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#Grammar's Blog of Wordliness

Accidental Acts of an English Evolutionary

Grammar Real Life as a Metaphor for

This’ll have to be some speedy blogging. I’m way too busy dancing to stand still – too ‘too’ too to get stuck in for the long blog, imprisoned in a punishing sentence. My focus here is ‘muddled grammar’ which I shall briefly discuss using the medium of – ta-dah! – muddled English. First, though, I’ll need a title. A hook to hang with. (Although, if you’ve got this far, you’ll have seen the title already… bear with me, at this stage in the writing process I haven’t yet gone back in time and space.)

Hmmm…

How’s about Grammar as a Metaphor for Doing Life? Yeah, that’ll work for this bijou rantette. Hang on, kid. Doing? That’s trying way too hard for a pun on ‘life sentence’.

That’s life…

Grammar is a metaphor for real life. A pretty much perfect metaphor at that.

We all know enough to be getting on with doing life. When everything is going to plan, just like a perfectly constructed sentence, your every comma, verb and Capital consonant can be confidently placed.  However, some days, despite your best intentions, life gets messy ­–­ it’s all dash and no comma. Coz, sum daze,  theirs know thyme two loos sleepover an errant sub clause or aberrant homophones. Because some days life gets messy, disorganised, and there’s just no time to do the tidying up. That’s when things just get kinda thrown together… but life still makes some kind of sense.  Some days it’s hard to fit everything in because life is like that.

That’s life. It’s real. And you don’t always get it right.

And that’s grammar for you: some times there is not enough time, or need, and the more you worry about it the worse it gets.

The last thing you need at times like that/this is some grammar-botherer, grammar nazi or grammarian supremacist who thinks that their way is the only way, and that they know what’s best for you, giving you a smug tutting-over.

So, let’s go with the flow; make life a little easier for ourselves. Let’s stop worrying about grammar. We more or less know what we’re doing (even if we don’t always know the words for it). That’s why we can muddle through and kinda get life right. Most of the time. No biggie.

The thing is, life is a big thing, the big thing. Grammar, on the other hand, is a little thing, a very small thing in the scheme of things. Not worth an italic.

Write as you speak, that’s best. Let yer actual grammar catch up. Or let the reader fill in the        . Common sense ll do it everytime. Common sense and context.

Never mind that some grammar-botherers’ll get proper aereated over a misplaced word, or a stray Americanization, or a dangling preposition you wish to end the sentence with. Get a life, guys! Other people’s grammar may not be graceful but everyone understands. Life’s like that.

So, here’s my thrust: life is for living, grammar ain’t. (Think about it but not for too long; life is passing you by while you sit and stare.) Don’t be imprisoned by the strictures and rules of grammar. Let your language live a little. Sentence by life sentence.

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I nearly went with ‘ballet’ as the metaphor for grammar. After all, it takes a lot of work to look that poised and graceful, and most of the time I can recognise the difference between accomplished ballet and clumping about. That’s the truth even if I can’t be certain (or care) that the chorus of danseuses are lining up in the right order. More to the pointe (and here my ballet metaphor falls down) I don’t even begin understand what the hell it is all about. Please don’t ‘tut’.

End of. Sorry not to have put word to blog for a while. Life got out of hand so I prioritised. Today I barely had the ballet time to properly punctuate a couple of paragraphs.

Meanwhile, the metaphor of life has stretched and survived. Ballet dancers and prisoners do stretches. Whatever that means.

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A WORT BY ANY OTHER NAME #2

What new madness is this?!

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The course offered by Le/La Wort (see part one of this blogged saga) is operated at the privatised pleasure of TTC 2000 Ltd.

I had promptly complied with the arrangements required of me and mere days passed before this document arrives. A whole other sheet of small print is included in the envelope but life may be too short to share that here.

I have uncovered a conspiracy.

In many ways this instalment in the Wort saga is an improvement on the original Wort document. However, there is one new element here that is trying way too hard and (oh! what a give away) makes a nonsense of the whole letter writing thing. The writer has forged the signature.

FORGED THE SIGNATURE.

In the first blog on this topic I criticised Wort, tut, tut, for no signature but I’m not sure if what we have here isn’t worse. Unless the TTC2000 is a sentient android running a company in its own name I have to ask who or what has appended a ‘signature’ to this letter? Right now I am thinking of the T-1000 from one of the Terminator movies. You know: the shape-shifting, empathy-resistant killing machine? The situation is fluid.

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So, why would any reputable limited company use a forged signature on its communications? And then have the temerity to brand it ‘Yours sincerely’!? Companies do not have signatures, they have signatories. They may have signature brands and identifiable logos, like the TTC Group icon in the letterhead. But only a person can have a signature; an identifiable person – from the humble ‘X’ to fully-flourished John Hancock.

A signature has legal implications. A company is an entity. It has nothing more personable than a corporate identity. It may buy robot technology but it is not entitled to a signature. In the document under scrutiny, if I read the letterhead aright, this entity is is TTC 2000 Ltd. Even if the company/group should amount to little more than just one company director then that one director should be the one who puts his/her name to it (or, perhaps, directs and procures another person to pp on his/her behalf).

The eagerness of TTC 2000 to successfully sign the letter, however, is signalled halfway down the document. That’s where we stumble unsuspecting onto a clump of knotted grammar weed. I literally stumbled. Fluency failed me for a mo.

