Towards the end of 1998 I was asked by the Independent to write a daily column about words - or, rather, part of a column, for, as you can see, each day's Word filled a small part of a newspaper page. Sometimes a Word was inspired by a daily event - some now hard to recall - and others by a book, a film, something overheard (as in "he's really fit", a term for desirable). The series ran for some three years, until the World Trade Center horror ended it (newspaper funds were directed towards foreign coverage). I was always glad at the comments it aroused, and thought that readers might like to browse through it here. I have kept it in a column format rather than stretch each item across the wider page available on this site.



The Atlantic disaster reminds us that a useful word is also lost. Jets were once “aeroplanes”, a Croydon luxury . In 1920 Blackwood’s magazine asserted that “the perfected aeroplane is the obvious instrument to suppress war”, but in 1896 Invention asked “why not call it airplane?” In 1928 the BBC did so - ahead of the U.S. Forces Dictionary which, in 1951, said that this had long been American usage. That same year, John Wyndham referred confusingly to a “jet aeroplane.” With some new word for ungainly 747s, let us revive “jet”: a large ladle, to parade, to bray, to revel, even to loosen sand and to assume a pompous gait - or, of a bird, to move the tail up and down - the fate, alas, of many a jet, especially Aeroflot’s.



What links Enid Blyton and Martin Amis? Some say that she had a surer grasp of contemporary idiom. He certainly took her lead. In 1951, in the chaste Big Noddy Book, the eponymous hero “had a good little hooter on his car. when he pressed it it said ‘Pip Pip. and sometimes ‘Poop Poop’, and sometimes ‘Parp-Parp’.” Two decades on, Amis’s narrator, in the priapic The Rachel Papers says that “to break her reveries I parped the horn.” No other word quite fits the bill. “Hoot” sounds frivolous and “to sound the horn” suggests a leisurely era of warning off stray sheep, not the urgencies of contemporary road-rage, for which the blast of “parp” is ideal - especially with Noddy’s new success on American television.



The Hon. Vera Benedicata never knew that she would appear in a dictionary. She was described in Virginia Woolf’s 1923 diary as detesting “the scrolloping honours of the great, calls her family dull and stupid.” Apparently Mrs Woolf’s word - a lolloping, florid ornament -, she plugged it in “The New Dress”, Orlando (“cucumbers came scrolloping across the garden to his feet”) and The Waves. Unrecorded, however, is its appearance in an 1893 letter by Edward Fitzgerald, translator of Omar Khayyan: “I somehow detest my own scrolloping surname.” This was published after Mrs Woolf’s death, but oral use across the Victorian intellectual aristorcacy is more than possible, and its use should be more frequent. Heaven knows, there’s reason enough.



Strange the way that the mind works. Some of us cannot hear the pop of the cork being released from a bottle without the word analeptic springing to mind. Such is poetry. In his 1963 masterpiece “On The Circuit”, W.H. Auden describes an airborne reading tour of America, the fatigue of which makes him exclaim, “is this a mileu where I must... snatch from the bottle in my bag an analeptic swig?” It probably wasn’t milk. Of Latin and Greek origins, the word - meaning restorative - turns out not to be in contemporary usage after all, but petered out in the mid-nineteenth century, when used to urge the curative properties of chocolate and sage. Auden was surely right to put his trust in the harder stuff.


RETROMINGENT, a. n. “I would offer to let you go first, but this is hardly the place in which you can be retromingent.” My gracious explanation, as I gestured towards a urinal, brought bafflement to the face of one of the several women in the gentlemens’ lavatory at the White horse on Parson’s Green. After all, neither Sir Thomas Browne nor the Gentleman's Magazine are usually discussed on that sloppy floor. Such was the queue for the ladies’ caused by the recent jazz festival that bolder spirits among them braved the gents’. Whether or not so gallic a phenomenon spreads further, it is certain that , therein, they will continue to head for the cubicles, for, unless one is a lion or elephant, to be retromingent - that is, to urinate backwards - requires discretion.



There appears to be a willing vendor,” remarked Gerald Kaufmann of the Murdoch/Man Utd deal. The politician missed his calling all those years ago, for the noun is used only by estate agents. It otherwise survives only in vending-machine and newsvendor. The verb also meant to voice an opinion. A few years ago, solictors agreed to refer to buyers and sellers. Whatever their other penchant for a circumlocution, estate agents were willing to do the same - until soon discovering a certain confusion, as in “the cellar’s a bit mildewed.” And so vendor it remains. None the less, that fine American novelist Hortsense Calisher wrote in The American Scholar this summer of delight in finding one of her pseudonymous novels “vended” in the “devout atmosphere” of New York’s Mysterious Bookshop.



Stephen Sondheim’s mother was described by one relation, Myra Berzoff, as a “doozie”, which the Random House Dictionary of American Slang terms a splendid creature. This - not in an English dictionary - was apparently inspired by Italian actress Eleonara Duse. Ms Berzoff, however, elaborated: the composer’s mother was “the most pretentious, self-centered, narcissistic woman I have ever known in my life.” Dooziness is in the eye of the beholder; and some, indeed, said that she “could walk well in high heels and handle a cigarette with style. Women who were ambitious, comic, raunchy, and sexy were considered bitchy, because they weren’t sexy-cute.” Self-destructive sexy (Marilyn), reserved-sexy (Gloria Swanson) or icy-sexy (Grace Kelly) was all right, unlike bawdy, comic sexy . Without this doozie, Sondheim would have lacked the anguish of his best work.



Although David Bowie and William Boyd did not long have the world believe that artist Nat Tate existed, the novelist has hopes of bringing a fugitive word true recognition. A section of Armadillo earlier this year meditates upon Horace Walpole’s coining of serendipity, from a cheerful fairy-tale whose title includes an earlier name for Ceylon. What is the opposite of that happy and lush land Serendip, asks Boyd “The far north, barren, ice-bound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity.” Zembla is in arctic Russia, and, according to the OED, last made an appearance in Shee’s Rhyme’s Art. “But it’s also in Pope and Nabokov,” says Boyd with a casual erudition sure to tantalise, even infuriate those who are labouring upon the third edition of that magisterial work.



How long does it take for a word to receive official recognition? For some time, those hired on a short-term contract to augment full-time workers in an office have been in the habit of referring to these manacled and invariably lower-paid colleagues as “permies”. It is in particular usage among those called in at increasingly high rates to avert disasters with computer systems come the year 2000. As such, it now figures in an entertaining first novel, Stickleback, by John McCabe, whose plot goes wonky towards the end. His ears are closer to the ground than that of the compilers of that recent, avowedly vulgar new Oxford dictionary. Will its rivals rush to fill this gap?



When asked for Frank Sinatra, a greasy-faced HMV assistant shrugged, and grunted, “under F in Rock & Pop” rather than S and Easy Listening (some Sinatra is desolate). Remonstration to the manager revealed that this churl “is on a work-experience week, we usually keep him out of sight in the basement.” President Clinton must wish that Monica Lewinsky had done so. His problem is not ours, which is a replacement for the cumbersome work experience (which prompts no noun). Ms Lewinsky was an intern. To English ears, this suggests a stretch in the Maze (with which the HMV employee certainly confused the shop). Intern’s orgins is in matters educational rather than merely giving more of the same. Meanwhile, work experience does not figure in the OED. Perhaps when it does, this will be with the abbreviation Obs.



Every writer seeks to produce, at the very least, a classic phrase. In Gypsy, his musical about stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Stephen Sondheim did that and more. “One of the problems”, he recalls, “was to come up with a phrase that means ‘things are going to be better than ever’ that isn’t flat and yet isn’t so poetic.” So saying, he coined “everything’s coming up roses.” The ploy was so successful that the first use of this instant vintage is not credited to the 1958 musical by the OED but to The Times a decade later. As for the show’s choreographer, Jerome Robbins, he was puzzled at first. “I just don’t understand that title.” “Why not, Jerry?” “Everything’s coming up Rose’s what ?” Sondheim howls with laughter about this even now.



Meryle Secrest, the biographer of the fraudulent art conoisseur Bernard Berenson, records that, when depressed, he referred to himself as feeling enisled in the sea of life. A simple amalgam of en and isle, this is an evocative, pleasing antique phrase -but was also not Berenson’s. The OED would have one believe that it petered out in the nineteenth century, when, fittingly, it was used in several essays by the author of The Ancient Mariner. Coleridge refers, slaveringly, to “knots of curds inisled by interjacent whey at irregular intervals.” Such an image of the world’s delights could surely have offered some consolation to Matthew Arnold, who, many decades ahead of Berenson’s particular woes, referred to being “in the sea of life enisled... we mortal millions live alone.”



The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein was, in John Lennon’s words “an intuitive, theatrical guy, he presented us well.” Epstein himself recalled such early struggles as the famous, unsuccessful audition at Decca one snowy New Year’s Day. They paid 27/- at the Royal Hotel for the night. “They were poor and I wasn’t rich” but none the less they all celebrated with rum and scotch and Coke, “which was becoming a Beatle drink even then.” Precise as Epstein’s voice was, he does not make it clear whether this was some deadly, threefold cocktail or two separate drinks. Whatever, some of us continue to prefer callibogus. Unknown over here, it is a word for a combination which makes something palatable from those otherwise unremittingly grim ingredients, rum and American beer. Had they done so, they might not have bothered with pot and LSD.



Some hang on every breath Clinton spares from that fabled cigar. The more sophisticated, making do with John Walsh’s summary on Tuesday, were stimulated by the President’s grinning denial that his secretary had watched. “It’s almost yumorous,” he replied. “I’d have to be an exhibitionist not to exclude everyone at those moments.” What did he mean? The Random House volumes of American slang have not got that far. Several calls to America, and even two twentysomething women could not help, relish though they did this apparent amalgam of humor and yummy. This keyboard, more expertly controlled than Walsh’s, yielded a suspicion confirmed by wading through a complete transcript: y and h are close together, the President merely said “humorous.” But Walsh’s coining is an immortal rendering of that Arkansas accent.



This dance is inevitably Cole Porter’s. “Begin the Beguine” appeared in his 1935 royal satire Jubilee - before his crippling fall from a horse. Its Martinique origins are more complex than the OED records. It was perhaps first known there as the bel air. Porter himself recalled that in Twenties Paris the bandleader would set the rhythm with a drum, then start the dance with the signal “beguine.” Its seductive pace certainly echoes the French word - beguin - for a fancy or infatuation. More difficult than seduction itself , the song took a while to gain wide recognition, with Artie Shaw’s version. But are there religious echoes? It was a medieval Order named after Lambert le Begue, so called because he stammered. This order was chaste, the Dutch less so: nuns could leave and marry - end the beguine, one might say.



That marvellous, prolific American poet Frank O’Hara (1926-66) is, like the rather different Kipling, best read in bulk. Treasures surface unawares. However complex the thought (sometimes making Wallace Stevens seem like, well, Kipling), his vocabulary is clear, if sometimes demotic. He can, though, pull one up, as in a rhapsodic mediation upon art and love whose narrator sings “towards you all anguine conebos seem to scoot.” The adjective is of simple Latin origin, meaning snake-like in form. This, more nimble on the tongue than the zoological forms of anguineal or anguineous, was apparently last used, exquisitely, by Sheridan Le Fanu in 1871: “her beautiful eyebrows wore that anguine curve, which is the only approach to a scowl which painters accord to angels.” Now, as for conebos...



Among the linguistic horrors with which we all contend there arises a particular horror in the Grocer (you see how I suffer on your behalf). Step forward, head bowed, sales director of Varta batteries, Graham Verity. He asserts that “consumers are looking for value for money and multi-packs have protected and grown the grocery share of trade. Consumers are now buying batteries to ‘larder fill’ for future use.’” He might say that the quotation-marks imply post-modern irony in an age when refrigerators and fitted units have ousted the larder, but he would be dissembling: his gruesome “grown”, his view of humanity as mere “consumers” and that tautological “future use” make us infer that he is a man who thinks “larder fill” a smart synonym for hoard or stockpile - unless scorned now, it might make the next edition at that recent vulgar New Oxford Dictionary.



Who ever used some coinings logged by the OED? Swimgloat was invented by Bernard Berenson’s brother-in-law, that languid man of letters Logan Pearsall-Smith whose Trivia is much admired by Gore Vidal. According to that don-about-town, Peter Conrad, swimgloat means “the buoyant negotiation of the vanities and temptations of society... a term which suggests the eternal resilience of the picaresque hero.” Pearsall-Smith had in mind - during the war - that enigmatic American in London, the art critic Stuart Preston. Only Kenneth Clark appears to have used it since (unrecorded by the OED) when he recalled his boom years which “had as little to do with talent as Australian gold shares have to do with the precious metal in a mine... absurd as it sounds, I think that the real explanation was our innocence.” Will his son ever have recourse to it?



One must necessarily wonder what the great stylist Evelyn Waugh would have made of the prose style favoured by his biographer, a prolix academic Martin Stannard little blessed with humour. He might, however, have looked approvingly upon his penchant for cenobitic, which, from Latin and Greek, and generally spelled as above, means to have the nature of a monastic community: distinct, that is, from the anchorat, who lives in solitude. For all the caricatures of Waugh as some eccentric loner forever sloping off to the Tauton cinema, and whatever his attitude towards many of his children, it is an important distinction: he throve upon selected company. Rather than regard him as a squire, a preposterous notion, one could revive the eighteenth-century variant, a coenobiarch - and practise rolling it off the tongue.



Pavement-rage makes the Friday-afternoon M25 resemble a courtly progress. As pedestrians approach, one invariably moves to his left, the other to his right; a process several times repeated as they meet, when, with an aggrieved snarl, one shoves the other sidelong. Honour is apparently at stake, as Pepys discovered in Fleet Street when - unrecorded by the OED - he “received a great jostle from a man that had a mind to take the wall.” Murder was possible. Something duly avoided in the eighteenth century, when that most sensible of men, Dr Johnson, recalled that “there were two sets of people, those who gave the wall, and those who took it; the peaceable and the quarrelsome... Now, it is fixed that every man keeps to the right.” That is, takes the wall. Apparently forgotten, let it be enforced on Oxford Street this Christmas.



One needs little excuse to reach out for Aldous Huxley’s first, best novel Crome Yellow. Only Lady Ottoline Morrrell and those of her friends pictured within objected to this account of hopeless love, literary aspiration and much eccentricity in a household recognizably Garsington. However much one has learned in the intervening years, one always feels more intelligent for it. And once again becomes on the look-out for some reason to refer to a gibbous moon. The most famous use of the word in a twentieth-century novel (an instance absent from the OED), this variant of a word that means convex means that the illuminated portion is greater than a semi-circle, less than a circle - and can mean hunch-backed, something which the gangling Huxley could never say of himself.



Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone,” says Lady Bracknell. And, as the poet Denis rues in Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow (1921), “one suffers so much from the fact that beautiful words don’t always mean what they ought to mean. Really, for example, I had a whole poem ruined, just because the word ‘carminative’ didn’t mean what it ought to have meant.” The OED would have us believe that the word had petered out fifty years earlier, but Huxley gives three pages to a discussion of its erudite possibilities: these range across carnation, carnival, singing and flesh by way of warmth and interior ripeness - but, no, it is a medicine to expel flatulence. It would certainly look better on a Body-Shop label than Fart Fennel.



Frank Sinatra long credited “Something” to Lennon and McCartney - and amended George Harrison’s lyric: “you stick around, Jack, it might show.” I don’t know, he’d done such things for decades, as in “Jack, I’m ready! Look at me now!” This was no blip in a much-married man but a usage akin to Joya Sherril’s 1945 singing with Duke Ellington: “kiss me long, strong and consecutive, no short snog will suit me, Jack... when I go fishin’, a minnow won’t do.” It wasn’t the name but the lips that counted. Despite the movie I’m All Right Jack, the word has fallen from use. The history of this familiar, general term is uncertain but long: a variant of John, it echoes Jacques, which in France was also a way in which one might address a peasant without troubling to ask his real name.



Lent is now ‘the run-up to Easter’,” notes Alan Bennett in his 1989 diary, and something similar can be said of Advent and Christmas. Except, of course, that Christmas now begins in August rather than a mere four Sundays before the Nativity. The vulgar scrum in Toys ’R Us can hardly hope for any speed amid the shouts and preferred credit-cards. As such, the term derives perhaps less from greyhound racing than the cricket pitch or, perhaps, the wartime exploits of bombers and fighters. but the first recorded (1966) perpetrator of a usage held in scorn by Alan Bennett was... The Sunday Times, which was not writing of Easter but, as crassly, of some preliminary drawings by Picasso - “the crucial run-up to the Desmoiselles d’Avignon.” Let it henceforth be banned from these pages.


NOEUD VITAL n The French often claim that such convenient terms as weekend and e-mail are foisted upon them in place of a cumbersome home-grown product (courrier electronique). One does, however, have a hopeless hankering that, over here, some means could be found to substitute ordinateur for PC, as in the grey thing with a screen which sits on a desk. This, rather than the iMac, could have heralded

a true reversal in Apple’s fortunes. Meanwhile, to get to the noeud vital of today’s item, Wallace Stevens wrote in the Fifties, in one of his beguiling notebooks, that “what reality lacks is a noeud vital with life.” The notes to the admirable, even essential Library of America edition translate this as vital nexus. To French ears, it means nerve centre, and is surely more piquant than the bland English equivalent. As for what else noeud can mean, we draw a veil over that.



One of life’s mysteries, despite the global village, is that many American books do not appear over here. A striking absence is Dreaming of Hitler by Daphne Merkin, currently one of the movie critics at The New Yorker. Her book of essays - described by Woody Allen as “intellect as art form, insight as drama, and original thinking as great entertainment” - ranges widely, from an unusual meditation upon the Holocaust to a notorious, perhaps celebrated piece about the quest to find a man to spank her satisfactorily. This is, then, a case in which the author’s name is fitting, as in Restoration comedy, for it brings to mind a word overlooked by Johnson’s Dictionary but in use before and since. Others of us would balk at mentioning it, but the tenor of Ms Merkin’s book suggests that she would happily admit to any need for a pubic wig.


CORNUTE v and n

Little do readers know of how prose changes shape before publication. Anybody who perused Simon Raven’s recent review of a biography of Trelawny in the London Magazine would have noted his pleasingly antique phrase about the adventurer’s marrying “a slut, [and] was himself speedily cuckolded.” In fact, Raven’s preferred word, “cornutated” fell victim to editorial whim. As befits an author whose stock-in-trade is an elegant amalgam of sex and the Classics, this derives from the Latin for horn, which brings such meanings as a retort, a vexing question of logic, an animal - and somebody who has been horned, a cuckold. Let justice be done. Nobody should stand in the way of Raven’s attempt to revive a word last used in 1707.



In a beguiling eccentric review of William Boyd’s first novel, A.N. Wilson noted the clinical references to the “penis”. Boyd listened: in An Ice-Cream War it is “cock”. Redolent of plumbing, this highlights a need for some more dignifed slang - johnson, perhaps. Nineteeth-century American, it is a possible echo of an obscure English phrase Dr Johnson. In our own era, when the President dictated minutes from his lavatory seat, it also embraces Beavis and Butt-Head, a riff in Martin Amis - and the Ladies’ Home Journal. For twhich, Jane Lane interviewed Richard Gere and made bold to ask, “are you gay?” To which the actor replied, “you want to see a sex object?” As Ms Lane says, “he took out his johnson. It just petered out after that, so to speak.”



Punning names for shops should be a capital offence. Hairdressers (“The Mane Event”) and chiropodists (“Feetures”) are particularly guilty. More stylish will be my new, upscale chain: Vines. No, this is not an entrant in the wine market, but a men’s outfitters - and a tribute to Miles Davis. According to Amiri Baraki (the poet LeRoi Jones), “old-time Miles Davis worshippers have always dug Davis’s vines” - that is, the clothes which hung impeccably upon him, those which he sported before they took as wild a turn as his music. While “dubs” and “threads” continue in American usage, this evocative “vines” appears to have fallen from favour since its first recorded usage in the Baltimore Sun.



Life need not be a vale of tears. A walk along any high street brings that vista which is the Radio Rentals window, which currently sports a poster: “Discover the Joys of Rentership.” Unknown to any dictionary, this noun suggests a populace sat in a beatific state because it does not exactly own a telly. The woman in the Fulham branch was fazed by the enquiry about its meaning, origins - and whether it differed from the mundane business of simply renting. “It doesn’t really, I suppose,” she said, scuppered in the attempt to foist a washing-machine on me. ‘It’s all head office.” Where a poster about the joys of renting was perhaps seen as a call to go on the game, indeed a loftier calling than producing fodder for digitial channels.



"How long will this kerfuffle be going on? I’m trying to read the papers!" In peppery- colonel mode, I belaboured the thirtysomething husband and wife who, just up the A4 from Heathrow, had a nanny to quell their puling infant while a camera filmed them in the Fulham Road branch of the Seattle Coffee Company. Only when they all left, with a smile - en route for the King’s Road and Covent Garden branches - did I learn that these were the millionaire owners of the chain, in England to spearhead expansion across the country. Little did they know that the nanny’s wages could hardly Be met by the likes of us adept at spinning out the day’s brew with not so much as an extra biscotti. Only then did I realise what I had said. Well-nigh onamatepeic, kerfuffle, a word I have used all my life, turns out to be the modern variant of curfuffle (or even gefuffle), a combination of Gaelic and lowland Scots, from the splendid fuffle, to twist about.


POSTAL a The other day in Twin Falls, Idaho, the police were scarcely surprised when they saw several armed men go into the post office. This is a reasonable precaution for members of the public to take when buying a stamp in America. Such has been the spate of cases over the past decade in which a postal worker has gone beserk and killed a colleague or customer - especially in California - that to go postal is now a common expression for anybody prone to such wild behaviour. It was given further currency in that sassy variant on Jane Austen’s Emma, the movie Clueless, but has yet to reach English lips, on which it could, of course, mean weariness at queuing for a long time. In fact, that day in Twin Falls, everything was entirely peaceable: the gun-toting men formed an honour guard which had arrived for the swearing-in of a new postmaster. He’s got his work cut out for him.



An inelegant paragraph in the New York Times recently reported that "the bills try to block taxes on information. Eight states, including Connecticut, already tax Internet access, and their taxes would be grandfathered in if the states affirmed within a year that they intended to tax Internet access." The verb receives scant notice in the OED, a single example. It is, however, cogently explained in the endlessly beguiling pages of Black’s Law Dictionary. (Did you know that blumba is the certifying tag attached to kosher meat?) To grandfather is an important notion, which goes back to the days when Southern states exempted from new laws - in particular those about voting - men whose ancestors had fought in the Civil War. It was also significant in changes to the carrier trade. Recently, and perhaps more crucially, those already allowed to drink could continue to do so when the age-limit was increased.



Doh! Give a guy a break! You'd have thought that Virtual Springfield, a CD-ROM tour of The Simpsons‚ home town ("have donut, will travel") would offer relief from the rigours of keeping up a language column. But, no, the installation manual throws a zinger all its own. Seymour Skinner, the neurotic Nam vet who is Principal of the town‚s school, says, "listen carefully, children... There is a READ ME file on the CD which contains the latest cromulent information about getting Virtual Springfield up and running." Habit compels one to leave the disk behind and have recourse to all the dictionaries which New York affords, to no avail. This excellent word is unknown to the rest of mankind, even Americans. Truth then dawns, with Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life, where he asserts that it’s really cool to invent words when writing poetry - and the best of us cannot dispute that cromulent fact.


MOIL v Samuel Beckett’s pebble-sucking, eponymous hero, Molloy informs us that, at one point, "in this I put, or she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled, when I dissembled or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop." This is another reminder that the OED, awash with random examples from lesser-ranking detective fiction (supplied by Listener reviewer Marghanita Laski), has overlooked swathes of twentieth-century writing. In the circumstances, Beckett’s word is apposite, or perhaps not, but we shall not dwell on such anatomical exactitude, other than to remark that, ever knowledgable, Beckett is echoing a phrase which, from Gifford in 1580 ("toyle and moyle for worldly drosse") comes by way of John Galt to Browning in 1880: "a lawyer wins repute/Having to toil and moil" - and there the OED calls a halt to this fine phrase.



The current issue of The New Yorker contains a long piece by John Cassidy about John Maynard Keynes and "the current financial epizootic." This unfortunate condition has whipped around the world, but, if the fact-checkers at the magazine have done their stuff, then one must assume that Mr Cassidy is optimistic. The word means a disease temporarily prevalent among animals. As the Gentleman’s Magazine said in 1790, these diseases "are, in the brute creation, what epidemic diseases are in man." A year ago, of course, when Hong Kong crashed, it was hoped that this would remain merely enzootic, that is a disease which, striking cattle, is peculiar to a district, climate or season, as endemic is applied to mankind. Meanwhile, epizootic was adapted by Kirwan in his Geological Essays to mean mountains which contain animal remains: which could soon be used of the Wall Street sidewalks as dealers leap from balconies.



Central to the human condition is to adumbrate upon one’s own ailments and a sure-fire cure for others‚. Perhaps the most congenially virulent is biblioholism, subject of an American bestseller - not published in England - by Tom Raabe, illustrated by Craig Brown (yet another one). "The habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire and consume books in excess" is the sub-title, something into which Raabe was lured by one store’s "nimiety of overstuffed chairs." From late Latin, it means an excess. Early examples are religiously inclined, then less so, as in some table-talk by Coleridge, whose view was that "there is a nimiety - a too-muchness - in all Germans." The OED has it last used in 1892, when the Illustrated London News lamented the nimiety of modern poetry, "the tendency to dilute the general effect by repetition." A word to revive, sparingly.



The till never lies. There are bad times just around the corner. This was the thrust of a recent piece in the New York Times by financial consultant Charles Morris, who laments the city‚s dependence upon the shadowy, volatile products of Wall Street. When the markets boom, “youthful bankers in handmade shirts and English shoes chug-a-lug Chateaux Margaux, governments go on binges of borrowing and building..." The expression, unknown to the OED, means to drink without pausing for breath. It was certainly in use by the Thirties, and consistently since, as in John Lahr‚s novel Hot to Trot: "I chugalugged a Ballantine." Chug-a-lug contests are doubtless as vulgar as our own yard-of-ale sessions, but are surely redeeemed by what giving rise to such splendid onamatapia.



Tom Raabe’s Biblioholism is addictive stuff, a refreshing take on the world of book-collecting ("some of my underwear is older than most of the Brat Pack novelists"). Along the way, he mentions Gissing’s standing outside a bookstore, torn between books and food, his "stomach rising in borborygmic revolt." H.G.Wells used it, in the Sunday Express in 1927: "elephant hunters say they can tell the proximity of a herd by the borborygmic (see dictionary) noise the poor brutes emit." Unlike Wells, I shall here reveal that it means a rumbling in the bowels, from Latin and Gree by way of French, and attracts a puzzling, prominent question-mark in the OED. Unsurprisingly, Aldous Huxley went the whole hog of "the stertorous borborygms of the dyspeptic Carlyle", a phrase one could adapt to many a contemporary chronicler.



In the Evening Standard, a Charles Rideout of Kent remonstrated that "I really do object to the term Squeeze‚ as it appears in Londoner’s Diary, the last occasion in reference to Gisele Roman. Presumably it is supposed to describe a companion, or partner, but it conjures up images of lemons or failed slimmers trying to get into their jeans. Call me an old fuddy-duddy but I still feel that one‚s soulmate or friend is entiutled to a more dignified description. Is the age of chivalry really that dead?" Call me hopelessly romantic, but it sounds more affectionate than the businesslike partner or the grim soulmate. Though absent from the OED, it is no new coining (James Cagney used it), and perhaps echoes Byron’s "pure Platonic squeeze." Whatever, more congenial a pastime than the word‚s diverse other meaning of financial shehanigans, coal-mining, baseball and bridge.


LINDY HOP n and v

Jazz-crazy Nixon aide Leonard Garment pulls one up in his recent memoirs. Not over the rise of bebop or Watergate, but a first girlfriend: “Audrey, a sinuous, shaking, shimmying lindy hopper...” A bar-fly, a habitue of Lindy’s, that Broadway haunt of Winchell and Levant? Then one recalls “That’s How Young I Feel”, from Jerry Herman’s Mame: "Lindy hopping and jitterbugging". What with the Atlantic flight and a kidnapped child, this dance ranked lower in Charles Lindburgh’s life: it began in Harlem and was described after the war as a “late and unlamented dance step.. a fad.” As for Audrey, she cajoled Garment into giving her money for an abortion: he later realised that nothing they had done could cause pregnancy: she wanted the money for shopping.



The elegant doyenne of jazz commentary in New York is Jean Bach, director of A Great Day in Harlem. Slang springs readily to her lips, in even the toniest restaurants. Pianist and singer Barbara Carroll said one recent lunchtime that she could not make a party that evening. “That’s all right, I’ll go, and sing you the riffs later,” replied Jean. I asked her whether this was this hip talk in Forties Chicago. “No, I sort of made that up - meaning, to relay news and gossip - but people did sing the riffs to those who’d not been at a concert by Miles or Dizzy, performers who were not mere cookie-cutters.” The phrase has many possibilities, even in business circles: “can you get to the meeting this morning?” “No, I’m busy. Swing by later and sing me the riffs.”



New York singles bars are not always as blistering as Judith Rossner’s excellent Looking For Mr Goodbar. In the New York Free Press Amy Sohn gives a brilliantly romantic account of events going right (“his biceps gleamed in the moonlight”) - that is, after putting the guy down: “no skank appeared.” An elusive word, and Ms Sohn admits coining words in her time. This existed, sometimes as skanky: the etymology is diverse, from cheap Twenties heroin to the gyrating Sixties music ska. It is distinct from skunk, and suggests a reluctant insult. A first novel - Run Catch Kiss - is out in America next summer, the heroine a sex columnist who cannot get a date as men fear being copy. She is set fair to be the thinking person’s Bridget Jones.



Cleveland Amory, the social historian, whose bedraggled cat arrived one Christmas, argued with a priest over Catholic teaching that animals lack a soul. “I told the Good Father that if he and I were going to some wonderful Elysian Field and the animals were not going to go anywhere, that was all the more reason to give them a little better shake in the one life they did have.” Amory has now left for that Field, and English readers might casually assume the remark a case for the RSPCA. In fact, shake has long been American slang for a deal, as in Studs Turkel’s 1980 remark “I’d like to see an America where so much power was not in the hands of the few. Where everybody’d get a fair shake.” Unspoken goes the rest of the phrase: “of the dice.”



In the near future aesthetic and cultural shifts in the planetary consciousness will move around the globe with the force and pace of tsunamis,” remarks J.G. Ballad in the catalogue for the current exhibition, Speed, at the Whitechapel. Probably all very true, especially after one has screeched to a halt and remedied ignorance of a word which must have been encountered when skimming through Golding’s The Paper Men. Neither Italian food nor some slinky reptile, it is from the Japanese for harbour and wave: a brief series of long, high undulations on the surface of the sea caused by an earthquake or some such underwater eruption. Apart from Golding and, a century earlier, Hearn, its use has been scientific, but Ballard could give it currency.



Cleveland Amory, the elegant social historian of Boston, claimed that the city was a breeding-ground for curmudgeons. He himself returned to New York, and became one, “because it suddenly dawned on me, when I was reading in the paper about a woman wrestler, that being a curmudgeon was the last thing in the world that a man can be that a woman cannot be. Women can be irritating - after all, they are women - but they cannot be curmudgeons.” Politically incorrect, he is right. As Thomas Nashe put it, “they have breasts, but give no suck.” Nimbly defined by Johnson as “an avarious churlish fellow; a miser; a niggard”, the word curmudgeon has been around since 1577, but defies explanation. No ingenious solution - cur, coeur - passes muster.



Some of us could see John Updike on the front of Motor-Cycle News and immediately buy it. His is a seemingly effortless take on a changing world, caught - over forty years - in prose as erudite as that of Wodehouse or Nabokov. His new volume, Bech at Bay, returns to alter ego, Henry Bech, and, within a few pages, we find him in conversation with the wife of the American ambassador to Czeckoslovakia, of whom she averrs, “...after a couple of years with Dick, nothing embarrasses me; he’s just very outgoing. Very frontal. ”The usage is absent from the Random House American Slang - and from the OED, which allots him 110 quotations, but most of these, 69, come from the untypical The Coup, and most of the others from Couples. More work needed there.



Doh! this thing’s lost its virtue,” exclaimed the Renaissance scholar Emily Wilson as she pointed the zapper at the television set but failed to make the channel switch to Fox 5 for The Simpsons. This might appear to make something unduly anthropomorphic of a zapper, especially as there was not another one in the vicinity, but it is a pleasingly fifteenth-century usage - from the Latin virtus - which others could adopt at such moments as a battery’s going flat. And if the man from the AA looks puzzled, reference to Wyclif’s version of Luke would surely make it clear: “I have given to you power of treading on serpents, and scorpions, and on all the virtue of the enemy.” And, after all, we still preface an assertion with the phrase “by virtue of...”



Novelist Patrick McGrath, editing Moby Dick in a TriBeCa bistro, looked up and read aloud about “that strange perplexity of inert irresolution, which, when the fishermen perceive it in the whale, they say he is gallied.” As Melville notes of gally, or gallow, “when the polite landsman first hears it from the gaunt Nantucketer,

he is apt to set it down as one of the whaleman’s self-derived savageries. Much the same is it with many other sinewy Saxonisms of this sort...” McGrath moots a link with gallows: in fact, one is from the Old English for alarm, the other means pole. Hardy refers to a gally-crow (to see off birds, which themselves gallow). In America, gallows are also braces - and that sonorous footnote prompts one to read the novel itself.



Just as politicians throw in a pointless reference to the millennium, so they describe a motley assortment of ideas in a way that purports to suggest that real thought lies behind them. Over the years, we have heard of “a range of proposals”, a “package” of them, and now the term is a raft. This might sound worringly like something from the Medusa or Titanic but is in fact American slang - it appears in Tom Sawyer - linked to our seventeenth-century “raff of errors and superstitions”, perhaps from the French for sweeping together, and surviving in Yorkshire dialect. There is a link with riff-raff. Meanwhile, here in America, Dr Joel Berger and his wife recently donned an unconvincing moose outfit to track the animal and found “ a suite of behaviours”...



There is a distressing tendency among English writers of a certain age - Alan Hollinghurst, Joan Smith, Geoff Dyer - to frequent raves. Call me a fuddy duddy, but a string quartet or jazz trio is a more beguiling invitation, although Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club has been know to make me shake a leg. To hunt down words is surely more thrilling than a tab of Ecstacy - even when, as in this case, there is no definitive answer to the origins of a phrase. It surely has an echo of fussy, if not the Cumberland dialect duddy fuddiel, a ragged fellow. It gained currency this century, on both sides of the Atlantic - although in Maine the word is fuddydud. Meanwhile, slippers and open fire beckoning, the more resonant phrase old buffer demands a quarry.



I was out of order the other day,” apologised the cashier at a garage on the A23. He had been churlish when I vouchsafed confusion over the use of “super” and “premium” brands of unleaded. “That’s all right,” I now replied, “we all have bad-hair days” - which, unwittingly, probably confounded the offence, for he was bald. The phrase often springs to the lips, but is absent from the new Oxford Dictionary of Slang. It could hardly fail to be a beguiling volume, but it lacks the authority of the multi-volume Random House American Slang, which dates the expression to Seattle and January 1991, but more evocative was the LA Times a month later: “bad-hair days... I’d been driving around in a convertible. I looked like a feral Hungarian mop dog.”



Titfers aloft,” writes disc-jockey Andy Kershaw doddishly in a letter to the latest issue of Mojo magazine by way of praising those who had produced its extensive coverage of Bob Dylan’s 1966 performances in the previous issue. (Amphetamine-fuelled, Dylan had told a bewildered Swedish interviewer at the time, “I myself happen to be Swedish.”) Kershaw - who locked himself away for three days to decipher Dylan’s every brilliant, mumbled remark on the disc - makes one pause, but his rhyming slang then makes sense: tit for tat: hat, which goes back to the Great War - and on to Me and My Girl, a work which is a far cry from that blistering version of “Like a Rolling Stone” into which Dylan was goaded by the audience cry of “Judas!” A masterpiece.


BLOWOUT v and n

Chic New Yorkers deem it well-nigh mandatory to have a good blowout before going on to dinner. The word has yet to reach a dictionary but is the current term for something which, in highly-trained hands, can cost as much as $275. Apparently, it is no mere blowdry, as we know it, but - in the wake of Jennifer Aniston - a craving to persuade everybody that one’s hair is straight and full. Once something to which only Jackie Onassis had recourse at the Waldorf-Astoria salon run by Kenneth Battelle, it now has Madison Avenue salons jammed at cocktail hour with addicts of these high-wattage devices. Meanwhile, irrelevantly, irresistibly, one is reminded of the neat graffito beside a hand-drier in a Balliol lavatory: “press here for SDP manifesto.”



