting for an item in Glossop Life, ‘a lifestyle magazine for Glossop and the High Peak’ that also dropped through my letterbox yesterday:

Based at the top end of the High Street, her shop is very visible and has literally taken off.’

Sonia’s shop is called Frock – but I’m not sure Glossop is quite ready for a frock to be literally taken off on the High Street. What will chaps and chapesses think?

Chaps? The word has surfaced in two interesting contexts this week. In the Telegraph John Newton (no, not the reformed slave-trader who’s been featured in Word of the Day this week, but the Headmaster of Taunton School) told Michael Gove that he should axe A-level modular exams. Presumably once he’s sorted the teachers’ pensions out – and incidentally, what about MPs sorting out their own rather generous pension arrangements first? Dr Newton praises terminal tests:

You get one chance. That was it. Sorry old chap.

‘Old chap?’ So it’s only the boys at Taunton School who take exams – or perhaps only the boys who fail them? It seems rather a jocular term for the learned doctor (and the Telegraph) to be using for, as the OED says, chap is colloquial – and for young males:

‘Customer’, fellow, lad. (Todd, in 1818, said ‘it usually designates a person of whom a contemptuous opinion is entertained’; but it is now merely familiar and non-dignified, being chiefly applied to a young man.)

It seems this kind of ‘non-dignified’ language is heard not only in the Headmasters’ studies of the more select public (or private) schools but also in the higher echelons of the Civil Service, for on the front page of today’s Guardian we can read an email from an ‘official at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’, whose name, sadly, has been redacted, drawing up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident:

We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this.

Surely a bit too jocular for such a topic, old chap? (Am I right to think that only a chap would write this?) At least it indicates that the chaps wear the trousers (well, not always literally, of course) and a certain sort of chap was being rather too familiar with the nuclear industry.

Is a university degree worth as much as a bag of washed vegetables?

Hyphenation leads to a discussion of private universities, private incomes and the Archbishop of Canterbury

I’m excited to bring you a lunchtime update on my previous post. I’ve just got round to reading Terry Eagleton’s splendidly splenetic article about Grayling’s private university in Tuesday’s Guardian. There (at the foot, appropriately, of column two), is today’s word – hyphenated! But it’s also on a line break, so it’s ambiguous. The online version settles it – and is worth quoting for its own sake:

If education is to be treated as a commodity, then we should stop pussyfooting around. I already ask my students at the start of a session whether they can afford my £50 insights into Wuthering Heights, or whether they will settle for a few mediocre ideas at £10 a piece.

He’s clearly underselling himself: today’s edition of the paper reveals that Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen (currently in the news for matters from which we shall avert our gaze) is the non-executive chairman of a company, AB Produce plc, selling pre-washed vegetables. ‘The register of members’ financial interests records that he is paid £7,773 monthly for six hours work.’ I make that £1295.50 an hour, which is probably rather more than Terry Eagleton gets, even (as Simon Jenkins points out in an equally acerbic piece in the paper) ‘as “excellence in English distinguished visitor” to America’s private Notre Dame Catholic university. There he gives three weeks’ teaching per semester for an undisclosed sum.’ Jenkins tuns the knife in the man he dubs ‘the Kropotkin of our age’ (Jenkins must have had a luxury education too), saying ‘moral consistency has never been a Marxist strong suit’. It’s a safe bet that this is a lot more than the hourly rate of AB Produce’s vegetable washers. Why, it would take him a mere 42 hours to pay for a whole degree at Grayling’s New College of the Humanities!

There’s nothing academics like more, of course, than a good scrap with their colleagues. So immediately underneath Jenkins’ article today, Giles Fraser, formerly lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford and now Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, writes about yesterday’s blog post topic, Archbishop of opposition. With the skill of a true philosopher, the Reverend Doctor manages to spear both Ian Duncan Smith and A C Grayling with one blow:

The “quiet resurgence of the seductive language of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor” needs a proper kicking. Perhaps our atheist intellectuals are too busy setting up their private universities to get stuck into the fight.

Still, as the old saying goes, fine words wash no parsnips.

Pussyfooting, hyphenism and headlining

Time to make your mind up about hyphens

This Friday’s Phrase is pussy-foot. To hyphenate it or not? Here’s an example found in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1916 (The Daily Democrat from Woodland, California):

He pussyfooted all right. He declared in grandiloquent style for undiluted Americanism, but he had nothing to say about hyphenism.