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‘Upon your arrival at the course please locate our trainer and successfully sign the register. This is imperative.’

I’ll leave you to pick the mixed nuts out of that bowl.

I Googled the search term ‘TTC 2000 Robot’.  Look what I found. In the mid-1980s there was an entity called TTC or Omnibot-TTC manufacturing the cassette driven OOM robot shown here.

 

The Terminator  (sent back in time by Skynet technology) began invading our screens in 1984. Can that be a coincidence? 1984… Arnold Schwarzenegger (everyone’s favourite T-800) and OOM bestriding our playtimes in those long gone days of Big Brother… Those years when Skynet and the Internet were dreams. In the event (plot spoiler!) the T-800 Terminator saved mum-to-be Sarah Connor and a world-dominating franchise was born. She would have to learn to survive in a world where machines pass themselves off as human.

In the second film in the series, T2: Judgement Day, the year is 1995. Eleven years have passed and John Connor is 10-years of age. Arnie’s back (just like he said he would be but ten years too late to stop Sarah Connor giving birth to the boy). This is the era of the T-1000 – a liquid Terminator that mimics humankind and adapts without any regard to damage or zeitgeistian metaphors. Its behaviour has been dictated by the machinery of government, programmed with an imperative to create the kind of compliant mankind that any automated/soulless bureaucracy requires.

The sci-fi is further stretched over three more cinematic instalments (and a TV spin-off) but uncanny parallels with our times survive.  The Internet is no longer a dream. Skynet is real.

So, what started out as an idle Google enquiry has revealed a devastating new question.

Is TTC 2000 an alias for Skynet?

You may think that is a tad farfetched but consider: we are faced with physical machinery here that is evidently overrunning human agency and successfully signing itself into existence. TTC 2000 exists. QED. Skynet exists. We know it exists. TTC 2000 claims to be a private limited company supplying services to law enforcement. Just one tiny slip, an unforced etiquette error and the truth has been revealed. If a machine hadn’t signed this document we might never have discovered that the world as we knew it is over. In this particular timeline.

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Now mankind must come together, evolve into a better meta-humanity. We need to revolt against this faceless bureaucracy. The Terminators, the Robocops, the Brexiteers. We are more than percentages and statistics, actuarially. I am not a Sir/Madam number. The wheels of this revolution will begin to turn at a Driver Education Course. Let’s take things slowly.

Suffice it to say I will try to comply with the TTC 2000 imperative. I hope to successfully sign the register. As myself. Although I’ll need photographic evidence to prove that I am not Sarah Connor my signature will be mechanically perfect.

This blog would not have been necessary if the powers-that-be/TTC 2000 knew how to write a letter.

Yours etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A WORT BY ANY OTHER NAME

In the eyes of some of the less-forgiving Grammarian Supremacists I have an unforgivably liberal attitude to the precise application of traditional grammar rules. However, those punctilious types and we laxer libertines do agree on one thing: when written in legal papers, formal job letters, official documents and other works of that ilk, correct grammar is an essential etiquette: a vital component for the avoidance of ambiguities. So, now read on…

The postperson delivered. Literally, I suppose, a post person is a zombie or a ghost.  Ours are post man and post woman, depending. Either way, the post was delivered.

Now, I am in receipt of an official notification: a Driver Education Course Offer.

Offer? That reads like yet another unsolicited retail leaflet, just begging to be binned.

The Offer here, of course, is made virtually irresistible. The alternatives to accepting OPTION 1 – EDUCATIONAL COURSE are a fixed penalty, or proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court. Ah well, that’s the price you pay for an infringement – 35 in a 30mph zone. It’s a fair cop guv’nor. Those cameras won’t pay for themselves but binning is not an option.

All that’s merely scene setting; the grammar of the business starts here.

Below the official letterhead (incorporating an impressive collection of badges and logos) and my postal address (ALL IN CAPITALS for some reason), this official notification begins ‘Dear Sir/Madam…’

Blog 1

Dear Sir/Madam!?

When did the oblique take over from ‘or’ in officialese? ‘Dear Sir slash Madam’? Or should that be ‘Dear Sir forward slash Madam’? Did I miss a memo?

‘Dear Sir/Madam’ flouts polite convention and is therefore inappropriate. True, it is a minor infringement of grammar rules but I think I am within my rights to expect civil servants and other government operatives to get these things right. The conventional polite form is the inclusive ‘Dear Sir or Madam’. Whether that is appropriate is another matter.

‘Dear Sir/Madam’ suggests to me that a disrespected recipient should otherwise exclude as applicable. However liberal your approach to spoken and creative uses of the English language may be (and mine really is) there is a common acceptance that official and formal documents (including legal letters and job applications) should always follow the conventional rules of grammar. They set the bar to which those who care for convention aspire. ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ is an infringement of that code. Worse, it renders the polite form of address as offhandedly disdainful of the addressee (whoever/who cares?).

The Central Ticket Office Manager in whose name this letter has been sent, and is therefore responsible, knows my gender. He/she [delete as applicable] has my documentation already: that is why the letter is addressed to MR. That’s how it found me.


Since I wrote the preceding paragraphs another piece of mail has arrived, this time from a bank, with my address in CAPITALS and ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. How long has this been going on? How have I not noticed this before?