The sensitive should continue to avoid the minefield that is the Grocer. Paul Baxter, commercial director of the Alldays chain, not only sells overpriced grocery, a high proportion of it such sugary compounds as Pot Noodles, but he asserts: “the c-store sector is constantly evolving and competiton is increasing.” A word need not be in a dictionary to exist, but who says, “I’m going to the c-store. Do you want anything?” It sounds like c-word. In any case, nobody calls it - in that peculiar, lavatorial formation - a convenience store. Meanwhile, surreally, the same issue advises: “biscuits should always be within arm’s reach of desire.” Mr Baxter’s staff might gesture towards the custard creams and ask, “something for the weekend, sir?”



Bong! Bong! Yawn. Distress over the shifting of News at Ten mistakes time for units rather than forever flowing. Inevitably, reference is also made to the watershed, nowadays a synonym for nine p.m. It can mean a shack for laundry, but, of rivers, it has been used in Germany (wasserscheide) for 600 years, and reached England around 1800 for the divide where they meet. To T. H. Huxley, however, it was the slope down which it flows. If Longfellow (1878) were in charge, one would wait even longer for Tarantino movies: “Midnight!... the watershed of Time.” The OED has no such use between 1893 and 1962, when the BBC referred to a “new 9.30 p.m. watershed policy.” In America, it is an area drained of water: most telly, then, is a watershed.



Naturally, the new Oxford dictionary of slang includes a section on pregnancy, with such phrases as “up the duff”, “in pig” and “in the spud line” - but not the nimbler infanticipate. American columnist Walter Winchell wrote millions of words but, even in his lifetime, this mover and shaker was forgotten, although now subject of an HBO movie and perhaps one by Scorcese. Still, one word is more than most leave behind - within a month he got this and infanticipation into print in Baltimore in 1934 - and his gaudy legacy also includes oomph, phut, weld, separate tepees, main stem and scram. These survive, not all in the OED, but infanticipate surely deserves a revival in more polite circles. Fittingly, he was always found in the Stork Club.



News that Robin Williams will star as Dr Minor in the movie of Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne makes one speculate about the digitial technology required. To bring to life the Broadmoor-incarcerated scholar will require something akin to that notorious final scene in Boogie Nights. In the book, Winchester includes his own bid to make the next edition of the OED (rumour has it that he will be successful): peotomy exists, from the Greek for amputation of the johnson, but Winchester adapted it for Minor’s extraordinary, bloodless act: a closely-described autopeotomy: and then, with “one swift movement that most would prefer not to imagine, he sliced off his organ about one inch from its base. He threw the offending object in the fire.”



In The Surgeon of Crowthorne, by way of introduction to scholarly Dr Minor’s act of autopeotomy, Simon Winchester supplies medical background, and offers a warning: beware “the renowned bloodsucking Brazilian fishlet known as candiru, which likes to swim up a man’s urine stream and lodge in the urethra with a ring of retrorse spines preventing its removal, one of the the very rare circumstances in which doctors will perform the operation known as a peotomy.” This is doubly fascinating, for Winchester’s use of retrorse - from the Latin, to mean turned backwards - was last done in 1882, according to the OED. Not only has this biography sold more than all of Winchester’s other books put together, it looks certain to bring him true, OED immortality.



The New York Times recently referred to salsa singer India’s extroversion. It can mean a malformed bladder, and one trusts that this is not the reason for her shimmying performances. It also surfaces in the genteel purlieux of Lorrie Moore’s recent collection of stories, Birds of America. Somebody stares “at her own reflection: in an attempt at extroversion, she had worn a tunic with large slices of watermelon depicted on the front.” It is a logical development from the adjective extrovert, but little used in England. Originally, in the seventeeth centuty, it had a religious, mystical connotation, and acquired its psychological tang in the 1920s, but the OED last notes it in 1959. Lorrie Moore would surely add local colour to the entry.



Outside the changing-rooms at the London Library, the eighteenth-century scholar Keith Walker replied to a polite enquiry after his health. “I’m suffering from aboulia today.” Reason enough, then, to slope off to lunch and discussion of a word unknown to Johnson, who certainly suffered from it. From the Greek, it means that loss of willpower which has one mooching about, and was first recorded in Dunglison’s Medical Lexicon in the middle of the last century. William James was one of its victims - but our talk was then scuppered by a stripe-shirted banker at the next table, who, quaffing water, brayed of a meeting with the President of Citibank about the credit-card market: “we’re anticipating sector response.” Would that he suffered from aboulia.



An anonymous piece in the Grocer magazine reported last week that a round-the-clock c-store will soon open on the Strand. Owned by Shell, which calls it Select, this contains a

refreshment area - a tonic for the area’s myriad homeless - and will have a “small ambient grocery section.” Presumably it is the section that is ambient, but what does this mean? It once meant revolving, but now means surrounding, as in the ambient air. Is the grocery, then, spread about the store? In which case it is neither a section nor that small. The OED notes that as an epithet of the air, “it is often ignorantly put for ‘limpid,’ or otherwise misused”, and one suspects that the Grocer homed in upon bien. So perhaps it is the grocery that is ambient after all.



No apologies for returning to John Updike’s masterly Bech at Bay. Along with The Simpsons scriptwriters, he has the most astute eye for contemporary America. At one point, Bech is on a disputatious committee of the great and good, and is told, “all you’ve got to do is preside. Just sit there on your tochis.” Variously spelt, from the Hebrew for beneath, it has been used this century for buttocks, as in The Premar Experiment (1976) by R H Rimmer. He also ghosted the memoirs of Mistress Jacqueline: Whips and Kisses. This suggests the tenor of Mr Rimmer’s work, unreviewed by the Times Literary Supplement, but one should not judge hastily. At least one expression therein - “your tuchis is smiling sideways at me” - would not be out of place in Updike.



There is a nasty moment in Lorrie Moore’s excellent new collection of stories, Birds of America, when somebody finds a dead man in a “black knit mask. It was pilled with grey.” Setting aside such slang meanings as fail, blackball and to give pills, it is a fascinating verb (not to mention noun), which, in this case, goes back to Old English and Latin. It means to make bald or to peel (while a lost usage - familiar to Chaucer and Shakespeare - is to pillage). In need of a synonym one might say, “don’t decorticate that scab!” Strictly speaking, then, this mask is rather the worse for wear, with some other substance visible below the knitting; which sounds unlikely, and clammy for the wearer, and one infers that in fact the wool was flecked with grey.



Thing are a bit out of kilter right now.” Again I did not know what I was saying, although the phrase has often sprung to the lips. Sufficent to note that this is composed amid the throes of moving (all those dictionaries, eighty boxes of books). The noun is invariably used in this form, as a negative rather than the good order which it denotes. Sometimes spelt kelter, its origins are obscure, apparently unconnected with the verb for hitching up a skirt. It often meant a frame, or the mechanism of a gun, and is familiar across the country and in America, where James Russell Lowell lamented in 1883: “I must rest awhile. My brain is out of kilter.” Over here, we are made of sterner stuff: the weekend should have one back in action, that is to say in true kilter.



In a gettable quiz one would not posit a link between the author of Urne-Buriall and such movies as Blood Simple and Fargo. Ethan Coen, their co-director, has now published a volume of stories, its Dylanesque title, Gates of Eden. Some are good, and all show a penchant for words that would be swiftly slung out at a script conference. Even the toniest multiplex must contain many ears puzzled by mucilaginous. It was first used by Sir Thomas Browne in Pseudodxica Epidemica (1646) to mean slimy, and the OED’s last instance is an 1884 volume about diseases of the nose and throat. Coen, however, uses it adroitly of a plate of beef stroganoff. Perhaps, at lunchtime today, more promising pupils will use it to test their teachers in school canteens.



This has many meanings; among them, one diligent, another recreational: of the latter, in 1647, “Digby’s Lady takes it ill, that her Lord grinds not at her mill” while Lady Chatterley “had to work the thing herself, grind her own coffee.” A use overlooked in every reference work, however, is a recent one that, in practice, imperils even the celibate. It is the term for nifty skateboarding, rollerblading and the suchlike: we all know that noise - redolent of a V2’s cutting out - which has one seeking the wall or gutter, something which can only get worse with the advent of such devices being built into shoes. One Californian manufacturer did not quite realize what he was saying when asserting, “so far we have less than one per cent penetration.”



The arrival of a piano in the new house prompted a spot-check of the first new book to cross the threshold: Jonathon Green’s Cassell Dictionary of Slang. Although more expensive than the recent OUP volume, it contains 65,000 entries rather than 10,000. As for joanna, which dates from the mid-nineteenth century, Green provides the more cogent summary (OUP gives space to a random, 1972 citation), and also includes the American term joanin’ - an exchange of insults, not rhyming slang for moanin’: the etymology is uncertain but there is a dialect phrase, Joan Blunt. Naturally, one soon strays further (I need a knuller). It is a marvel - the Sussex Stationers chain is doing it at half-price (£12.50), a snip, which is the duty-free of a day-trip to Brighton.



And so this is Christmas, and end-of-lease stores are infested with fly-by-night merchants, their goods counterfeit, if not stolen. Moreover, these gougers do not sweat themselves but fill the doorways with loudspeakers which broadcast spiel on a tape-loop. The device should be known as a barker, which one had always thought to be an American term for a fairground hawker (a synonym for carney), but in fact it goes back to seventeenth-century England. As Hotten put it, this was a man “employed to cry at the doors of gaffs, shows, and puffing shops, to entice people inside”. Absent, though, from the OED are the American usages of a shoe (a logical development from feet as dogs) and a word set in a larger type than the headline below it.



Absent from that corralling which is books of the year was Ann Fadiman’s delightful Ex Libris, a sassy volume in and around such matters as inscriptions on flyleaves, the merging of libraries on marriage - and the fact that all her family are obsessive proofreaders. The waiter is invariably delayed by their putting the menu into proper shape, from redundant apostrophes to surreal spelling. Such wayward creations are increasing. Only the other day, at Othello, the fashionable Italian restaurant in Hove, I spotted the useful coining of “vergin” olive oil. One might say, “I’m still pure - but vergin.” Favourite remains the Indian grocer in Battersea who offered colliflour - which calls for a Thurber drawing of a shaking dog in a bakery.



Always expect the unexpected. This is a sound rule. Even so, I hardly guessed that a stout parcel contained Katherine Barber’s new Canadian Oxford Dictionary. That land-mass has long been a by-word by jibes about dulness (Oxford once published Canadian Military Anecdotes). Perhaps this was what the Daily Express meant, back in 1928, when it noted that “one of the most descriptive Canadianisms is the word ‘kick’ instead of thrill.” Seventy years on, and this Dictionary is in fact hardly chockablock with the wild mintings upon which the press release dwells (Molson muscle: beer-belly; dipsy-doodle: evasion), but things emerge, such as a use of flowage not in the OED: a shallow pond. An undoubted fact which does not put a spark through the system.



In discussing Wiliam Hague’s shortcomings, Auberon Waugh remarks that he appeals to “dodgy second-hand car dealers and garagistes from Essex, but this is a type with which nobody else identifies and nobody admires.” Mr Hague might wince, but the rest of us can take it as a sign that the word will have a revival as a neat term for the proprietor of a filling-station. The OED credits the Observer in 1928 with the first importing of the French - and with a final, 1967 instance: “the garagiste greeted the news with the tired smile of those accustomed to dealing with the ignorant.” A fine phrase, whose author merits record. Why does the OED omit these? Richard Boston was galled that it credits the New Statesman, not himself, with coining Sod’s Law.



Little did I think that I would spot a gap in the new Canadian Oxford Dictionary, but Simon Hoggart recently wrote that in Canada “I watched the National News (affectionately known as the Nash)”, Washington followed by new salmon-fishing regulations. One had assumed this to be a fine, pleasingly dismissive rendering of that first syllable - surely worth a place over here during the absurd palaver about News at Ten. To Canadian ears, however, it most likely has another resonance. Look up Nash in the Dictionary (as is the current trend, partly an encylopaedia), and there is English architect John and American poet Ogden, but pride of places goes to (Cyril) Knowlton. Who? “From 1978-88 he was chief correspondent and anchor on CBC’s ‘The National’.”



You must remember zis, / A kiss is just a kiss, / A fly is just a fly,” doodles John Lennon on Anthology. His penchant for pun and wordplay makes one wonder what he could have done with osculation in popular song. From the Latin for kiss, it might sound technical - passion enacted upon a microscope slide - and there are indeed zoological usages. As for a meeting of the lips, the OED would have us believe that it petered out in the nineteenth century (Thackeray was fond of it), but it overlooks the most famous twentieth-century instance: in Ulysses, when Bloom “kissed the plump mellow yellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation.”


MOOCH v and n

A busy autumn, so now a mooch in New York and some frequenting of the Society Library. Back in 1925, American Speech called it “a gem of a word”, but to say as much now raises eyebrows, for it has connotations of gambling and drug-dealing absent from the OED, which dwells upon bunking off to pick blackberries. It posits a derivation from the old French for skulking, and, naturally, finds examples of the unactivity in that paean to lassitude, Three Men In A Boat. Also absent from the OED, but which surfaces in Jonathon Green’s admirable Slang is moocher’s mile, a Thirties expression for that barren stretch east of Piccadilly Circus to Leicester Square: more worthy of a place on street signs than the absurd Theatreland which nobody uses.



President Clinton’s repeated assertion about an air-strike "to degrade" Saddam Hussein might sound curious to some ears. After all, the despot could hardly be any more base. In fact, the verb has been so consumed by its meaning of to debase that this has sidelined its first, medieval sense of taking down a degree or even of ousting (it could also be disgrade). Massinger later wrote of the way in which "thou dost degrade thyself of all the honours Thy ancestors left thee." In each case, the OED last cites Jowett and Cardinal Newman, which is lofty company for any President. Incidentally, whenever Clinton attends a fundraiser at the Sheraton New York, he uses the side-entrance: surely a perilous photo-opportunity: it is hard by the 53rd Street Cigar Bar.



The John Lennon box, blandly titled Anthology, merited a pun upon Chrestomathy. Greek for useful learning, it is less random. The last OED instance is 1883, but new, wide currency came in 1949 with The Mencken Chrestomathy. Mencken, Alistair Cooke‚s hero, ignored the word’s recent nuance, an aid to the acquiring of a language; nor was he deterred by "a few newspaper smarties [who] protested that the word would be unfamiliar to many readers, as it was to them. Thousands of excellent nouns, verbs and adjectives that have stood in every decent dictionary for years are still unfamiliar to such ignoramuses, and I do not solicit their patronage. Let them continue to recreate themselves with whodunnits, and leave my vocabulary and me to my own customers, who have all been to school."



At the small Arno Bay Hotel in Port Lincoln on the Eyre Peninsula in Australia, there has been controversy over plans for a casino. Wowsers are against it. MP Nick Xenophon, no less, claims that "this isn’t about being a wowser, this is a social-impact issue." That’s their problem, but for us the surprise is that this word - etymology maddeningly obscure, and a strange first syllable for something that means a killjoy - was in recent use in both England and America before becoming Australian. In 1963 The Economist called Barry Goldwater an "alien wowser" and The Times in 1977 described the licensing laws as "the work of wowsers" while Trudeau made the stylish remark, in Australia, that "you have wowerism; we have Toronto."


FIRE-NEW a Absent from all those round-ups of books of the year was Anthony Burgess’s hefty, posthumous, instantly companionable volume of essays, One Man’s Chorus. Among them is a piece about a set - "fire-new from the printer" - of the second edition of the OED, a phrase therein recorded as last being used by Browning in 1842. It also figures in Richard III. Oddly, this baking term has fallen from use while brand-new survives, even though branding-irons are less familiar to most of us than toast and croissants. As for spanking new, the origins are unclear, possibly an echo of the Danish spanke, to strut, while span new goes back to the fourteenth century, a shortening of the Old Norse for new chip. A digression to warm the great Burgess’s shade.


ASSISTIVE a American cinemas are so loudly amplified that nobody except the stone-deaf could possibly hope for the "assistive hearing device" whose availability is announced - in writing - on the screen before every showing. Until now, the word had been so rare that the OED can mention only the medieval Latin assistiva mulier, a kind of nun. A far cry from Antz. Whatever, one can only hope that this cumbersome coining does not cross the Atlantic and oust the concise, honest issuing of a hearing-aid. Such shirking of physical fact recalls the unfortunate incident when an Englishman was told by a client that she had an "exceptional" child, upon which he congratulated her; at which she looked askance, for by that she had meant that her offspring had a mental affliction.


KVELL v Controversy over Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi has abated, and along comes Paul Rudnick’s hot-ticket, off-Broadway item, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. According to the Daily News, "in the play’s opening, Adam (the hunky Alan Tudyke) appears clad only in a jockstrap, kvelling over Eden - only, he says, I would put the lake over there." From the yiddish kveln, to be delighted, it means boast or gloat, which the OED dates to 1967. Leo Rosten suggests earlier use: "your children make you kvell.". As with many words, it had new impetus with the movie Clueless - "my heart is totally bursting... I know I'm kvelling" - but is absent from Wentworth and Flexner’s American Slang, with which one has to be content until the Random House volumes reach O-Z.



Some of us map out the world by reference to its libraries. Each has its particular character and use, something often indefinable but which no other institution can supply. Such as the colonial atmosphere of Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, a splendid building, now with a mere 300 members, and recently described in the New York Times as "not a place that brooks much folderol." It is a curious characteristic of the American language not only to produce sassy fresh mintings but to revive such words. The OED last records its use in 1881, and quotes Sala twenty years earlier as referring to "none of your fal-de-rol lavender boots, but rigid, unmistakeable shoes." Variously spelt, it meant the meaningless refrain in songs in the seventeeth century, hence trifles or gewgaws.



The New Yorker recently gave a brief notice to Robert Clark’s new novel, Mr White’s Confession, which is set amid the murders and shantytowns of St. Paul in the Thirties and derives its power from the ruminations about the nature of good and evil by a Mr White, "a huge galoot." According to the OED, this goes back to 1812, to mean a soldier, something which had become an awkward soldier by mid-century. Meanwhile, in America, it had meant anybody of an uncouth or awkward nature, but was intended amiably, joshingly enough. And, needless to say, it was something to which Mark Twain had recourse. The OED cannot supply an origin for the word, but J. E. Lighter’s Random House volume of American Slang posits a Krio connection in galut, hefty.



Nora Ephron’s cyberspace movie You’ve Got Mail is not the perfect romantic comedy which was its inspiration, The Shop Around the Corner. The pop soundtrack belies a near-witty script. There are good touches: an allusion to the musical version, She Loves Me; chain-store-owner Tom Hanks uses an IBM lap-top, independent shop-owner Meg Ryan an Apple; and men’s close knowledge of The Godfather, as in the advice "go to the mattresses" - sleeping on the floor before an offensive. Absent from the OED, it figures in the Random House American Slang, but not until a 1976 instance, when it means something defensive, derived from mattresses as a shield against bullets. The Godfather perhaps echoes an old naval expression, to go to the mat - to settle a dispute by wrestling.



Erudition and slangy wit are the stock-in-trade of music critic Will Friedwald. He supplies extensive notes for Mosaic’s 5-CD collection of previously unavailable, vintage sides by June Christy and Peggy Lee, "almost all with highly copacetic small group jazz backing." Not a gap in a classical education, for, variously spelt, it surfaced around 1919 in Harlem, became a dance group’s name, and, fifty years on, went across the universe, when Mission Control in Houston informed the astronauts, "everything is in copacetic order." John O’Hara thought that this synonym for well-drilled was a gangster corruption from the Italian, but the OED and the Random House American Slang agree in asserting that its origins are uncertain. A Hebrew parallel is probably a coincidence, but Wentworth and Flexner also posit the Louisiana Creole French coupe-sétique.



Among the well-read, breasts always arouse thoughts of an eminent Powell - neither the novelist nor the late politician, but the Supreme Court justice whose name was used for them by Gore Vidal in Myron (1975). It was a protest against censorship. Those two full syllables were well chosen. Meanwhile, Myra wakes to find that Myron “has not only removed the delicate honeypot of every real American boy’s dream but replaced it with A Thing! A ghastly long thick tubular object... This rehnquist has got to go!” In 1987, Vidal replaced it with “cock” - less prescient than usual, for this crony of Nixon and Reagan, William Rehnquist is now Chief Justice: such is destiny, his star’s progress, that he deliberates over President Clinton’s errant rehnquist.



n a free-association test any mention of Larry Flynt’s magazine Hustler would surely not prompt the reply Hello! They are poles apart. The latest issue of Hustler, however, does lead one to reflect upon a new usage which the word has acquired. The issue does not contain the promised revelations about Bob Livingstone, but recumbent in twenty-year-old photographs - more agape than love - is Dr Laura Schlessinger, now a highly moralistic wireless agony-aunt. She is in the habit of silencing callers with stern advice and then asking, "hello? hello?"

to make them feel even more idiotic. It was not long before kindergarten playgrounds echoed to the tapping of dunderheads’ brows and the query "hello?" when something had not sunk in. Such tactics have spread to banking circles.


TRIAGE n and v

In Let Nothing You Dismay, Mark O’Donnell’s recent witty novel about Christmas in Manhattan, the hapless hero "strategised triage on the remaining parties"; in reporting on Y2K, the New York Times notes that companies are "resorting to triage, fixing the most important programs first and worrying about minor ones later." This shows the circular course which language takes. From the French trier, to cull, the adjective trié meant excellent, as in Spenser’s "feete of silver trye". By the nineteenth century, coffee beans were best, middling or triage, but by 1930, in Stretchers by F.A. Pottle, it acquired a medical hue (a "triage officer"), to determine the urgency of wounds awaiting operation. American hospitals have triage units, source of the reference to parties and Y2K. It is unlikely to be a Starbucks brew.


SLAG v and n

To some ears slag means a heap; to deride; or a woman who will indeed pop her cork for any man. There can surely be no greater sign of the way we live now than a usage which it has recently acquired. A way of getting off heroin is to substitute methadone, itself addictive, and it is the most controlled drug in America. Most of those who are given it have to visit a clinic each day rather than be trusted with a bottleful. At one clinic in Chinatown, a nurse watches each morning as patients drink a cup, and then asks them a question - to make sure that they have swallowed it rather than kept it in their mouths - slagging -, ready for expectorant resale.



Outside a subway station on Seventh Avenue one cold evening, a woman suddenly addressed the querulous young child at her side, "I’ve just about had enough! You think I can’t be unglued? Well, I’ll just show you how unglued I can get!" With which, she grabbed him by the throat for a near-choking shake. Which led one to reflect upon Guiliani’s zero-tolerant New York and unglued, a fine adjective which dates from 1910, then to wonder what life can hold for the hapless child (no doubt, they were from New Jersey). Subway trains have been purged of spray-canned daubs but the future delinquent could - in a recent coining - create some scratchiti: the gouging of slogans upon the windows. Diamonds are best but a knife will do.



Probably the best book ever is Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. In eight years and four editions, it has grown to 1750 pages (now finding room for Swedish singer Monica Zetterlund, the thinking man’s Astrud Gilberto). Born in Kew and Dunoon, they do not affect hip jive, but their prose is uberated by such phrases as Bill Laswell’s reworking of Miles a cause “to fear the heresies of the epigoni, and yet in the event this is a classic Miles Davis album”; also in generative mode, “the Modern Jazz Quartet was born viviparously out of the post-war Dizzy Gillespie band.” Coined by Sir Thomas Browne, from the Latin for something brought forth alive, it is entirely zoological in the OED - no hint of vibes.



Life is short, but imprudent to pass by the author of The History of Veterans’ Pensions and Related Benefits. A. F. Sisson, who was an Attorney in the U.S. Government, took eight years on his Word and Expression Locater (1966). Distinct from a thesaurus, it finds words to suit the desired meaning. No sooner had I bought a hardback for $6 than Borders are doing for £3.99 the paperback recension by Barbara Kipfer, she of 14,000 Things to Be Happy About. Sisson is surely 14,001. Both editions have their uses. No crib, it makes one verify whether a word is the precise one, as I did when wanting something other than fuelled to describe the way in which Cook and Morton’s prose is - uberated, from the Latin for udder, as used by Cockeram in 1623.



Do you want butter on it?” asked the man in a Brighton sandwich-shop. “Yes, please.” With which, he dug his knife into a tub of grease which I could not believe was butter. “Is that margerine?” “Yes.” “But you just asked if I wanted butter.” “I know, he said, knife aloft, “it’s a figure of speech, isn’t it?” No arguing with that (but why is it yellow, not blue or green?) - but there in the fridge was some butter, wrapper folded along most of the craggy edge . “Look, there’s real butter, under your nose!” “It’s hard, for melting in baked potatoes.” “You don’t put margerine in the potatoes?” “No,” he replied in surprise: “you can’t put margerine in potatoes.” If the Mad Hatter had tendered for outside caterers, this would have been the man for the job.



Hard times in the high street. The Grocer laments jam’s struggle. Sales are down, but demand grows for better stuff (“extra jam”). Sandra Sherratt, of Trustin, avers that “they are eating fewer host products” and Fiona Chatwin of Nestle experiences fewer “breakfast occasions.” Ian Grieg of Robertson’s wants, stickily, “category management to make jam fixtures easier to shop. One in four consumers walk past the fixture without making a purchase because they think it is too complicated.” He will oust “duplicates that offer the same thing... a lot of deep-cut activity went into extra jam last year, cannibalising the sales of standard jam.” In no dictionary, deep-cut is not chunky jam but such tactics as “ buy one, get one free”.



Frank Kermode, in the London Review of Books, has caught up with Bech At Bay by John Updike, whom he calls “alive, fertile and motile.” One might think this a hangover from Kermode’s structuralist phase, but no it is a zoological term - able to move; presumably that is Kermode’s sense rather than the psychological one - somebody who reacts to motor imagery rather than auditory or visual. Updike is the supreme chronicler of sight and sound, a dextrous vocabulary to hand. Kermode surmises that this is the last of Bech “the funhouse distortion of his inventor” - but, no! the latest issue of The New Yorker has a new story with such phrases as “her livid nipples” and “toward dawn there was a prolonged bright ruckus that must have been Buffalo.”



I know I was peeved, in the Beatles’ early days, at my mother’s saying ‘it’s yes, not yeah’,” said an acquaintance, “but I am maddened by my children’s use of words from Clueless and Friends - might as well be Urdu. And then the other day, I heard one of them say on the telephone, ‘Let’s get a pony.’ A pony! First I knew of it - no mention of a field or food. I then looked through my copy of Jonathan Green’s new slang dictionary: all sorts of meaning for it. £25, of course, one knew, but also a crib for translation - and it’s also a fairly recent coining for crack cocaine. Could be that this was all a tease, making the slang book more terrifying than a medical dictionary. I’m not sure what to do.” More Virginia Ironside’s territory than mine. MUMBO-


JUMBO n and adj

The White House lawyer who denounced the House prosecutors’ “legal mumbo jumbo” did not know what he was saying. The expression for meaningless talk probably derives from Mama Dyumbo, protective spirit of the Khassonkee tribe in Senegal, found in the nineteenth century: the chanting of its apparent powers are used to keep wives in order, hence something foolishly worshipped which mutated into its current meaning. Whatever, it is surely ill-advised in politically-correct America to use a word which must anger informed African-Americans and feminists. Meanwhile, will Monty Python’s revival include the Drury Lane character Mrs Niggerbaiter? “I don’t like darkies!” Shrieks John Cleese, “she doesn’t like darkies.... who does?”



No sooner have we wondered whether Monty Python’s US tour will contain the 1974 character Mrs Niggerbaiter than comes a report that the new mayor of Washington, David Howard, has resigned because he referred to a fund as being niggardly. Those in earshot were offended, others telephoned to protest - all of them ignorant, unlike Mr Howard. Samuel Johnson noted that it is derived from the Icelandic ninggr, a miser, and cites Shakespeare and Sidney (“so sluttish a vice”). The OED is more cautious in its etymology (obscure), finds earlier examples, and such meanings as narrow and a false bottom. Nigger is another, complex matter, and Mr Howard’s fate reminds us that Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” was his most prescient writing.



Niggardly shows how it is easy to offend Americans. And, in an East Village record store, I dithered over two Miles CD box-sets, and said, “I’ll plump for that one” - not a verb to use in front of the dietetically-challenged cashier. Right is on my side, albeit something espoused by Mrs Thatcher and - probably - Tony Blair. Matters of girth aside, this sense is from Low German, plumpen, an onomatopoeic verb for something that falls directly into water. (The senses can merge: to plump cushions rectifies the effect of those who plumped into them.) By extension, to plump is to vote plump - directly for one candidate, no truck with transferable votes. The PR approach to the Miles dilemma would have been to buy both hefty sets, which makes sense.


SEXY adj

Is your love-life dull? How about an open fire, candles, a big, big bottle of wine, tandoori chicken, dried-up somosas and lukewarm rice? The Grocer records that cluttered Alldays is ousting fast food. Director Colin Glass says, “I’m sure it will work in c-stores, but we have spent so much time, money and effort in it because it’s sexy that it has led us to neglect the basics.” The OED merges the hormonal and the ad-man usage, citing the Wall Street Journal in 1970: “soybeans may not sound as exy as electronics.” The Grocer’s June Hampton, no less, enthuses over something called Cheesestrings - peelable string cheese. Apparently, this stuff has scope for greater “penetration and usage”- hardly the case with Dairylea cheese-triangles of yore.


LAND-OFFICE adj The scramble for Internet shares echoes the Gold Rush. As if to prove the point, an archaeologist has found the Lost Pioneers of 1849 in Death Valley. The relics includes, shoes, letters and coins worth $500,000. In another such loop of time, Americans refer again to doing land-office business in a boom - as did those canny entrepreneurs who parcelled out land in the Rush. Fittingly enough. it now turns out that the relics are a scam. Meanwhile, in place of that weary cliche about gossipping over the water-cooler, the stylish could revive the phrase about doing so over the picklebarrel. The OED lists the word, but with neither example nor hint of such a metaphor. As for, it exists but - significantly? - is inaccessible.



A dispute has broken out among mature students at Columbia. Some regard kaffeeklatsch with a teacher as favouritism; and they could be right, for knowledge is better imparted and absorbed at a table than in a lecture-hall. An unusually inspired amalgamation of German words - coffee and gossip -, it appears to have reached English, in particular American, late last century and, variously spelled, been in consistent use since, as in the late William Whyte’s The Organization Man, whose woman, by contrast, “will be kaffee-klatching and sunbathing.” Abbreviated to klatsch, it still suggests that coffee fuels the proceedings. Now that coffee shops are as booming as dot.coms, perhaps it is time for another new chain: Kaffeeklatsch™.



Are John Baxter’s eyes defunct? His biography of Woody Allen opens with the Carlyle on the wrong Avenue, and has Allen creeping “through back alleys, fire doors and corridors from his apartment to the kitchen areas of the Carlyle” for his Monday-night gig. In fact, he has to cross Madison Avenue. The book continues in this sour, ramshackle way, but has some interest, as in Allen’s describing his marriage to Louise Lasser as dissolved. She’s furious. “’Dissolved’? I like that. A divorce is a cut-off, whereas ‘dissolved’ means it gradually goes into something different.” Wrong - Allen has Chaucer and the Brontes, among others, on his side. Ms Lasser is perhaps thinking of the cinematic term: an apt one for Allen’s lingering with past loves.



Those of us who sit through the credits are invariably rewarded not only with details of who sang what but also with names that no scriptwriter would dare invent - or producer allow above the title. Somebody with a hand in the sprightly Antz has the killer surname Posthumus and the dismal Sex and the City at least yields the name Winsome. Doubtless, in her own case, many a date has ended with one or other thinking, ruefully or otherwise, “you win some...” It derives from the Old English for joy, and sum meant productive of. The word is overlooked by Johnson - it underwent a hiatus between the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century, when it returned, with the current meaning of pleasant on the eye, via Northern dialect. Quite a chat-up line.



In his biography, John Baxter thanks somebody for the loan of a New York apartment, which “gave me the chance to live and work at the heart of Woody Allen’s milieu.” Uh? Not only does he relocate the Carlyle but describes that splendid singer and pianist Bobby Short as “chubby” in the same paragraph. Will Baxter be as lithe - and working - at his age? The sour biography induces anhedonia - the inability to feel pleasure, from Greek and Latin, via French, first used by T.A. Ribot in 1896, who said: “if I may coin a counter-designation to analgesia.” William James picked it up - and thought sea-sickness a cause. Wider currency would have come - or would it? - if Allen had not chosen a new title, Annie Hall, three weeks before opening.



It sounds unduly cloacal. Elyse Kaye of Haggerty Entreprises, Inc complains that I wrote of “Lava World International TM Haggerty Enterprises product... the Lava R brand motion lamp, which you referred to as a ‘lava lamp’... it is important that our product be referred to as the Lava R brand motion lamp. We realize that may seem like quite a mouthful, yet we want to ensure that in the future your publication doesn’t refer to any product as a ‘lava lamp’, not even ours.” In fact, I was quoting a splendid Lorrie Moore story. Is Ms Kaye an A.N. Wilson practical joke? No, Haggerty exists, and “lava lamp” is not in the OED (but is in OUP’s Canadian dictionary). What a job, to scour the world’s press for lava lamps - and get in a lather ™.



Haggerty Enterprises Inc.’s complaint about my innocent quoting of Lorrie Moore’s brilliant reference to somebody’s blood moving “around his face and neck like a lava lamp” brings to mind Peter Cook and Virginia Woolf - an odd couple, sure-fire clients for Relate. But, no: the word prompted her to write in The Waves of “the speed, the hot molten effect, the laval flow of sentence into sentence that I need.” And lava-lava is a Samoan skirt, first noticed by Robert Louis Stevenson, years before Naomi and Kate: with it, nothing is worn above the waist. Cook, affecting the voice of a stripper’s manager, once rang the B.B.C. to ask why it would not book his artistes but had in fact just broadcast the Ipi Tombi dancers in front of the Queen Mother.


SPIRIT n and v

Death from chick-pea mixture (10). Spotlight on Vesuvius (4, 4). In idle moments, the propensity to pun makes me wonder whether a whole new career could open up in setting crosswords. Stephen Sondheim gives me lessons, at a reasonable rate, but these would cost you more, for the volume which collects those which he set for New York magazine is now scarce. “Bafflement, not information, is the keystone of a cryptic puzzle... all it takes is inexhaustible patience. limitless time and an eccentric mind,” he asserts. As he notes, by way of example: Ethyl alcohol is one way to kill a fish if you listen closely (6). Spirit - say it aloud, slowly. Simple when you know how. Sondheim gets far more fiendish than that. As for me: posthumous; lava lamp.



Friends is back on form with series five. Free from celebrity cameos, it has real surprises. Phoebe’s mink is “the best thing I’ve ever had draped round me - including Phil Huntley”, Monica and Chandler’s secret romance is known only to Joey - who says hence. Do not crow. Who among us knows whence hence? It combines the Old English hen or henne (this) and se (-wards). (It was a briefly an American noun for the future.) Arbuthnot said, “let not posterity a thousand years hence look for truth in the voluminous annals of pedants”, a quoted by Johnson, who calls from hence “a vitious expression, which crept into use even among good authors, as the original force of the word hence was gradually forgotten.” Dryden, unlike Joey, was an offender.



I once asked a bookseller whether he had any Buchan, to which he replied, “no - we’re at the sewage end of the market!” The other, slighted customers looked askance. He would come a cropper in America. Euphemism takes on a dimension that demands a new Swift. In the latest Harper’s, Nancy Blatt of the Water Environment Federation objects to Sheldon Rampton’s use of the phrase “sewage industry” - he should refer to biosolids. (The word is not in the OED.) He counters that her for-profit body used to be called, more clearly, the Federation of Sewage and Industrial Wastes Associates; moreover, he quotes Nevada Water Planning’s admirable distillation, the Water Words Dictionary: “the terms biosolids, sludge and sewage can be used interchangeably.”



Hope for civilization recedes with every issue of the Grocer. It boasts “exclusive”covereage of the IFF show, where Alf Carr, director-general of the British Frozen Food Federation enthuses: “there is an increase in sophistication of the bake-off process with products going into stores and being cooked and sold there. People always think the main base for frozen lines is the retail cabinet but now there is every sort of product you can think of for bake off.” Bake-off (not in the OED) is a bogus process, akin to those pubs which proclaim home-made food but merely heat it up. Carr’s intestines are girding themselves: McCain’s bake-off “will set an industry standard over the next few years, they give a home-delivery or pizza-parlour standard.”