Of course, to hesitate over this is mere pussyfooting – not something Prime Ministers and Archbishops have time for.

Which reminds me that yesterday’s tweet and blog post have become today’s Guardian headline for the turbulent priest. I’d like to say it was because this blog is so influential that it’s read throughout Westminster, but I suspect the mundane truth is that the wording was so apposite that even a journalist on a proper paper couldn’t resist.

Meanwhile, back in the OED, I’m both disappointed and intrigued to discover that hyphenism has nothing to do with lexicography but ‘the state of being a hyphenated American; the attitude or conduct involved or implied by this.’ Wikipedia offers some enlightenment that explains why this would be an issue in Woodland in the middle of the First World War:

Hyphenated American is an epithet commonly used from 1890 to 1920 to disparage Americans who were of foreign birth or origin, and who displayed an allegiance to a foreign country. It was most commonly used to disparage German Americans or Irish Americans (Catholics) who called for U.S. neutrality in World War I. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was an outspoken anti-hyphenate.

This particular issue may have faded into the mists of history (though divided loyalty still seems a hot topic to some American politicians), so how about adopting the term anti-hyphenate for those in favour of email rather than e-mail and other stylistic simplifications? That’s still stirring up debate – see Think hyphens aren’t contro-versial in The Guardian and Substuff‘s tweet yesterday:

‘Keep an eye-out for all our latest reviews.’ What is the reasoning behind that hyphen?

On this, it’s time to stop pussyfooting: I’m definitely an anti-hyphenate. I think.

Broadsides, Bono and pull quotes

Archbishop’s broadside and pullquote poetry

Thomas à Becket, Canterbury Cathedral
Beware the fate of turbulent priests! Stained glass window of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, from Wikimedia Commons
This Thursday’s Thought (and Word of the Day) is: ‘Why is a supposedly peaceable archbishop firing a broadside?’ Turbulent priest, beware the fate of your famous predecessor! (‘Downing Street hits back at archbishop’s broadside‘).

Supplementary question: Is Bono the new James Joyce? The Guardian embellishes an article in its print edition this week entitled ‘Why Bono should welcome his Glastonbury reckoning‘ with this gnomic quotation:

Pullguote over five
lines in here
here herey
herey herey
type over text

Herey, herey, indeed! Or, as letter writer John O’Dwyer comments: ‘Surely the lyrics of an unreleased U2 song, showing that Bono is a genius and the true heir of James Joyce.’

That’s different!

Different from or different to?

Oxford Modern English Grammar
by Bas Aarts
I received an email this morning from a friend who has a touching faith in my ability to know the answers to such questions:

Which is correct – people having different views from you or people having different views to you?

Well, here’s a thing to provoke a domestic argument! My wife, who had just walked through the door, was emphatic it must be from. My new Oxford Modern English Grammar, acquired only yesterday, is absolutely no help – it even says ‘The account of grammar presented in this book is descriptive, not prescriptive.’ Fat lot of use that is, Professor Aarts, when people are begging to be told what to say! My fault, of course, for expecting a descriptive grammar to provide a prescriptive answer. I turned instead to Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words:

‘Different from’ is… the usual form in most sentences… But when ‘different’ introduces a clause, there can be no valid objection to following it with a ‘to’… or ‘than’…

The Guardian Style Guide is rather more assertive:

different from is traditionally the correct form, although different to is widely accepted nowadays (but note that you would always say differs from, not differs to); different than is wrong, at least in British English.

No room for choice there – but what about that magisterial tome, the complete Oxford English Dictionary?

The usual construction is now with from; that with to (after ‘unlike’, ‘dissimilar to’) is found in writers of all ages, and is frequent colloquially, but is by many considered incorrect. The construction with than (after ‘other than’), is found in Fuller, Addison, Steele, De Foe, Richardson, Goldsmith, Miss Burney, Coleridge, Southey, De Quincey, Carlyle, Thackeray, Newman, Trench, and Dasent, among others….

I can’t help feeling that just three writers might have made the point – is the list of fifteen a sign of insecurity? Surely not, merely of comprehensive authority! After all this, what was my friend’s response to the advice I provided?

Are you trying to confuse me even more? Audio typing… is hard enough… without the grammatical complications that are hindering my progress!