Is it matter of economy/being economical with words? If it is, then whatever these mass-corresponders must save in ink and paper (slash versus space o r space) ought to have a serious ecological/bottom-line significance. Not. Given that MR. it is easy to see that my gender is not a mystery. ‘Dear Sir,’ would have been sufficient. Also, there should be a comma after Dear Whatever/Whoever, that’s how letter-writing works. Like the comma that comes after ‘Yours faithfully’, before the signature. Commas are so confusing, aren’t they?

Our times they are confusing’ so it is just possible that this ‘Sir/Madam’ has been adopted as a woolly but nonetheless PC necessity: an unavoidably roundabout route that might non-offensively suggest gender-fluidity… Arguably. Nah! Prolly not. Not unless those who prefer to answer to Ms., or the gender fluid, are now to be represented by a /… Would/could the Civil Service or banks be that crass?

Well, never mind, not to worry; however good or contrived the excuse for any infringement, the inflexible rules of grammar, like road traffic legislation, have still been broken. No excuses. Ignorance, in this particular, is no excuse. Oh yes, I can be as inflexible as the unbendiest justice-monger when it suits me. Seriously, why would we respect the words of civil servants and bankers, their masters/mistresses, and others of that establishment bracket if they will not stick up for the agreed rules of grammar or conventional etiquette? Is it unreasonable to think that these people and their offices/departments/companies/corporations/etc/other [delete as applicable] should set a good example? Next we’ll be expected to self-select by tickbox. Dear ◊Sir ◊Madam ◊Ms. ◊Other.

Being punished for a single instance of slightly speeding is one thing (however good or contrived an excuse may be) and obviously not a mistake to be repeated, but these ‘Sir/Madam’ offences are reduplicated letter after letter, time and again, letterbox by letterbox. Proper standards are not being maintained in the Civil Service/banks.

Musing on this conventional grammar of correspondence raises broader questions of vocabulary. For example, what does ‘Yours faithfully’ actually mean? It’s a pretty meaningless formula, isn’t it? Also, are the anonymous titles Sir and Madam actually fit for purpose in modern society? Both are, presumably, intended to imply respect. But do they? Actually, do they? Certainly, there is precious little respect in ‘Sir/Madam’ but, in the bigger picture, has overuse neutered these individual elements? In organisational and uniformed hierarchies such as the military Sir and Ma’am still serve, and serve well. However, we have all heard the faux-respectful, patronising or weaponised ‘Sir’ that the police, for instance, utilise when interacting with the public. It is, at best, a highly-nuanced form of address; a distinctly different version of Sir. Or Madam. It doesn’t quite mean what it says, does it?


If I want weasel words I will turn to language of retail, childcare or politics:

  • ‘Does Madam wish to try that on?’ (Unless you prefer more pretentious emporia, in which case, ‘Does Modom wish to try that on?’).
  • Oh! You little Madam!
  • Oh, you manage this brothel…

The official (and herein redacted) correspondence that kicked off this line of thinking is of the type that slip, slide and slither through letterboxes. Here’s a thought: perhaps capitalised addresses are there to assist the hard-pressed postperson.


Digression: is there a common etiquette dealing with how emails might be addressed? After all, it is a more informal environment. In my inbox ‘Hi’ and ‘Hello’ are way more prevalent than polite or affectionate forms of ‘Dear’. E-correspondence is chattier or more casual, characterised by immediacy, intimacy and informality. I have yet to notice ‘Hi Sir/Madam’ in an email. Online society is still muddling along and in time a comfortable set of terms will evolve. Nor does ‘Yours faithfully’ register among all the myriad other sign offs, the ‘best regards’ and ‘cheers’. Until then…


So, back to grammar-checking the disappointing contents of my slithering snail-mail.

I am not going to deconstruct the entire document but I can’t let the bullet-points pass without comment, given that the basic rules of grammar are really the Highway Code of letter writing and ignorance is no excuse. There is a short bullet-pointed list on the first page.

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‘The course,

  • will take place in a classroom with some practical elements of on road driving under the tuition of a qualified instructor.

OR

  • will take place in a classroom.’

What on earth was the writer thinking as he/she approached the conjunction of bullet-pointed ways forward? Too busy trying to master the convoluted and roundabout construction of the first bullet-point option, is it possible that he/she got unfortunately lost on an ill-signed detour? What else could that explain the inconvenient comma? Ignorance? A squiggle mistakenly employed in otherwise logical grammatical manoeuvring?  Why is there a confusing comma after ‘course’?

‘The course, will take place in a classroom.’

The sudden and unwarranted sentence braking occasioned by dropping that comma in midway is foolish, ungrammatical behaviour. Dabbing the grammar brakes for no reason. It’s not like announcing the winner of a telly talent show. There is no need to build the drama.

‘This course (pause for dramatic effect/drum roll, intake of breath) will take place in a classroom.’

This is demonstrably careless. Perhaps it is a demonstration of how the sender couldn’t care less. Apprehended in charge of a letter with no idea how to use the machinery of a bullet-pointed list.

I may not have been so exercised with this is if it was a one-off but somewhere along the line someone in a position of petty authority has decided that a contemptuous ignorance of proper English is sufficient. In the empirical opinion of law-abiding English language users that particular someone should be obliged to keep up standards or society will slowly fall apart. If the formality of Civil Service communication cannot be held up as an example to the common horde there’s no point in conforming innit. Perhaps someone should go on a course.