MONKEYSEE v and adj For those of us who miss Frank Rich’s theatre reviews in the New York Times there is the consolation of the recent 1100-page collection Hot Seat and his appearances on the op-ed page. Here he gave the definitive demolition of Nicole Kidman and David Hare’s version of La Ronde. (I have kept to my vow of seeing no Hare since leaving at the interval that leaden thing about a pop group,Teeth ’n’ Smiles , as bad as Poliakoff’s City Sugar.) Rich summarises the transatlantic PR campaign for which Newsweek fell first of all: it “oversold the sexual come-on” and “set the tone for the monkey-see media to follow.” If anything, Rich is guilty of tautology: subsequent events are implicit in the phrase monkeysee, monkeydo, also absent from the OED


IN-TIME n One of the staff in Brighton reference library was crouched by a shelf and I asked her where I could find that week’s issue of the Grocer. She could not help, she explained, as she was on in-time. I did not say as much but had hoped that, even in this era of management-speak, librarians would conserve some interest in the use of words. In any case, surely she was

not in but out now, among the public. No, she continued, out was to be fielding queries at the desk, from which in-time is a respite. One can understand this need, for, at the desk, the quest for the Grocer was hindered: the librarian was wearily dealing with somebody on the telephone who, verbosely, sought telephone directories printed several decades before the device was invented.


PLUCK n and v

Curious, a word’s diversity. Pluck is not only the entrails of an animal ground into sausages, but also an act of picking and feat of courage. One is restless until it’s settled. Johnson posits a Saxon origin, ploccian, and notes “it is very generally and licentiously used, particularly by Shakespeare.” Courage - pluck up heart - is linked, but as for “the heart, liver and other lights of an animal”, he moots Erse, plughk - “I know not whether derived from the English, rather than the English from the Erse.” The OED takes a more scientific approach, and the word fills several fascinating pages, also noting Seventies black slang for wine, and the age-old pluck a rose - women’s euphemism for urination when the privy was in the garden.


WEIRD adj, v and n

My three tokens yielded a copy of Uncut and its an interview with Bob Dylan. It must have been weird to perform with Gregory Peck? “Well, listen, everything’s weird. You tell me something that’s not weird.” He’s right. In compiling the abeyant News of the Weird, I found the world madder at every turn. As for weird, it has got weirder over the centuries. Originally Old English wyrd, it was destiny or the ability to predict it, and is a crux in Macbeth: both weyard and weyward sisters figure (amended by Theobald to weïrd), and so wayward events are weird - actual, madcap events rather than probable events of any hue. But Uncut’s cover-disc has weirded my life: I shall be buying Dave Alvin CDs. Weird to have missed him. A veritable Dylan.


IRK v “ ‘Irks’ is terribly Edwardian. Nobody in England has said ‘irks’ in years.” So John Walsh informed Steve Martin the other day. My generation did: a Classics master’s intitials IRC prompted years of puns (“irksome prep.”). Spurned by Walsh, much used by Shakespeare, irk came from Scandanavia via the North. Johnson quotes Addison: “there is nothing so irksome as general discourses, especially when they turn chiefly upon words.” On the contrary. Francis Wheen, for one, happily confesses to using irk (“a very handy word”), and Julian Barnes chimes in with the promise to use it in his new novel, and discourses: “is Walsh perhaps turning a variant on erk? Not Edwardian, it’s wartime naval slang.” Perhaps this was a subtext to Ian Clark’s sobriquet.



In the bar-parlour of The Angler’s Rest, Francis Wheen rues a fortnight which will have him in his shed around the clock to polish a pacey life of Marx for autumn publication. He is only fretful over fretful. “When you read through something at a clip, you notice such tics as a penchant for fretful. Oddly enough, I’ve also noticed repeated fretful in one of Mark Lawson’s novels. I like to give words a chance, I always work in worsted” Fretful’s complex history has a root in Old English for eat - and prompts Julian Barnes to say that “it suggests something more energetic than anxiety.” He himself had a letter which pointed out several uses of parodic in Letters From London, and drolly reminds Wheen of the “quills upon the fretful porpentine.”



No sooner had Nabokov scholar Stephen Crook mentioned the great man’s penchant for callipygous than Julian Barnes said that he revised the OED’s entry for a word first used by Sir Thomas Browne, rarely since. “One-armed attempts to revive a word rarely succeed,” says Barnes: an Aldous Huxley letter announced his campaign, and callipygous recurs in his fiction (“one does not fall in love with a loud speaker however attractively callipygous”). Wodehouse picked it up, but the entry misses Anthony Burgess - and Humbert’s fantasy of “helping a callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx.” Barnes surmises that Nabokov read Huxley and took it for common parlance. We owe it to Huxley’s shade to speak of the callipygous Gwyneth Paltrow.



The diversions prompted by Francis Wheen and Julian Barnes’s commentary upon the John Walsh/Steve Martin irk controversy have delayed mention of Martin’s casually remarking that “in every industry, there’s a swaff of people who you would call ‘well-read’... and there’s the mass of people who aren’t.” Martin claims not to be well-read, but one boggles that LA should echo to a word last used in 1688. It is a variant of swathe, itself a word whose Old English origins do not fully explain the way in which it means both a section of mown grass and a wrapping up in cloth. It could make for a disquisition similar to those in Martin’s Picasso play - scandalously overlooked by London, as are the equally witty conceits which animate the work of David Ives.



Shakespeare in love was one thing, William Espy quite another. The American wordsmith is dead at 88, seven decades after marrying Ann Hathaway: he thought the name would inspire his poetry. Alas, she was soon back in an earlier boyfriend’s arms. Espy must certainly have known Leigh Hunt’s call for magnaminity: “we all, like Moses, should espy, / Ev’n in a bush, the radiant Deity.” Espy lived up to his name, in time. A varied career and wives led to a first book in 1971, some about words, such as a “bobtailed, generally chronological” one on proper nouns, and much punning light verse. “I love the girls who don't./ I love the girls who do; / But best, the girls who say, 'I don't . . . / But maybe just for you.” Seek out his memoirs, Oysterville.


EXPRESS v No sooner had I bought a six-pack of apple-juice than I learned that I might have need of a bra - for myself. This is not transvestism, not even mere hyponchondria. It is little reported that chemicals from the print upon cartons seep into the liquid and create female hormones (just as mogadon survives in the water system). It is an unfortunate situation - and makes express becomes doubly useful. Bacon said, “among the watry juices of fruit are all the fruits out of which drink is expressed; as the grape, and the apple.” Since then, the usuage has been more specific, as in Carter and Dodds’s Dictionary of Midwifery: “the patient should be taught how to express secretion from the nipple so that the milk may be able to flow freely later on.”



Raj Sharma of Leicester’s Sharma store laments: “sometimes it’s a lonely business. But with The Grocer you feel you’ve got someone on your side.” In Jane Kelly’s Focus on Pizza, Green Isle Foods’ managing director Michael Dwyer lauds “the next generation main meal pizza” which, says Ms Kelly, is Feast of Flavours “presliced with sharing in mind.” Johnson defines pre as “a particle which, prefixed to words derived from the Latin, marks priority of time or rank.” Whatever the inability to slice pizza, why, in this era of business “efficiency”, is so much breath wasted in adding a syllable inherent in such words as booked? Swift noted, “you need not wipe your knife to cut bread; because in cutting a slice or two it will wipe itself.”



What goes through couch-potatoes’ minds when an episode of something is announced by cable companies as “all-new” - a phrase not in the OED - but proves to be a re-run? Even if it were a fresh instalment, it should be described as brand-new or fire-new, for an all-new episode suggests that others - weirdly - must be partly-new and somehow incorporate stock footage which would give every narrative an unlikely, Groundhog Day-twist. But, no, the prevalence of this claim in America has led to complaints - and to one cable company’s chief making the bizarre explanation that all-new means an episode not previously shown by that company - as if anybody were enthralled by a particular transmitter. Let us resist a phrase which could creep here.



The latest issue of The Grocer brings an inadvertent summary of contemporary England, with the “traditional c-store product portfolio of milk, bread, confectionery, crisps and snacks, soft drinks, cigarettes.” These sit as painfully on the lips as “product portfolio” and “traditional”. Johnson defines tradition as “communication from age to age”. Whatever elevation c-store owners claim by numbering Mr Apu among their number, such trade hardly traverses the ages - especially as stores keep changing their names (what happened to Wavy Line?). In this case, “usual” is the right word. Traditional has not only acquired a chintzy hue but is used so randomly as to be meaningless: successful books prompt imitations “in the tradition of”.



David Mellor’s adumbrations upon Mahler’s 5th led, convincingly, to his plumping for Lenny and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1986 (still full-price), honourable mention made of Klaus Tennstedt, who was “a personal friend”. Mellor should stick with friends, acquaintances and lovers: that tautology is pervasive, as in railway guards’ recent, airline-like reminder that “customers” should take all their “personal belongings” at the next “station stop” - rather than leap out midway with somebody else’s stuff. Meanwhile, I steel myself to hear a recent disc not mentioned by Mellor: David Briggs’s version of Mahler’s 5th for the organ at Gloucester Cathedral. And why not? Mahler made piano-rolls of other symphonies - preferable to the Boulez discs.



Malcolm Roe, of Hove, has been injuncted by the Council to stop carding. Any more of it, and he’s in the jug. Mr Roe’s crime is neither, as Johnson defined it, to “comminute wool with a piece of wood” nor, in Thomas Shelton’s 1612 phrase, to “be carded and

purged of certain base things.’ On the contrary. In a usage absent from the OED, he put tarts’ adverts in telephone-kiosks: such droll invitations as those in which the phrase bound over has nothing to do with keeping the peace. It’s all a question of definition. Others still card: I dialled 01273 700083 and asked a startled, laughing woman if she was envious of the sums now commanded by one who has done more than card in a kiosk - Monica Lewinsky: “no, not at all - good luck to her!”


N’ conj. Prospect quotes Lisa Jardine as being of the opinion that Shakespeare is “a pick ‘n’ mix playwright”. That this reduces him to the level of a cheap-candy stall in Woolworth’s need not delay us (he has weathered worse, usually at the National), but it is instructive to compare this with a recent remark by Salman Rushdie in the New York Times: “pick ’n’ mix [is] at the heart of the modern, and hasn’t it been that way for most of this all-shook-up century?” His rock ’n’ roll take on culture has at least got the punctuation right: ’n’ lacks an a and d - hence it is two apostrophes to indicate their omission, not quotation-marks. Even the Apple system does not grasp this: it’s a matter of cut-and-pasting the second ’ to put it in front of the n.



Heinz is closing the Harlesden outpost of its worldwide operation, and The Grocer quotes president Bill Johnson, who does not want the firm to be “a decentralised collection of unaligned autonomous affiliates.” Tautology is scarcely the word for it, I remark to the Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones, who recalls that her father was a stickler for meaning: he fought a doomed battle over postgraduate (graduate is sufficent) - moreover, when a helpful removal-man pointed out some rust on a fire, he replied, “that’s not rust, it’s corrosion - it’s non-ferrous metal.” Rather than be dumbfounded, a cannier removal man would have quoted Johnson on rust: “the red desquamation of old iron” and “the tarnished or corroded surface of any metal.”



There’s no muddling those two grey-haired, 90-year-old, finely-spoken English gentlemen who have made Manhattan their home and regularly delivered commentary upon its manifold delights and absurdities: Alistair Cooke has an apartment on Fifth Avenue by the Park while Quentin Crisp makes do with a dusty room in Greenwich Village. All of which is to say that the OED on CD-ROM has its uses but none of the tactile pleasure of the printed volumes: absent from both is the recurrent offer of tactile as a quality in lonely-hearts columns. But the CD-ROM solves one question: who is quoted more, Cooke or Crisp? Neither figures. The many Cooke references are either the authors of a work on physics or fungi - or a 1930 study, Prepubescent Syphilis.



AWOL, Anthony Burgess’s A Mouthful Of Air surfaced in my box of cookery books and opened at page 185: “we still have the Germanic gar in ‘garlic’.” This ran in the great Burgess’s blood (language, and garlic). The OED unsoundly defines life’s joy as an “acrid” taste but does note the compound of the Old English for spear and leek (as our century shows, German means spear man). Meanwhile, the Slavonic scholar and New Statesman food correspondent Bee Wilson has triumphed on Masterchef. Cut from the broadcast was Lloyd Grosman’s remark that he could eat her fried garlic “by the bucketful, like popcorn”: peel many bulbs, blanch in water; drain; repeat; blanch in stock; mix egg, flour, breadcrumbs; fry in sunflower oil and turn. Ah!


ITTITE n In Prospect, Nicolas Walter refers to “what we used to call an ‘ittite’” - one free with the pronoun. It is not in the OED. 150 years ago Macaulay told Bulwer-Lytton, “there is no fault so common even in our best writers as that of putting he and it in wrong places.” He amended some Johnson: “Pope lived in the closest intimacy with his (Pope’s) commentator, and amply rewarded his (Warburton’s) kindness and zeal; for he (Pope) introduced him (Warburton) to Mr. Murray, by whose interest he (Warburton) became preacher at Lincoln’s Inn, and to Mr. Allen who gave him (Warburton) his (Allen’s) niece, and his (Allen’s) estate, and by consequence a bishopric. When he (Pope) died, he (Pope) left him (Warburton) the property of his (Pope’s) works.”



n the bar-parlour of The Angler’s Rest, Francis Wheen’s fatigue at pruning fretful from his life of Marx pales beside that of the Waugh scholar Michael Davie: no sooner had he overcome flu than his wife summoned three double-glazing salesman, each of whom claimed kinship with the books on the shelves (“I very much enjoy opera myself”). Davie remarks that he has to excise “crucial” from his prose (neatly defined by Johnson as “transverse; intersecting one another”) and recalls that Robert Stephens, the Arabist, always asked, “are you a ‘however’ or ‘never the less’ man?” Meanwhile, Anthony Sampson said that an American recently called a temporary lapse of memory “a senior moment.” Adds Sampson, “I can’t recall who it was - a senior moment!”



This is a Government warning. Even now, Oxford echoes to a spree in which the high intelligence of the academic inhabitants was more than matched by the native cunning of a group of itinerant Irish pedlars. They cajoled people into having unnecessary work done, and then did it sloppily. (F.R. Leavis would have said that this is , of course, the city’s modus operandi.) The Donne scholar Helen Gardner somehow managed to free herself from a preoccupation with that year’s Nemo to haggle, and achieved a lower rate than that paid out by her fellow-victims, but it was still too much for the services of a man who styled himself, persuasively, as “a Government plasterer” - technically true: he had picked up the rudiments of the trade in gaol.



It was logical enough at the time that the Rev. John Skipp’s Bible class introduced me to Noël Coward’s songs. And so, one now sets aside Tyndale to pick up the new edition of his Complete Lyrics (the American edition is on better paper). It contains 200 lyrics which Rev. Skipp cannot have known, such as “A Little Slut of Six” (1924): “...when I’m safely married / I’ll learn lots of lovely tricks / To save myself from having / Any little sluts of six.” The Lord Chamberlain objected, and Coward sort of obliged with: “I shall count my little chicks / And maybe, if I’m lucky / I’ll have lots of sluts of six.” The OED doubts Johnson’s assertion of Dutch origins, but remarks upon Northern use, and reminds us of those excellent words, hussy and jade.


MEDLEY n In Anglesey I once asked a waitress what the “mixed vegetables” were. She said, “they’re mixed vegetables”, and I still puzzle; and boggle at the Brighton restaurant Peppers’ “medley of vegetables”. This is pithily defined by Johnson as “a mingled mass. It is commonly used with some degree of contempt.” (Restraint itself compared with one’s seeing that Harvester describes a pudding as “playfully stabbed with walnuts”.) How refeshing to leave cavernous Peppers and walk to The Steine, as described by 14-year-old Macaulay: it “is a rare medley; - Generals, and Drummers, and Deserters, and bathing-women, and Peeresses, and Quakers, and masters, and misses, and Sailors, are taking the air perpetually in its walks.” No diesel fumes for them.


KEN n and v

Not new to The Complete Lyrics of Noël Coward and undoubtedly true, “Even Clergymen Are Naughty Now And Then” (On With The Dance, 1925) is not as well known as it might be. (The greatest such gem is “Time Will Tell”, cut from several shows.) As for the clergy, Douglas Byng and Ernest Thesiger sang: “there’s not a week goes by / In which some one doesn’t die, / So we really mustn’t grumble very much.” One can picture this harmonising vicar and curate: “though we fill the cup of duty to the very brim / Ideas may sometimes swim / Into our ken.” Curiously, ken - with many European equivalents and defined by Johnson as “view; reach of sight” - is seemed rare by the OED, when it was surely given currency by Kenneth Horne’s wireless show.


SIC adv and v

If there are few greater pleasures in life than smiling and affixing [sic] to somebody’s ineptitude, nothing is more galling than not understanding why others have done so. The Latin has a resonance which pales the English thus. It was around before the OED’s first example (one of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon primers, 1887). Jessica Mitford did not care for it (“the reader who is fastidious about usage will have to supply his own sics”) and Ernest Bax’s 1889 verb did not take off: “the modern reviewer’s taste is not really shocked by half the things he sics.” Absent from the OED is the wide American usage, to set, as Miles grumbled: “she didn’t have to sic those lawyers on me like she did, trying to serve me divorce papers everywhere I went.” LOUNGE v and n The new vogue for the LP In The Lounge With Andy Williams surprises nobody more than the singer: “I used to dread the lounge. If you didn’t make it, you ended up singing in the lounge. You know, ‘lounge’ isn’t where you want to be.” To Johnson it was only a verb. He posited Dutch origins, but the etmylogy is obscure - perhaps from Longinus, the lanky centurion who speared Christ. As a noun, it was a Regency phenomenon (Bath, not the motels of Williams’s dread), but the OED does not make clear a nuance nimbly expressed by Martin Fagg in a New Statesman parody of Evelyn Waugh: “I have had to chastise my son for using lounge of a room in a private house.” Rest assured, there is no Andy Williams in my sitting-room; Tony Bennett, yes.


HOGO n Does Tom Stoppard have a good lawyer? The glorious inaccuracies of Shakespeare In Love have lodged in adolescent brains to be presented as GCSE fact (“as Shakespeare’s lover reached America...”).

They should bone up on Anthony Burgess’s equally vivacious biography, as headlong as its subject but curiously down on the wordplay ofLove’s Labours Lost. Still, of the Protestant crisis, he writes that Shakespeare in London “met the full hogo of an issue that Stratford knew only in stray whiffs.” Most likely, Burgess knew it from Ulysses (“a hogo you could hang your hat on”). From haut goût, it reached England after Shakespeare’s death - to mean both flavoursome and putrescent. It says something about the English that the latter took the ascendant.


DEFALCATION n That fine columnist Herb Caen recorded a scene in Spain when Robert Ruark said to a guest, Truman Capote, “I wrote five thousand words today, Truman, and I bet you sat there at that desk with your quill pen and wrote one word.” To which Capote replied, “yes, Robert, but it was the right word.” I mention this to Justin Cartwright, who says that Evelyn Waugh must have felt that satisfaction when he wrote of “the defalcation of the secretary with two-thirds of the expedition’s capital.” (How pleasing to have “The Man Who Liked Dicekns”, and much else, in that elegant bargain, Everyman’s The Complete Short Stories) Waugh used this - from the Latin for scythe - fifty years after the last OED instance: sixty-six years on, let us do so too.


COMBOVER n Too little reviewed last year, but logged in this column (“permie”), Stickleback was a fine first novel by geneticist John McCabe and a word-of-mouth success. Now comes Paper. Its lab-bound hero’s perverse logicality is deployed with all the energy of Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederancy of Dunces. He observes a combover, “where several strands of lighter and more flyaway hair sought to give the false impression of the arrival of reinforcements.” Absent from the OED, it is in circulation, as used by that biting political columnist Maureen Dowd earlier this year: possible impeachment made her fear “a parade of combovers” would give their opinion on wall-to-wall telly. When did politicians begin this rigging of hair, Burgess-fashion?


WELSH v and n

With niggardly outlawed in Washington, the B.B.C. bans welsh, as in to renege on an agreement. In fact, the origins are obscure. A nineteenth-century betting term, it corrupted from the almost onamatopoeic welch. The OED overlooks the parallel with the German welsch, foreigner, and also the American noun. Meanwhile, will the B.B.C. transmit Henry V again or DeclineAnd Fall? Dr. Fagan’s concludes, after a page, “the Welsh are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama. They just sing, sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver. They are decitful because they cannot discern truth from falsehood, depraved because they cannot discern the consequences of their indulgence.”


QUORN n Cut from The Girl Who Came to Supper (now in The Complete Lyrics) was “What’s The Matter With A Nice Beef Stew?” Coward advises: “it fills the crevices and makes you grow/... when you’ve had a little grouce / At Lyons’ Corner House / Or a steak and kidney pud at Slater’s / You’ll appreciate a chew, / At a nice beef stew / With greens and mashed potatoes.” No mention of Quorn, made by Marlow Foods of Cleveland. Rank Hovis discovered a particle of the mushroom-like fungus - Fusarium Garminearum - thirty years near that Thameside town. It owned some trade-names and, bizarrely, gave meat-substitute one associated with a Midlands hunt, whose name means, ulcerously, a hill where millstones are got. The hunt cannot produce any regular eaters of it.



You’re a hideous child!” So a mother jocularly remarked in a store, only to be asked, “what does hideous mean?” If one needs gradations of meaning, George Crabb (1778-1851) is the man. He failed medicine (dislike of corpses), exchanged bookselling for the clergy, had Doubts; taught; at 43, he graduated in Maths from Magdalen Hall; shyness was an obstacle at the Bar, but he wrote manuals on property - and the Dictionary of English Synonyms. “Hideous refers to natural objects, and the ghastly more properly that which is supernatural... A mask with monstrous grinning features looks hideous; a human form with a visage of death-like paleness is ghastly.” Grim is the countenance; grisly, colour. The mother was right: only hideous means sound.



That splendid artist Saul Steinberg has a penchant for collecting bad art. It fuels something far different in his own, which cannot simply be called cartoon, Pop, illustration - it’s Steinberg. Now that kitsch has become dulled by repetition, it is time to revive and expand upon a word of which he is fond, from the descriptive exclamation Bon Dieu! Apparently imported by Rebecca West in 1941, it is a term of scorn in each example quoted by the OED between then and 1961. Steinberg is more subtle: “All that region behind Saint-Sulpice in Paris is a big center for selling plaster-cast Jesuses, sweet Madonnas, and so on. So many things become bondieuserie in the end - respectable and beautiful, but comical because they are such clichés.”



The food industry always tries to pull a fast one. The latest attempt to blur the issue - similar to oven-baked - is pan-fried, demolished by Nigella Lawson in the admirable How To Eat. “I object to the term pan-fried because what are you going to fry something in, if not a pan? But the thing about pan-fried is not so much tautologous, as that it is a con-trick. Let me deconstruct: fried is greasy, heavy, fattening, old style food which none of us eats any more; pan-fried is modern, light, healthy... But food, whether fried or pan-fried, is cooked in the same way. It’s a brilliant wheeze.” If one doubts the poetry of frying, Johnson quotes Waller: “spices and gums about them melting fry, / And, phenix like, in that rich nest they die.”


SCUTTLEBUTT n Technology changes but human nature remains the same; which makes for new business opportunities. Ewatch is a firm which monitors the many aspects of digital communication and reports upon any scuttlebutt about its clients in chat-rooms and the suchlike. This is a transformation from the pure to the foul. In the nineteenth century, a scuttlebutt was a cask with a hole cut in it, origins obscure and distinct from coal-scuttle but similar to the French écoutille, hatchway. On deck it held fresh water. In crossing the Atlantic, however, it gained a new connotation - gossip exchanged over the scuttlebutt, akin to chat by the picklebarrow. We can perhaps anticipate a time when Ewatch touts a service of monitoring any subversive water-cooler?



The perils of a language column. The other night at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic played Mahler’s Fourth, but Michael Steinberg’s program note nagged. He said of its early reception: "the very qualities that Mahler had banked on were the ones that annoyed. The bells, real and imitated (in flutes), with which the music begins! And that chawbacon tune in the violins!" Chaw, an apparent melding of jaw and chew, dates from the sixteenth century; its further linking, with bacon, came at the start of the nineteenth, to mean a bumpkin (no beef for them); meanwhile, bacon alone meant as much all along, as in Falstaff’s cry, “On, bacons, on!” As for Mahler, check out Uri Caine’s recent disc of diverse jazz versions: no chawbacon, he.


THANATOPHILIAC adj Cab-drivers have been called many things, but Julian Barnes is probably the first to describe as thanatophiliac the one who recently drove him from JFK. Despite the Port Authority’s promise that one is entitled to a quiet ride, this fellow’s radio blared doom-laden stuff about the life to come - and, whatever the pleasure he took in thoughts of death, he still wanted a hefty tip. Meanwhile, in the Angler’s Rest, Italian scholar Ian Thomson recalls the time that he had no sooner handed over the $50 demanded by a driver than two policemen leapt from a car and asked him how much he had paid; they made the driver return it and charge the correct fare from JFK - $30. The fellow looked as if he would still turn nasty without a tip in hand.



On a Brighton bus one teenager told another that her shoes were ripping. Modern footwear being what it is, one assumed that this was poor stitching; but, no, current argot has revived a nineteenth-century word deemed arch by the OED . Meanwhile, educationalist Alec Greville-Sims reports hearing some male pupils describe a girl as horny. How did they know, he wondered, until learning that nowadays horny can mean to provoke horniness. He was heartened, however, that his shirt was thought groovy - but, no, that now means stuck in a groove. Not in any dictionary is a word remembered by essayist Joseph Epstein from his youth, when, evocatively, acne was called tweed. Any pupil who gets this in circulation can be let off homework for a week.



A sign of our times is the acknowledgements to Joyce Maynard’s recent account of her ménage with J.D. Salinger: she thanks “the members of my website community with whom I share my coffee every day. That website would not exist without the generous oversight and vigilance of my friends Joe Rosen and Myrna Uhlig.” Such is her woolly style that her editors are guilty of one oversight after another. One might assume that, in her positive sense of the word, this is an American coining; but, no, as a word for both supervision and neglect, it goes back to the fifteenth century. The book does, however, have a splendid oversight by Salinger. He once tried to smoke salmon in his chimney, instead of making one of his many trips to Bloomingdale’s.



If ever a movie title were a hostage to fortune, it is Simply Irresistible. Despite Sarah Michelle Gellar - from Buffy, The Vampire Slayer -, punters soon dropped away. Among its many faults the New York Post noted, “the filmmakers think that the corner of Hudson and Jane streets is in TriBeCa - and that TriBeCa is some kind of down and dirty working-class nabe.” This abbreviation - like the more recent hood - has never crossed the Atlantic. It goes back to the mid-Thirties, to mean a local movie-theater rather than a first-run house. The OED stresses this usage but not the fact that soon after it came equally to mean an area. In the Seventies, there were also signs that it would come to mean something akin to our local, a neighbourhood bar.



If one were in the business of setting competitions, it would be corking to ask for plausible sentences in which every word could means its opposite. Quite plausible sentences. Handy would be pristine, which can be used of, say, an excavated pot or one from B & Q. From the Latin for original or early, it was also spelt pristinate or pristinary, first used by Sir Thomas Elyot in that elegant manual,The Boke Named The Governour (1531): “the pristinate authoritie and majestie of a kyng.” Anne Boleyn used it three years later, and was soon a victim of such authoritie. By extension, this was - in America this century - made to refer to objects as well as conditions and, by the Fifties, it had corrupted into the sense of factory-fresh.



Vladimir Nabokov would have been 100 today. As Anthony Burgess notes in One Man’s Chorus , his Lolita is “as much about a love affair with the OED as a passion for a nymphet.” The OED has only four citations from him - none from Lolita. Will the new edition make amends? In an extra chapter of Speak, Memory , Nabokov himself reviews the memoir and says, “at the oneiromancy and mythogeny of psychoanalysis Nabokov has been poking rude fun since the Twenties.” Greek for prophecy and dreams, it is a 1665 word, from the Dean of Ely’s study of vulgarity: “These rude observations were at last licked into an Art (Physical Oneiromancy) in which Physicians from a consideration of the dreams proceeded to a Crisis of the disposition of the person.”


EXPERIENTIAL adj Should Her Majesty make Chris Woodhead, her Chief Inspector of Schools, stand in the corner? For him, to dally with a sixth-former is “educative and experiential” all round. It is hardly a romantic word (“feeling experiential, darling? I’ll chill the chablis”). Indeed, according to Coleridge’s The Statesman’s Manual (1816), where it first appears: “The understanding or experiential faculty, unirradiated by the reason, has no appropriate object but the material world.” Oddly, it was first used as an adverb (1647) by Henry More - and to describe the spiritual influence on the Soul. Woodhead’s text is more Porter. He “learned reliance / On the sacred teachings of science”: youth should “do what all good scientists do. / Experiment.”


OCARINA n Inflation has doubled the price of books at a nearby charity shop, but even at 20p Fred Dellar’s account of obscure Sixties musicians,Where Did You Go To, My Lovely? (1983) is - despite all its exclamation-marks - a bargain . Sixteen years on, some are dead, but Marianne Faithful is better than ever; The Zombies sport a scholarly box-set; and “Love Is All Around” coins it in for Reg Presley of The Troggs. Less need now for “Wild Thing” and “to snarl the number and add his ocarina solo at every gig.” A century before, Good Words made a metaphor of this limited, goose-shaped, terracotta, wind instrument from the Apennines: “Ducks and geese, which are to the loudest Cochin China, what an ocarina is to a flageolet.” And who owns a stylophone now?



Brighton stays true to Graham Greene’s spirit. He once spotted 37 misprints in a page of The Times. “‘entertoinment’ has a fine cockney ring and ‘rampaign’, combining in one word the ideas of campaign and rampage in an article on vandalism, deserves to find a permanent place in the OED.” Now, in the Brighton Evening Argus, agony-aunt Rebecca Gray advises a woman whose boyfriend keeps buying her exiguous underwear - even though she never wears it: “be very candied and just tell it like it is.” A perfect, inadvertent word for sweetening the pill (Ms Gray’s editor also twice let through “me” for “my”). And, in the North Laines, a huge, painted sign calls it a “Conversation Area” - churlish, then, of the residents to object to another café.


SQUARE n and adj

Duke Ellington, who would have been 100 today, fitted over a century’s work into 75 years. A passion for wordplay animates “Blutopia” and “Clusterphobia” - and check out his preamble to The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. Of his Shakespeare suite Such Sweet Thunder , he noted, “nobody knows what a square is - it’s just that nobody wants to be one”). From the Latin quadra, it has turned many a circle. Duke’s sense re-emerged in the Forties, probably (not mentioned by the OED ) from the conducting gesture for a regular, four-beat rhythm - as in the old proverb about not being a man to break a square and Ben Jonson’s “all their square pretext of gravity/A mere vain glory.” Meanwhile, Ellington’s “Subtle Slough” should become the town’s anthem.



My history master, David Jones once read out the overdue library books, including 21 Popular Economic Fallacies: “the whole subject’s a fallacy!” Witness the current dispute over bananas and consequent cashmere crisis. Nations are trying to be top banana. One of many senses absent from the OED, it is a vaudeville term, in use by the Fifties, for ranking slapstick comedians (fitting, then, for politicians’ disputes). It can also mean penis, fender, football pass, aeroplane, an adaptive Asian and jaundice victim. Some believe that Moses’ grapes from the Promised Land were really bananas. Meanwhile, let us honour the great Jane Grigson by insisting on tiny ones from the Canaries. Too few are imported: excellent with gin or kirsh, not rum.


ESCULENT n and adj

Even Johnson nods. In defining banana, he refers one to plantain, which is simply “an esculent fruit.” Esculency applies to many fruits. A word that might waylay one into fearing scorn or revelling in praise, it is in fact disinterested: from the Latin esca - food - it is “something fit for food”. First used by Massinger (1625), who said it was a learned term, it was favoured by Bacon. The greatest esculent pleasure was Evelyn Waugh’s eating the family’s one, rationed banana while his children watched. Some consolation comes in the excellent William Bingley (1774-1823), who wrote on Wales, music, theology, botany, Hampshire (6000 pages), world history (368 pages), and animals - such as “the esculent Swallow” and “esculent Snail”.


DEADPAN n, adj, adv, and v

Popular romantic novelist Jessica Stirling should not feel miffed at exposure as a man, Hugh C. Rae, otherwise one might not have taken from the crime shelf his own Night Pillow (1967). It is an admirable, grim tale of rape and revenge in provincial, Sixties Scotland, with a classic last sentence. Naturally, there is a hitman: “despite his dead pan, his off-beat shoes and his muscles, he had no brains at all.” As two words, or hyphenated, this Twenties word is clearer. Pan, too, is that era’s slang - face - but brain-pan, for head, is fourteenth-century and was in use until this century. Miss Stirling’s work, if not Mr Rae’s, echoes Chaucer: “Love is a gretter lawe, by my pan, / Than may be yeve to any erthely man.”



To some of us, George Mallory is a Boswell scholar first, mountaineer second. “With Boswell we never want to leave the world for something better.” Had the biographer’s papers emerged sooner, Mallory would have surely deferred Everest, where the PBS expedition has found his body (this, alive, was likened by Lytton Strachey to that of “an athlete by Praxiteles”). Mallory’s relish of English prose and French painting would make him wince at Dave Hahn’s reaction to discovering his body: “what better tribute to the man than try and find out if he had summitted Mt. Everest?” Or, perhaps, always good-natured towards pupils, he would suggest that this revives a medieval verb, which - from submittere - was last used in 1483 and meant to submit.



King Edward VII and Theodore Roosevelt have their place in history: one is the origin of the phrase teddy boy and the other, who combined bear-hunting with running America, was the inadvertent inspiration for those stuffed toys (as in picnic). Lost to us, however, is the Edward who inspired an eighteenth-century use of the word absent from the OED. It probably applies as rarely to drape-suited youths as it does to any toy bear. In her new biography of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu - a book of the year -, Isabel Grundy notes that the letter-writer’s adolescent daughter and her friends wrote poems about ogling “teddy lads”: their hormones stirred at clever, desirable men. Not only is a library cheaper than a gym, it stands one in better stead.



If ever there were false economy, it was the engineer who “did not have enough tape” when Tony Bennett suggested that he record all the rehearsals and alternate takes for his sessions with Bill Evans. That would now make a fascinating, lucrative box-set. Bennett, in favouring good songs, has outlasted those of whom he writes: “I called those kind of artists ‘overdogs’. It doesn’t matter whether or not they had talent or how long they lasted, they were forced down the public’s throats.” No need for his quotation-marks. The word, in this sense, goes back to Thirties America, and was used, ironically, by Thom Gunn two decades later of history’s toughs: “I praise the overdogs from Alexander / To those who would not play with Stephen Spender.”



If one were to wind down the window and ask directions to

the truggery, many might react with a blush and a stammer, for this means brothel - either from the Italian trucca (tart) or truck (trade - as in no truck with that). At Herstmonceux, in Sussex, however, they are more than happy to point it out, something for which the place is as well known as its castle (where Lord Dacre’s ghost frightened off his widow’s suitors). Not that the natives are of easy virtue; far from it, on the whole: trug - from trough - is a nineteenth-century Sussex invention, a vital aid in gardening, nimbly described in the Athenaeum (1862) as “a flat basket, not of wicker, but of flakes of sallow, braced with ash and furnished with a handle of the latter wood.”


MINATORY adj and n

Jonathan Meades has recently visited Brighton, and pronounced. It is not simply a case of dodging the chain-smoking, dog-toting panhandlers (“hair in the community”), as, for all that, the town is no longer truly, raffishly minatory - threating, from the late Latin, and first used by Thomas More in 1532 (“these wordes be mynatory and threttes”). The OED has no instance this century, and it was only briefly a noun, in the seventeeth century As for Brighton’s lack of race-track gangs, worse, in Meades’s eyes, are restaurants’ deep-red Seventies walls - not retro-chic but an inertia reflected in the food. What happened to the real emblem of that grim decade, The Golden Egg chain, whose ovoid menus were cuisine’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep”?



One dark and stormy night, I was probably the only person in England to wake and read Out of Step, an elegantly emphatic volume of essays by Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post’s weekly revewer, who, last Sunday, wrote on Fleet Street’s exports: “these watered-down Evelyn Waughs rarely know one-quarter as much about the United States as they fancy they do.” Mark Steyn is “the most gifted and least objectionable”; moreover, Yardley can “put up with a good deal more guff from him than from most, but even so guff is often on his menu.” From Norwegian for gust of wind, this became ill-smelling; hence, in the 1880s, empty talk, sometimes guff and bugaboo (from Cornish for fool). Guff and nonsense echoes the eighteenth-century stuff and nonsense .