Well, Hilary, sometimes the route to clarity lies through a thicket of confusion which we have to hack away to the very roots in order for clarity to prevail. Of course, sometimes we get lost, drop the scythe and can’t find it in the undergrowth. Now where was I…?

The niveous stole of winter

Poetic reflection on the early snow

Snow in the High Peak, 1 December 2010
'Frowning wood' and 'the spotless flood' in the High Peak, 1 December 2010
Wednesday’s seasonal weather Word of the Day is ‘niveous’. As James Hurdis wrote in The Favourite Village in 1800:

Wakes from its slumber the suspicious eye,
And bids it look abroad on hill, and dale,
Cottage, and steeple, in the niveous stole
Of Winter trimly dress’d. The silent show’r,
Precipitated still, no breeze disturbs,
While fine as dust it falls. Deep on the face
Of the wide landscape lies the spotless flood
Accumulating still, a vast expanse,
Save where the frowning wood without a leaf
Rears its dark branches on the distant hill.

I have today’s weather to thank for the inspiration and the Oxford English Dictionary for the reference to Hurdis, though strangely it spells the title of his poem Favorite Village – which would seem unlikely for a Sussex Clergyman and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He’s hardly a household name now, is he? (Does the same fate await today’s holder of this post? Was all that fuss over the election and voluntary de-selection of Ruth Padel a waste of time?)

I had to look up Hurdis in Oxford’s Dictionary of National Biography, as there’s precious little about him elsewhere online – thanks again to Derbyshire County Council Libraries – long may this cultural blessing last! I cannot resist (ah, near-fatal weakness mine!) including the DNB evaluation of the poet’s character:

The intensity of Hurdis’s feelings, and his inability to control them, resulted in repeated strife with all but his mother and sisters, by whom alone he seems not to have felt threatened. Indeed, his behaviour in his final years seems to have verged on the deranged.

No wonder he welcomed the silent, obscuring blanket of snow – as did the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. My thanks to my friend and colleague Trevor Millum for these lines from ‘London Snow’ which he sent me this morning:

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled – marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.

Snow in the High Peak, December 2010
'No sound of wheel rumbling', nor even a monk's footfall: Monk's Road, Charlesworth, 1 December 2010

The winner’s curse: or why being a loser may not be so bad after all

This Friday’s Phrase from Word of the Day is topical, as always. I had thought to offer you hung parliament, but that is so last week – and anyway, it’s already been covered on the excellent World Wide Words site.

So instead I bring you the winner’s curse, inspired by Aditya Chakrabortty’s Guardian article in which his application of the term to the current political situation is of less literary interest to us than this comment:

If you want to see the winner’s curse close-up, saunter down to the discount section of your local bookshop. You’ll probably see a pile of celebrity memoirs, for which the publishers paid hundreds of thousands, only to see them flop.

So – being a loser may not be so bad after all!

Sophisticated? Pretentious? Moi?

It was good to see that yesterday’s Word of the Day, ‘sophistry’, was also used at least twice in yesterday’s Guardian. ‘But I doubt many people believe this is anything other than sophistry in pursuit of profit’ said Chris Hawkey and it appeared in Comment is Free too (online only): ‘The piece opens with a clever piece of sophistry….’ Clearly Word of the Day is in step with the Zeitgeist (Word of the Day for 12 April 2006). What’s that? Pretentious? Moi?

Ah yes, Wednesday’s word is: pretentious. We’re just a few paces behind Hadley Freeman in today’s paper.

Further suggestions for Word of the Day will be gratefully received – from journalists, actors, critics and any others who have fearlessly probed the spirit of the times in search of truth, themselves, an audience or just someone to talk to.

Recessionista: not the ‘Millionth English word’

Today’s Word of the Day is inspired by the item on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, where this morning there was a discussion about whether the ‘Millionth English word’ will be coined today. You can read about this and hear the discussion on the BBC site.

Global Language Monitor declared the millionth word would be ‘Web 2.0’ – but we already know that one, don’t we? So I’ve picked on another word thrown out during the discussion:


Wikipedia defines this as ‘a blend of the words Fashionista and recession that describes a person who strives to remain fashionable on a minimal budget’. You can find its use tracked on Word Spy and find a fully-fledged article in The New York Times for 24 October 2008.