INGERLISH ROOLZ UK

On the other hand, like that bullet dispenser you might not give a toss. So long as the vaunted sovereignty of Ingerlish roolz UK our civil servants must have carte blanche to say what they like. Get over it.

However, if you have remained with me…

Blog 2

The letter is credited to G. R. Wort who is of the opinion that attendance on a course would be beneficial.

Yours faithfully,

G. R. Wort

Central Ticket Office Manager

Sir or Madam Wort is too indifferent to append a signature, however rubberstamped that process may be. Even the letter from the bank etched in a signature. No, this really is an ill-mannered example of ‘I can’t be arsed about any of you’ letter writing. And, when you get to the bottom of the page, that’s what has really pissed me off. That and getting caught.

His/her name is Wort. A wort by any other name is still a four-letter word.

English vs Progressive English?

Just this week I was described in the press as ‘Terry Victor, the voice of progressive English’. And very nice too. This was in that weekly publication ‘at the heart of UK broadcasting’ (their words), Radio Times.

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For those who are unfamiliar, Radio Times is 94 years old. It’s print readership is, demographically speaking, a bit younger than that, averaging out in the mid- to late-50s. It has a surviving print circulation of 622k-ish, and a casual, cross-brand and download readership numbering in millions. It is ‘the powerhouse magazine’ (the publisher’s words again) so who am I to argue?

…the voice of progressive English

Well, no. Thrice no. (Yes, I know, that is only twice no – oh! there’s the third one.) And  ‘who am I to argue?’  That is not a rhetorical question. It turns out that I am exactly the right person in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time to disagree with the notion that I am ‘the voice of progressive English’. Thrice exactly.

To start with it’s all to do with words and context.

  1. Words first: Why the the? I am a voice not the voice. I am an indefinite article of a voice.
  2. Context: The review, informal, enthusiastic and very welcome, was in the form of a letter  to the correspondence pages of an esteemed organ (although that’s not the context I am concerned with). The letter was in praise of the Grammar Phone-in on Radio 5 Live of which I am a part. In the context of the programme I am indeed ‘the voice of progressive English’. It’s important not to be taken out of context.

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I mention it because this has got me worrying over the concept of ‘progressive English’.

What if anything is progressive English? There is a feasible argument that the phrase itself is an oxymoron. The English language is in a constant state of evolution which, by definition, suggests that it will never stop progressing.

Be that as it may, I understand why the adjective was used, and I am not ungrateful. It was chosen in support of my liberal, not to say forward-looking approach to our tongue, which the letter writer placed in contrast to dyed-in-the-wool attitudes of a fellow ‘grammarian’ for whom (to quote the same letter, including the writer’s exclamation point) ‘the evolution of our language stopped with Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary!’

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It’s a good good point well made.

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But ‘progressive’ in this context, when applied to the English language, is one of those words. It exists only in reference to an invisible opposite. Like atheist, the word has no point without its converse; a form in which it does not believe.

What opposite to progressive is implied?

  • Stagnant English  – in the sense that it is non-continuous?  Nonsense, I for one cannot believe in an English language that has ever stood still. Despite the best efforts of some to constrain our freedom of usage.
  • Regressive English? It certainly describes the wishes of those users who believe that they are prophets in an post-wonderful-world wilderness looking back at or to a golden age of grammar. Yeah right. Grammarian supremacists may be so but in no sense has our language ever been regressive.

Nor has it ever been perfect. It still isn’t. So what then? Or, simply: so what?

The thesaurus comes off the shelf. Here’s a small selection of progressive antonyms to toy with.

  • backward – I think it’s fair to say that English has never been backward in coming forward; yet, for me, this echoes the comic truth that nostalgia is not what it used to be.
  • out of date –  It is true that some historic parts of our language may seem or feel dated to many modern ears. However, those archaic words and constructions were more than relevant back in the day. Time has moved on, our language has developed in techno-fits and imperial starts, and the way we now see the world has rendered some parts of our lingo uncomfortable or unnecessary. And vice versa, probably.
  • reactionary – This may better describe a nostalgic layer-down of grammar rules. It can just possibly be used of a selective vocabulary that disdains the going-forward for comforts of hindsight or political expediency. However, our language, taken as a whole, is not reactionary: it is our wonderful mongrel straining at the leash of communication.
  • undeveloped – The English language is always as developed as it needs to be. Make no bones about it, if we English language users need a fresh word then we make/borrow/steal/conscript a word.

If we are to take the Radio Times correspondent at face value (although his allusion must be partly humorous) then we need to address the question: Was Doctor Johnson attempting to set the language in a permanently perfect form? Of course not; not unless you think that he was a fool. ‘Dictionary’ Johnson was merely recording English as it was in his experience at that time. No person could do more. Samuel Johnson’s personality is writ large in the pages of his dictionary: that’s one of the things that makes his dictionary a joy today. But even in his day not everyone, even those as well-read as he, shared his definitions.

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Besides which, all dictionaries are out of date before the date they are published. They are a snapshot to look back at. Like a TV schedule the language has moved on already. It has evolved. The Bake Off winner has been announced. It has progressed. Language is required to move on. We need its flexibility to capture our moment.

No, I am not progressive, though I may be more liberal than is to your taste. A shade too experimental for some. That’s your problem. I am of the moment. My moment.