Of all the memoirs of Stanley Kubrick, best was a piece by Jeremy Bernstein in the London Review of Books He describes the congenial Central Park West apartment in the Sixties: “children and dogs were running all over the place. Papers hid most of the furniture.” On leaving, Bernstein explained that he had to hurry, to play chess in Washington Square with a Haitian chess hustler called Duval, self-styled ‘the master.’ Bernstein ‘was absolutely floored when Kubrick said, “Duval is a potzer.” It showed a level of real familiarity with the Washington Sqare Park chess scene.’ Not in the OED, this is a Forties word for bad chess player, from German potzen, to bungle, or the Yiddish putz, penis (hence fool) - also derived from German: ornaments.



Some call Proust’s great comic novel long; they miss the point, for it takes no longer than ten dim novels, and to think it slow is a misnomer. As William Carter’s The Proustian Quest emphasises, it forms a cusp of history, an era when - sea, land and air - life sped up. “The girls on bicycles to whom he is attracted become winged creatures and possess a charm unknown to ordinary girls... the problem of speed, desire, and fugacity must be solved before he can discover his vocation as a writer.” From Latin fugere, to flee, transcience haunts our century, even more than 1634 and “fugatious words, which escape the eares pursuit.” The noun soon followed. Johnson could have quoted himself: “the fugacity of pleasure, the fragility of beauty.”



Never let it be said that this column does not work hard on your behalf - to the extent of hours on the sofa with the new, 24-volume American National Biography, which passes the first test: it includes that marvellous singer Mabel Mercer, admired by Sinatra. The quintessence of Manhattan sophistication, she was in fact born in Burton, in 1900, product of a chance meeting between an English-Welsh music-hall singer and a touring, Negro acrobat. She was teased at school for, among other things, being gammy. It is a sense not in the OED, for she was in fact fit - but left-handed, then deemed almost as bad as a wonky ankle. The word began - as game - in the north Midlands, by the eighteenth century, but a satisfactory etymology has not emerged.


GUANO n and v

The victims of the NATO bombs would surely prefer the seabird droppings - guano - which first prompted American expansion. In 1856, during the Presidency of Franklin Pierce, Congress asserted that, to undercut Peru’s supplies, anybody who found an unclaimed island could annex it and the phosphate-rich dung for American fertilizer. From the Spanish, first noted in English at the beginning of the seventeenth century, guano soon become such a trade that 300 laden ships regularly sailed into Liverpool, and it turned into a metaphor. In a Disraeli novel one aristocrat ‘guanoed her mind by reading French novels’, while, in one of Ouida’s, it was said, ‘I find soda-water and brandy the best guano for the cultivation of my intellect.’



It might cause pan-luvviedom apoplexy, but some of us lament that Frank Rich no longer reviews plays. Dubbed the “Butcher of Broadway” by a petulant Rowan Atkinson, Rich now turns his firmly-rooted, even orchidaceous style on other matters - always alert to those that bloviate. He has even caused a Manhattan rumpus by reviving this nineteenth-century word - not in the OED. From blow, it means to swell up and declaim pompously. Although used by Gore Vidal, who probably got it from Mencken, it had been largely abeyant until Rich deployed it last fall, something he then defended, and then saw colleagues latch onto this supremely onomatopoeic word, also needed in an England where such things as The Today Programme are rife with bloviators.



An expert upon satanic-ritual abuse, Debbie Nathan has recently said of The Jenny Jones Show (which was fined millions for inspiring murder) that people, such as herself, are beguiled into appearing on it as a way of alleviating their life in the boonies. Not in the OED, it is a Fifties, Marine Corps abbreviation of boondocks, from the Philippines bundoc - mountains; hence any remote place, and in use as such at least half a century before the OED’s 1944 citation; and boondockers - combat shoes - were used long before its 1953 example. Also not in the OED is the meaning, an outdoor lavatory. Perhaps it is as well that politicans do not substitute boonies in their parrot-cry of “we shall go and show what we think of all this in the shires.”



It would be a writer so cavalier as not to be a writer at all that scorned novelist and editor Sol Stein’s recent book Solutions For Writers. Much more than a manual, it offers sense and wit on every page, and cites many authors, both well-known and others, “whose names hide behind the scrim of time.” A thin canvas used to line upholstery, its eighteenth-century origins are obscure, as is the date it became a form of net-curtain; in America, this not only turned into a mask for stage-lights but also that gauze screen on the stage for which there has been a recent vogue here (usually the sign of a dud production, as in the National’s A Little Night Music). As a metaphor, in Stein’s sense, it apparently emerged with the Sixties and Sylvia Plath.



One of life’s mysteries is that Reader’s Digest sells millions but none of us knows anybody that reads it, let alone subscribes. None the less, one is often glad to chance upon its books secondhand. Invariably cheap, they are often good (setting aside its condensed novels); especially John Kahn’s hefty Reverse Dictionary (1989): this outlay of £2 soon yielded ‘living tally’. From the Latin talea, stick, and French tallie, this medieval device was notched wood on which creditor and debtor each recorded the transaction; by the nineteenth century, especially up North it was an agreement to live in ‘unmarried impropriety’ (John Hotten). It petered out this century, but could be a nimble way round clumsy talk of partners and common-law wives.




In our era of fluid liasions, the cicisbeo is scarce. First used by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in writing from Genoa on 28 August 1718 (the OED uses a bad text; in fact she spelt it Tetis beys): they had much improved the Italian women. “These are Gentlemen that devote themselves to the service of a particular Lady (I mean a marry’d one, for the virgins are all invisible, confin’d to convents)... In short, they are to spend all their time and Money in her service who rewards them according to her Inclination (for Oppertunity they want none), but the husband is not to have the Impudence to suppose ‘tis any other than pure platonic Freindship.” From bel cece (beautiful chick pea), it was deemed vulgar by Byron, who preferred Cavalier Servente.


HOVE n, v and adj

Birth in Hove gave Ivy Compton-Burnett a lifetime’s macabre material while Anthony Burgess, head down for six novels in a year, thought it full of those waiting to die (Lord Alfred Douglas’s fate). Even so, Ringo chose it for his honeymoon, and now the arrival of Fatboy Slim makes it a hot spot and anything desirable fetches half a million, which belies its name, the Old English for shed. Also suitably obsolete are the senses, moderation and dregs, but fitting is the one of lingering; as are boats at anchor and birds hovering; and also, confusingly, soaring, for it is, in Johnson’s phrase, “the preterite of heave”; as for Fatboy Slim, he could revive the medieval expression - in Chaucer - for a fashionable dance: the hove-dance.


ANCHOR n and vb

Close students of this column know that it is a while since I have steeled myself to read The Grocer; a substitute, equally grim, comes in a letter from MP Ivor Caplin in reply to a protest about his plans to make Hove’s old gas-works into a supermarket and multi-storey, when everybody clamours for a park. He counters that his will be an “anchor store” for the nabe. Not in the OED, this phrase suggests nautical supplies (already adequately met), but turns out to mean something that, in the event, will create waves, a veritable tsunami of pollution. Anchor comes from the Greek for hook, but as used in Hamlet to mean anchorite, it is Greek for secluding oneself; something which Mr Caplin’s plans might force civilised constituents to do.



No sooner has Fatboy Slim’s arrival in Hove turned every whist-drive into a rave than the Town Hall shook during a public inquiry over the recent banning of motor-cars from George Street, a shopping thoroughfare. Traders claim that mere, fume-free pedestrians do not spend as much and that this was a political wangle by councillor, now MP Ivor Caplin. Much of the many days’ debate was occupied with the future rôle of an alley; at every mention, this had the note “or twitten”: not some legal nicety, but Sussexspeak for alleyway, from the Old English twicen. Although Sussex trugs are now in every B&Q, it will take more metrical ingenuity than digitial savvy to make Gracie Fields’s spirit sing of “Sally! Sally!/Pride of our twitten.”


GUSSY v, n and adj

Kingsley Amis often urged the dictionary habit, never let a word slip by. Chances are that many a trainbound reader of Robert Hughes’s recent elegant demolition in these pages of The Phantom Menace forgot to look up what he meant by George Lucas’s being “able to gussy it up with special effects that didn’t exist 75 years ago.” To dress up or prettify, it comes from the shortening of Augustus to Gussie, which, in Australian eyes, is an effeminate name. Although first used there at the beginning of the century, it had been around in America: something not in the OED, nor is The Front Page (1928), twelve years before its first citation of an adjective . Up North, however, from Norwegian gosse, it means pig, real and metaphorical.



There are two ways of getting a newly-minted word into circulation. One is to slip it into talk or writing, and see what its merits and serendipity bring about; the other is to nudge it along with quotation-marks, but that looks like touting one’s wares, as in the Cambridge don Stefan Collini’s recent Englsih Pasts: “the explosion of popular interest in recent decades in what can only be called ‘pastifying’. Few areas of British life seem untouched by this mania for revival, restoration, conservation, and imitation.” This essay in fact first appeared five years ago, and there is no sign that Collini’s word has taken off, perhaps because, confusingly, it also suggests cookery, as is pastry (from the Greek for porridge, hence pâté and pasta).



Great comedy could be made from the perilous pleasures of the pedantry which bring a patina to love, but Tim O’Brien’s new novel Tomcat In Love is not it. He is a long way after Peter De Vries, who effortlessly created such phrases as “we are all like the cleaning lady. Come to dust.” Tolkien, as Anthony Burgess notes in One Man’s Chorus , was just such a character. He lamented that Anglo-Saxon was waylaid by Latin and Greek, and that the French despair ousted wanhope. “He hated words like omnibus and strove to introduce the native folkwain, which is close to Volkswagen.” I am still sore from being hoist by my own petard, when asking “do you know when the next folkwain’s due?”; and was told, “no, but there’ll be three all at once.”



Anybody who has named a child knows that it is vital to anticipate scenes in the playground. To have an infant dubbed Eric at the stoup is careless; Augustus might sound grand but risks antipodean taunts of gussie, while another Emperor, Alexander, could fall victim to taunts of being a smart alec(k), a show-off in talk or dress. It has been in continual use since the middle of the last century. The OED dates it to Nevada in 1865, but it probably derives from the career two decades earlier of Aleck Hoag, a badger in New York; that is somebody who steals money from the clothes of a man who, naked, is pleasuring himself with a prostitute. Subject of an 1844 book, he is in neither American National Biography nor the Encyclopaedia of New York City.


GRIST n and v

Any editor rightly strikes out the phrase “grist to the mill” as a cliché - and those that use it most likely have little idea what grist can be. Johnson defines it as “corn to be ground”. It was first used in the fifteeth century, from the Old English, but it had originally been the act of grinding rather than what was ground. It might not seem strange that in Anglo-Saxon times it should also have meant the grinding of teeth, but, for all the similarity of action between mouth and mill, it is probable that the former derives from the German (in which it also means a peevish person), and survived in that sense in Wiltshire until the last century. That it should also be a size of yarn might seem less obvious, but that is a derived from gird.


TOSH v, n and adj

Salman Rushdie depicts the pop singer as of mythical status; David Huggins is less wide-eyed: his new novel, Luxury Amnesia, shows that most end up as a painter and decorator. “What? Toshing people’s houses?” asks the hapless hero’s ex-girlfriend. Not in the OED, this Seventies word for decorating comes from the dialect toshy: muddy, as in toshers who scavage sewers for valuables; and, paradoxically enough, perhaps an echo of an 18th-century Scottish word to mean neat, clean. Huggins’s novel is not tosh (either from the muddy sense or bosh - Turkish for empty), but the plot, preoccupied with shifting a corpse, belies an eye for words. Modestly, the jacket overlooks his winning the prestigious Bad Sex Prize. He could do so again. PORK-


BARREL adj and n

The Belgians must lament that, despite the Common Market’s federal aspirations, it lacks a pork-barrel system. Not in the OED, this is a fund which legislators draw upon to finance local matters, such as highways or even problems in the food-chain. Its origins are obscure, perhaps derived from feeding slaves with barrels of salt-pork and hence has connotations of dodgy practice, of buttering up voters. To show as much, in Minnesota the Governor, Jesse Ventura wields a rubber stamp of a sitting pig which he thumps upon outlandish financial proposals. The other day this porcine veto landed upon a half-million dollar domestic violence program; a Ramsey County prosecutor’s outrage prompted him to say that he was just being humorous.



Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” has been much recorded, but a version that receives little airplay in our politically-correct era is an off-the-cuff, 1974 one by John Lennon: “Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be / ‘Cos now I’m an amputee.” The verb, from Latin, surfaced in the 17th century as a gardening term. Sir Thomas Browne later noted that the Amazons amputated the right breast better to fire arrows, and one of Johnson’s longest, most grisly citations describes such an operation upon the limbs. Hannibal Lecter could bone up from it. Amputee emerged in Edwardian times, when St. Bartholomew’s noted a song worthy of Lennon: “put the patient both to bed, and then, perhaps, we’ll see / Which is the amputated part and which the amputee.”


SWARD n and v

The gag-writer James Geraghty, later art editor at The New Yorker, had a ready wit and one longs for an edition of his unpublished memoirs. Told that a neighbour, a keen gardener, had died while mowing the lawn, he immediately replied, “he who lives by the sward dies by the sward.” In fact, the unfortunate fellow’s sward hit the sward. To mean ground (usually in greensward), it comes from Scandanavia in the 15th century, where it also had, as did the defunct Old English word, the sense of pig or walrus hide and even the human scalp (hence swarthy). The OED ‘s last instance of greensward is Hawthorne 150 years ago, but Wodehouse, for one, was fond of it, although he never describes Lord Blandings as patting the Empress’s sward lovingly.



Today I had a slapping walk.” One might think this a Bright Young Thing’s remark, not that cerebral poet Wallace Stevens when writing to his wife in 1912. The OED omits its survival in America this century, but notes the two 19th-century usages: large and fast. In each case, this refers to both men and horses, as does spanking, which goes back to the 17th century, possibly from spanke, Danish for strut. Whether Stevens’s walk from Manhattan was long, brisk, or both, he enjoyed it, and thought of the poet Comtesse Mathieu de Noailles’ phrase: “J’ai le goût de l’azur”, although, eight years earlier, Stevens wrote, “God! What a thing blue is! It is one of the few things left that bring tears to my eyes (or almost). It pulls at the heart.”


DUMPBIN n Some newspapers seemed to scour the new edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary but in fact recycled the press release. Here, in the Words unit, this digest of last year’s vulgar New Oxford Dictionary.has been rigorously tested. Dictionary makers now work in a verbal wind-tunnel, and many of our Words escape them - permie, tosher, while ripping is deemed dated not hip. Then again, it does have 24/7, but is useless for others slated for investigation, such as dumpbin, a bizarre word for something to sell a book (Collins includes it). Nobody includes shelfwobbler - those (literally) eye-catching cards which protrude from rows of books in stores. When did redtop come to mean popular newspaperas well as a choleric fellow? Roll on, OED 3.



Try as he might, A.N. Wilson cannot shake off the tag of Young Fogey with which he was dubbed by Alan Watkins in 1983. In God’s Funeral, for example natural instinct makes him relish the fact that the aged Jeremy Bentham could be seen on “what he called his ‘ante-jentacular’” strolls about Westminster, straw hat atop waist-length hair, somebody “the casual observer could have been forgiven for believing was a lunatic.” From the Latin for breakfast, the phrase was overlooked by Johnson and is quoted only from the beginning of the 18th and 19th centuries in the OED, which does not mention Bentham’s healthy habit. It was to sustain him to the age of eighty-four, which is rarely the result of pell-mell jogging and working breakfasts.



In the Spectator, Sheridan Morley reminds us that Coward “first wrote” Private Lives in Shanghai. One could say this of Wilde’s drafting Earnest in less exotic Worthing, for it underwent a plethora of fascinating revisions, but Coward, as usual, wrote something and got on with the next task. Genius has no rules. Our supposedly efficient era is awash with tautology. A performer’s old stuff is invariably “back catalogue”. What can be catalogued other than that already created? “Future catalogue” is absurd . Recently some bod on Jazz FM announced another “all-time classic”, The Temptations’ “My Girl”. Classic, yes; hardly jazz, but temporary classics is a fascinating idea: “Bohemian Rhapsody”? “I Don’t Like Mondays”? The White Hotel?



Hotel Elk on one-time naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty 42nd Street at 9th Avenue figures in no guide, but Sandy Edry of the New York Observer has visited this survivor of the nabe’sÄ akeover by Disney and urges its saving as a lively theme-park: the bullet-proof glass at the front desk, the ripped sheets and chipped furniture, even re-enactments of outraged wives who burst in with a gun to confront those renting by the hour. The owner is, however, buying up property as a kitty corner. Neither cat sanctuary nor till, but a notional diagonal between adjacent sides of a block, a slurring of cater corner, gambling slang for four on a dice, askew. From quatre, it was also meant a rhomboid layout in 16th-century English gardening.



Broadcast talk is becoming increasingly painful to hear, with unnatural stress put upon syllables and words. Newsreaders are great offenders. Spurious urgency prompts such horrors as today becoming two day. Anybody who spoke like this at a normal gathering would be thought mad. Brighton Council, however, now imposes all this upon swimmers by relaying at the pool a local station, whose announcer referred in a news-feed to another failure by “the Government’s Conciliation and Arbitration Service, ACAS”. This is another variant on our era’s saying the same thing twice over. These initials are shorthand for something spelt out in the previous breath. If acronyms are not self-explanatory, let us revive a 16th-century word and have them acast.



Alec Guinness’s delightful A Positively Final Appearance has a passion for words: he hefts the OED to verify Ackroyd’s claim that More first used many unexpected phrases, and notes of his own garden, “trees are still remarkably green: I had half hoped to show off a newly discovered word - flavescent - but that will have to wait for another couple of weeks.” From the Latin, it means, botanically, to turn yellow, but could be used of a new Guinness passion: The Simpsons. Except they are yellow from the start. In a splendid moment, the sperm that do not become Maggie smack their tiny heads with a “doh!” Could the animators cajole him into one last rôle, a satire of Star Wars? After all, he figured in Lisa’s anagram quiz: genuine class.


PUN n and v

No sooner had I written about Acas than came the hope that the next time negotiations stall, some headline writer comes up with BURNT-OUT ACAS. A way with puns stretches from there to the denizens of Wardour Street, in their red-rimmed spectacles, and the full-blown, free-associating David Heflgott. To pun can suggest clinical mania. One famous depressive, Samuel Johnson, noted “I know not whence this word is to be deduced.” The OED posits that - like mob and snob - it was a Restoration truncating of pundigrion, from the Italian puntiglio, a quibble. Puns cause derision and guilt, inspire many variations, such as James’s “one little punkin” - and yet our century would be the less without the Marx Bothers’ viaduct / why a duck routine.


GAGA n, v and adj

No sooner had Stephen Crook escaped Heathrow than his first port of call was the bar-parlour of The Angler’s Rest, where he described Ralph Fiennes’s visit to the Nabokov exhibition at the New York Public Library. “He’d been flogging his Pushkin movie. I didn’t see him but word of his presence spread through the staff grapevine and there was a lot of gaga in the exhibition hall. That’s New York insouciance for you.” From the French (the OED misses a first, 1917 use by Kipling), gaga suggests the Major in Fawlty Towers, but in the Twenties had this doting sense, which endures in America, where a gaga is the object of such devotion, and a drunk, while Jonathan Green’s Slang notes it is both an inexperienced homosexual and deft foreplay.



No sooner has John Redwood derided John Prescott as “two Jags” than I am possessed of one. That is to say, I am on a painting jag (walls, not flowers, fruit or soup-cans), and another instance of our using a word while being unsure of its origins. 19th-century American, earlier than the OED’s first citation (Jack London), this sense of a fit derives from our 17th-century slang for as much drink as one can handle, itself a variant upon the earlier sense of load or burden, whose origins are as obscure as that for piercing protruberance (which is perhaps onamatopoeic). The motor-car had become shorthand for vulgarity by the late-Fifties, soon augmented in the phrase “gin-and-Jag”. As for me, it’s time not for a gin jag but the tang of turps. Ah!



The new Oxford Dictionary of Idioms only says of watching paint dry that it is “extremely boring”; in fact, after toshing with a roller, to step back and judge the effect (Rothko? Rolf Harris?) can soothe. My latest stint was done to the sound of Billie Holiday, but after pressing the repeat button, I could not eject this wrong disc with gungy fingers: six times over there were eight takes of “A Fine Romance”. These are genuine, but on the Beatles’ Anthology sets some takes are conflated, and derided by collectors as outfakes - not yet in any dictionary. Meanwhile EMI’s charging CD prices for Internet music is a scam, as manufacturing costs are minimal. Instead, it should thus issue full versions of “Helter Skelter” and “12-Bar Blues”.



Insist on unbottled water in Café Rouge and the waiter calls it the Magritte-like “glass of tap”; on the bill, this is “tap, £0.00”, which belies the chain’s casual air and is logged in the head office as a missed opportunity. Just as Billie Holiday lamented in her own, perfect song “Fine and Mellow”: “love is like a faucet, / It turns off and on. / Sometimes when you think it’s on, baby, / It has turned off and gone.” Faucet, the American for tap, survives in Midlands dialect, and - akin to the French fausset - goes back to the 15th century (tap is far older), when a tube and peg - faucet and spigot - formed part of a barrel. As the jovial philosopher in Thomas Randolph’s Aristippus (1630) said, “thi Nose like a Fausset with the Spicket out.”



Such is what publishers (and zoologists) call territoriality that there is still no sign of Anthony Burgess’s One Man’s Chorus over here. As do Urgent Copy and Homage to Qwert Yuiop, these essays keep offering something new. Of Evelyn Waugh he notes, “I do not think it profitable to assign him a place (better than Greene, inferior to Ivy Compton-Burnett, a mere epigone of Ronald Firbank?). ” Little used, epigone comes via French and Latin from the Greek for those born after. Used of the seven sons of the heroes in the war against Thebes, it only became English in the 19th century - when, also from the Greek, it also meant the membranous bag which covers the spore-case of young liverwort, which makes for another word with opposite meanings.


NOUS n and vb

A.L. Rowse / Could display a certain nous, / But was shady / Over the Dark Lady.” The Clerihew, that form which came to the young E. C. Bentley out of the blue, makes for concise biography, although Rowse’s shade doubtless splutters over this one of my devising. As for nous (admittedly not a perfect rhyme), it is Greek not simply for mind but pure thought, in which sense it was first used in the 17th century with reference to the likes of Plato and Plotinus. By the early 19th century it had acquired more than a patina of colloquial badinage, a handy rhyme for house or mouse - although, in such cases, Pope and Byron continued to spell it in Greek letters. It remains peculiarly British, but even here is rarely used as a verb for understand.



And tell me what street / Compares with Mott Street / In July?.../ We’ll go to Coney / And eat baloney / On a roll.” Even more extraordinary than a producer’s telling Rodgers and Hart that Winkle Town contained nothing memorable is Hart’s being absent from the OED (as are Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin). Baloney, as sausage, comes from Bologna in the 16th century. The OED doubts any such link in the sense of foolishness, but Ramon Adams notes that such sausages are made from inferior bulls; and a hint of blarney is detected by Jonathan Lighter, whose first, 1920 citation (Variety) is a decade earlier than that in the OED which overlooks meanings from the same era: automobile tyre and penis. A Casanova could, then, pun “my baloney’s on a roll.”


D’OH! interj

The New Yorker reports upon vexation at the New York Times. Each day there is editorial comment about the latest issue, such as a report on Hartford’s reaction to its appearance in The Simpsons (Homerthought that the prize on offer in “How Low Can You Go?” was Hawaii). The piece ended with “D’oh!” - Homer’s regular, bow-smiting cry, a genetic condition from his long-lost, hippie mother. Bill Borders, a Times editor, circled it: house-style is duh. Neither is in the OED, but Jonathan Lighter finds duh first in a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon and quotes from an unpublished 1988 piece by Simpsons creator Matt Groening: “is TV the coolest invention ever invented? Well, duh.” D’oh is the official version of Homer’s gut-wrenching inflexions.


SPRUCE v, n, and adj

The tang of turps has brought back childhood in a Proustian rush. Not only had my toshing spruced up the place but I now recalled being told that, when faking illness, I was sprucing. Spruce, from the 14th century, means Prussia (Pruce), and became an adjective as in spruce chest or leather; hence something smart, then neat. (In Sussex it is sprug.) The OED sees no link in the malingering sense, which it dates to the Great War, when there was such incentive to duck out. A case can surely be made that such behaviour was a sprucing up of the facts; or an import by antipodean servicemen, for whom spruik meant a showman’s spiel, while a spruiker either touts wares or talks a lot: perhaps from the Yiddish shpruch or Dutch spreken.



I am perfectly aware that I am only a servant that never presume on your loving kindness to take liberties, but let me tell you that you’re a white man. I’ll thank you to lend me a razor.” If both familiar and strange, that is because this conflates remarks by two men in disparate works: Maurice and The Thirty-Nine Steps. The gamekeeper enamoured of Forster’s hero shares an obscure surname with the man skewered upon Hannay’s floor. Did Buchan hear of Forster’s unpublished novel? A scudder moves fast. The verb is from scut, a hare’s tail. Hence the missile. Absent from the OED are the Irish jinx and American tedious - and, eight decades after Forster, it came to mean copulation (which could alarm the ten Scudders in the London directory).



Since Mario Puzo’s death nobody has remarked that he figures seventy-seven times in the OED - mostly for Fools Die rather than The Godfather , even though this contains his real legacy: “to make you an offer you can’t refuse” sounds age-old, but he invented it. The new Oxford Dictionary of Idioms also misses it. Meanwhile, Puzo’s Omerta is yet to appear. From the Italian for humility - or, in particular, Sicilian dialect for manliness -, it is the Mafia’s code of silence. This reached America early in the century, but the concept was familiar in English public schools: it is bad form to break such omerta by sneaking on other pupils’ crimes. The OED’s last cites sneak in 1902, but it appears in Anthony Buckeridge, who merits more space.



John Buchan’s output yields 427 OED citations. Small beer beside 1350 from Ulysses, but he, too, had a dextrous way with language, for which he has only recently won credit. This account of the valet to the ill-fated Scudder is worthy of Waugh: “he was a whining fellow with a churchyard face, and half-a-crown went far to console him”. More than sullen, churchyard concisely suggests stubble, pock-marks and wrinkles, and was first used as a metaphorical adjective in the 17th century, as in the doom-laden churchyard cough. Keats wrote of “a poor weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing”, but the OED has it petering out around 1880. Buchan’s 1915 instance should spur a revival - a change from the usual tag of dour for Robin Cook and Lee Evans.



Franklin Smith of Wisconsin has found that his bottom is worth $1m. Many a fashion model might wonder what a computer analyst has that he hasn’t. On joining Phillips Getschaw, he was hazed by the firm’s tautologous “chief executive officer”, Kurt Getschow. That is, initiated - with a builder’s level across the buttocks, for which the court gave damages. The OED is hazy on haze - perhaps from Northern dialect and the French haser, to frighten. In 1887, Yale claimed it “practically dead and buried”; five years on, it “led to the death of an unfortunate young student named Rustin”. Mr Getschow should now simply adopt the 19th-century Princeton custom of making newcomers stand on the street-corner and regale by-standers with the reciting of Greek.


FLAP v The world divides into adherents of Quentin Crisp and of Florence Nightingale. His dust accumulates while her Notes on Nursing (1859) asserts: “Flapping, by way of cleaning, is only admissible in the case of pictures... The only way I know to remove dust is to wipe everything with a damp cloth. ” The OED cites her views on slop-pails and old wallpaper (both unhygenic), but overlooks this. Perhaps she echoes an 18th-century expression unknown to Johnson, who thought flap (“to ply the wings with noise”) was Anglo-Saxon. More likely it is - as in Dutch and German - 14th-century onomatopoeia. Jonathan Green’s endlessly educative Slang gives many more meanings, including a link between Twenties flappers and a 19th-century Northumberland indecency.


INSPAN v To inspan somebody sounds like management-speak (“we’ve inspanned consultants to report back on the parameters of this project” - some people get paid for writing that sort of stuff all day long). In fact, it was used by Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps. He says of Paddock that “I had inspanned him as my servant as soon as I got to England. He had about as much gift of the gab as a hippopotamus.” Buchan must have heard it in South Africa, from the Dutch for harnessing horses to a vehicle. As a metaphor, it was used by Kipling in a 1914 magazine article, a year before it was given wider currency by Buchan in his masterly novel, whose usage does not figure in the OED. It would be an erudite pun on spick and span for a firm of house cleaners.



Sainbury’s will add to its trading difficulties by the ratnering suggestion that frequent purchasing of DIY apparatus at its Homebase sheds is mentally deficient. The £2 voucher for buying such things there came with a form which noted the “spend previously statemented this personal year”. The OPED only has statement as a noun, but in the early Eighties there began the statementing of children with special educational needs, from which came the verb. A curious fact is that whetver euphemistic phrase is in vogue for the afflicted, it becomes derogatory: playgrounds now echo with sneers of PLD, from person with a learning difficulty. Somerfield, loopily, claims that crisps “compliment your sandwich” - how do inaminate objects communicate?


PSEUD n and adj

Without Hitler, today’s column would not linger in 1769 - and millions of years B.C. Jayne Young was told the day after a raid, “you like old books, have this - it was under the foundation stone.” Whoever put the Annual Register there cannot have envisaged its thus surfacing so soon, and my reading William Hunter of the Royal Society. He did not know of dinosaurs but spoke of pseud-elephant bones. From Greek for false, it is always associated with Pseuds’ Corner, a nuance first used by the Spectator in 1962 which derives from Wyclif (1380). Hunter says that the pseud was carnivorous: and if “we as philosophers regret it, as men we cannot but thank heaven that its whole generation is probably extinct” - but was mild beside Hitler.



Enquire at Cable & Wireless and one gets an “automated menu service”: if the firm goes into catering, food will be stale when it gets to the table, such is this dilatory system whose voice resembles that operated by pulling the cord in a doll’s back. Dilatory could make a pun - but what does one say in this push-button age? Both BT and C & W operators say that it is fact dial (neither knew that it came from Latin dies for day); except when only one figure is involved, when it is press. In 1930, Punch noted that “I keep meeting people who are quite worn out with dialling all day”; buttons would make it easier did they not so often connect with menu services, which a churl in C & W’s “customer services” insists are “modern”. Yes, but slow.



Richard Branson’s guise as a perennial student rebounded at JFK when the pilot announced that, with more passengers than expected, take-off would be delayed while extra fuel was put in: this recalls undergraduate whip-rounds to get a clapped-out Ford Anglia to the pub and back - and was duly reinforced by the blow-out of an engine over Boston and a long night on the tarmac. And now he seeks the right to fly domestic services in America - that is, cabotage. From the age-old French for shipping trade along the coast (cabot is a type of boat), it reached England in the 19th century and became an aeronautical term in the thirties. What with litter and ballooning stunts, Branson is more a case of cabonitage: from cabotin, playing to the gallery.


SALT adj The Government decree on salt could be more subtle. If palate were on the national curriculum, more would abandon the magnesium-tainted stuff and crumble varieties of sea salt. The francophile classicist and movie scholar Peter Graham is author of Classic Cheese Cookery and of Mourjou - the thinking man’s Peter Mayle. He always asks whether food “is salt enough for you?” This pleasingly antique form (salt is from Old English) survived until the 18th century, and is preserved in salt beef. Salt beefcake is something relished by Bridget Jones’s ilk. Salt to mean lecherous petered out in the 17th century (originally used of a bitch on heat). It is a slurring of assaut, from the French à saut, to leap. Hence a taste for salty humour.



The bar-parlour of The Angler’s Rest has been animated by wine flowing in celebration of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s posthumous novel. Readers always urge his tastefully lurid Mortdecai trilogy upon anybody nearby. No sooner had Julian Barnes done so a while ago than I made Francis Wheen seek it out, and Craig Brown has now supplied a missing chapter for the fourth novel. Bonfiglioli relished words. His assertion that an Aborigine meant “I don’t know” when asked the name of the kangaroo is misleading, but there is much edification - and a puzzle that Mortdecai says, “I have never quite known what the word ‘eldritch’ means.” Ghostly, as in noise. Scottish, but not in Macbeth, its origins are obscure; perhaps from elf, as it is also elphrish.



Not a misprint but another remark by Mortdecai in Kyril Bonfiglioli’s posthumous novel. Malt whisky is rich in rare minerals, congeners and esters good for the brain. “I became aware of a prickling, formicating kind of sensation inside my skull.” Perhaps some indeed find that sex - good or bad - brings a sensation of ants crawling over the skin. From the Latin formica for ant, it gained currency in the 17th century (Livingstone later had a bad night owing to “the attack by the fighting battalions of a small species of formica”). But the Twenties coining of Formica as a work surface was ill-informed. “We’ve got Formica in the kitchen” sounds a matter for the health inspector - akin to the Nova motor-car which, in Spanish, means “won’t go”.



Those with scant interest in the Royals or Kennedys are surprised by Stuart Nicholson’s admirable Duke Ellington : the Duke of Kent lost his virginity to Noël Coward in a theatre dressing room and took up with an Argentinian, Jorge Ferara. They had a ménage à trois with Kiki Whitney Preston, the heiress who plied him with cocaine and morphine; moreover, his piano-playing impressed Ellington. They met Lord Beaverbrook’s: “very dicty. We were way up, feeling mellow.” Not in the OED, it is a Twenties coining for fashionable - either snobbish or attractive - , perhaps from decked, dressed. As Billie Holiday recalled, “a Rolls is only good for one thing, that’s to be dicty.” As for Ellington’s drummer, he used to address the Prince of Wales as “Wale”.



Edmund Wilson was riled 36 years ago by being described with the triple-cliché “a massive, Johnsonian ‘father-figure’” and noted “all the sentences in which massive occurred; but I found that it was now used so often that this involved too much trouble, and I presently gave up.” It is quite simple. Dumplings - especially at school - are massive; meringues, however big, are not. From French which derives, via Latin, from the Greek for barley-cake, it is a word whose nuance is lost when every two-bit hit record is called massive. Not in the OED is Wilson’s note that the misuse became widespread after FDR’s death was correctly described, with the technical term for a continuous section of diseased tissue, as a “massive cerebral hemorrhage”. SOLVENT n Never has there been so pithy a evocation of contemporary Wales as the Voice Personal ad at the weekend in which a woman specified “only solvents please”. Has she had embarrasing meals with Welshmen who prove short of lettuce? From the Latin for loosen, solve is both physical and metaphorical - the latter neatly defined by Johnson: “to clear; to explain; to untie an intellectual knot”. Solvent, as an adjective, is the ability to dissolve any debts. Although insolvent is a noun for the feckless, a solvent is something that newsagents do not sell to teenagers. The “tall, slim, attractive, professional, independent 33-year-old” Welshwoman revives a usage unique to Cobbett (1825): “every insolvent blames a solvent, that will not lend him money.”


OKAY n, v and adj

It took a while but I got through to somebody at Cable & Wireless, and the Duchess of Windsor soon came to mind. In reply to my query about the iniquity of our being charged the same rate for data and voice transmissions despite data’s using less bandwidth, the firm’s resident troglodyte began an ill-informed discourse whose every sentence, moreover, ended “okay?” One began to see why the Duchess, in one of her earlier incarnations, eschewed okay in a bid to raise her status. Okay (au quai or the Choctaw oke) was long disputed, but it is now certain that is an 1839 version of all correct (orl korrect) and became popular as a slogan the next year during the Presidential campaign of Martin Van buren - Old Kinderhook (where he was born).


EMBARGO n and v

Lexicography appears to be a pleasantly dusty pursuit but in our era dictionary wars keep erupting at the behest of marketing men. They not only make Vercingetorix appear peaceable but their prêt-à-porter polyster is all the more inelegant beside his hand-woven natural fibres. Words in their natural order can arouse more passion than in the unique order that is either a masterpiece or tosh. Oxford, to upstage Encarta, has the same embargo time for its circular about the OED online and a request for everybody to submit printed instances of new words. A shipping term, via Spanish, from Latin imbarricare, to impede, embargo gained wider use later in the 17th century. Ironic, then, that both Encarta and the OED overlook gagging order.


MOSH n and v

Woodstock is back and not only were autotellers on site but rape and pillage ousted love and peace, a process fuelled by monster mosh-pits. Not in the OED, but defined in similar terms by Encarta and the concise Oxford, it is a violently colliding dance in a pit. In fact, it began as slam dancing in the punk era and grew more violent with the advent of Nirvana. (I type this while Elgar plays.) Moshing requires musicians to leap from the stage into the crush and be carried aloft by the enthusiasts. One expert, at Crowd Management Strategies, calls it “chaos with etiquette”. Said to be of obscure origin, it is probably from mash, the Old English brewing term - masche - with several Nordic parallels: mash mixes malt and water; the result, wort.



In Q magazine Mel C is sassier than in the collective vacuity of the popular singing combo, the Spice Girls. She parries questions about her ever-thwarted love-life, such as a dalliance with a himbo Kavana, a hunk. It is not in the OED, nor the “world English” of Encarta, which goes directly from himation to Himmler. A late-Eighties coining, to pun on bimbo, it had an air-head connotation at first but now means one who can flex his abs without getting sand kicked in his face. Bimbo dates from 1920 (a decade before the first OED citation), when it meant a sluttish woman and also - as it still does in America - a stupid man: when called a bimbo on the Donohue show, Dan Quayle had not mooted a sex-change - but doubtless would if there were votes in it.



Summertime... and the cotton is high.” Du Bose Heyward did not pun in his lyric for George Gershwin’s song, but it comes to mind as such amid the matted T-shirts on outstretched limbs in London’s ramshackle Tube. One longs to aestivate; that is, to spend the summer in suspended animation - from Latin for summer, the equivalent of hibernation. As Bacon wrote, “a grotto is a place of shade, of estivation.” In the cool of the Angler’s Rest, W.H. Auden’s executor, Edward Mendelson, is sure that the poet never used the word, which is odd, for he relished obscure words and - despite that craggy face - shied from the sun. Ira Gershwin also wrote a “Summertime” for his brother, fifteen years earlier, but it is thin without the lost music.



The Brighton Evening Argus headlined a murdered woman in Worthing as a spinster. It must use the Collins dictionary, which lets it pass without warning. The Concise Oxford calls it “chiefly derogatory” and Encarta “offensive term”. A Middle English word for one who spins fibre (from the Old English spin with many Teutonic variants), it is first cited by theOED from the early 18th century as a term for a woman bereft of any alternative pleasure. Johnson, however, saw an instance in Othello. Absent from all these is its contrasting, 17th century sense of prostitute or adulterer - from the punning phrase “ to make crooked spindles”: the neglect of wifely duties for other pleasures. Perhaps Bridget Jones will soon revive a crooked spindle.


MORTISE n and v

Hal Porter’s excellent memoir The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony (1963) opens with the memory of two corpses seen twenty-eight years apart and the reflection that “on or about the day King Edward VII died, these two corpses [were] young, agile and lustful enough to mortise themselves together to make me.” Mortise sounds more a matter of death than life, but is a Middle English term (from obscure French) for the cavity which receives a tenon to form a joint (as in a lock). Such an invisible device was used at something more enduring than Mr and Mrs Porter’s union - Stonehenge -, but as a metaphor Porter’s inspiration was probably Othello (melting mountains ruin mortised oak) or Hamlet (subjects are mortised to the wheel of Majesty).



Whenever Prince Philip utters one of those remarks that would have the rest of us hauled before a consciousness-raising committee, it is described as a gaffe. It first appeared in Edwardian times, perhaps from the French gaffe, and there are Old English and Scottish instances - all shades of undecorous talk (in French “faire une gaffe” is clear enough, but “fais gaffe!” means watch out, which could cause more trouble on a State visit). It also echoes the early-19th-century blowing the gaff and talking

guff; gaff is also a rowdy fair. As for Indian electricians’ views of Prince Philip, these are harder to find - the owner of a nearby tandoori remarks that an electrician friend trades under an English name “so that he gets the business.”


ZORB v and n

With sixteen months of the century left, Oxford issues a genially ad hoc anthology of new words since 1901. It is arranged alphabetically by decade, and the Nineties end with a high point of civilisation, zorbing: an antipodean custom absent from the “world English” of Encarta. It is “an extreme sport involving hurtling down slopes... in a large perspex ball.” The ball, which can also be lubricated inside, is a zorb. Novices often travel “washing-machine” fashion, but Samuel Johnson, for one, would have soon become adept. On a visit to Bennet Langton in 1764, at 53, he emptied his pockets at the top of a steep hill, lay down and, “parallel with the edge of the hill, he actually descended, turning himself over and over till he came to the bottom.”


MONKEY adj and n

After a fracas over O-Zone I vowed not to pay good money for Paul Theroux’s work, but Sir Vidia’s Shadow has churned through the local library - with the dual pleasure of entertaining anecdotes, often, unawares, at the expense of Theroux’s unchecked ego (surely there was at least one woman less than ecstatic after a night in his clutches). Monkey has many meanings, often sexual, but Naipaul refers to small motor-cars as monkeys and, when Theroux is puzzled by commercials on English telly, he explains, “that’s not the B.B.C., that’s the Monkey.” Naipaul, too, has his monkey up throughout - in his case, feels tetchy. Goodness knows what he makes of the Cable & Wireless channel on which the financial news is read by a stripping woman.


PHARM v Among the books I might produce are Some Like It Shot, a history of blood sports, and Vole Bodies, on the effect of pesticides. Meanwhile, emergent is the neat pun, to pharm animals - that is, breed them for medical research. Not in any dictionary, it appeared in the Evening Standard. We still need an idiomatic word for genetically-modified food. GM, yet another acronym, suggests an automobile firm (“brake on GM food”) and Frankenstein Food sounds like a gaudy snack for children. Perhaps mengele food should be the term. It echoes mangle - and would be a continual reminder of the horrors perpetrated by a man curiously absent from all the new encyclopaedic dictionaries and even from the latest version of Hutchinson’s handily hefty encyclopaedia.



Harvey Breit’s little-known New York Times interviews - The Writer Observed (1957) - delay sleep. No griller, he catches authors on the wing. Waugh, for one, remarks, “psychology - there isn’t such a thing as psychology. Like the word slenderizing. There isn’t such a word. The whole thing’s a fraud.” Often deemed American, slenderise was current with Waugh’s first novels. The Daily Mail advertised “corsets for slenderising full figures” and the Express lauded “the graceful slenderising V-cut accentuated by removable front of deep ivory crêpe-de-chine.” As for Waugh’s physique, Breit is excellent: “A remark he makes suggests cynicism, or perhaps a satiric humour, but Mr. Waugh’s face - bland, pink and cherubic - suggests only innocence.”



ime was when a Prime Minister relaxed by translating Greek verse into Latin before turning in. Now it means slumping in front of a television news feed. Moreover, Tony Blair is vexed when ITV’s eleven o’clock edition deviates from the published time, something which a spokesman explains is partly caused by the minutage of commercials before it. Happily, this way of saying amount is not in any dictionary, nor is the lament that “long-form” drama is easier to get on air than a one-off effort, however good. Our age is an amalgam of jargon and mis-spelling: in one day, three signs: purchess; The Surry Arms (Shoreham); and “desert menu” suggests a pudding of cactus garnished with windswept sand eaten with one hand while the other grips a hump.



Michael Barrier’s admirable, new 650-page study of Hollywood’s golden-age cartoons has a mere 25 illustrations but its pages incorporate three flip-books to demonstrate technique. Such a device could elevate many a modern novel. Central to animation is the inbetweener, somebody who takes drawings towards the screened version, a distinct rôle by the Twenties but not cited until 1970 by the OED , which finds a first, general use of the word in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815). It has gained diverse political and social uses as well as in jazz and animation. As for Chuck Jones, he ad-libbed, “they should be playing the death march here” as he slowly left the stage at the National Film Theatre recently before another of his Looney Tunes was shown.



A current trend will make mankind reverte to communicating by a series of grunts. I called First Direct to ask whether I could pay in cheques at any bank other than the Hong Kong and Shanghai: “no, you can’t use that one, only the Midland or HSBC.” “I thought the Midland had gone.” “So it has, sir, it’s the HSBC now.” “So I can use the Hong Kong and Shanghai?” “No, only the HSBC.” As Basil Fawlty told Manuel, I could have this conversation for the rest of my life. Acronym, from Greek for end of a name, is first recorded as recently as the Forties and examples had proliferated by the end of that decade. Nabisco is the National Biscuit Company and byte means binary digit eight, but why truncate the splendid, exotic ring of Hong Kong and Shanghai? E-WORD n The belated publication over here this month by Faber of The F-Word has attracted attention, but nobody has remarked that much of it openly derives from the magisterial Random House Dictionary of American Slang by Jonathan Lighter which is not published here and whose third volume - O-Z - is eagerly awaited for its endless evidence of a demotic imagination which goes way beyond obvious curses. Meanwhile, in California, a true sign of our times comes with the teenager who complained to a teacher that she had been called by the “e-word”. Puzzled, the teacher wondered what this could mean. In fact, it was “eediot” - which suggests that the pupil’s spelling comes from listening to Manuel’s hestitant repetition of an insult from Basil Fawlty Towers.


INITIALISM n From the deeper recesses of the Civil Service comes a memo to state that, with reference to the Words column, sub-section last week’s item on acronym, in particular the erstwhile Hong Kong and Shanghai - HSBC -, this is in fact an initialism: an acronym must be pronounceable. A telephone poll suggests that initialism is a mite recherché; it is in Encarta but absent from Collins, while the OED entry for it refers to acronym, but not vice versa. In fact, initialism came first, by some forty years, in 1899, but both only took off after the second war. Radar is an acronym, but others - SAS, IRA - remain initialisms when they could be acronyms. It is, of course, pleasing to reflect that pedantry is still a guiding force in the mandarin classes.


GIMMICK n and v

Cable & Wireless continues to move in mysterious ways. In a bid to woo customers to its Internet provider, one of the firm’s directors, Janet Somerville chooses to send a letter printed on clear plastic, which, in defying one to read it, gives rise both to the suspicion that there is a catch in it and to a query about the origins of the word gimmick. America in the Twenties, where it was orignally a device to swindle gamblers at a seemingly well-run table, and it soon spread to mean a sales ploy. Most likely, it derives from the conjurer’s term, a gimac - a gadget which eases sleight of hand and is an anagram of magic, something not to be confused with the later slang terms for penis and hypodermic needle (both absent from the OED).



“’How much will it cost to murder my mistress?’ The vicar’s voice was urgent. That would put the price up.” It is easy enough to come up with a memorable opening, harder to produce the rest - and even Tolstoy’s sign-off to Anna Karenina is no match for the opening; indeed, few can quote it. Many an ending does not have the courage of its convictions but goes soft. This is perhaps a human, certainly an American tendency. Yet to reach any dictionary is the recent coining of warmedy for those sit-coms that seek to promulgate an uplifting spirit. But will warmedy take off? After all, much of Joyce - cropse (a life-and-death merging of crops and corps) is not on any lips, even though it could be handy in these grim days of Monsato’s mengele food.



By the desk is Eve Arnold’s photograph of Marilyn Monroe. She is in a striped swimsuit on the bench of a climbing frame, knees supporting a hefty edition of Joyce’s Ulysses: She is at the last pages, which makes one wonder whether she had read it all and what she could learn from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. She would certainly puzzle over Anthony Burgess’s tribute to her, at the end of One Man’s Chorus (still not published here). He discusses the history of the blonde and says that hers “remains a slangy face, essentially plebian.” As for Bette Davis, she “has no crinal memorability”. Crinal is absent from the warring dictionaries: our wash-and-go era has no need of a word, from Latin, for concerning the hair. It could make a brand name.



Discretion veils the occasion when an utterance was deemed gormless but, at the same time, there came to mind puzzlement about the gorm that is apparently lacking. Gorm is a variant of the Northern dialect gome, for head or notice, which goes back to Old English, with various Teutonic parallels - and not to be muddled with gome which meant both God and man (as in bridegroom). Bridget Jones, then, is doubly gormless. A gorm,

without the less, in fact also means fool, a sense which emerged at the beginning of the century, and goes back to the 17th century verb for staring vacantly - and not to be confused with the American college word gorm, from gormandize, for a voracious eater, absent from the OED . All of which leaves us less gormless.


QUIZ n and v

Only now that I set a weekly quiz in this newspaper’s magazine did I wonder about the exact origins of the word. (That way lies madness should any of us linger over every such word in a day.) A reasonable suppostion is that it is Latin. In fact, only indirectly: it is mid-19th-century American, first used by William James with a certain disdain in 1867: it yokes question and inquisitive, and also echoes the dialect quies, but is distinct from the earlier quiz, an eccentric person. It had also been used by Jane Austen of an odd-looking thing Meanwhile, here is another quiz, which computer scholar Jo Finch asks her pupils. What is the difference between an illegal and an unlawful act? Think about it and watch this space in the morning.


TEASE n and v

In my teens I found in a cracker - what’s the difference between an illegal and an unlawful act - and, knowing the answer, I asked my father - who had a double First,” says Jo Finch. “ He was glad I was showing interest, and spent two days over it. So did a boyfriend. Neither worked it out - then I revealed one’s a sick bird, the other something criminal. Amazing that clever people were taken in to that extent.” Which - after some throttling of her - led me to wonder about tease. As mischief, it derives from the sense of teasing out the fibres of wool - from Old English taesen, with various Teutonic equivalents, and it became metaphorical in the 17th century. Surprisingly, the first use of teasing out a problem was Norman Mailer in 1959. FECK n Only time will tell whether the publication here of The F-Word is a feckless business decision. Meanwhile, it also makes one ask what feck might be - apart, that is, from being one of the mere three words ever uttered in the television series Father Ted by the wild-haired Father Jack, usually when bishops are in the vicinity: “feck! girls! drink!” It is Scottish and Northern dialect, meaning either purpose, vigour or quantity, and is a variant of effect, which was in use by the 16th century and had echoes in Chaucer. Both feckful and feckly survived into the 19th century, when feckless came South and is the only general use of the word. French Connection could vary its fcuk campaign but reviving a fashion for the fecket: an underwaistcoat.


CLUTTER n and v

A fine book was hidden by old newspapers. A rival to Proust in its piquant observation and the ultimate in how-to volumes, Don Aslett’s Freedom From Clutter , turns variations on the remark “don’t love what can’t love you back.” A purge is, however, delayed by wondering about clutter - and filling the brain with more etymology: akin to clot and cleat, with Old English instances, it proves to be something that fills a surprising amound of space in the OED, which notes that it surfaced in the late 16th century but disappeared for close on 200 years. It also had senses of clatter and bustle, and was deemed “a low word” by Johnson. Right, back to Aslett: “there is a time to stop war-dancing and circling around our junk and to attack it!”



It is usual to call something gorgeous but rare to call it gorgeous - that is, it has become a casual exclamation of delight without any attention to the shade of meaning which it once had, when it betokened a question of raiment. From the old French gorgias, for finely dressed, its further origins are uncertain, but have nothing to do with gorging. In English use, of rooms and dress, from the late 15th century, it duly acquired the metaphorical sense of “glittering in various colours” - as Johnson defined it - and, as such, usually referred to prose or speech. Doubtless to the usual French chagrin, this sense was supplanted in the late 19th century by the common-or-garden American term - indeed, first of all, of a visit to the Manon Route. COFFIN n Another newspaper’s corrections column has alerted readers that they might have been misled by a report that “the left-arm spinner ricked his back lifting his coffin out of the car.” This was not some prescient bargain, a new line from Homebase but recent slang among Australian and English cricketers for a cricket-bag taken on tour - not yet in any dictionary, nor in G. A. Wilkes’s boggling Australian Colloquialisms, Without exhausting the word, one could say the coffin dropped the coffin on his coffin: it can mean clumsy fellow and foot. It came in the 16th century, via Old French for little basket , from Latin and Greek, and can also mean a horse’s hoof, printing frame, pie crust - and as a harbinger of death, a coal that leaps from the fire. SHIRTY adj An inspired teacher could encourage textual scholarship by asking for a list of the differences between the English and American editions of the latest Harry Potter. Pudding/dessert; wonky/crooked; yet crumpet stays, as does shirty. Such is modern youth that this has been italicised to show it is not a misprint. Shirty in fact arrived around the same time as the mid-19th-century American phrase to keep one’s shirt on. Presciently, the Daily News in 1899 observed that for the French and Germans “the whole duty of man includes the duty of getting ‘shirty’ on the slightest provocation. Till they recognize that ‘shirtiness’ itself is the real enemy of self-respect, they must infallibly go on boring holes in one another in this fatuous way.”



Masochistically, I once took a set of Scrabble to Anthony Burgess; mercifully we did not get round to it (“I play an unusual game”). Not for him Homer Simpson’s brow-smiting cry of “d’oh!” when the letters on his rack spell zeugma in order. Meanwhile, Cookie’s Fortune gives one new hope for the movies and Robert Altman. Weirdly, logically, a police-cell includes so swift a game that one might miss the defence attorney’s disquisition on the final word, awe. With various Old English spellings and Teutonic parallels, it once had divine connotations, then meant fear of somebody before assuming the air of reverence. Moreover, the original phrase awe stood to men slid into men stood in awe. As for our use of awful, that is early 19th-century slang.


AYE int

Chain of association from awe makes one wonder about aye aye, whose origins prove obscure. It first appeared at the end of the 16th century, when it was spelt I and defined in an early grammar as “I for Yes, is used in a hasty or merry Way, as I Sir, I Sir.” Johnson’s supposition that it comes from the Latin aio is fanciful but his definition is neat: “it is a word by which the sense is enforced.” It is possible that, through a path of dialects, it derives from ay, whose mean slid from always to a mere certainly or yes. Aye is the spelling used by Parliament, but the antipodean, squirrel-like animal, the aye-aye was not named after that baying crowd but the sound it makes. The New Yorker once reviewed a Barry Manilow show: “the noes have it.”



D. J. Taylor’s new life of Thackeray does not mention Elvis Presley, but could reasonably do so. This is neither to reveal that the King had a passion for Vanity Fair nor to urge a biographical method akin to the wilder shores of Peter Ackroyd or of Edmund Morris’s Ronald Reagan. In 1831 Thackeray lamented, “I was in love with two young ladies - but the day dream hath passed away, & I am left without a flame.” In fact, Elvis’s “(Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame” goes back to the 14th century when flame meant passion itself before - with Cowley - becoming the object of passion. The OED’s last citation is a later, 1840 one by Thackeray, and calls our use of it joucular - but Otto Harbach’s lyric for “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is far from it.



Serena Mackesy’s hoot of a first novel The Temp has acute antennae for contemporary idiom, such as twirly - neither a dance move nor a key but “old ladies. They all call them that on the buses.” These stiff-jointed seniors are not mentioned by the OED, Jonathon Green or Tony Thorne. “You know how they all wake up at six in the morning and spend the next three and a half hours pacing up and down until it’s time to go off to the supermarket to get cat food the moment the old girls’ cards come into action? Well, Rodney says that at 9.28 every morning, they’re all there at every bus stop, all the old ladies, with their shopping bags, all the old ladies, with their shopping bags on wheels, waving their old girls’ cards and going, ‘Am I twirly?’”



Connoisseurs relish Cameron Kay’s novel Thieves Fall Out (1950). It brings the spirit of Casablanca to Farouk’s Egypt. “Business does not stop because people decide to kill one another on a large scale.” There is even a hunchback pianist, who tells the hero, “that was the one song that always sent you.” Sam could have said so to Rick, for the verb goes back to 1932 at least, when Louis Armstrong cabled, “My boy Earl was marvelous as ever yessir he sent me.” It was in wide in use for several decades, spawning such phrases Little Richard’s “oh, my Linda, / she’s a solid sender”, and was the title of Sam Cooke’s rather more lilting “You Send Me.” Jonathon Green, in recording a falling off in the later Sixties, detects a certain retro chic to it now.



At least the second builder turned up to give an estimate but immediately asked, “insurance job, is it?” He was oblivious to the fact that such tacit jacking up of the price increases premiums for everybody. He will not get the work, but as a result I duly wondered about the cut of one’s jib. Not a clothing term, but a nautical one, from the sail whose name is

probably a version of gibbet as it is suspended from the mast-head. It was in use as such by the 17th century but only 200 years later had the metaphorical slang spread beyond such circles - at much the same time as there was the East Anglian dialect for underlip. As for that pain of a builder, even worse than Fawlty Towers’s Mr O’Reilly, he was even less skilled than a gib - that is, one who disembowels fish.



Edmund Morris’s biography of Ronald Reagan takes to new heights, or depths, the current fad for interpolating fiction. Not some new word, but in fact 19th-century Midlands dialect, fad is of obscure origins but is linked with another of the region’s words, to faddle - dandle a child fussily -, which is parallel with fiddle faddle, a 16th-century creation which spawned fidfad. As for craze, that surfaced in the early 19th century (from the French écraser, itself from Norse) while all the rage is some fifty years older and, like rabies, derives via the French raige from the late Latin rabia. All of which is more stimulating than Reagan ever was, a fact - as Gore Vidal remarks - which has surely made Morris spice up his book in that outlandish way.



While motoring across an overcast Brighton, there was not a yellow vehicle in sight, which is strange, for it is the most visible of colours and also prompted the thought that so many of them - green, blue and brown - mean a woeful state that it is as if the spectrum is on prozac. The garagiste said that manufacturers do not supply yellow motor-cars these days, and I remarked that yellow is a fascinating word, one which shares an Old English and Nordic root with the diverse gall and gold: the latter more sought after than the secretion from the liver which such a quest can doubtless induce. A yellow admiral is retired, not cowardly: this sense emerged in 19th-century America, a twist on the 17th-century one of jealous - that is, jaundiced.



It is difficult to imagine that people once sat in cafés and, in all seriousness, discussed Jean-Paul Sartre’s work and existentialist thought. They probably stopped doing so when Monty Python featured some crones who did just that in a launderette. He is not in the OED but nor, sadly, as Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones remarks, is a punning word coined at the time by Peter Fleming in his splendid Spectator column under the name of Strix (there were several collections published under Fleming’s own name, but only one of the OED’s 70 Fleming citations refers to these). Resistentialism anticipates Richard Boston’s sod’s law - the fact that dropped bread always lands butter-side down and when one is on time the train is late.



Mind the Gap takes on a new meaning with the burgeoning boycott of the clothing chain after revelations about the sweatshop labour upon which it is built. Gap goes back to the 14th century and, fittingly, one of its Nordic antecedents is the Swedish for a wide-mouthed outcry and the Danish gab for open mouth (it is uncertain how precisely this is linked with gob and gift of the gab). At first, gap meant a hole made in a wall either by decay or force, and only at the beginning of the 17th century did it begin to be used in a general sense - as in Macbeth’s “if he had been forgotten, / it had been a gap in our great feast.” That sense, as used by a desperate cowboy or scriptwriter - “we’ll see them off at the gap” -, goes back to the 16th century.



In Brighton the Corporation buses are named after famous inhabitants - among them, Lord Lawrence Olivier. This should be Lord Olivier or Laurence Olivier. And, in Brooklyn the other day, I asked a real-estate agent whether an “anti-bellum” house currently contained people who sat around and sang “Blowin’ in the Wind”. He sneered “pedant” in reply. That is, in Johnson’s words, “a man awkwardly ostentatious of his literature”. From French and Italian, it first meant schoolmaster but soon became pejorative. Meanwhile, pedants are vindicated by the 1983 case of the nurse Angela Penfold who wrote of her boss Mrs Pepperell who is “out to make my life hell, so I give in my notice.” That careless comma made her letter be taken for resignation.



And when I die, / There’ll be one child born, / And a world to carry on.” So sang Laura Nyro, whose obituary appeared two years ago. In the trade, these are often called obits, which is inadvertent fogeyism, for this slang was in fact the original, dignified medieval term. It had also meant death itself - from the Latin obitus, a going down, death, for which there are several European parallels; moreover, it was the ceremony of funeral rites performed at a burial, and also a gift made in somebody’s memory. Obituary - from medievel Latin - surfaced in the 18th century as a collective record of obits (as in reliquary) and a few years later as a single biographical sketch, although the word goes unrecorded by Johnson, a master of such things.



Many refer casually to the dunking of a madeleine by Proust’s narrator as a pivotal moment, but even those those that have read so much as that first volume might forget that the full effect depends upon the liquid in question - a limeblossom decoction, a tisane. Alan Davidson’s wonderful new Oxford Companion to Food, is careful to note this, and remarks that the word’s history is unusual. Greek ptisane meant barley water, as it did in Latin and 16th-century English, as ptisan, but this century it was readopted from the French as tisane to mean herbal tea, which brews in fact have nothing to do with tea itself. “It would be preferable to retain ‘tisane’, which has a respectably long tradition as an English word, and to use ‘tea’ only for real tea.”



In answer to a query by one of this newspaper’s readers about the mechanics of his celebrated eyebrow and the practice needed for its full effect, Jeremy Paxman claimed to be unaware of it and deemed the fellow an “impertinent git”. No sooner had I read this, in the train, than an employee of Connex South Central came along and hawked overpriced alcohol from a trolley before lunchtime. “Drink, sir?” he repated, with which I attempted a silently withering Paxmanesque eyebrow, but this only caused another “drink, sir?” Told not to disturb me, he shouted, “don’t give me grief, you git.” The OED dates it to the mid-Forties, but it was around in Twenties America, a variant of the medieval get for offspring which, Nordic in origin, was later used only of animals, when it also mutated into bastard or brat (but survives in get with child).



Among the many obscure songs on Paul McCartney’s new disc Run Devil Run is Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” (1954). McCartney recalls John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe’s flat, where, one morning, he awoke, “burning eyes job, and one of the guys put on ‘Come into this house, / Stop all that yackety yak.’ It’s my favourite on the whole album to sing.” The phrase is always associated with The Coasters’ wonderful song “Yackety Yak” (1958) , by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote it in fifteen minutes. Nice work if you can get it, but that takes genius - and King Curtis’s saxophone. The OED again overlooks such songs. They all took a Fifties phrase which had surfaced in 19th-century Australia: yacker, for chat, came from yabba, itself an echo of jabber.


CARP v and n

In his glorious Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson notes that his work has always proved to “contain errors and to be flawed by omissions. The same will certainly be true of this book, and on a larger scale.” Even so, one cannot carp (“the common name applied to a limited number of species in several genera of the very extensive family Cyprinidae”). In fact, the fish and the cavil are distinct. One is from late Latin, the other springing from Old Norse, in which karpa is to brag; in 13th-century Northern England, it meant to speak at length, then also to do so in writing - moreover it could be the vocal prowess of minstrels and birds. By the 16th century it was a grumble, perhaps from Latin carpere, to pluck - hence pull out faults.



Some words still draw a blank on either side of the Atlantic. For her Broadway début at the Booth theater, Dame Edna is likely to drop a reference to feeling peckish, which went over the heads of many at a preview. It began as slang and is now regular English (the OED deems it colloquial). First recorded by Grose (1785) in his volume about the vulgar, it derives simply enough from peck. This was interchangeable with pick (a word of surprising complexity), and certainly echoes the Low German pekken. To mean a light, even desultory kiss dates from the late 19th century, when, to American ears, peck was, and is, a white Southerner. In Negro slang the red head of the peckerwood, the reverse of a blackbird, suggests the redneck - not Dame Edna.



The Government misjudges a public appetite for the Millennium. General feeling in fact is: why hand over a whole bunch of money to a stranger because there is a change of number? It’s a racket. The word brings to mind the belated publication here of David Maurer’s classic The Big Con, a 1941 study of the confidence man. Inspiration forThe Sting, it is far more absorbing than that movie. Not mere crooks, con men are “suave, slick and capable. Their depredations are very

much on the genteel side.” Racket, for noise, is distinct from the bat, and probably onomatopoeic. As a swindle, it was around in 19th-century London but came into its own in Twenties Chicago, by which time it was also a jocular term for somebody else’s trade or profession.



The process by which a word comes into being is endlessy fascinating. It is not simply a matter of somebody’s sitting down and cooking up immortality, anonymous or otherwise. A word has to meet a need. The other day, in TriBeCa, I saw a euphemism which might take off: a store advertised “pre-turned CDs”; and, overheard in Brighton, was a man who apologised for a mistake which he laughingly attributed to his “beta brain” - an instance of Greek revived by the use of beta for bug-ridden software demos given out free. As for sardony, the recent editors of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing correct, reasonably enough, the printed sardony to irony, but for something finely pitched between the ironic and sardonic, there could yet be a use for sardony.


LIMOUSINE n and adj

Good luck to the nine Limousin cows who, in the spirit of the same area’s porcine Tamworth Two, have done a bunk. Winter imminent, they pine for the southern climes rooted in their genes. The breed, from Limoges, was brought to England in the late-Sixties. Limousine has diverse meanings, from an inhabitant of the region around Limoges, once called Limousin, and which in the 18th century was looked at askance as home to “an old barabarous French, formerly brought into this country out of France.” The OED overlooks the limousine which was a cloak worn by the driver of a cart whose passenger section was shielded from the elements - hence the vehicle itself and all those gaudy, dark-windowed successors which could house nine cows.


NELLY n Up my driveway came a fellow subcontracted by Transco to drill the road: he now wanted to put a huge plastic box on my wall for a new gas-meter. “Not on your nelly!” I said, and repeated it after he had found a hearing-aid (so more macho than mufflers). After which a supervisor duly revealed that a neat wooden box could be hidden on the ground but this was only done if customers remonstrated as they cost the company three times as much. Don’t be fobbed off. As for nelly, she turns out - gallingly - to be Forties rhyming slang (I avoid the stuff). Nelly Duff equals puff (of life). “Not on your life” is 19th-century but “on my life” goes back to 1400. As for Nelly’s Death, that’s Australian for cheap wine, which I’ll need if this drilling goes on.



Edmund Morris has said that Ronald Reagan is not a “bookish nerdy intellectual like myself.” Nerd has also acquired a computer-buff connotations overlooked by the OED, which unpersuasively posits an euphemism for turd while Robert Chapman is more certain that it comes from a desired animal in Dr. Seuss’s If I RanThe Zoo(1950): “I’ll sail to Ka-Troo / And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo, a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!” Meanwhile, Jonathon Green moots the dummy Mortimer Snerd used in America by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen who died at 75 twenty years ago. All of which is getting a bit nerdacious (used by Douglas Coupland but not in the OED which has nerdy, and “nurdier clients want foil. ‘’If potatoes are in foil, that’s gourmet.’”



At the end of the compelling, mutually egotistical Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux describes his receiving a message from Naipaul’s new wife: “I watched. squinnying at it, as it scrolled out of my fax machine. My first thought was that the chuntering woman from Pakistan had lost her marbles.” Squinny first appeared in the equally barbed world of King Lear, who tells Gloucester, “I remember thine eyes well enough. Dos’t thou squiny at me?” It became an adjective for both narrow and peering, evidently linked to squint which itself surfaced in the 16th century, from asquint which continues in use and which, although not recorded before the 13th century, was probably - as Johnson surmised - via Old English from the Dutch schuinte, a slope or slant.



Blair derides Prince Charles as a “goon” for his principled no-show at dinner for China’s president. Presumably he means simpleton (Lisa Simpson calls her brother goony) rather than thug or prison guard - both familiar in China - or even black person. Goon predatesThe Goons. It was invented - or adapted from a family saying -in 1921 by F L Allen (“a goonish style is one that reads as it were the work of a goon. It is thick and heavy”) and gained currency with hefty Alice the Goon in E C Segar’s Thirties cartoon strip. It goes back to gony in 1580, and to Old English gane - gawp. This would all be lost on a Goon nobody mentions, Enid Blyton’s remarkably subversive portrayal of the cretinous constable, Mr Goon, in the Five Find-Outer novels.



In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), Edmund Morris notes of Carleton Putnam’s Theodore Roosevelt: The Formative Years (1958) that “it is a tragedy of American biography that this grave, neglected masterpiece was never followed by other volumes”. Is Morris to be hoist by his own petard? Two decades on, his own work is still interrupted by Ronald Reagan. Will he reach Edith Wharton’s friendship with Roosevelt? She knew him when young, but said in the early-Thirties that “we had never ‘hooked’ (in the French sense of the atômes crochus)” until he was President; that is, hit it off. Hook, from Old English hoc , gained many senses, some indecorous (tarts and drugs), but Edith Wharton’s Twenties slang for mutual attraction is not in the OED.


CHEESE n and adj No sooner had JFK set me thinking about cheese than Miles Kington reported Dr. Wordsmith’s mediation upon the subject. In Palimpsest, Gore Vidal recalls JFK’s saying that a large brass box, given to him by Khrushchev, was “the cheesiest gift ever presented by one head of state to another.” JFK and Krushchev were big cheeses. Cheese - defined by Johnson as “a kind of food made by pressing the curd of coagulated milk, and suffering the mass to dry” - is from late Latin caseus. A big cheese is from the Persian chiz - thing - in the early 19th century, revived early his century in America. Although the OED puts a similar date on cheesy, it does finds cheesiness in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840), and cheesy was in fact 19th-century American.


BUT conj, n, v

Simon Schama and Rembrandt’s Eyes suffer from conjunctionitis. Innumerable sentences within close vicinity begin But. A complex word, from Old English butan (without or outside - stiil used in Scotland), it evolved into the noun - no buts about it - by the 16th century. From the French, it means a boundary, as in abut, and Johnson teasingly quotes the stern deaf-and-dumb expert William Holder’s Elements of Speech (1669): “But, if I ask you what I mean by that word, you will answer, I mean this or that thing, you cannot tell which; but if I join it with the words in construction and sense, as, but I will not, a but of wine, but and boundary, the ram will but, shoot at but, the meaning of it will be as ready to you as any other word.”



Etymology is a very fascinating topic,” writes precocious Emily in Katharine Topkins’s masterly 1962 novel All The Tea In China. Her sister El’s husband Mike has a garage and a racket in windshields “clobbered to smithereens... Mother said what a funny word ‘smithereens’ was.” Indeed obscure, probably from smite, to smash, it emerged in 19th-century Lincolshire - as smithers - and is linked with the Irish smidirin or smiodar (fragment). The OED has Hart Crane the first to make a verb from it. As for Emily, she is smitten (a similar root) with Mike but is “scared, not morals or anything vague like that, it wasn’t even just that he was El’s or that I was only fourteen, going on fifteen; I’m really no stickler for details like that.”



At the start of I & Claudius Clare de Vries is yet to motor across America with her old cat, but still here, is “lying in bed, ermintruminating over my life.” Does this echo Emryntrude the cow in The Magic Roundabout or - with added r - the artist whose bed, a former free-for-all, is now closely guarded at the Tate? But ermine betokens purity. Ermintruminate, unlike the book itself, will stay a nonce. Nonce is from Middle English for pan anes - for the occasion - which became pe nanes (as a newt replaced an ewt). Johnson moots the German nutz (need) and discounts the Old French noisance (nuisance, mischief). Between the 16th and 19th centuries, it meant both for the occasion and temporarily - the latter has gained ascendancy, for now.



Fine Records of Hove is a hive of erudite badinage unknown to chain stores. The CD Beethoven For Dummies made me posit Lord Berners For Dummies. Which prompted The Greatest Schnittke Album In The World...Ever! and Now That’s What I Call Malcolm Sergeant! Mugwump then popped up, as The Mama and Papas’ first name, and I was told it had been a Victorian endearment. In fact, it is Algonquin for big chief, first used by John Eliot in his 1663 translation of the Bible into Massachusset: mugquomp replaces duke etc. In 1884 it became a term for those Republicans against Blaine as Presidential candidate, hence those aloof from politics. The OED omits “a bird who sits with its mug on one side of the fence and its wump on the other”:Blue Earth Post (1934).



No sooner has D J Taylor published a 500-page life of Thackerary than he is described by some sort of don, John Mullan as “a jobbing writer”. What would the sneering Dr Mullan think if he knew that Taylor has also been a diligent editor of Airfix Magazine? He is an expert upon variants of the Lancaster bomber and a past master at easing decals from a saucer of water to the fuselage. Nothing to be ashamed of. In his new book of essays, Geoffrey Dyer says, “I still only really appreciate presents that are box-shaped (books and CDs opposed to sweaters) because, during those seminal Christmases, anything that wasn’t in a box wasn’t an Airfix model.” Dyer’s neat word for it is airfixation. Not in any dictionary, but this is an enduring condition.


BROWSE n and v

The dispute between French and English farmers would not have come about if cattle had simply been left to browse. This might conjure up a happy vision of a cow with back hooves crossed upon a chaise-longue as she peruses a reference book, for all the world as if going through the rigours of a sustaining a words column. From old French, brost, browse means young shoots and twigs, hence - from the 16th century omwards - cattle fodder and the act of so eating. As a verb, it took the same route, or perhaps directly from the French brouster, and is distinct from graze. Apparently first used of humans’ eating by Shakespeare in Cymbeline, it was Lamb (fittingly) in 1823 who adapted it for the skimming of those books of a suitably browsy nature.



As people wheezily explain that a cough is the aftermath of a cold, they do not ponder such paradoxical usage of the word. Math has nothing to do with arithmetic or even celibate Hindu mendicants. It is, via Old English, from various Teutonic words of a mæ root for mow. Math survived until this century as mown grass and also a measure for the amount that a man could cut in a day (an acre). Although a slight cough is preferable to a virulent cold, an aftermath is, strictly, a second, inferior growth (or the act of cutting it back). It was first used metaphorically by John Cleveland in 1658 for a shallower love - on the rebound. Aftercrop did not rhyme, so aftermath it is. Aftermath quiche is accurately used: Dame Edna’s recipe for leftovers.