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Richard from South Benfleet – yes, that Richard, the generous Radio Times letter writer – rang into the Grammar Phone-in a couple of nights back. This would be on the second day of this week’s listings calendar.  Maybe the third day if you pedantically insist that the GMT clock is more important than the BBC timetable. Anyway,  some faint (and figurative) bells rang out and echoed in our early hours slot but the caller’s status as our champion went unremarked. Richard from South Benfleet tried. He even managed to squeeze his surname into his on-air remarks. It was nicely done but still we didn’t catch on.

Of course, no sooner had he rung off than I knew immediately.who he was…

So, my thanks and apologies are due to Richard Simpson of South Benfleet in Essex, he of the lower right hand corner, page 159, Radio Times, 28 Oct – 3 Nov 2017.

Please pass this along using the medium of everyday English.

A for Available

Informal musings on the genesis of A Dictionary of Rhyming Slangs


The genetic traces of this proud dictionary are there to see in every line and fold of a family tree that rustles and quivers beneath a wind-blown canopy of the great and the grand, parents, aunts and uncles. Each branch, twig and shoot of our peculiar language tree throws shade. Trees. A family of trees. This book is an orchard of Rhyming Slangs.

Let’s see if I can extend the well-timbered metaphor just one step further…

In my imagination, as Antonio Lillo and I were creating A Dictionary of Rhyming Slangs, we were picking our way across an impressively, improperly carpeted forest floor. We took our own sweet sylvan time, pausing to look up at the sometimes forbidding, tangled, dappled growth as we tried to make a dictionary-ordered sense of the intrinsically wild.

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&, yes, it is conventional practice to modestly insist that any and all academic, artistic or scientific achievement exist because the authors of works have been standing on the shoulders of giants.

Except Oasis, obviously.

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In the course of compiling our dictionary we stood on some auspicious shoulders, no question, in order to reach the higher hanging fruit. And we understood others. Unlike Oasis, however, we did take great care not to misquote.

‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Isaac Newton, 1675

& Lillo & Victor are rhyming slang tree-huggers rooting around and catching splinters. Is ‘tree-huggers’ rhyming slang? Look it up. A Dictionary of Rhyming Slangs is available now. Order online or support your local bookshop. Enough said.

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A dictionary doesn’t just fall into shape. In other words you don’t just start at A and hope for the best. Once you commence work on a project like this you are in it for the long haul.

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And, like inveterate smokers persuading doctors of healthy attitudes and best behaviours, we underestimated our addiction. ‘Maybe four, four and a half thousand headwords tops,’ we claimed, ‘no, no more than that. Two years, that should do it.’ The kind and generous publisher with whom we had engaged wisely rounded-up and allowed us extra time.

&, by dint of bloody-mindedness, we more-or-less (a little bit more and quite a lot less) met the agreed totals. But by then it had become apparent to us that we had merely scratched at the surface of our forest floor. In fact, as we reached the two-year-mark many of the more famous items in rhyming slang vocabularies were not yet included in our rapidly expanding database. We proudly rejected a kind and generous offer to publish online and it all proved too much for the hard-back needs of our then-publisher.

By then we were lost in the enchanting forest.

As the dictionary grew bigger and stronger, and conquered inevitable ups and downs, we searched for a new publisher to foster our labour of love. By the three-year-stage the Lillo & Victor work-in-progress was more comprehensive than any previous volume of rhyming slang, or lexicographer had allowed and still we drudged humbly ever onward.

In good time, after a period of labour that lasted more-or-less (more! not less) than five years, we have proudly parented a dictionary. Our publishers, De Gruyter, have midwifed an extraordinary book. A DICTIONARY OF RHYMING SLANGS was published in early August 2017. 1350 pages!  Honestly, I wonder how many actual trees were sacrificed to make our many leaved dictionary a physical thing.


You’ll find the serious dictionary discussions and stuff in that mighty tome’s Introduction. This brief blog is really about perspective and how it feels right now.

Also, a more scholarly, less personal blog is in preparation and will duly appear in all the right corners of academia.


I was away from my home and office, wearing a different hat and sunglasses, when A Dictionary of Rhyming Slangs emerged blinking into the day, boldly stepping beyond the forest’s edge. I was up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, way too far out to see the wood for the trees. Instead, I got photos: the book posing saucily on my desk in Wales, flaunting itself in Spain. Three weeks passed before I had a copy in my hands.

Ah, I remember that moment…

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Carefully, I slit the protective plastic wrapping, opened the cover and riffled the pages…

Drawing a veil over such bibliophiliac intimacies, suffice it to say that A Dictionary of Rhyming Slangs is a seductively impudent and very well informed companion. If Antonio and I didn’t have author’s copies we would surely pay to have such good company to hand.

& here we are. Now, many years after the original conception, our baby is leaving home. For the moment we have been empty-nested, knowing that our book is making its way in libraries and universities, offering its services as a guide through the rhyming slang forest up the Amazon. It’s a jungle out there.

41O-bwAS3qL

It’s been a busy few years. I am available now.

 

Bee Words

This is the week in America of the 2017 National Spelling Bee. It’s an international competition, a national event and quite the saddest of spectacles. It has as much to do with language as the Eurovision Song Contest has to do with great songs. This is an exploitative spectacle driven by performance not content. And when all that matters is the shape of words devoid of meaning then what is a televised spelling bee if not some weird kind of lexical porn?