TWADDLE n and v

Rupert Hart-Davis reports that Ivy Compton-Burnett’s companion, Margaret Jourdain once arrived at publisher Victor Gollancz’s office with a parcel and the remark, “here’s some more of Ivy’s twaddle” - an expression which delighted Gollancz more than the prospect of trying to sell another masterpiece. It is of obscure origins and distinct from twaddle as a variant of waddle. First used in Miss Jourdain’s sense in 1782, it probably a version of twattle, as in twittle-twattle,which Johnson called “a vile word, a ludicrous reduplication of twattle.” This is from tittle-tattle, tattle being either to stammer, prattle or prate (as is tatler). It arrived in the 16th century from various aonomatopœic Teutonic words, such as low German tateln.


SHIVER v and n

The poet James Dickey, whose novel Deliverance became a movie, knew the effect of a single word. “My whole existence has proceeded from one word in a poem, which I read in an anthology on Okinawa during the last weeks of the second War.” It was “Live Blindly and Upon the Hour” by Trumbull Stickney. “Thou art divine, thou livest, - as of old / Apollo springing naked to the light, / And all his island shivered into flowers.” This is pleasingly ambiguous. Shiver (from Middle English scifre) is to split - as in the naval phrase “shiver my timbers” and Shakespeare’s “thou’d’st shiver’d like an egg”- or to tremble with cold, which, of uncertain origins is perhaps from Middle English cheovele, to wag the jaw, as is chavel, to mumble food.


SCRIMP a, adv, v & n

Now He’s Sixty-Four!” You read it here first, but in seven years’ time many headlines will use that emended phrase upon Paul McCartney’s birthday, Such is journalists’ obsession with other people’s money, there will also be sneers about his having sung of renting a cottage on the Isle of Wight “if it’s not too dear. / We shall scrimp and save.” That shall is not only alliterative but correct (unlike his “this world in which we live in”). Scrimp began as an adjective - meaning scant - in the early 18th century (missed by Johnson), and is probably from the Middle German schrimpfen for shrivel, hence wrinkle the nose. Soon a verb, and less commonly a noun, as in Virginia Woolf’s account of her penmanship: “such a scrimp of a hand.”



It might seem less than honourable to mark Remembrance Day with a glass of plonk, but there is a study to be made of Australian servicemen’s spreading words during the Great War. It is to them that we owe spruce, as in fake or malingering. Plonk, for that wine which can offend a trained palate, is a corruption of vin blanc and perhaps an abbreviation of the rhyming slang plink plonk (in Australia plink alone has been around as a term for such wine since the beginning of the century). Yet to reach these shores is the Australian for a wine bar: a plonk bar. Meanwhile, licensing laws bid toodle-oo to the happy hour - another Great War invention, a slurring of à tout à l’heure, goodbye - although Jonathon Green posits a departing coach’s toot.



In a woodyard (more shelves), a builder was on a mobile and, in giving directions to a job, used a portable lavatory - “the Tardis” - as a landmark. I remarked that, so far as I knew, no lavatory is visible aboard that telephone-box - perhaps biology has made a striking advance. None of the warringly topical dictionaries include this word, close on forty years old. It is also used by estate agents for a place that might look a cupboard but is an ideal venue for any amount of cat-swinging. Not a conscious pun on tardy, Tardis is an acronym for time and relative distance in space. Perhaps tomorrow’s BBC2 Dr Who evening will expand that. Meanwhile those blue boxes have vanished - as if somebody uttered the dread syllables: “ex- ter- min-ate!”



In a chain of association that estimable journal the Lady is more likely to prompt “embroidery patterns” than “syzygy”, but this oddball and perfectly-justifed reply would denote a person a rare intelligence and wit. It was in the Lady, in 1891, that Lewis Carroll first published a syzygy after it had been rejected by Vanity Fair. The idea came to him twelve years earlier, from the Greek for yoke, which, in this case, are the adjacent letters shared, or made to share, by opposite words, as in dog and cat: endogen; gentry; intricate; cat. It can get far more complicated, and deserves a place in the OED amid the mathematical, biological, astronomical, prosodical and religious senses, from which Carroll’s syzygy is a fortifying diversion.


FOWL n and adj

This column, which regularly hauls up The Grocer for its cruel treatment of our language, must impartially recall the leader item last week in this newspaper’s business pages that referred to Microsoft’s “fowl play”. Do Bill Gates’s poultry handlers set cockerels below the window each dawn to deprive Apple’s funkier honcho, Steve Jobs of the sleep necessary for a day’s work on those items far superior to the smeary Windows? Fowl is from Old English fugol and linked with Teutonic words for fly. (Johnson notes. “it is colloquially used of edible birds, but in books of all the feathered tribes”.) Foul is from Old English fúl. “Foul play” first appears in The Tempest (1610), a natural successor to the “fair play” used twice in King John.



On the face of it, Kevin Jackson’s Invisible Forms explores the same territory as Anne Fadiman’s recent Ex Libris. Both are neat, keenly-priced hardbacks which move in and around such beguiling matters as indexes, titles, footnotes and dedications - indeed Jackson offers his to Her Majesty, something usually only accepted in such exceptional circumstances as the OED and The Times Atlas (a neat way of getting expensive books free), but to do so without asking is not illegal, “so I am in small risk of the Tower.” Along the way, he mentions gen without dwelling on it. A Second World War coining, it is either from “for the general information of all ranks” or “general intelligence” - although, in America, it also has the hint of gossip and rumour.



If every criminal wants to be caught, then Gary Glitter’s forbidding a PC World engineer to open his lap-top files was tantamount to making him click on the mouse forthwith. An unremarked aspect of the case is that nobody will now have a machine repaired but, instead, buy a new, faster and cheaper one. Meanwhile, we have the word paedophile but not one for a love of children - which, from the Greek, is in fact what it should mean, just as an audiophile relishes hi-fi rather than smashes it up. Some parents loathe children; some of the childless - such as Virginia Woolf - are magical with them. Paedophile was Havelock Ellis’s 1906 coining? Does any other word that ends in -phile mean a perversion? Some might suggest Europhile.



To revise a classic risks pillory. Eric Partridge would wearily understand Janet Whitcut’s prefatory remark to her new version of Usage and Abusage (Penguin) that some of his vigorous battles are long lost and “no longer worth discussing”. She, too, includes “vogue words”, albeit briefly: “basically”, “hands-on”, “paradigm”, “caring”, “dimension”, etc. Absent is one noted by computer guru Derek Goodlake: reports are now challenged, not queried or questioned. Challenge has gone through many shades of meaning. Via Old French, it is from Latin calumnia, false accusation. In a dispute, it should mean a shot across the bows, not sniping. As grim is a neighbourhood’s “regeneration”, often used by MP Ivor Caplin when he means more chain-stores.



The Government pamphlet What Everyone Should Know About The Millennium Bug is so insouciant that it is more concerned to point out “if you’ve not yet decided what to do on millennium night, you might consider organising your own party.” It does not suggest that if, come midnight, the lights flash and the fridge broadcasts Phil Collins, then somebody may have laced the punch, but to give only a page to the international effect recalls Protect and Survive’s fatuous advice to hide under the kitchen table. When emerging to watch the video, one should go the whole retro hog of setting it to 1972 as a workaround. Not in the OED, this term, from computing, is only in the Concise Oxford among the warring dictionaries and means improvise - or bodge.



Some new French movies tour the country and if none recalls the Truffaut era, this human behaviour leavens the SFX fodder of the muliplexes - and has one boggling at the subtitlers’ efforts. In The New Eve grapes are visible but, in English, they remain raisins. Perhaps the best movie is Calf Moon. Somewhere between Best Boy and The Dream Team, it tells of a country family and a cow doted upon by a retarded son. Events prompt a subtitle “the whole shebang”. This sounds of French origin, but there is a hint of Irish. In the 1870s Bret Harte wrote of hiring “the whole shebang”, a vehicle, which suggests charabanc , but it already meant one’s home in American slang, perhaps from the Irish shebeen for tavern, which is another meaning of shebang.


RIP-OFF n, adj and v

Rip-off Britain’s economy could be transformed simply by the free local telephone-calls which would plug it into the world rather than remain a Europe-obsessed outpost. Rip has various Teutonic parallels, while rip-off has a Sixties stamp about it, but one would not be surprised to find that it is older. Rip-off did surface in that decade but to rip, meaning steal, goes back at least a hundred years. Rip-off, to mean swindle or plagiarise, grew from the Black slang rip off a piece (sex). The OED offers a social vignette from Spare Rib (1977): “a police guard formed in front of Mothercare in Oxford Street - afraid we’d attack it for the way it rips off motherhood.” Newsweek characterised some architecture as Shameless Ripoff.



A curiously underplayed aspect of Jeffrey Archer’s libel case is that he did not settle matters for once and all by volunteering to remove his shirt and display his back - spotty or otherwise - to the public gaze. It has certainly not been photographed since. It would not have been surprising if spots or moles lurked there. Bear with me. Via Old French, from the Latin arcus for bow - as is arc -, archer entered the language in the 13th century and 300 years later was noted as a sign of the Zodiac, Saggittarius, into which the Sun moved just as Archer’s latest troubles emerged. Even more curious is that the Archer is a fish in Java: able to waylay insects with a shot of water, it is “of a yellowish colour, marked in the back with five brown spots.”


UTTER v and adj

It is better to utter rubbish than to utter utter rubbish. As an adjective, it is a shortening of the vowel in outer, which was its meaning before the extreme limits, so uttermost is now perhaps a tautology as an adjective. Utter is Old English, with Teutonic parallels, and was for long used to emphasise, say, rogues or ruin, but since the late-19th century has also been distinctly jocular (Gilbert and Sullivan’s doing: “they are indeed jolly utter”). Milton was fond of utter, but “utter darkness” is Shakespeare’s. As a verb, there is a similar sense of out but it also derives from the Dutch to mean speak out, put up for sale or issue forth (as in water). The oral sense arrived in the 15th century, but went into abeyance until 150 years ago. Mutter, however, is akin to mute, and probably onomatopoeic. J


Everybody delights in the way that Bryan Ferry’s new disc As Time Goes By has made something sympathetically idiosyncratic from standards - he even turns “I’m In The Mood For Love” into a late-Roxy mood piece. His version of Porter’s “Just One Of Those Things” is more sombre than, say, Bobby Short’s classic, and reminds us that computer buffs are not simply binary-minded mainstays of the pizza-delivery industry but can coin witty language. Joott (pronounced as in rope) means one of those peculiar problems that disappears after a rebooting - it was “just one of those things”. Meanwhile, Wired magazine offers a test of salesmen’s mettle. Ask if a computer has “LRF support” - and, when told yes, do not reveal that this means little rubber feet.



Bob Dylan and Paul Simon are touring together, which could make for an inspired duet as one sings “you don’t need a weather man / To know which way the wind blows” and the other, “I can gather all the news I need / On the weather report.” The fraught world of the weather man is shown by a Met Office inquiry into the telly fiefdom of Bill Giles, who - like Jill Dando - was previously unknown to me (I take Dylan’s approach). After winning the appeal, Giles doubtless praised Hughie. Who? He is the god prevailed upon by Australians this century to send rain - perhaps a variant of the military phrase “send it down, David”, although St. Hugh is a patron of rain while an echo of pluie is posited by the wartime pilot and slang sleuth Len Clarke.



A word of difficult history.” So the OED notes of black. As a synonym for doom-laden, will it remain linked with Norman Lamont’s Black Wednesday (1992) or will popular memory revert shudderingly to the events of Black Monday (1987) or even those of Black Thursday and the Crash. As Adrian Room’s revision of Brewer’s Phrase and Fable reminds us, these are but a few examples of quotidian despair, but he, too, overlooks the paradox that days upon which people went bankrupt are not Red. The American slang, to be “in the black”, is first noted by the OED in 1928, but, as does Room, it overlooks the fact that Black Friday was the joyful day after Thanksgiving when traders found that their accounts were sent into the black by Christmas shoppers.



Those who know only the exhilarating Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle version of ‘The Lady Is A Tramp” will not have heard four-fifths of Lorenz Hart’s 1937 lyric about somebody not fussed by the dictates of the style gurus, such as “I go to Coney - the beach is divine. / I go to ball games - the bleachers are fine.” This is a late-19th-century coining for cheap seats at a stadium that do not have any shade - seats where one is bleached. There are signs that it is now used for cheaper seats in general - but the new People’s Opera at Covent Garden professed ignorance of the term. “We call them seats with restricted view - more of a mouthful.” An earlier version of bleach is blake - to make pale - but that faded away when confused with blacken.



There is distinct rivalry between Yorkshire towns. In urging Knaresborough’s merits , the owner of the riverside Marigold café contrasted it with Harrogate “which up there, in this wind, will be right parky.” Knaresbrough is a proper place, not a Woking, but parky, used all one’s life, is elusive. Perhaps of Yorkshire origin, it surfaced in the last century, but there is no apparent link with the parky that means of a park (which comes from Old French and ousted parrock). Nor is there a connection with parka, that repellent item of clothing which, redolent of the Seventies, has been revived by the pop group Oasis and which in fact, as sported by Eskimoes, goes back to the 18th century and is from Russian for skin jacket. But whence parky?



Such is the fascination of the events and narrative structure of the new Spanish movie Lovers of the Arctic Circle that the mind wanders only briefly to speculate about the name of one of these palindromic lovers: Otto (she is Ana). As a name, it has various Teutonic forms akin to the Old English ead, meaning rich (hence the Goodie fellow’s surname Oddie - nothing to do with his looks), but it is also a term to denote a four-stroke engine, invented by a 19th-century German, Nikolaus August Otto - a name rich in irony, for those petrol fumes are a far cry from otto: that is, a fragrant essence, generally something pleasant, in particular roses. It is a variant upon attar, from the Persian, but the OED cites otto first, by a margin of 160 years.



Is the new Oxford Dictionary of Quotations right to credit Alex Issigonis with the phrase “a camel is a horse designed by a commitee”? One assumed it current before he found fame with his idiosyncratic motor-car, the Mini. The word camel has a global committee behind it. The Old English form, camell, comes via Latin and Greek from Hebrew (in which perhaps it meant to bear), but there is, via another strand of Teutonic languages, an unexplained link with the Greek and Latin for elephant, which led to the camel also being known as an olfend until the 13th century - overlooked by Johnson, who gives camel and dromedary two of his longest definitions and quotes Thomson: “even the camel feels, / Shot through his wither’d heart, the firy blast.”


SCRATCH n It was a fine malt which made Dr Wordsmith lose his direction and wander from Miles Kington’s column to the - er - tighter confines of this one (that’s synergy); as he lolled towards a Sèvres vase, he clawed his scalp and, spirit willing, burbled something about the contradiction between being up to scratch and having to start from scratch. Scratch, a medieval merging of scrat and cratch, has many meanings. Among them, scratch is the position from which somebody starts in a race if he has no handicap while the other scratch is a crease or border - in particular, as noted by Brewer’s but not the OED, , the 1839 Prize Ring Rules meant that a boxer was deemed to be knocked out if he could not get to a scratched line in the middle of the ring.


TOTE adj and v

An curious aspect of Neil Hamilton’s libel case is his daily arrival at court with a London Library tote bag prominently displayed. One must wonder what the august and congenial Library makes of this unusual product placement. The tote bag in general surfaced at the end of the last century in America, and was also a tote box for tool; as a verb for carry - distinct from our sense of total and the Australian betting slang -, it is recorded in mid-17th-century New England, which means that any Negro or Indian origins are discounted by the OED, which overlooks Graham Greene’s celebrated account of Jean Harlow’s “restless shoulders and protuberant breasts: her technique was the gangster’s technique - she toted a breast like a man totes a gun.”


BLATHER n an v

Why do newspapers assume readers are interested by launch parties, wherever they might be held? I have just caught up with the new magazine Talk , which surfaced on the town in the Brooklyn Navy Yard: it might improve but, for now, the title should be Blather. Its contending origins suggest that chat ran from Finland to Rome. From the Latin blaterare came blatter, hence blather, current since the early 19th century; also, perhaps, a variant of blether, from an Old Norse noun for nonsense. For a time, blither was synonymous but is now an intensifer: a blithering idiot need not be vocal. While blather is the Southern and American usage, blether obtains in the North and Scotland, where blather can mean bladder: a fine name for a rag-mag.


PIFFLE n and v

One of this year’s fascinating, little-noticed books The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet appeared in 1705, after the death of its author who had the splendidly Firbankian name of Georgius Everhardus Rumphius and has only now been translated from the old Dutch, by E. M. Beckman who brings this hefty study of tropical fauna all the allure of Sir Thomas Browne or Darwin, and remarks of his including contemporary comment, “it is instructive at times to experience piffle in order to appreciate what is superior.” Piffle was originally a verb - to act feebly - in the mid 19th century, perhaps from Scandinavian, and by the Nineties the noun was an Oxbridge coining. Pifflicated followed: drunk, for which there was already the 18th-century spifflicated.


DAFT adj

There is no greater piffle than that uttered by Coca-Cola’s new “chief executive”, Douglas Daft. People are refusing to pay more for it. Even so, he is optimistic, for “we build a complex imagery around the product”. Do his ad men now peruse John Donne and Wallace Stevens? Be Daft’s sugary, borborygmic brew as it may, his surname is not as daft as all that - and has a seasonal hue. It existed in Old English, to mean gentle or meek, from a Gothic root which later split not only into that sense (which mutated into the sense inoffensive, then irrational) but also fit or apt: hence deft. As for the daft days, this is an 18th-century phrase for the Christmas season, title of a poem by the convivial, tragic Robert Fergusson, dead at 24 in 1774.



Seamlessly limpid is the new, elegant memoir of summertime meetings with Graham Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard, the novelist, widow of francophile Francis Steegmuller and a mainstay of the marvellous New York Society Library. A word leaps out when she discusses Greene’s small volume on British dramatists, “a fine illustrated edition of rational dimensions (we had no premontiion, then, of mastodontic coffee-table tomes). The adjective here means elephantine or mammoth, from mastodon, which is a strange formation, for masto- is from the Greek for breast (of any size). In fact, the extinct animal was named after nipple-like protuberances on its molars. Doubtless this will inspire a publisher to issue a breast-shaped coffee-table book.



Will the bloke mentality survive into the next century? When indeed did the phenomenon of the bloke emerge? First recorded in the mid-19th century, it had a sense of age rather than youth, and also became naval slang for a ship’s commander. It is perhaps, via a Romany word, from the Hindu loke, a man. Jonathan Green, however, links it with the Dutch blok, a fool. This is a possible source of blockhead and first used in separate 1549 translations of Erasmus’ Biblical paraphrases, one by Coverdale (Corinthians) the other by Olde (Ephesians), but in both of these it is likely that the sense of fool was inspired the wooden head used as a wig-rest - hardly an accessory to which any self-respecting bloke, however foolish, will admit owning.


HEX n and v

When energies flag, far better than caffeine is a burst of Anthony Burgess’s essays or memoirs. His energy! Ask him to interrupt a novel for a telly epic and he probably supplied the music as well. It was the matter of a moment for him to recall Shirley Jackson’s success in sticking a pin into an effigy of her publisher, Alfred Knopf, who promptly broke a leg while skiing. “There are others in that great house who could have done with the hex.” Mainly American, it was first used, as a verb, in the 1830s for putting a curse on somebody - from German and Yiddish. It became a noun two decades later, to mean a witch, and this century, a curse. If there were signs that it was fading, it resurfaces as hexed, to mean somebody possessed by the Web.



During the Thirties, that elegant and modest American artist Paul Cadmus repeatedly fell foul of the American Navy, such was his prospensity - while working on morale-building Government programs - for depicting its men in louche circumstances. “Sailors and Floosies” (1938) is more restrained than some: three tars on the town are drunk, powerless to satisfy the painted women who loll above them. Floosie’s origins are obscure, perhaps from the Old French flosche, for velvet, hence floss(y), which in America meant a young woman or saucy. By this century immodesty had the upper hand, and the senses merged, although Lincoln Kirstein notes a theory that Floosie was the name of a celebrated madam at a brothel in Sacramento or San Francisco.



What’s up, space cadet?” The question at a Christmas party two years ago duly cost Stephen Hoggarth his life, for he asked it of David Broddle, who has been found dead in his motor-car with Lorraine Richardson and suspected of sending the letter-bomb which killed Hoggarth in front of his young son. One might have thought that being a space cadet was worthy, for it requires some intelligence. It also occurs in the memoirs of record producer Jerry Wexler: Donny Hathaway “could be funny and engaging; he could also be a space cadet.” To mean eccentric or out of touch with reality, the phrase surfaced in Eighties America but derives from the Fifties telly series Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, who was one of a bunch thought to be way or far out.



Towards the end of his splendidThe Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, Georgius Everhardus Rumphius remarked in the 17th century, in E M Beckman’s translation, that “although the Ambonese can get real and decent salt from the Europeans, they prefer to stick to their old habits of making a coarse and unseethed salt, called Sassi, which far more resembles hard dark, and ash-gray stones than salt.” Seethe has come to mean solely behaviour, which it acquired in the 17trh century, but it originally meant boil, from various Teutonic words which incorporate such diverse meanings as smoky vapour and boiled flesh, and it is from the word that sodden derives, for it could also mean something so boiled down that it is no longer crisp - enough to make one seethe.



Strange that Wallace Stevens named his daughter Holly, for his letters always contain such sentiments as “I am really nursing my usual grudge against Christmas. Somehow it makes me sore to see all those Christmas cards.” Grudge comes from grutch, itself from the Old French groucier and groucher (alas, we have lost the noun, grutcher and the 15th-century form aggrudge). From the start it had the senses of dislike and a particular animus. As for Stevens, the next Christmas was his last. “I got a small keg of dates in brandy from a niece in Southern Califonia and Peter, my grandson, got a very horsey waistcoat from her which leaves a space of about 4” between the end of the waistcoat and the top of his breeches, but he loves the red buttons.”



The Millennium Bug pamphlet does not mention that village halls have been requisitioned as temporary morgues. Amid logs and tins, I look askance at the stock of champagne while wondering whether the bug is formicatory or Welsh. Bug, via Middle English bugge, is probably from the Welsh bwg, which means a ghost. The sense fell from use in the 17th century, when it came to mean insect (perhaps from Middle English budde, a beetle). The meaning of a fault, an “insect” in the works, emerged in the late 19th century, when Edison was up for two nights’ work on purging his gramophone. That was something with which he could get to grips, but the invisible code of Y2K means that in fact the Welsh sense is restored with our ghost’s uncertain intentions.



If two phrases sum up the decade, they are “I’m in the train!” and “I’ll just check on the screen, sir.” The latter is invariably used when the sales “adviser” has not got a clue, nothing to tally (the banking sense), but cannot utter “I’ll find out”. Each such encounter makes one realise that it is more pleasant to use the screen at home, especially as a store enquiry so often proves to be checked - that is, thwarted (“but we can order it”). Check is, via Old French eschec and medieval Latin scaccus - with other European parallels - from the Persian shah , as in shah mat , the king is astonished, checkmate, although mat and mate were muddled, so it was taken to mean the king is dead. Chess came first, and other uses from it - astonishingly.



Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique was greeted by a reviewer in one Boston newspaper as “a dreary, cacophonous mess, an interminable galimatias.” Which is a splendid word for nonsense or a mixture - and there is a piquancy in the fact that the roots of its own meaning are muddled. First used by Sir Thomas Urquhart in his translation of Rabelais, it does not figure in Adrian Room’s concise and ample recent Dictionary of Word Histories, while the OED moots a link with the earlier gallimaufry, which it suggests is from the French galimafrée, itself of unknown origin but which, in his turn, Room notes as perhaps being a combination of mafrer (to eat a lot) and galer(to make merry). In English it can also mean a ragout or an odd mixture of people.


FLUB n and v

The OED’s first citation of flub is from 1924, when the subject over which somebody had bungled was talk, but the next citation, from P. G. Wodehouse in 1926, is more on the money, for he writes that “the spectacle of a flubber flubbing ahead of us on the fairway inclines to make us flub as well.” It was indeed originally a golfing term, which Jonathan Lighter traces back another quarter-century, to 1900 and the verse: “C is the Caddie who carries your Clubs; / He calls you a ‘Corker’ in spite of your ‘flubs’.” The exact origins of flubbing are uncertain but there is a possible link with a word by which it was anticipated. Flubdub, for twaddle, surfaced in the mid- 19th century and meant an unnecessary ornament, such as ribbons on a hat.


SMUG adj

Smug originally meant, of a man, neat, and mutated into complacent at some point about which it is difficult to precise. The OED is doubtful about its origins being in the Teutonic variants upon smuk for pretty as it notes that k rarely changes into a g. Adrian Room, however, makes a connection with the German schmuck, ornament, which is an origin of smock, a loose dress which is also linked with the Old English smugar, to creep, this being a garment into which the owner worms her way. The OED adds that it could also be related to the Icelandic smokker, for a sheath-shaped object. To smock as a verb has faded from use but meant either to consort with women or to become effeminate while, as a noun, a smock was the prize in a race run by women.



Harold Ross, first editor of The New Yorker,, looked as if he had just fallen off a freight-train from Oklahoma, but he was such a stickler for barber’s shops that he made William Steig re-do some cartoons: the chair “appears to be a dinkey affair and no first-class shop has a dinkey little cabinet... the sink is too dinkey... when I get a shampoo I sit on something higher than this, allowing my head to project clear over into the center of the bowl.” Dinkey, or dinky, is an 18th-century Scottish coining, for neat or handsome, from the 16th-century dialect dink for well dressed, and it came to mean small by the mid-19th century. But, in Australia, one need not necessarily be dinky to dink - to ride on a crossbar, from double-dinking on a horse.



For the next edition of Dermot McGuigan’s survival guide Y2K and Y-O-U the title will revert toYour Resilient Home as the body-bags are taken back to the warehouse, and the Bug appears - so far - to be more Welsh than formicatory. Bug, via Middle English bugge, is probably from the Welsh bwg, which means a ghost. The sense fell from use in the 17th century, when it came to mean insect (perhaps from Middle English budde, a beetle). The meaning of a fault, an “insect” in the works, emerged in the late 19th century, when Edison was up for two nights’ work on purging the mechanics of his new-fangled gramophone. That was something with which he could get to grips, but the Welsh sense is restored with the inherent ghostly nature of software code.


RAW adj

Philip Horne’s work on Henry James’s letters has taken him “from the oak-panelled rare-book room of the Baker Library at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to the formica-topped tables of the Central Library in Hove.” It’s a wonder that Brighton Council has not flogged off James’s letters, as it has closed down a nearby ballroom to make way for another casino. Meanwhile, Horne had puzzled over James printed praise of Kipps : “everyone in it, without exception, and every piece and part of it, is so vivid and sharp and raw.” The raw was hardly James’s taste - and the manuscript shows that James wrote the opposite: “done”. Raw derives from the Latin cruor - the blood from a wound, and in the 16th century acquired the sense not in fact used by James.


DUDE n Not in Philip Horne’s recent edition is an 1883 Henry James letter to Lady Rosebery which reports from Boston that “Newport indeed is given up to billionaires and ‘dudes’ (I will explain the dude when next I see you).” The OED overlooks James’s letter but cites several instances of the word from that year, including the North Adam Transcript : dude “has traveled over the country with a great deal of rapidity since but two months ago it grew into general use in New York.” The origins of the word for a fashionably-dressed fellow are uncertain, but Jonathan Lighter finds earlier examples (“compare the feeble arm of a New York dude to the muscle of a Roman gladiator!”) while Jonathon Green moots a link with the surviving 15th-century dud(s) - clothes.



There is gongorism in critical writing as well as in bad poetry,” remarked Ezra Pound. The word has been dropped from the Concise Oxford but survives - misleadingly - in Collins and Encarta, where it is explained as a term for metaphorical affectation of a Latinate hue which derives from the 17th-century Spanish poet Luis de Gongora y Argote. The term had reached England by the early-19th century: there are evidently examples of it before the first OED citation of 1817, but all these overlook the fact that in 1926 Lorca’s talks with Dali resulted in a famous lecture which lauded Gongora: “he harmonises and makes tangible - at times almost violently - the most dissimilar worlds. In his hands there is neither disorder nor disproportion.”



The dreaded lurgy is at large, but the word’s origins are harder to diagnose. Often attributed - especially in that phrase - to an early-Fifties episode of The Goon Show, it probably has nothing to do with a system of gas- production in Thirties Germany, but the OED posits a link with the phrase fever-ludan or -lurgan: a lurdan was a rogue or an idler. From the Old French for heavy, hence torpid, this surfaced around 1300 (not, that is, 13.00). A spurious notion is that it comes from those Lord Danes who maltreated their serfs, hence a term of opprobrium.


TEENAGE adj and n

John Updike’s latest 900-page volume of journalism, More Matter, has had a curmudgeonly reception, but is full of interest, such as his noting that an editor at The New Yorker said that it spells teen-age thus lest it be muddled with the Kentish dialect teenage, which is brushwood for fences and hedges. This is beyond pedantry. Teenage (hedges) is a variant of tine while teenage (adolescent) emerged in Twenties America (teens is 17th century) and is an inadvertent pun: teen, from Old English teona, is angry or vexed. Meanwhile, I feel a medley coming on: “The Lumberjack Song” and “A Teenager in Love”.



No sooner had I proposed a volume of aphrodisiac recipes, Pot That Noodle! than there arrived the new version of the OED CD-ROM which enables a search of words in conjunction. Pot and Noodle yields only Jordan, fittingly: “a chamber-pot, urinal; foolish, silly fellow, noodle.” A multi-whammy of obscurity, for it is uncertain that a jordan bottle (hence pot) hails from the Jordan, and it is only a possiblity that the 18th-century noodle is a variant of the 15th-century noddle (back of the head), which suggests nod - whose root is elusive, probably not the German notten (shake).



Two unknown articles by John Meade Falkner on Boer War field-guns compensate for his loss of a fourth novel, in the style of Moonfleet The subject sounds dryasdust, but he displays elegant subversion: “British ‘reverses’ (an ingenuous meiosis, for our enemies’ mishaps were always plain defeats or routs) had to be accounted for on any supposition other than the incapacity of our leaders.” Greek for lessening, it is a 16th-century coining, but soon after Falkner’s articles became a term for the division and fertilisation of cells. My long piece on him is available from the JMF Society: moonfleet@ greenmantle63.freeserve.



Not only the Dome, but the death of the great Disney animator Marc Davis brings gremlin to mind. Among the studio’s unmade movies was one based on Roald Dahl’s wartime story “Gremlin Lore”. It is often said that the word was RAF slang for a spanner in the works, perhaps from goblins said to live in bottles of Fremlin’s oriental beer. Unrecorded by any dictionary is that Disney was sued by three authors with a claim on such characters (he promised to donate profits to RAF charity). The Gremlin is probably an invention of the Great War’s Royal Flying Corps.



My sledgehammer gathers dust rather than creates it while I wonder about the word’s origins. Do eskimoes carry one to break the ice and clobber seals or even, Basil Fawlty-fashion, hit the vehicle when it will not go? Sledge has two roots. The vehicle is from Middle Dutch sleedse (as are sleade and slide) while, 600 years earlier, the hammer is akin to various Dutch and Icelandic forms such as slegge and is linked with the complex slay. Which makes one think Slay Ride would be a fine title for a latter-day Bonnie-and-Clyde yarn.



A cold shower and a hot one have their different pleasures but the lukewarm none at all - other than to discover, by a telephone poll, that nobody can offer a view upon the origins of the

much-used word. First used at the end of the 14th century in a physical sense and in an emotion one more than a hundred years later, it is a tautology: it is from luke, which means tepid (as in luke-hearted), which was a slurring of lew, from Old English hleow, which survives in lee - sheltered from the wind.



Nobody is fussed by the millennium. Life and death go on the same. It’s a wonder that no Government controller worked out that £750m would pay 30,000 extra nurses £25,000 a year. Instead of that bed-pan zone, we endure the Dome. Often forgotten is that in the 16th century, from Latin domus, this meant a house and 150 years later gained the current sense, by way of French and Italian, where it was used of cathedral roofs and defined by Gilbert Scott as “the covering of a circular space produced by the revolution of an arch round its central vertical axis.”



In the light of his letters, it was disingenuous of Philip Larkin to remark that some jazz “suggests that we live in a world of wops, all melting into one another - a quotation, I hasten to add before you ring the Race Board, from that undervalued play, The Apple Cart.” Shaw is in the OED, which, in dating wop to New York and 1912, calls it “offensive” - Encarta has “highly offensive”. Jonathon Green notes that guapo (a dandy) reached Sicily during Spanish occupation, but vappa, Latin for flat wine, hence a worthless person, is the likely root.



This column has already urged a ban upon punning shop names (Hove harbours Feetures, a chiropodist and The Mane Event, a hairdresser), but the arrival of a Victorian Chesterfield in need of re-covering makes me think of starting an upholsterer’s: Sofa So Good. Whence sofa? It is Arabic, soffah; originally a raised part of the floor with cushions, it became a separate item in the 18th century. (The OED overlooks Cowper’s “I sing the sofa!”) As for settee, often thought Non-U, it too is 18th century, a variant of settle, to seat, which goes back to the hard days of Beowulf



The arrival of a Victorian Chesterfield mercifully displaced a futon, the Citroën 2CV of furniture: apparently a good idea at the time, it proves uncomfortable, as cumbersome as the vehicle’s gear-shift and always feels about to fly apart, something for a few days in a sunny Mediterranean. The OED’s entry fizzles out in 1959, but dates it to 1876 and the Japanese for a quilt or comforter (a Victorian suffered “tinned meat and live futons”), but it does not record the French link which some people’s affected pronounciation suggests. Only Collins/Le Robert claims it is a trade-mark.



How far will the BBC go in chronicling the pampered hardship of that Scottish island? Will there be scenes akin to those between Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohue in Castaway ? A Dutch series, Big Brother, about an apartment block, does not shy from bed and shower. Isolate means islanded, from French isolé, the form in which it was first used, in the mid-18th century. Isolé became isolated, amid sneers of being “affected, frenchified and unnecessary”. From this came the verb isolate, which is also a scientific noun, but isolation emerged in only 1833 - ready for our “splendid isolation”.



The M25, by way of thinking of Ballard, the A40 and Crash, brought copulation to mind. Can one pulate alone? To copulate is in fact as much a matter of words as it is, in Johnson’s defintion, “to come together as different sexes.” From Latin copulare, to fasten together, it was first used, in the 15th century, of a word that links parts of a sentence; then as a general term for yoking; in the 17th century emerged the meaning which the OED thinks “now chiefly a term of Zoology.” Shall we be zoological, darling?



Life often resembles an Alan Bennett play - or a Mike Leigh workshop. On the bus were two early-teenage girls. One said to the other, “I really hate my mun.” “Why do you hate your mum?” “She’s a bitch.” One pictures the house: gungy fridge, grimey bath and very little Henry James. The word in that sense (unfair on a lovely animal) is 14th-century. Of complex origins, the word has many senses - even praise - but it was only this century that it gained hues of complaint and spite, and James’s brother coined “the bitch-goddess success.”


PARSEC n Kinglsey Amis once said that Michael Moorcock is “several parsecs from being a fool”. No libel lawyer could demur, for a parsec is 3.26 light-years in the OED and 3.262 in Encarta. Either way, Mr Moorcock would be long dead before his craft reached Planet Folly. From parallalax and second, parsec is none too visible from any dictionary definition. Last time we broached science (Tardis), the letters column erupted. Let cogent definitions begin! Meanwhile, Amis’s son has about-turned from a note in Dead Babies (1975): “I may not know much about science but I know what I like.”



For better legs in weeks, try my new book, The Fatted Calf - And How To Reduce It! The animal and the rear of the shin have different origins; one is from such Teutonic forms as cealf and kalfr, the other less certainly, from the Old Norse kalfi, itself of unknown origin, although there is a possible antecedent in the Gaelic calpa for leg or calf. As for the animal, the 19th-century insult Essex calf, used of humans, shows that the county’s reputation is no new thing.



American Beauty proves disappointing. Uninvolving, synthetic stuff, it is a sitcom with ideas above its station. The best moment takes place upon what its occupants call a couch (the first such scene; the other, much-publicised semi-seduction is merely bathos with good legs). We have discussed sofa and settee. Couch is from the French noun, itself from coucher and the Latin collacare - to lay in the right place -, and reached us in the 15th century, 300 years before sofa and settee. The OED says that it now has a low back and only a head-end, as in a psychiatrist’s.