Those of a grammatically nervous disposition should note that the event happens in America therefore the spellings are in American English. It doesn’t make a lot of difference, to be honest, but you have been warned.

The National Spelling Bee is a contest for kids. There they are, lined up with numbers hanging around their necks looking like a menu for bullies. The youngest contender is a 6-year old.

The winning spellings in 2016 were of gesellschaft and Feldenkrais.

No, me neither. No idea. I had to look them up.

Does spelling matter? Of course, but does it matter that much?

According to the mighty Oxford English Dictionary, Gessellschaft is ‘a social relationship between individuals based on duty to society or to an organization’. (Oxford unlike the National Spelling Bee prefers an initial cap).

This is way beyond championship spelling; this is premier league stuff.

Feldenkrais is not even in the OED. It is taken from the Feldenkrais method, an ‘alternative’ system of exercise for physical and mental well-being devised by Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-84).

I bet they weren’t in your 6-,7-, 8-, 9-, 10-year old vocabularies. These are the lexmarks of Midwich Cuckoos.

OK, how about 2015? The winning words that year were nunatak and scherenschnitte.

A nunatak is a rocky outcrop in a field of ice or snow.

Scherenschnitte is the German craft of artistic paper cutting. Not in the OED but to be fair it’s an American competition and the word is in Merriam-Webster. Wowzah! It’s one helluva lot of word too. Gawp at your screen in astonishment as the geeky kid nails it.

2014?  feuilleton – part of a printed publication that is devoted to fiction or light criticism – & stichomythia – a dialogue for two characters speaking alternate lines of verse.

This really isn’t the regular English language as you might use it.  These are just the words that got spelt by those non-X Factor kids on TV. That was enough. The challenge was just to remember the words. Who cares what it means?

Teach these word-hungry children the joys  of language.

Scrolling backwards through the history of winning spellings the first word that I could understand the meaning of without external assistance doesn’t show up until 1999. Defined as a tendency to verbosity (I wonder why I should know this word?) you get logorrhea. Of course, I know it better when it is spelt correctly – with three o’s. I warned you about the US spelling.

What nonsense! Spelling matters. A bit. Of course it does. But not as much as the meaning of words. The whole purpose of a word is what it communicates.

Learning to spell matters a bit. Of course it does. But not at the cost of childhood. Even a childhood enhanced by the celebrity of national TV. There really is something deeply depressing about the notion of the National Spelling Bee. It’s like the parents* haven’t learned the difference between education and indoctrination (* see also: stage mothers and those who groom for junior beauty pageants) and yearn for the reflected glory of their progeny.

Imagine a house of words built by one of these spellers. It’s a flat and square construction because that’s the shape of barely understood words fitting together. After all, why would you want to study the bricks of lingo in detail before you can have seen and experienced some of the inspirational architecture of our common tongue?

& for those bee effs who think that spelling is the bee all and end all, please remember this: Shakespeare, who was pretty good with words, didn’t spell his name the same way two times running.

Now bee off.

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Wha’gwan mugwump?

Some immediate jottings on a word for today (the 27th April 2017).

We all know that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson PC MP is fond of a fecund phrase.

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Who can forget such classics as “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it” and “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3”.

Today, displaying the early symptoms of a feverish election, Boris deliberately dropped a dirty needle into the media haystack, dubbing Jeremy Corbyn a ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’.

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Eh? D’you what? At first reading, the instant and easy presumption is that Bojo is mocking the Labour party leader as an idiot (or something else equally derisory).

Sorry. Oops. My bad.

Apparently, now that he is in the Foreign Office, Boris and/or his advisors disapprove of the epithet Bojo. Too clownish for a dignified officer of the state perhaps. Fair enough, Bojo the Clown is no more. Gone, like the dodo. Bojo the dodo. Of the FO. Hey ho. It’s fun to play with words.

Back to the ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’. It has a great ring to it but does actually it mean what the flaxen-headed one would wish us to understand?

Well, no. Not really.

‘Mutton-headed’, yes. In the unambiguous and barely shining rhetoric of today’s political elite it means stupid. Simple as. It is little more than an unpleasant and unnecessary name-calling; playground politics. Your choice of politician is a wrong-headed, pig-headed, birdbrained, boneheaded, bovine, thickheaded, dunderheaded fathead. And so on. Yah boo sucks!

‘Old’ is perfectly accurate in context but by nuance it is dismissive of experience and in practice it is tantamount to ageism. Bojo the dodo looks ridiculously old to young voters but now there’s a faint whiff of Eton bully in the air.

So, over half way through the phrase of the day, and what have we got? An ignorant insult and an example of intolerant discrimination – but don’t worry because it all sounds  jolly jolly clever and such fun. Time now then for that word which is rattling the cages today: mugwump.

Oh and look away now if you deplore Americanisms, even when applied derogatorily or with humor… Although the ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’-coiner handed back his US passport in 2015 he obviously retains his love for the American tongue.

Mugwump seems to have been adopted from an Algonquian, First Nation American word meaning ‘war leader’ or ‘great chief’.

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The primary definition in the OED is of ‘an important person, a leader, a boss’.

Then, in the 1880s mugwump gets some political edge when it is used of Republicans who refused to support the Republican party nominee for US president. Sitting on the fence, with their mugs on one side and wumps on the other.

From there mugwump evolves into someone who is independent and aloof from party politics.

The most modern (and still mainly American) sense is ‘a person who remains non-committal, an independent, or self-important person’.

Aloof from party politics? Non-committal? Self-important? With recent political history in mind mugwump sounds much more Bojo than Jezza to me.

Do the words matter?

It depends how you respond to the words – are you a stupid, aging mugwump? – and that will be coloured by your political tolerance. And whether by expression or intention we are taking a diversion through the looking glass just yet. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Of course, Boris is a good egg who has Humpty Dumpty’s way with words – &, by the way, doesn’t mugwump sound like it’s been coined by Lewis Carroll.

Or, more Slytherin in tone, it could be the work of J. K. Rowling. ‘Oi! Corbyn, you muggle.’

For my part, all in all, I would prefer politicians to argue their corners with words and language that speak clearly to promises and ambitions rather than name-calling,

However, and by the by, if name-calling is your preferred form of political debate, then I am happy to tell you that Boris is a name of Turkish origin. It means means short. Johnson is a slang word for a penis. There you go. Short prick. Much better than Bojo.

DICTIONARY TO BE CLEANSED

PRESS RELEASE

Embargoed until: 01.04.2017

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In a speech to the Poisson d’Avril media conference in Paris, Lexi Concepción, the newly-appointed HMG Junior Minister with responsibility for clear communication, will announce that the Department of Brexit is keen to negotiate a phased removal of all European ‘dots and dashes’ from properly authorised English dictionaries.

Ms. Concepción will state that “Proper standards must be improved and historic errors corrected. It is not right that children in our schools should be told that it is acceptable to use foreign accents. This government recognises that some elements in our common native usage are utterly unacceptable to right-thinking people and, furthermore, that our present situation is both acute and grave.”

Civil servants and academics have been charged with the responsibility of identifying and erasing every circumflex, cedilla, umlaut, grave and acute, and so forth, with reasonable [sic] immediate effect. An experienced lexicographer will be appointed shortly to take overall charge of the purification process known as ‘dictionary cleansing’. Government statisticians have estimated an ecological benefit in both ink and bandwidth savings.

“Patriotic English speakers have already rooted out the circumflex in rôle, the cedilla in façade and à propos of which, the grave of apropos. The next step is to eradicate the acute from a glacé cherry. Only hopelessly naïve and clichéd liberals could possibly argue against this policy of linguistic prudence.”

The minister’s speech will conclude with a rallying call: “We all know that things are dire. Critical action must be taken if we are to protect the sovereign state of our glorious English vocabulary from these insidious enemies in our midst.”

Biographical Note:

Lexi Concepción, MP for Coxcomb-under-Hoyden, is engaged to marry. She and her fiancé have agreed that before too long she will be properly Anglicised and known thereafter to be Lexi Cally-Peerless.

 

 

Something and Nothing

“How about some words that say something and nothing?”

Last week I gave myself a challenge: to discover and catalogue an hitherto unrecognised category of words. Not easy. All words say something, it’s the nothing that’s the difficult bit. So  I have been trying to compile a list of words that fit a very narrow set of criteria, and here are the results of my week’s worth of research. I have to say that it’s a very short list.

Hmm.

No, that’s not a word for my list, not hmm (hmmm too), that’s just you and me thinking aloud. That’s all hmm is: a lexical version of my exclamation of consideration. That’s what hmm (h’m too) means. It says everything it means and it means something.

Not harrumph nor ahem neither – let’s not hack nor hem and haw.

No, I am looking for words that have a meaning but are used without any sense of that meaning. I’ve got two (maybe three if you count the written word). There must be more.

rhubarb

rhubarb-1293494_960_720

Let’s go to the theatre. A nice chocolate-box, proscenium arch and all that orchestra stalls. On stage, upstage, somewhere in the background of a scene, actors are acting talking. It’s a low, indistinct buzz of atmospheric chatter that lends lifelike detail to the artificial, well-lit, suspended reality of the situation. Look closely. Use opera glasses if you must. Is it possible that these out-of-focus actors are using the renowned one word language of ‘rhubarb’?

Legendarily, rhubarb is what upstage actors speak. “Rhubarb”. Just that. Simple as. No harsh notes or jagged corners, just random repetition. Rhubarb, divorced from any meaning, is a word that has exactly the right phonemic sound and shape not to draw focus. Listen carefully. Is that a blending and blurring hum of drama kings and queens making ‘rhubarb, rhubarb rhubarb’ sound intelligent?

Rhubarb is such a useful word, first in my list of words that say everything and nothing, smoothly iterated, easily hidden in a crowd.

Of course, that’s not all there is to rhubarb. There’s all the meaningful rhubarb without which there would be no place in this something and nothing list. Obviously, rhubarb is a vegetable. If you thought it was a fruit you are probably thinking of tomatoes. In the US, apparently, it can mean a lively disagreement. You say tomatoes/I say tomatoes. Who are we to have a rhubarb about it?

And sometimes when nonsense is being talked in not particularly theatrical circumstances, or if good sense is spoken in a tongue that is not understood, it may be reported as rhubarb. Rhubarb, meaning nonsense, appears to have derived from the upstage prattle of actors.