Stephen Sondheim was in the delightful New York Society Library the other day to look at microfilm of the New York Times. Is this new work in progress or a faffing about with Wise Guys? One cannot help but feel that a Boston try-out and a demand for three new songs by the morning would be a better modus operandi. Faff, to dither, emerged in the late-19th century, from the 16th-century dialect faffle, from the sound of a puff of wind; hence to stutter, saunter, or a sail’s flapping. Meanwhile, check out Passion arranged for Terry Trotter’s jazz trio: a revelation.


ONION n More to the point than Ralph Fiennes’s buttocks is Greene’s close study of Proust before writing The End of the Affair. Meanwhile, what of onions, as eaten at Rules and as a code for sex? Onions are a pearl beyond price. That is, via French oingnon, it is from Latin unio, unity - and a large pearl, hence in classical times a country term for onion, which moved northwards. Onion, for head, is late-19th century; to know one’s onions came thirty years on. Alas, Greene did not live to enjoy Lindsey Bareham’s Onions Without Tears.



Graham Greene regarded sex as a matter of onions but, for the rest of us, it is one of, well, greens. Green, with the same Teutonic root as grow and grass, gained this sense by the late-19th century but is not another instance of Marvellian vegetable love. Jonathon Green’s splendid Slang links it with the 16th-century phrases get/give a green gown - to have bottom-staining sex outdoors. Meanwhile, the OED cites Greene’s “May We Borrow Your Husband”: “Why not go after the girl? She’s not getting what I believe is vulgarly called her greens.”



Wales and the resignation of “Downing Street poodle” Alun Michael recalls Casablanca. Its temperamental, immigrant director Michael Curtiz wanted “a poodle, a black poodle” for a scene with other animals. The props-man scoured LA, only to be told by Curtiz, “it’s very nice, but I want a poodle”. Told it was, Curtiz yelled, “I wanted a poodle of water in the street! Not a goddam dog!” They are linked, the dog a shortening of the German pudelhund, a water-dog. As for a lackey, Lloyd George’s coined it, of the House of Lords being “Mr Balfour’s poodle” against Asquith.


HIJACK n and v

Who would want to be Jack Straw? Perhaps not even Jack Straw. If the deported Afghans have an uncertain future, the rest of us should be able to board an aeroplane without fear of being waylaid by terrorists as a means to an end. The OED dates the American slang hijack to 1923 and calls its origins unknown, but Jonathon Green cites G.L. Cohen’s discovery of a 19th-century root in high jack: a zinc ore in Missouri mines more valuable than the surrounding lead and stolen - hijacked - by miners. It was in use by 1900.


LEAL adj and adv

When describing the House of Lords in 1907 as Balfour’s poodle, Lloyd George said that one in fact expected the Upper House to be a “leel and trusty mastiff” to the country as a whole. Even then, leel had a pleasingly antique ring to it. Not in general use, it survived as Scottish and Northern dialect, meaning loyal or just. As does loyal, it reached us in the 14th century, from the Old French leial, a version of the Latin legalis, and was immediately used in both a technical and a general sense. It is fit for revival.



The French are but one of several nations behind Kohl. That is, he is a cabbage, another case of a man’s growing into his name (Major, though, seemed to have strayed from the quartermaster’s stores). Cabbage is 15th century, from the French cabouche, head, of Latin root. French cabbage was choux cabus - great-headed cole. Cole is older, from Middle English, akin to kale and Teutonic forms which are linked to caul and Latin caulis. The OED notes that cabbage was a polite Victorian term of endearment while Jonathon Green adds that it also then meant vagina.



The farce of the “peace process” will never end. On Good Friday 1998, I complained to the BBC that The Simpsons was not on, to be told, “it’s because of the important events in Ireland.” “Phooey, a few months’ time and you’ll be reporting another outrage.” Lo and behold, Omagh. Farce is religious in origin, with a dash of food. From French farcir, to stuff, it was used of explanatory phrases inserted into litanies, then of ad hoc mayhem which leavened religious plays. Come Sunday, perhaps the choir at King’s will sing Kyrie Basil Fawlty Eleison!



To our ears and eyes, creative summons up an adman in large, red spectacles and a chunky suit. As Nicholas Boyle reminds us in his admirable accounts of Goethe (another is out today), it was only at the end of the last century that it ceased to be a purely theological term: George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda referes to “a creative artist”. Earlier, in 1816, Wordsworth wrote of “Creative Art”, with an echo of the divine sense, but the OED overlooks the influence of Moritz and Goethe on this curious move from God to Soho.



Frank Dobson, or his scriptwriter, would have us believe that “I am nobody’s patsy.” P.G. Wodehouse has a “fellow whom Fate has called upon to be the Patsy, the Squidge or, putting it another way, the man who has been left holding the baby”. Patsy is turn of the century, its origins called unknown by the OED, but Green moots a variant of Patrick; Ayto, the Italian pazzo - fool; and Chapman, Patsy Bolivar, the fall guy in an 1880s minstrel skit. To posterity, Frank Dobson will suggest a goatee beard - that on the great sculptor.



Frank Dobson’s candidacy has given new life to the late Elbridge Gerry, who was not only a signatory to the Declaration of Independence but, as a Democrat-Republican in Massachussetts re-ordered districts to give his Party an electoral advantage in 1812. The Federalist Party put up one of these maps at a meeting and upon it somebody drew a clawed salamander, which prompted an immediate cry that it was a gerrymander - something made all the clearer by amending its face to fit. Even though the Federalists won more votes, they got a mere quarter of the seats.


MIZZLE n and v

In his account of Goethe’s failure to get further than Switzerland when setting out for his beloved Italy, Nicholas Boyle describes the party as craving wine after being “soaked with sweat and mizzle”. One’s impression is that the word, for light rain, has been supplanted by drizzle, but the OED cites Sylvia Plath’s 1963 “this mizzle fits me like a sad jacket”. It reached us in the 15th century, from Dutch miesregen (rain) and mysel (dew), while the later drizzle in fact goes back to the same Old English root as dreary.



That elegant scholar, Rupert Hart-Davis not only produced single-handedly an edition of Wilde’s letters that would have taken a team far longer but he did much else at the same time, such as saving the London Library. Small wonder that he was glad to be shot of “the whole caboodle”. It is from the American phrase “kit and boodle” which surfaced in the early 19th century. Both words are Dutch. Old Dutch kitte is a wooden vessel of linked staves - hence tankard or basket, and items therein - while boodle is from boedel - estate or property.



All writers have a penchant for certain words they like to get past editors (I am always queried over mansorious, as in “the mansorious demands made of one at Pizza Express”). In his splendid Goethe biography, Nicholas Boyle gets away with eirenic several times. (Goethe became eirenic towards Christianity when holding an egg-hunt closer to Easter than ususal.) It means peaceable, from the Greek, amd earlier in the 19th century was spelt irenic, which sits oddly close to ireful, angry: ire, via Old French, is from Latin ira. Which is certainly a masseteric matter.


MANSORIOUS adj Yesterday’s passing reference to “mansorious demands made of one” caused some puzzlement, for it has slipped from popular dictionaries - which is not to say that this fine word for chewing will never resurface and find a place alongside mandible, with which it shares a Latin root in mandere (chew is Old English). In our times, it might have a handy feminist application by its apparent, but inadvertent welding of man and censorious. As in, say, “Germaine Greer was on fine, mansorious form, so much so that, for once, the Newsnight interviewer palpably cowered in fear.”



What a relief to turn from the glut of bland, photographic, telly-based gardening books to the great wit and knowledge of Some Ancient Gentlemen (1965) by Tyler Whittle, whose prose was described by Arthur Calder-Marshall “as well smoked as Bacon’s”. Whittle refers, for example, to “the glumal ruin where there had been lawns”. Glum’s root is in Old German for muddy, but glumal is from glume which is , via French and Latin, a matter of husks of corn and other grains. Whittle is an utter joy - the Thomas Love Peacock of gardening.


OLD adj

One of life’s mischievous pleasures is to watch the witty John Meade Falkner scholar, Kenneth Hillier wince at being introduced as “my old history master”, something I hasten to explain is meant in the sense of former; moreover, although old is one of our oldest words (with a root in Ä rds for nourish, with which cold is linked as the opposite of nourish), it was only in the 16th century that it acquired this sense, one that was overlooked by Johnson’s dictionary, and now used mainly of teachers even when in their twenties.



The excellent Tyler Whittle divides gardeners into English and Italians, that is, “the demarcation line between spaders and adze-gardeners”. In Italy and elsewhere, “they manage with an unsharpened adze on a long pole, which is used either backwards or forwards, pulled or pushed, like a baby’s feeder.” He suggests our equivalent is a mattock, but in fact adze is an Old English word, adesa, for something to slice the surface of wood, first used in the 9th century, sometimes spelt addis, as in the maker of household goods: a plastic adze could only be a beach toy.



Yesterday’s adze (addis) prompts quite a diversion. Johnson quotes Maxon’s Mechanical Exercises: “As the axe hath its edge parallel to its handle, so the addice hath its edge athwart the handle, and is ground to a basil on its inside to its outer edge.” A variant of bezel, probably from bes, a variant of Latin bis (doubly), it means aslant. The herb is from Greek for basilisk, royal: perhaps because of its use in a royal medicine; but in Latin it was muddled with the word for a serpent, whose venom it neutralises.



Why donate to Alzheimer’s research when there is the Ernest Saunders cure, as endorsed by General Pinochet? Home scot-free, he gives new meaning to clutching at straw, and leaves us to wonder about this noun. Nothing to do with the nation (which is linked with tattoo), it is from Old French sceot or Scandinavian skot , a payment (also a root of shot): the phrase goes back to the 13th century, and the undead Falstaff punningly exclaims, ‘’twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too.”.


FINE adj, v and n Y

esterday’s scot - tax or payment - prompts fine, the stumping up of which hardly makes one feel fine. The word in all senses is rooted in Latin finis, for end, which was used - as in the phrase in fine - until last century. Before the sense of punishment emerged, it was a legal term, for the complex, Feudal method by which land was given to somebody else or for a one-off fee (a version of peppercorn rent) while the adjective fine derives from something being finished or perfected.



Anthony Buckeridge’s novels about Jennings are a peak of post-war farce. He yoked several strands of plot into plausible mayhem, and - long before Homer Simpson - the hapless master Mr Wilkins smotes his brow with a “d’oh!” and goes into what the pupils call a “bate”. The OED links the verb with Latin batere and debate, for it is a matter of blows and argument, as well as a falcon’s flapping its wings. The noun is thought to be obsolete, petering out in the 17th century. Let the OED do justice to Jennings!



Sixty years after Walter Benjamin’s suicide on the French/Spanish border, when he despaired of escaping the Nazis, there appears his huge study of the growth of the 19th-century Paris arcades. His note-accumulating method has the effect of a commonplace book so wide-ranging in its citations that it is out of the ordinary. From Latin and Greek, a common place was, in the 16th century, a text for discussion. A common place was also a collection of them, book being added later in the century, when it also gained the sense of trite.



The OED goes online today: each quarter, additions from the Third Edition will be made, beginning at M, which means that there will be a decade before it reaches kebab, as in a spearing and searing interview. A visit to the OED office in Oxford shows that there is the material for it, each quotation is about Neil Kinnock. The earliest citation gathered so far is from this newspaper, in 1992. A rap group wanted to sample his remark, “I’m not going to be bloody kebabbed.” But when did he first say, perhaps coin kebab?



Time will show that barricaded Downing Street made a fatal error in branding Ken Livingstone a “liar”, for it opens up a catalogue of promises that have been reneged upon - Formula One racing, anybody? Without lingering over the famous paradox, uttered by a Cretan, that all Cretans are liars, we can note that the word goes back to the very beginnings of English: lie, as a falsehood, is from Old English leogan, with Teutonic parallels, while lie, as in recumbent, is from licgan, with a link to the Latin lectus for bed.


CHUMP n and v

When Jonathan Aitken mooted suicide, his teenage son told him not to be a “chump” - a curiously old-fashioned term on the lips of modern youth. Very retro. Its first use, early in the 18th century, was as a thick lump of wood, akin to chunk, an echo of stump and clump. By the mid-19th century it meant head or face, a version of blockhead. Jonathan Lighter reveals a parallel existence for it in America, where it also means to fool somebody, and there is the recent Black phrase, chump change: paltry stuff.


PROFIT v and n

A leader on this newspaper contained an inadvertent pun when it asked on Wednesday, “are we right to be such profits of doom?” As is proficient, it is from Latin proficiere, to advance or make progress while prophet is from propheta, with a further Greek root: the second syllable being from the word for speak - hence, an interpreter of a god’s will. Theologically complex, it also, by the 16th century, had a wider use. As Regan tells Albany towards the end of King Lear, “jesters do often prove prophets.”



If one fears that the Web will debase educational standards, they are confirmed by the Downing Street site, where an Express report that is at odds with Prince Charles is dismissed as “garbagic”. This is in no dictionary, but reminds us that the term is culinary. From Old French, it first meant offal, in the 15th century, then general refuse, soon followed by the metaphorical sense. Garble - spice refuse - is from Italian, Arabic and perhaps Latin: it can mean either choosing the best or putting a bad spin on events.



Graham Greene was adept at titles that make something memorable from simple words. The End of the Passade would not have been as effective. The thought is prompted by his friend Evelyn Waugh, who, after his first marriage, had several dalliances of which his brother Alec said, “such passades were brief and shallow”. It is a very Thirties word, one to which Wells was given in print and practice, but, from French and Spanish, was first used of riding a horse to and fro on the same ground - which sounds more like marriage.



I sit in amazement and dust. A skip arrived in the street and five hours later, by dint of the sledgehammer previously discussed here, the kitchen is twice the size. I marvel, cough, and wonder about skip - a nimble word for so lumpen an object. Over the years, the use has grown, literally so. It is from skep, which in the 12th century meant the amount of grain in a basket, then the basket itself, also used in mining. But is there a name for the dustbin-like tubes that link tall buildings and skips?


SNOW n and v

Joni Mitchell once sang of how they took away the trees “and put them in a tree museum”. That has not happened yet, but quite possible; certainly, Robert Bridges’s poem “London Snow” will need annotation, for the substance will now rarely fall in England - a result of the heat and gases belched by Longbridge’s products. Nivea hand cream will also lose its meaning, for, by a fascinating series of vocal changes, snow goes through Old English and Teutonic forms to Latin nix and its genitive nivis, itself from Greek.



That intrepid bicyclist Tracy Harrison enthuses, “I don’t care what anybody thinks, Jeremy Clarkson’s oodly.” Be this as it may, that word, apparently pronounced with distinct emphasis upon both syllables, has certainly not yet been recorded by any dictionary, but one takes it to be a variant of oodles, a noun which suggests abundance. Oodles emerged in the mid-19th century, and is variously mooted to be a variant of of “the whole caboodle”, whose Dutch root we have recently discussed here, or scadoodle, which was a version of scad, which meant a dollar.



This newspaper’s report of the Hastings gang-rape described it as “manna from heaven” for tabloid headline-writers, a possible tautology also used in the business pages. Perhaps devout Delia will yet serve up quails and bread in honour of the Exodus scene where, in the King James version, the children of Israel greet sustenance with “it is manna”. Tyndale’s earlier, great translation, however, makes it “what is this?” - from the Hebrew, man hu, but manna is also perhaps from Egyptian for the dewy product of the tamarisk and Latin for frankincense. Miraculous things, words.



This might be a bufferish column, but it might yet have me chased by such slathering hordes as those at the start of A Hard Day’s Night. Scientific research now shows that one could get by on 850 words, as some do, but a large vocabulary is alluring and arousing, more so than chocolates and champagne. Talk is a “vocal lek” - that is, darling, ground on which birds parade in the breeding season. First used by Darwin, it is from Swedish leka, to play, and - yes! yes! - laking survives in the North.



Francis Thomas of Boot’s is confident about his firm because “people want brands they already trust”. We must cast doubt upon his judgment, for he continues, “people whose lives are time-poor can use the internet to bulk buy”. He means busy, a word which, paradoxically, takes half as long to say as time-poor. This is, in any case, so awkward a bunch of vowels that it would soon slur into taipo, which is a New Zealand word for an evil spirit, and that is certainly one way of defining the vacuity veiled by management-speak.



The language is full of words with contradictory meanings. A wheeze suggests either an inconvenient spluttering or a neat dodge (of course, they can be combined, as in securing more space on a crowded Tube). This is indeed how the meanings combined. The verb wheeze, from Old Norse hvaese, to hiss, emerged in the 15th century - not from the Old English that Johnson posits. It was followed by wheezing, but the noun wheeze is 19th-century, when it also became a dodge, from a distraction which was part of a clown’s routine.


WHEEN n and v

That some people grow into their names is again shown by the case of Dr Francis Wheen, that elegant scholar of both Karl Marx and P.G. Wodehouse: that contradictory spirit is the very essence of a wheen. Not only is it a variant of whinge (a journalist’s stock-in-trade), but - mostly used in the North - it means both a few and a fair number. From Old English whon, both senses emerged in the 14th century . The notion of abundance generally has the upper hand now - but not always.


BECK n and v

Ask for Shakespeare in Borders bookstores and one is directed not to Literature but the Media section, something which must inflame Chris Woodhead, who has inveighed against such spurious studies. Dimmer pupils might indeed wonder whether the playwright was drafting an ad slogan with the combination of the “serving of becks and jutting-out of bums”. A shortening of beckon, it is from Middle English and meant a nod, later a bow, as in Timon of Athens, which is absent from the OED. It survived into the 19th century, and is now mainly Scottish.



In the Independent on Sunday, Suzi Feay wonders not only whether a publisher would now take on a twelve-volume novel but whether a reviewer would airily drop the word apotropaic into a piece, as The Times ‘s fellow did when discussing Anthony Powell in 1962. From the Greek, it means being able to turn away evil, and was apparently first used by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1883. Auden found it handy, but perhaps it gained currency with Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians . It is tempting to ask the greengrocer how apotropaic his garlic is today.



In Maine a new spin is being put on E.C. Bentley’s observation that “Geography is about Maps, / But History is about Chaps.” Anything, such as a river or mountain, that contains the word squaw is to be renamed by next year (already the squawfish has become the Colorado pikeminnow). A 17th-century coining, it is from the Massachussetts squa, woman or wife, with dialect variants, and was also used of white women. Only in the past decade have dictionaries deemed it offensive, for it echoes whore, which is perhaps a misnomer akin to niggardly.



Some forget that to be generous, from Latin for stock, first meant noble birth, hence an action which behoved one of high breeding. Only in the 19th century was it something possibly found in one and all, even the mere profferring of a bag of boiled sweets. Which some might call the act of a skinflint. The noun surfaced in the 18th century, but this amalgam of a Teutonic word and one from the Greek for tile was first an phrase, as in Thomas Fuller’s “they would, in a manner, make pottage of a flint.”



No sooner has Brighton councillor, Mike Middleton, urged that a seafront sports centre in a residential area be swamped by a ten-screen cinema than, as chairman of Shoreham aiport, he wants international flights by 70-seater areoplanes as long as the infrastructure is right. Infra means below, which might suggest durable runways, but, in the fifty years since Churchill denounced it as jargon, instrastructure has come to mean a need for more roads nearby. One trusts that, this time, John Prescott will throw out a pollutant, unnecessary scheme - Gatwick is a short train-ride away.



Such is the scramble to coin it in by a website that I must register my cut-price thermal underwear enterprise:’ Dot no more exists than Mavis Beacon, but she adds a homely touch to what will surely be a multi-million pound enterprise in the spare room. To which realists might say, “knickers!” - as derision, the word is dated to 1971 by the OED, while Jonathon Green suggests that it is a polite version of knackers. Knickers themselves come down to us from the leggings worn by Washington Irving’s 1809 character Diedrich Knickerbocker, a Dutch immigrant.


BARF n and v

A hideous concatenation of flavours that would make a European barf.” So says Alexei Sayle of British cuisine. The OED dates this word for vomit to 1960 and surmises that it is onomatopoeic, but Jonathan Lighter notes, from the rare noun barfer, that it was around in the 1940s and says that it is from neither the Yiddish varfn nor the German werfen (throw). As well as barf bag on an aeroplane, he adds barfulous - at first an Eighties computer term for repulsive design before being used of spotty operators.



Where have you gone, Jo DiMaggio? / A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” He is now dead, and so the nation clamours instead over Kathleen Turner’s on-stage disrobing as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. No reviewer made an ornithological approach to this. The OED, in dating nipple to 1530, calls it obscure and not from Old English nypel for elephant’s trunk. Charles Panati’s Sexy Origins and Intimate Things points to a diminutive of neb, originally a bird’s beak, which also gaining the meanings nose, mouth and face - sometimes human, sometimes animal.


BARK v and n Unblushingly, the weatherman at the end of Newsnight stood in front of a chart which announced snow in Oxon, Wilts, Glos - and one Barks. Berkshire is linked to bark, for Berroscire comes from Berroc silva but Berroc itself is from barr - a summit. Bark, as in tree, is 14th-century and of Scandanavian origin while a dog’s utterance was first a verb, from Old English bearcan and became a noun only in the 16th century, at the same time as the small boat made its complex voyage from the Latin barca.


LIST n and v

In our highly-charged age, a list of things to do can prevent one from listing out of control. The way in which the same word suggests both order and chaos is peculiarly circular. To make a list is from the noun for the edge or selvage of paper or cloth - the part that, when the commodity was rare, one tore off to make a list. The 17th-century nautical verb is from an older noun for desire or appetite, itself from the verb list which meant (as in listen) to hear keenly by leaning over.



From the higher eschelons of the Civil Service comes word of a report which contains a horror that makes Sellafield’s using black bags from Woolworth’s for nuclear waste look mild. As the back is a reactionnaire. Not in any dictionary, this opinion-seeking form is simply a questionnaire (from the French questionner, to ask questions), which itself at the beginning of the century caused grumbles, for we already had the better, 16th-century questionary, as in commentary or dictionary, which continued in use until being ousted by the French form and merits anti-Brussels revival.



A call from Boston with news of Edward Gorey’s death brought gloom upon the house akin to the dark shadings of his drolly macabre, illustrated tales - and the remark that not only do some people grow into their surnames, but the word also suggests, shall we say, Elizabeth Hurley as much as carnage. Gore, from Old English gor continued to mean dung or filth while turning into a gore of blood in the 16th century, but from gar (spear) it means triangular land or the skin visible at the top of a gown.


BOGUS adj The Government’s claim that it will send packing all the “bogus” asylum-seekers brings to mind that sleight of hand by which the Kenyan Asians were given the bum’s rush in the Sixties by the Wilson régime. As for bogus itself, the question is as vexed. It is American, perhaps from an 1820s device for counterfeiting money, short for tantrabogus, an odd-looking object akin to tantarabobs - Devonspeak for the devil, from bogy, a scarecrow from bug. Bogus, however, was around in 1780s America, when bogus meant fake coins and counterfeit was fake paper money.



We have discussed questionnaire’s possible mutating into reactionnaire, which had one urging the revival of a word superior to both: questionary - a view duly deemed, er, reactionary. It is always trotted out of Kingsley Amis, whose letters would be more startling if he had said, “I am tapping a foot to good old Ornette Coleman”. First used by Mill of Coleridge, whom he admired, the perjorative sense grew in the 19th century, with a variant in the Journal of Education in 1883: “nobody except the chronic reactionist wantsÄ o keep back the colored people.”



Do not let the cover of Jane Stevenson’s novel London Bridges make you think it is austere, or anything much about London bridges: an intelligent romp, everybody’s poolside reading this summer, it parades dextrous bad taste and elegant language in which ancient Greek merges with the likes of “the whole thing was giving her the habdabs”. Also spelt abdabs, it is a World War Two word for anxiety, perhaps suggesting a tremble. (However, the phrase come the abdabs means to fool.) Gladstone spoke of having the fantods, as did Twain, and now a more American usage.



Such is the glory of Jane Stevenson’s novel London Bridges that she can lavish even a minor character with the description “a great hillock of a man, with a gorsebush beard and tiny, glittering obsidian eyes.” She could also have called them obsidional, obsidionary or obsidious. These mean besieging, from the Latin, but, although this abbot could certainly be that, her word means dark-coloured, even volcanic, from the Latin obsianus, for such stone - black, clear and bright, akin to granite - was discovered in Ethiopia by Obsius who was misspelled Obsidius by Pliny.


BUSH adj

No excuse for returning to Jane Stevenson’s novel London Bridges, a mine of nimble language, high and low: “George has gone bush. He just warned me not to talk to you.” So says Jeanene of a petulant supervisor. Bush is from Latin boscum, wood, but also shows that Jane Stevenson is alert to her character’s being Australian. There it meant to go into the country (from the Dutch bosch) and - also in Africa - gained this beserk, errant sense in the Fifties. No need to praise Jane Stevenson anymore: as Shakespeare reminds us, the proverb says, “a good wine needs no bush.”

TUMBLE-UP adj Demolished walls have led to a kitchen twice the size, as yet battle-scarred, and the thought that few who wield a sledgehammer think of molition. From Latin moliri, to build, it crumbled in 1678 after less than eighty years, briefly survived by one from molere, a grinding. Revival of the word would be a form of gentrification - a social force first noticed by J. I. M. Stewart in Seventies Oxford. Meanwhile, my kitchen is in that tumble-up stage. Tumble-down was first used in the 18th century of failed horses, the tumb root meaning to stagger.


IT pron

Yesterday’s news page asserted that Nancy Mitford was “the socialite for whom the phrase ‘It Girl’ was coined in the 1930s” rather than Clara Bow a decade earlier, in the movie It , from Elinor Glyn’s unreadable novel. While the copulatory sense is 17th-century, this one of allure is - yes! - Kipling in 1904: “’Tisn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It. Some women’ll stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down a street.” Nancy Mitford’s charm was her talk; Clara Bow ended up in an asylum.



Miles Kington swears that makeover is a recent noun when astutely attributing telly’s current sterility to its makers’ knowing only telly. As a verb, however, it has been around for centuries, first as a legal term, then more generally, such as Thomas Collier’s 17th-century observation: “age and youth can never be made over or adjusted.” After the war there was a habit of using inverted commas, to suggest an Americanism, but in fact it had been used by Henry James and Rose Macaulay - loftier figures than Jane “Zone” Root and Charlie Dimmock.



Some might be surprised at such a noun, one which even bears upon the vexed question of what a novelist should call the male organ. (As we noted, after A.N. Wilson derided “penis” in A Good Man in Africa, William Boyd used “cock” in An Ice-Cream War.) In Svengali’s Web, a book more enjoyable than Trilby itself, Daniel Pick observes that in Latin fascinum not only means evil eye or spell but phallus - the sign of the horn was a defence against sorcery. Bridget Jones could lament: “0 calories. 2.5 oz: alas, Giles’s fascinate did not.”



Despite metrification, onions continue to be sold by weight but peppers by number - as with apples and peaches. Anyway, roll on the first prosecution of a small-time trader and the headline The Oz Trial. Counsel could beguile the jury with the fact that ounce and inch share a root in the Latin uncia, twelth of a foot or pound (in the Troy measure). He could also digress upon the medieval unit of time: 480 oz = 60 ostends = I hr. “The 8 and 120 ounces for Victoria” would be as comprehensible as many announcements.



In his new, rivetting memoir of Lindsay Anderson, that fine, Isherwoodian novelist Gavin Lambert says of looking around the director’s flat “at all the lares and penates, Lindsay’s sacred household possessions, that although he rebelled against tradition (especially as represented by Mum), it remained an emotional stronghold.” A lar is a household god in Roman mythology while penates - guardians of the interior - is from penus, the sanctuary of a building. Both are 16th century in English usage and, as a phrase, were first used by Horace Walpole in a letter of 1775.



Blair’s henchmen have overlooked the fact that Dobson’s chances have been tacitly scuppered by all the Beatles - including John Lennon. When meeting the Prime Minister in 1964, they deflated his pontifications by always addressing him as Mr Dobson. As for Dobbo, it is a variant of dobbin, from Robin, usually an old horse, but in this case alludes to The Merchant of Venice: Old Gobbo says to his son, the clown, “what a beard hast thou got! Thou has got more hair on thy chin than Dobbin my fill-horse has on his tail.”



The coffee-house wit Craig Brown has been discussing that Norfolk potshot and idiosyncratic DIYer, Tony Martin, and not only refers to the Duke of Edinburgh but also the gubbins. A 16th-century coining, it is a fish derivative, literally and metaphorically: the odd bits, of little value, from the 14th-century gobbon - portion or gobbet -, linked to gob, a lump, from the Old French gobe, a mouthful. Gobbe survives in French as a poisoned foodball for dogs and rats - and, just a thought, ideal for burglars. “Never trust my wife’s cooking, officer.”



Paul Hoffman’s new novel The Wisdom of Crocodiles promptec the 1998 Jude Law movie; many-stranded, it soon spawns another. Off-beat, not cacophonous (an unusual take upon the Bank of England), it finds one character wondering “why the ‘word’ people wanted to have with you was never ‘Here’s more money’ or ‘I just want to say what a privilege it is to work with a man of your intellectual distinction.’ It was always doom of some kind.” Word’s origins are Greek. this sense is 15th-century, but given currency by Dogberry’s “a word in your ear”.


BIG adj

In Paul Hofmann’s The Wisdom of Crocodiles somebody finds a “letter addressed to him personally. It was a begging letter. It was from Barclays Bank, begging him to take out a loan.” More arrive, such is “their unquenchable lust to lend him money”. That “big” advertising push could scupper the bank, such is public aversion to the big now that, in our paradoxical age, the Web gives the small a chance. Big’s origins are obscure: 13th-century Northern, possibly Norse but not from an earlier big - to build or inhabit - which survives in dialect up there.



Ah, the high life! The Evening Standard records that the “antipodean firecracker”, novelist Kathy Lette had what she calls a “flirty convo” with Jonathan Dimbleby, whose wife, Bel Mooney, duly dumped saliva-drenched sausage sticks in the upstart’s handbag as “homage”. Only Tony Thorne’s Contemporary Slang contains convo, which would make a sassy magazine title. Talk, being 13th century, came 300 years before converse, which had - until Sidney’s Arcadia (1580) - meant to live among or consort with others, although it could become vocal, for another sense anticipated Ms Lette’s usage: sex.


PUNT v and n

Strangely enough, Ladbroke’s is not taking bets that Tony Blair will join the Conservatives within ten years, something which David Owen never quite did. One must look elsewhere for a punt. The word is much disputed. Some set aside the Rugby term for a kick and also an old use of boat-shaped tokens in gambling, and settle for the 18th-century adaptation of the French ponter, to lay a stake against the bank. Boats resurface with pontoon: not only a vessel (from pont, bridge) but a Great War slurring of vingt-et-un or vingt-un.



The opening of a Tate Gallery annex makes us ask when works almost a hundred years old will lose the label modern and need another home. Modern is 16th century, from the Latin variant of modo - nowadays - as hodiernus is from hodie, today. Modernism is in fact Swift’s 1737 invention (“abominable curtailings and quaint modernisms”) and in 1934 the architect Reginald Blomfield published, Modernismus which, “as it should be called on the German precedent, has invaded this country like an epidemic.” Wyndham Lewis used it, too. Let it then - now - be Tate Modernismus.



A call to the manager of The Three Tuns in Windsor reveals puzzlement over purl although Royal farmworkers still prop up the bar. George III overheard a groom assert, “everyone else agrees that the man at The Three Tuns makes the best purl in Windsor.” The King quietly asked, “what’s purl?” Warm beer with a gin in it. “I dare say a very good drink, grooms, but too strong for the morning.” Purl - probably from the Scandinavian verb for agitated water - was later called dog’s nose. As a brand-name, this could see off Bacardi Breezer.



Amid the debate over any benefit that Martin Amis may have had in being Kingsley’s son, nobody has remarked that Pope Innocent Xll would be unwelcome at Dagenham, where shop steward Peter Singh brazenly says, “fathers have got sons jobs here, and they’ve got their sons jobs as well.” Celibacy precludes offspring: the word is from Italian for nephew and the Papal habit of putting work relations’ way - outlawed by Innocent in 1692. At Dagenham, cannier fathers should have warned that, with motor-cars now easily doing 150,000 miles, demand will fall.


YOUR pron and adj

The word is one of our oldest - from Old English eower - and has come irritatingly to the fore, as in the sign at Brighton station which refers to repairs to “your station roof”. This is what marketing wallahs call “mass customisation”: the illusion of individual service, as in “your choice of potatoes or fries” and “your cover CD-ROM”. Meanwhile, there is no “your” about the land at Brighton station, upon which the Council wants to ride roughshod over protests and build yet another hotel, supermarket, car-park, offices and “incubator units”.



Shamelessness, or curtains, will be needed on any dirty weekend at the Grand in Brighton, for this Sunday that intrepid bicyclist Tracy Harrison leads an SASesque abseiling of it for charity. Even Virginia Woolf’s father on mountaineering gives some of us vertigo (“a bound into clear air and a fall down to the houses, from heights where only the eagle ventures to fly”). Pedantry is our lot. Abseil down is a tautology. From the German for down and rope, it is a Thirties coining, as is rappel (the same thing), from the French for recall.



The nation’s favourite words reminds one that, shortly before her suicide, Virginia Woolf cooked “haddock & sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage & haddock by writing them down.” Not so at the splendidly-named Brighton solicitors Donne, Mileham & Haddock, whose telephonist unblushingly says that it has “rebranded as DMH to give a new, modern image and a young outlook”. Haddock, probably a diminutive, is 13th century; its origins are unknown, but it does stand out, unlike the initials to which our language is being reduced.


BRUISE n and v

Stephen Fry has been called a “bruised bargain”: his hardback memoirs are in The Works chain for £2.99 as damaged goods. A look below the wrapper brings etymology to mind, for the cardboard has neither come out in shades of purple and red nor swollen but has simply been crushed at the edges (slightly bumped, as secondhand dealers put it). Bruise, by conflating the Old English brysan and French brisier, first meant crushed - although one imagines that if this is the fate of Fry’s work, he would prefer the word to be contused.


RAPE n and v There was incredulity at posters about a January 1st rape in Hove, the Labour marginal by which Radio 4 judges the nation’s mood. These coincided with Mike Tyson’s being allowed in by Jack Straw, certain that Manchester - and now Glasgow - traders needed tainted money. Yellow rape has itself been raped - by GM seed. Rape - from Old Norse - first meant haste; then - from Latin rapere, to seize - to carry off; and, by 1481, sexual assault. Meanwhile, Latin rapum gave us rape, a turnip, supplanted by the yellow herb in the 17th century.



A peculiarity of those maniacally beaming weathermen is to say “as we move through the morning, the clouds will clear”; if anybody else regularly forsook during to say “as we move through the morning, I shall clean the kitchen”, the asylum would beckon. The word has also been a present participle, from dure (now supplanted by endure) which, via French, comes from the Latin durare, to harden: as in the translation of Froissart’s chronicles “this siege during, there were many skirmishes”. Can it be long before we are told “the sunshine during, it will not rain”?



An unremarked parallel between Kingsley Amis’s Letters and his son’s memoirs is that, while Kingsley and Larkin sign off with a variant of bum (“Mrs Thatcher is showing a disquieting penchant for bum”), Martin feared that his own was too big - until, in his teens, a barful of girls voted it best of the batch. The OED, still deems it impolite, and gives only a line-reference for Puck’s “then slip I from her bum”. Its 14th-century origins are obscure but probably onomatopoeic, as in bump: flesh as it finds support or obstacle.




The very notion of zones scuppered the Dome. Zone, redolent of an Eighties provincial nightclub, slipped in meaning over the centuries: a fitting verb, for it is from the Greek for girdle. In the 16th century it meant latitudinal divisions but dwindled into, say, an old gas-works site (“enterprise zone”). A transparent, latititudinal Dome could have been a wow, and eased any queuing. Lost is zoned to mean girdled - chaste -, from which came zoneless: a better name for a nightclub, as in Cowper on pleasure: “that reeling goddess with the zoneless waist.”


STAKE n and v

Ladbroke’s now gives odds of 100-1 that Tony Blair will join the Conservative Party by the end of 2009, but it is wary: bets must be placed by June 18th and the stake no more than £50. As for stake - perhaps from the Middle Dutch staken, to place -, it is uncertain which came first, noun or verb, and so it is possible that it goes further back than the 16th century, to Old English staca, a pointed stick that formed a fence or marked territory. Hence, to up stakes and move. Will Tony Blair?



Better, surely, to advise less eating and more exercise rather than faff about with a Goverment“ superwaif summit” to counter magazine photographs of trim women. This echoes recent controversy over heroin-chic poses in which models affected a sneer. This was pioneered forty years ago by the Rolling Stones. Ex-bassist Bill Wyman recalls, “a nanker was our description of the contorted faces we sometimes made for photographers, pulling down the skin under our eyes and pushing up the tips of our noses.” Not in any dictionary and of obscure origins, but a useful term at the summit.