“The Taffs were talking that yakky dah rhubarb.”[1]

rhubarb rhubarb

When rhubarb is used as a stand-in for reported speech two rhubarbs will do the job nicely:

“…and the prime minister’s like, ‘rhubarb rhubarb’, and I’m like ‘yeah, innit’.”

rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb

On some occasions when you run out of words, or run out of the energy to keep going, or when what you have to say is so tediously predictable, or, for reasons of personal taste, you wish to replace details with words that euphemise everything and nothing, try rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.

On some occasions rhubarb rhubarb rubarb or for reasons of personal taste you wish to rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb everything and nothing, rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.

You might think that rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb is the perfect form of censorship but it’s much more of a nod and a w*nk than that: this rhubarb implies the content, and the nature of the content that it is replacing. These rhubarbs are meaningful words. Like, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, and so on and so forth, et cetera, etc, &c. Quacking gesture (talk, talk, talk).

The actors’ rhubarb on the other (non-quacking) hand has no discernible meaning. Hence its place in my short list of words that mean something and nothing.[2]

cheese

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Say “cheese”. It brings your teeth together and stretches your lips to their widest. Cheese is a word of great power, one that can make a camera-ready poseur reach for the rictus.

We all know the meaning of cheese. It’s a comestible from the dairy. From Abbaye de Belloc to Zwister (according to cheese.com[3]) or, if you prefer your cheeses to leave the blander tang of Brexit in your gob, from Abbots Gold to Yorkshire Blue. That’s cheese, for you. There’s any number of cheese-related words. Whether you fancy it soft, hard, semi- or blue is your cheesy business.

Cheese and rice! Cheese it! Are you cheesed off? Hard cheese, chum…

In US slang cheese is money, and the big cheese is the boss or someone important.

Yet, when a photographer’s subject obeys the injunction and says “cheese” the word, at that moment, is empty of all meaning. It is being spoken purely for the shape of the cheesy grin that results. There is some evidence of ‘to cheese’ meaning to smile, however, that verb is unlikely to have any other derivation than that of making the shape of a word without regard to any meaning.

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If you are feeling experimental, the word oats when spoken to a camera has the power to make you look sexy, apparently. Although that could depend on who is pointing the camera, I suppose. Try it.

So, there we are: cheese. A word that really does mean something and nothing. That’s the second one in my list: rhubarb for the sound it makes, cheese for its face-shaping properties; in each case the word’s meaning is irrelevant to its use. The third and – so far – final item is included for the shape that any number of words may make on a page layout.

lorem ipsum

This is pretty much the something and nothing Latin what Cicero wrote. Well, kind of. Not sure if it fits the list.Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 15.55.20

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43BCE) – according to Wikipedia so no rhubarb ­– was a wealthy ‘Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul, and constitutionalist […] His works rank among the most influential in European culture, and today still constitute one of the most important bodies of primary material for the writing and revision of Roman history.’

& according to generator.lorem-ipsum.info, ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, ad quo liber vulputate liberavisse, id vel putant quaeque, cetero nominavi molestiae ut sed. No tota pericula pri, ex pro laoreet petentium. Modus delicata corrumpit no eum. Ut vix tota porro volutpat, munere aliquam ornatus ea usu. At nec summo mazim reformidans. Eu doctus quaeque partiendo ius, diam constituam sea ei.’

& lorem ipsum is one of the more obvious ways that the modern world honours Cicero’s place in history, with faked and falsified Latin text used as dummy content by designers and their software. It started out, at a time when pre-digital giant Letraset bestrode the typographical landscape, as an extract from Cicero’s letters. & at that point it must have made some kind of sense to Latin scholars if no-one else. However, in order to echo the patterns of the European languages being serviced, the original Cicero was corrupted. Punctuation was introduced, non-Roman characters too. If you look at the lorem ipsum para above you’ll find a ‘z’. If you read Latin you’ll recognise it as so much nonsense.

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Ex vim homero ancillae. Ne mea alii unum. In est semper vivendo alienum, ea vix dictas accommodare concludaturque. Ei quem animal persecuti nam. Quo omnesque urbanitas id. Congue appellantur vix at.

Mea soleat voluptaria in, duo viderer albucius periculis at. Ut clita munere efficiantur duo, fuisset delicata liberavisse cu mea, ea est similique disputationi conclusionemque. An aeque omnium eripuit his, legere blandit abhorreant his an. Ne vix esse simul. Mei ignota iudicabit ei.

Quo in dissentiunt deterruisset. Nihil nostrum consequuntur at sea, ne nec utamur urbanitas. Duo ex dicat indoctum mediocrem, at quo adipiscing interesset neglegentur. Discere theophrastus te his. Enim vocent per ex, mundi audire erroribus an nam.

& that’s why I am not certain of lorem ipsum‘s place in my list of words that mean something and nothing. Some of the words, not lorem ipsum but some of them, have meaning – albeit in Latin – but the overall content is rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb, effectively using nonsense to dummy up nonsense.

Whatever. This is a very short list. Is there any chance you could possibly add to it?

Say “cheese”.

[1] Taff, a generalized nickname for a Welsh(man), abbreviated from Taffy, derived from a Welsh pronunciation of a the male name Dafydd (David). ‘Yakky dah’ is used in English as an all-purpose catchphrase and example of the Welsh language; derived as an approximation of Welsh iechyd dda (good health).

[2] Not to be confused with political words that promise something and mean nothing.

[3] “Find over 1750 specialty cheeses in the world’s greatest cheese resource.”

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