Fifty years ago there was a gap between “the two cultures”. They have moved closer, but brought a muddling of Michaelangelo and slabs of greying concrete with dead animals on them. Not a Tate Modern installation, but a Highways Agency official: “ministers want to end this culture of vehicles hopping on and off motorways.” First used of soil in the 15th century and of organisms in the 19th, it had in the Romantic era acquired one of artistic endeavour: even with Haydn on tape, a motorway journey, long or short, is not. The official means “habit”.



Crocodiles are in fact absent from two new books. Paul Hoffman’s novel The Wisdom of Crocodiles is a splendid construction while Brian Thompson’s life of Georgina Weldon, A Monkey Among Crocodiles, is ramshackle: he says that a Wilde letter “is worth quoting in full”, but uses a bad text which omits a pungent rebuke. As for crocodile, only a bold explorer would heed Johnson’s explanation of the problematic Greek etymology: “saffron fearing”. More likely is “worm of the stones”. To spear one and find it becomes two could make good multiplex fodder.


PLEACH v and n Later reviews of Martin Amis’s Experience have gone for the jugular but few remark on his relish of words, such as his revenge by braking hard when Christopher Hitchens is desperate to revieve himself. “The bladder of the Hitch, so intimately pleached and triced in the seatbelt, jackknifed forward and then, even more horribly, twanged back into its bucket. I find if difficult to duplicate the double-groan he gave.” Pleach came to mean tangled last century, from the 14th-century term, of Old French and Latin origins, for interlacing branches to form a fence.



Martin Amis’s Experience is suffused with the promiscuous, a 17th-century word which, by adding the prefix to miscere (to mix), suggests a continual bringing forward. Father and son were, however, loyal to the Concise Oxford Dictionary. “How he loved that dictionary - as I too love it. My current edition has just snapped in half and will have to be replaced. When it was near by and he was praising it (‘This, this is the one’), he would sometimes pat and even stroke the squat black book, as if it were one of his cats.”



The pop-music-industry worker who doubles as a journalist, Robert Sandall recently wrote on Richard Williams’s new collection of articles and not only referred to his “posthumous book” on Ayrton Senna (which suggests that the Williams rather than the driver is dead) but lamented that it is his most substantial “longform” work to date. This word is not in any dictionary but has been creeping into print (the Guardian has used it of telly drama). It is woolly. How foolish it would look to compare James’s “Daisy Miller” with his longform The Portrait of a Lady



If one sentence sums up Horace Walpole’s Memoirs of the Reign of King George lll, it is “here were more than motives sufficent to egg on general or particular vengeance”. Not a matter of sustenance - of going to work on an egg (which, probably, comes. via Teutonic forms, from the Latin ovum, hence a link with oeuf) -,this is from the Old Norse eggja which, in the 13th century, came to mean to give an edge to something or to sharpen a weapon. Many a politician can testify that a hurled egg, however vexing, is preferable.



A telephone call to several estate agents to ask when they would be getting some new socks caused only puzzlement, and even offence. This suggests that Martin Amis’s coining of the word for a flat has not entered the language (not in the OED, it is mentioned by Jonathon Green as a Seventies word). From Latin soccus, it might suggest the twists and sudden steps of a converted flat’s corridor, but in Experience Amis notes that it has olfactory origins, deriving from Tina Brown’s description of some dank, bachelor habitat’s being “like a sock”.


PREFACE n and v

Shame on the nation’s schoolchildren that they have not bought enough copies of Harry Potter for Bloomsbury to publish Alasdair Gray’s The Book of Prefaces at less than £35. Most of us already have its contents scattered across the shelves but it makes an elegant, educative assemblage, and overlooks the word’s origins. First used in the 14th century, the noun came 230 years before the verb. Not a matter of the visage, it is from the Latin fari, to speak, and was a slurring of the orginal form - prefation -, which fogeys might prefer.



Kingsley Amis’s late penchant for minibus tours was a far cry from his advertisements for wallpaper: “Very Kingsley Amis, very Sanderson” - a wheeze which, oddly, goes unmentioned in the Letters. On such a tour there was another, fatal instance of what his son calls “the suspicion of an infarction” - a fitting noun for Lucky Jim’s author. From Latin infarcire, to stuff, it is that thickening of the vessels which is modern teenagers’ fate. Farce - best lean - has the same root, for comedy was stuffed into French religious plays to lighten them.


JAM n and v

Not since Aristotle’s coining of the phrase “a political animal” has a government been laid so low by the Women’s Institute. Many reached for the word handbagged (this clobbering term, absent from the OED, appeared with Blair’s inspiration, Mrs Thatcher). A more sporting Prime Minister would have said that he is in a jam. It is 18th century. “I know not whence derived,” wrote Johnson; it is probably from the 16th century champ, to crush with the jaws. Versions of this in other languages are difficult to link, which suggests universal onomatopoeia.



In his Memoirs of the Reign of King George lll, Horace Walpole records that in 1761 Wilkes’s “easy impudent style had drawn the attention of mankind towards him, and it asked, who this saucy writer was?” This sense is 16th century, soon after the one that means a flavouring, and meant impudent; later lascivious; and now more amused than outraged, as uttered by Kenneth Williams. For a while they existed in parallel. Sauce is from Latin salsa, feminine of salsus, salted (as is salad), while the dance term emerged here in the Seventies.



Horace Walpole records that when, early on, it seemed that George lll would need a regent, this was “a chimera too wild and much too dangerous to enter into so dastardly a nature as Lord Bute’s.” Bute, the King’s favourite, was widely loathed, and “enter” there means to allow. Dastardly is now used lightly but was a 15th-century coining, to mean either a dull or a base character. As was dasart, it is from daze, whose origins are Scandanavian, and it is uncertain whether this follows the sneering French suffix of -ard, as in vieillard.


FOIL n and v

Yesterday’s discussion of the dastardly Lord Bute suggests a rather different fellow: Wacky Races’ Dick Dastardly, he of the sidekick Muttley and the cry “foiled again!” The 14th-century noun is from Latin folium, a leaf of paper or metal, while, a century later, the verb’s root is - like foul - in the Old French fouler, to trample down. (The fencing term’s origins are uncertain, and do not bear on this sense of scuppering.) It is linked with to full, as in cloth - to beat it down; hence Ä e fuller’s trade of sailmaking.



Horace Walpole recalls Colonel Barré’s personally addressing Pitt during a debate: “his variations, inconsistencies, arts, popularity, ambition, were all pressed upon Pitt with energy and bitterness; and the whole apostrophe wore the air of an affront.” The word was chosen carefully: from the Greek noun for a turning away, it means to address somebody in particular (now not necessarily present, even dead). As for the punctuation- mark, the OED points out that this is from the Greek adjective and should be prounounced in three syllables, as in French - and further confuse our greengrocers.


BOLLOCK n and v

There is disquiet that the chairman did not censure councillor Simon Battle for looking up from a magazine and shouting “bollocks!” at a woman during a planning meeting in Hove at which he favoured a developer’s turning a publicly-owned sports-centre into an 11-screen cinema, casino and fast-food outlet. This form is 18th-century but, from a Teutonic root, ballock is 800 years older while the verb, for bawling out, emerged this century. A character far hairier than Battle, is The Magic Roundabout’s Dougal, thus named here lest children smirk at the French original, Pollux.


WAFFLE n and v

At the committee meeting to turn Hove’s publicly-owned sports centre into an 11-screen cinema, casino and fast-food outlets, a prime example of waffle was exposed. Councillor Jenny Langston asked an official, “what does ‘Community Sport and Health Unit’ mean?” The chairman interjected, “it obviously means Community Sport and Health Unit”, but, blushing, the official said it means changing-rooms and reception desk. Waffle is 18th century, from a Northern word for the wind’s action, akin to wave and waft. Residents demand an informed judicial review to counter such linguistic wooliness.



The way the mind works. No sooner had Hove councillor Simon Battle looked up from a magazine and sworn at a female colleague during an important planning meeting than Pollux, in Greek myth, came to mind - and suggested a sofa or pepperpot, for Pollux is twin of Castor. In fact, castor

is a beaver or rank smell, from Latin, while the leg or pot is a variant of caster, from the verb of Scandaniavian root - perhaps linked to Latin gestus - and which reached us in the 13th century, cast duly ousted by throw.



The Government is concerned about overweight women but Brighton Council proclaims that there is a “perceived need” to turn Hove’s sports centre into an 11-screen cinema, casino and fast-food outlet. In his splendid, discriminatingly flexible The King’s English, Kingsley Amis laments the loss of a precise word - “almost a synonym for see, except that a degree of effort or special ability is implied.” Nowadays, perceive is all too often means a vague impression, bunged in by those of a bludgeoning cast of mind rather than able to express a point of view.



There has been alarm that the BBC will no longer woo the masses with culture by “hammocking”, say, a documentary about Ivy Compton-Burnett between a couple of episodes of Ibiza Shaggings. Such viewers apparently say, “I can’t be fagged to turn it off or see what else is on. Let’s give the old girl a chance. Pass another beer.” Who coined this verb for something that all dictionaries have only as a 16th-century noun from the Spanish hamaca of Caribbean origin? In any case, an odd word: the very opposite of Reithian stimulation.



Revival of that witty novelist Dawn Powell brings publication of her letters. An actor enthuses that “it was possible to exist 72 hours on gin and oysters and Powell. He called again last night to say he was reading it over and that ‘liquers’ on page 306 shoud have two u’s in it. I refrained from saying Brother, I think you have two liqueurs in you too. He was right, however.” It is an 18th-century variant of liquor, from Latin for liquidity, which by the 14th century meant alcohol - but in brewing circles denotes water.



Grace Kelly, speaking her ‘Broadway British’ with ladylike difficulty, woodens and larks around in a most embarrassing style in High Society - proving I don’t know what, except that two can play at being Joan Crawford,” wrote that tirelessly astringent observer of contemporary Manhattan, the novelist Dawn Powell in a 1956 letter. At first this suggests stiffness, not larking, but in fact revives the sense of raving - very Joan Crawford - which is from Old English wod, of Teutonic origins, while the sense of timber springs, as it were, from another root.



The American critic George Jean Nathan believed “in the state of bachelorhood, at the very least up to the age of fifty. Thereafter, a man may conceivably marry to his benefit, but certainly not before.” Bachelor’s origins need time to tease out. First a young knight, then a man with a degree - each with separate, spurious, even punning etymologies - while Chaucer, more Bridget Jones than Nathan, said “bachelors have often pain and woe”. It is probably from baccalaria, a strip of land on which there grazed a cow (a slurring of the Latin vacca).



In Sidesteps, a collection twice as long as it need be, Richard Holmes gives an account R H Barham, author of The Ingoldsby Legends. He overlooks an earlier essay by Edmund Wilson but notes that “Barham first used the word ‘double-goer’ in a letter of 1828, two years before the OED first registers the appearance of ‘double-ganger’ in English.” Gang, in German and Dutch - from Old Norse - means to go, hence this ghostly tandem. Only in English does gang mean group of workmen, from the nautical sense of items that go together.


CONNERIE n The nation knows that, during an important planning debate, Hove councillor Simon Battle put down a magazine and swore at a female colleague - so indelicately that theBrighton Evening Argus cannot report it. Meanwhile, Richard Holmes’s Sidetracks notes that Voltaire, in denying authorship of Candide, called it “une coinnerie” [sic]. Taboo in English, its variants - such as un connard - are blander in French, and recallHenry V . Frisky Catherine is mistakenly told that la robe is cown. “Cown? Ils sont les mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros... non pour les dames d’honneur d’user.”


FLUSH adj and v

Life as a wordsmith might appear a sedentary pursuit, but eight hours were taken from it to install a new lavatory - interrupted by reflecting that if the cistern were not flush against the wall it would not flush: the word means both static and flowing. The verb is probably from the movement implicit in the onomatoepic sense of a bird’s beating its wings or our hitting bushes (hence, say, flushing out local corruption); the adjective elaborates upon the verb, to mean full and, in particular, river water level with its banks.


HAMPER n and v

Summertime and the cotton is high - or, spread low with a hamper upon it, at Bryan Ferry’s splendid Petworth concert. (Pianist Colin Good’s switching between Kern and “Virginia Plain” is amazing.) Of course, no sooner had the first cucumber sandwich passed the tonsils than one felt duty bound to note that, contrary to popular opinion, the noun and verb are distinct. The wicker case is a 14th-century slurring of hanaper, which held hanaps - drinking-vessels, from Old French - while a hindering is of Teutonic origins, as in the German hemmen



For so large a building, the Tate’s Modern annex quickly induces claustrophobia. There is none of the light that make the Musée d’ Orsay a joy. And so one peers all the more glumly at the ranks of BritArt. Much of it only diverts one for a moment; it is mere whimsy, ideas stumbling after substance. In the 16th century this was whim-wham - akin to flim-flam, hence flimsy - and is perhaps from Old Norse hvima - to wander wild-eyed, foolishly. Whimsy came next, and shortened to whim in the 17th century after briefly meaning pun.



It’s the future,” said John Wells glumly as we sat in his dressing-room at the theatre attached to the grim mall that is otherwise Woking. It gets worse. In Brighton, the Council prefers more shops to Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Cameron Mackintosh’s offer of a new theatre for opera and dance. Mall is from the game mall, played in an alley, and, as is the Scottish mail, it is from the Old English maeol for meeting. Once redolent of outdoor strolls and trysts it now denotes concrete and jobsworth security-guards. Why do they always sport épaulettes?



After a rueful sip in the bar-parlour of The Anglers’ Rest, the French scholar Joanna Barker lamented that, when marking candidates’ grasp of our language’s grace and subtlety, examiners are chastised if they forget to lozenge the paper’s front page - shade in oval boxes to denote total and examiner’s number for machinal tabulation. Much used by Sir Thomas Browne (ever fond of such obscure words as machinal), the 14th-century noun is from lapis - stone - via Old French losenge and means a diamond-ended rectangle, whose heraldic and jewel senses preceded baking and confectionery.



But, Dad, in On Drink Kingsley Amis says, ‘if you do not feel bloody awful after a hefty night then you are still drunk, and must sober up in a waking state before hangover dawns... firmly take a hair (or, better, in Cyril Connolly’s phrase, a tuft) of the dog that bit you’.” Life chez Blair is starchier than that. As for hangover, it only reached us from America at the beginning of the century. Already the people refer to “having a bit of a euan”: not a state for contemplation of hang’s complex history.


MAIL noun, v and adj

Please Mr Postman”, “Return To Sender”, “Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues”. When will we have a pop song about e-mail anguish? Perhaps even now on a verandah in the Delta somebody is strumming a 32-bar blues “I Can’t Get Past My Baby’s Filter”. Meanwhile, delay in being paid, owing to a Mount Pleasant strike after the sacking of a hooligan, makes one reluctant to use the mail - and to reflect that mail bag is a tautology. Mail, of Teutonic root, means bag. The original phrase was a mail of letters.



Proust is on the mind again, and prompts one’s own childhood memory, of being urged to show some gumption. The word also adorned a tin of stiff, putty-coloured cleaner, and only now does one show the gumption to look into which came first: it is the quality of commonsense and energy, hence no link with the surrounding of a tooth’s root, which is from the Greek for yawn. Gumption is 18th-century Scottish, as is rumgumption - an echo of the time when rum meant good rather than bad. Those blessed with gumption are gumptious.



Retro will come full-circle when Silvikrin, if it still exists, revives that commercial in which two strolling policemen debate whether “that girl is using Silvikrin”. Meanwhile, the small print at Boot’s reveals that one brand - essence of parsnip, perhaps - will bodify the hair, which sounds more murderous than reviving. In citing the verb once, and that from 1685, the OED gives another sense. A ballad tells of Archangels bodifying as English nobles. This would certainly be a matter for the police: “Right, Gabriel is it? Come with me to the cashpoint.”



American editions of Harry Potter are printed on better paper than ours but, until the latest one, were saddled with such emendations as makingÄ umpers into sweaters. Which makes one ponder whence jumper, hardly something in which to leap adroitly. Jump, as a verb, is 16th century, probably onomatopoeic, akin to German gumpen, but the clothing is early this century and, oddly enough, American for a while (there it now means a pinafore dress): a variant of 17th-century jump, a short jacket, via jup from French juppe, itself of Arabic origins in jibbah.



A moment’s pause, as it were, reveals another instance of opposite meanings: chatter and silence. A claptrap was originally a playing

to the gallery, something risible but prompting of applause; hence foolish talk. (Clap is perhaps from the sound made by a windmill’s arms; the pox from French clapoire, a bordello.) The OED overlooks the musical pause that leads some to assume that the piece is over. As Ravi Shanker drolly said at George Harrison’s concert for Bangla Desh: “Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you enjoy the playing more.”


SPELL n and v There are three contenders to build a library in Brighton, and, of these, one doubts Norwich Union’s attention to detail. Its designs poster misuses “principle” and “compliment”. Spell first meant speech, akin to German spiel, and gained the magic-formula sense in the 16th century. As a stint, it is from Old English spala, a substitute (not linked to spell as a fragment, from the Teutonic speld). As for the composition at which Norwich Union fails, it is from Old French espeller: first used to mean read, it evolved into writing by the 16th century.


EARNEST adj and n

Who was worse in Wilde’s Earnest, Nigel Havers or Hinge & Bracket? Harold Bloom’s How To Read And Why asserts an Indo-European root of er - to originate. “No character in Earnest is at all original; each is sublimely outrageous, but always in a traditional mode, and yet the play is marked by a vivacious originality.” Wilde subverts Gilbert & Sullivan’s satire of him. Diversely resonant, earnest suggests ardour in battle (from Old English) and - “not even for ready money” - an instalment or promise; not in the OED, is Nineties code for homosexual.


ASK n and v

The parenthetical phrase “don’t ask” was used in Wednesday’s newspaper by both Paul Vallely (16-toed Greeks) and Gerard Gilbert (Clarissa Dickson-Wright’s boyfriend’s rent-boy). “Don’t ask” is a phrase to which I have an aversion (don’t ask). Ask - in use, with various, continung nuances by 1200 - is of Teutonic origins via Old English ascian linked to Old Slavonic iskati. (The original phrase was to ask the banns.) As for Ken Livingstone’s views, these please asks - the Northern word for newts, from Old English (in the Midlands it is asker).



No commentator upon Euan Blair’s evening on the town remarked that, for his father, the most galling aspect of the case was that it suggests a resurgence of Old Labour: an echo of the famous photograph in which George Brown was newted in the gutter. Curiously, the noun is akin to another, purported consequence of drinking: gout. Both are from Old French goutiere, a drop (the ailment deemed a pollutant in the blood) and linked to Old English for pour, which also gives us gut - and eat, as Master Blair should have done.


SLOW n, adv, adj, and v

Jack Straw will be remembered as the Home Secretary who should have been faster on his feet and slower on the M5. Prosecution will teach him that meetings are rarely necessary and certainly not a reason for this Dodiesque display. Slow, with various Teutonic parallels, comes from the Latin laevus - left - with a Greek precedent. It first, around 800, suggested a mental condition; only some centuries later did physical speed become the primary meaning (“wanting celerity”: Johnson) . Meanwhile, is Jack Straw suffering from that debilitating condition, the slows?


FAST n, adv and adj

Say what you will about the ton-up merchant and Home Secretary, Jack Straw, he has given me a couple of days’ gainful employment, for yesterday’s discussion of slow prompts the question of the paradoxical nature of fast: something either set firm or moving quickly. From Old English faest, it originally meant fixed in place, as in dye, or tightened (hence the little eating of a fast); in becoming an adverb, as in fast - close - upon somebody’s heels, by the 13th century it had duly, even quickly, acquired the adjectival sense of speed.


SLEIGHT n, adj and v

Visitors to Brighton Council’s exhibition of its plans for the derelict land by the station were puzzled to find a photograph of the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. This is bureaucratic sleight of hand, for the scheme in fact proposes yet another hotel, supermarket and apartment block - nothing for the inhabitants, except more traffic. Middle English sleight, akin to sly, first meant skill in manufacture, then came to suggest trickery, which, puzzlingly, the OED now deems obsolete, as are, from other roots, a sheep pasture and slaughter (the OED overlooks sleighting a castle).


STRAW n, adj and v

Yesterday’s diversion to Brighton Council’s chicanery may have led the Home Secretary to hope for respite, Wordswise - an important consideration, for the column is essential Civil Service reading. We will not dwell on the many perjorative metaphorical meanings of a word which, with Old English origins, is akin to strew and stray, from Latin stratum, but note that Lewis Carroll made straw in the hair a sign of lunacy and that to make bricks without straw - Pharaoh’s orders in Exodus - is not to perform a miracle but face an impossible task.


HOAX n and v

Readers of my practical-jokes essay on Saturday may have noticed that the crowded field left no room for Barry Humphries (attacking a fake blind man), Walter Matthau, Julian Barnes (his “Agnès Varda Women’s Collective” terrorised a priapic David Caute) while my victim Peter Parker duly had Paul Bailey believe that an outraged Steven Berkoff was seeking revenge. Nor space for hoax itself, which - honest - is an 18th-century coining from hocus, a shortening of 17th-century hocus-pocus, the name of a juggler who punned on the Eucharist’s hoc est corpus.



Brighton Council’s exhibition of its plans for the railway station proclaimed that it “will be a centre of artistic excellence”; asked how this woolly, cocksure phrase tallied with a hotel, supermarket and apartment block, a flustered “environmental” official said something about a couple of pottery “live-work units” and that, anyway, artswise, the Dome will “come onstream in the autumn”; told that this suggested a dodgy plumbing contractor, he grudglingly said “open” instead. Acyrology, from Greek for lacking authority in speech, means incorrect use of language; slack control of words produces shoddy architecture.



Last year, in The Angler’s Rest, there was some discussion of John Walsh’s bizarre assertion to Steve Martin that the English no longer use the word irks. Julian Barnes said that he would incorporate it in his next novel forthwith. Love, etc - which should be Love, etc. -is out tomorrow. Strange to read with one eye out for a particular word - and not find it. That said, the characters certainly irk one another - even when, as one says, things are “polder-like”: that is, flat, reclaimed land, from the Dutch and probably not linked to poultice.



Julian Barnes’s blistering new novel Love, etc offers a look behind the scenes here in the Words unit. Some while ago, I left “tea-bag” to brew in a notebook. Memory had it as appearing in Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America (praised by Barnes), but in fact witty novelist Meg Wolitzer spoke of it. A Barnes character now says of Baltimore (where Barnes taught) “most of the men are tea-bags, if you’ll pardon the expression”; an ambiguous metaphor, for in America it is also praise - if the tea-bag is unused; if wet, it means bollocks.



Oliver resurfaces in Julian Barnes’s Love, etc from Talking It Over and again makes Simon Gray’s Butley look benign. In a milder moment he observes that “news delights me not, nor features either. I do not even understand the concept of ‘news’ any more, I realise. It’s an absurd plural to begin with. What’s the singular - ‘a’ new? So the word ought to be ‘the new’, not ‘the news’.” As Barnes, a former OED lexicographer, knows the news is a 15th-century coining, from the Old French plural adjective which is originally Latin.


NEAR adv, prep and v

On Wednesday Paul Waugh wrote that the Blair holiday snaps will “be available at a newsagent near you” while Kate Watson-Smyth described a new- look Marks and Spencer’s “coming to a town near you”. From Old English, it is a word which has gone through shades of meaning (being near to somebody is distinct from a near-hit) and elvolves from a comparative form of the word which also gives us grounds for territorial dispute in next and neighbour - with an archaic rearguard in Canon Chasuble’s distinction “she approaches; she is nigh”.



John Gielgud’s death is closely followed by that Alec Guinness, who will endure longer: he saw that - despite Star Wars- movies can be more than than money-making schlock. No grandee, he spoke a Shakespeare that the playwright would have recognised, his skill encapsulated in The Simpsons’ anagram: genuine class. From Latin ingenuus, native, genuine shares a root with kin in the Aryan for beget and was first used in the 16th century, duly, predominantly meaning not spurious. There was a brief, ersatz distinction between genuine and authentic: a fake Rembrandt could be an authentic likeness.



Not Harry Potter’s school, but Jack Straw’s. From the Civil Service comes the notion that the Home Secretary’s problem is warts; no physical ailment, so far as one can see, but so deep a mental singeing caused by fellow Essex pupils’ hooting his surname in reverse that he now favours harsh, inept measures. From Old English wearte, it is normal on a horse or flower, unlike Cromwell - or Chaucer’s Miller, whose nose “hade / A werte, and theron stood a toft of herys, / Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys.” Hogwarts, indeed.



Julian Barnes’s Love, etc has caused some dissent, as befits a novel whose subject is points of view. Its two-page disquistion upon the efficacy and pleasure of contraceptive methods brings to mind his telly review which queried the commentator’s overlooking of the adroit French player

Condom. The OED finds no Dr Condom, but Charles Panati reminds us of the Italian Gabriello Fallopio’s part in it - so to speak - and that of Charles ll’s physician, the earl of Condom, whose idea of a wild night was to stretch and oil sections of sheeps’ intenstines.



Fashionable Hove’s quiet beach was disturbed by some pebble-throwing children, seen off by a few well-chosen words, the most polite of which was urchins, which also brings to mind the sea’s inhabitants - and Delia Smith. Huh? Originally, in the 14th century, it was hurcheon, from the late Latin hericus , a variant of ericus, hedgehog, which, via irchin, soon took the current form (and duly lost the sense of a pie whose pastry is studded with almonds). Mischievous, then raggedy children appeared in the 16th century, ahead of the sea-creature and of Cupid.


HIT n Anybody who picks up Anthony Quinton’s essays From Wodehouse to Wittgenstein more on the strength of the former could happily stray to his discussion of the idea of a university posited by Cardinal Newman, who, as Quinton omits to mention, was related to the novelist by a maternal grandmother. Wodehouse had many a Broadway hit, but - as Quinton does note - Newman, surprisingly, used the word of his successful 1852 lectures. This would fill a 60-year gap in the OED, which does trace to 1811 this usage of a word which is Norse in origin.


SULLEN adj A glance at the Blairs’ holiday photograph makes one wonder why they are all - with the possible exception of Leo - sullen. The word is 16th-century. Before that it was solein - via French from Latin solus - and at first meant unique, then solitary, and at the end of the 14th century gained the sense of petulance, of a watered-down Garbo. Sullen waters - as in a blocked drain - are 17th-century but, aquatically speaking, sulk is the opposite of sullen, for, from Latin sulcus - furrow -, it is to plough the sea.



When politicians’ feet become news, it is usually with emphasis upon the toes. “Oh, darling, the hallux next!” How refreshing, then, that William Hague’s penchant is for hand-made shoes. Their construction requires a last, an expense which some condemn as a last. (In fact, merely 45 nights of 15 pints.) The device is 10th century, from Teutonic forms for a track (of Latin origin); to know such routes links it with learn while to follow them gives us something that lasts. Last as a sin is not from last as a burden but the Old English for blame.



In puzzling over Gap’s slump, yesterday’s business supplement overlooked the boycott in protest at the exploitation of workers in the Far East but made one pause at its giving the label of ceo to Millard S. Drexler (a name worthy of The Simpsons). This turns out to be a Nineties acronym, the multiply tautologous chief executive officer. Why do people have these silly titles? Shelf-fillers now do replenishment and, in Brighton, there are “lead councillors” (many are certainly dull and heavy). An executive used to be somebody who performed tasks decided by a superior.


BLUE adj

Blue days, all of them gone, / Nothing but blue skies from now on.” Irving Berlin is underrated as a lyricist but his simplicity is often a match for the wit of Gershwin, Hart and Porter (all overlooked by the OED). Done well, this song keeps that underlying melancholy. Colours’ origins are mixed, blue flowing from the Latin for yellow. To mean sad, there is a hint of this in the 16th century, the blues are 18th-century and used all the more a hundred years later, when it also became an intensifier, as in blue murder.



Books pile up while the drill whirrs - and emerges at an awry angle. Piquant, then, that shelf has its origins in the Old English skelf - to split - which led to a crag and a partition until, in the 14th century, it gained the current sense of “a board fixed against a supporter, so that any thing may be placed upon it” (as Johnson defines it), and the verb came 200 years later. This sense of bringing order is perhaps linked with the hazard in the sea, which could also be from skelp, akin to scalp, as in a scalp of oysters.


RANK n and adj

At increased cost, Brighton Council now has garbage collection made by the French, whose employees’ lack of maps has caused many streets to be forgotten all month. Ranks of bags are pecked by seagulls as rats forage, and the air is rank. To denote order, rank is from Old High German, hrinc, a ring, while the adjective is Low German, slender and tall: first, something proud, then strong and fast, soon going beyond luxirant to overblown and rotting. Rankle, a fiery sore, however, is from Latin dranculus, a diminutive of draco, a dragon.



French cats chorus on Spector’s wall of sound (2, 3, 3, 3). “Da Doo Ron Ron.” The Crystals are also married linguists, David and Hilary, whose splendid new Words On Words overlooks Virginia Woolf’s 1937 wireless talk: words “do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind... variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love, and mating together.” Spector’s words are probably not Middle English dialect (the dawn dove’s sing-song) but, as Richard Williams notes, “great and just this side of inane”. An 81-year-old Mrs Woolf could have sung along.


GLIB adj, n

Yesterday’s discussion of Virginia Woolf’s wireless talk makes one wonder whether anything else survives, for Nigel Nicolson calls it the only “substantial” recording (my visitors often hear it). Meanwhile, in 1940, she read E.F. Benson’s memoirs, evidence of “the perils of glibness... considering how I feel in my fingers the weight of every word, even of a review, need I feel guilty?” She would relish glib’s origins in glibbery. Let us revive it. From Dutch glibberig, slippery, it is akin to glidder and glide - and distinct from the glib, an Irish style of matted hair.


LOG n and v

No computer game can equip a player for the rigours of a storm several miles from shore, a thought prompted by our era’s casual expression, to log on. The 1s and 0s of binary code are far from the physical presence of a felled tree. Our use is a result of 16th-century wit. Log’s origins are obscure, perhaps akin to Dutch log - heavy - and in due course became the term for a small, light device which floated behind a ship to calculate its speed: the results were noted in a log-book, from which the verb developed.


BIGHT n A punning seaside-café owner could name his premises Bight To Eat and find customers drawn in to ask what this means. The thought is prompted by Jay Merricks splendid article last week which contrasted Bridlington’s “wonderfully capacious bight of sand” with that veritable blight of overpriced latte which is Brighton’s “blousyish makeover”. Bight, from Old English byht, meant a bend - originally those joints in a body now disported upon a bight, a sense it acquired, via a bend in rope, in the 15th century. It duly mergedwith bow to give us a bought.



Brighton Council’s Mike Middleton declares, “if you needed planning permission for everything, nothing would ever get done”. It now considers submerging the grassy acres of Toads’ Hole Valley beneath a “science park”. As the influential Hove Society’s Charles Goode remarks, “this is what used to be called a trading estate”. Park, originally land enclosed by royal edict to house beasts of the chase, comes via Old French from the German parruck, a diminutive of parra, a district. Park’s euphemistic sense was boosted by Eighties “business parks” but began in mid-Fifties America with the “industrial park”.


DUCK n and v Carl Barks’s death at 99 makes one ask which came first, the bird or the action. He animated Disney’s Donald Duck and created Scrooge McDuck, he of the three-cubic-acre money bin. An Old English noun, the verb is 14th-century but probably existed earlier: both have Teutonic origins akin to the German tauchen, to dive. As for the stale joke of the pub sign, the winged grouse’s orgins are obscure - perhaps from Latin, grus, a crane - while the grumble is late-19th-century, a Kipling favourite, from the French groucer, source also of grutch which became grudge.



To practise at loading the coffin (8). This addition to my nascent career at crossword-setting came to mind while watching John Barrymore in Twentieth Century. Rehearse is from Old French rehercer, hercer being to harrow, rooted in the Latin hirpix, a large rake, from which also comes the 13th-century triangular device to hold candles in Holy Week, then those at noble funerals; later, a support for palls above a tomb, and then a 16th-century support for a coffin, a hundred years later mutating into a carriage for it. Barrymore’s rehearsals were harrowing, mortifyingly so.



F W Sanders of Fulham wonders whether only one word, apart from hungry and angry, ends in -gry. There are several, albeit obscure. In those two cases y is an intensifier, as in moody, which sets them apart, then, from a gry itself - which brings Tesco’s to mind. From the Greek phrase for not a bit, literally not worth a pig’s grunt, gry was duly likened to dirt under a nail, which is not to malign Tesco’s hygiene, for the gry was also a unit proposed by Locke in his decimal system: the hundreth of an inch.


SIZE n and v

Just as citystruck town councillors prefer glitzy “partnerships” with dodgy developers rather than Hannah Arendt’s “calm good conscience of some limited achievement”, such as collecting the garbage on time, reference-book compilers now pitch gimmick above solid toil. Penguin’s new dictionary - a made-over Webster’s - is sullied by such non-definitions as Malcolm Bradbury on post-modernism (what does “the knowing, hi-tech, pluralist character of contemporary society” mean?). It is a convenient size - and competently roots the word, akinto assize and assess, in the Latin assidere, to sit beside, as in a judge’s office.



A sign of the straits in which the Government finds itself is that Jennings’s creator and lifelong socialist, Anthony Buckeridge has inveighed against Blair’s “pudgy little hands”. The word emerged in the 19th century, followed by the variant podgy, and has been likened to porridge, the Scottish pud - belly - or pudding (originally something cooked in an animal’s stomach) but it could echo the 17th-century verb which denotes a fat person’s style of walking. Johnson records podge as a puddle and it is possible that podgy hands suggest water trapped below the skin.



Does the current penchant for that pavement peril, the scooter herald a revival of those glorious days when filling-station forecourts echoed to the sound of exploding plastic as lazy parents attached the air-hose to a spacehopper? In Scotland, scoot - from Middle English skute, of Scandanavan root - is a transitive verb, physically to send somebody away, but the intransitive, nautical form returned to England via America. The scooter is an Edwardian toy and, after the Great War, the Spectator advised using one leg then the other as propulsion lest one develop “scooter leg”.



To review fiction means losing the plot, not revealing too much. Francis King on Muriel Spark’s Lord Lucan novel stopped me from reading any others. I am not yet any the wiser. About to buy it, I found that the paper will quickly yellow. One to borrow. A plot’s tangles lie in the Old French for plate. Plat and plot (from an obscure Old English form) co-existed, and the notion of laying out a plan of a plot on the flat - a plat - gave rise to a plot as a design, hence a scenario. The inability to contrive a good plot - in both senses - was the Dome’s failure.


VALET n and v

Brighton life requires eternal vigilance. The week’s planning applications propose that some residential garages and forecourt become a “valeting service for classic cars”. What has the vehicles’ age to do with a noisy car-cleaning yard? The Seventies word for sponge and hose developed from the late-Fifties American valet-parking. Via French, from medieval Latin vassallus - manservant - and akin to the Irish foss, the original form was varlet, which came to mean a rogue in the 16th-century. Valet then took over as a noun, but the verb waited until the 19th century.



The talk of Worthing police station’s canteen is the 999 call the other day from a middle-aged woman alarmed by a drill outside. She is unnamed, for two officers’ search revealed no burglar but, in a drawer, her malfunctioning vibrator, which they punningly suggested she get serviced. Via French, 18th-century canteen is from Italian cantina - cave or cellar. From a compartmented case to carry wine, it became one for other army utensils and, in the 1890s, one for cutley, by which time it had also recently mutated from a military refreshment room to one in any institution.



A canny politician could declare, “we need a nation closer to the Simpsons than to the Straws”. No Simpson appears in the COD and the new Penguin dictionary (a made-over Longman’s) while Encarta has gynaecologist Sir James and the one whom the Oxford Canadian spells out as O(renthal) J(ames) while elevating the obscure governor Sir George alongside Wallis and AA, he of the Australian desert. These do not make the OED, which has mineral expert E.S., mathematican Thomas and an 1860s milkman synonymous with the scam of watering down milk (he would now simply call it semi-skimmed).


FUEL n and v Those of us who motor only a few miles a week regard the current crisis as a spectator sport and reflect that talk of refineries being the focus of protestors’ activity is either a pun or tautology. Fuel, via Old French feuaile, is from Latin focus - hearth or fireplace, a focal point being the tip of a flame. Auden’s “Letter To Lord Byron” comes to mind. “Preserve me, above all, from central heating. / It may be D. H. Lawrence hocus-pocus, / But I prefer a room that’s got a focus.” The same root gives us foment, to warm up; hence fomenting protest.



Such is the fuel crisis that in Crawley the Pasta Reale chain’s managing director, John Freestone laments that Sussex’s “fresh” pasta, made in Scotland, is marooned in a truck at Manchester. Why add diesel when it’s simply eggs, flour, salt and water? Most likely a marrying of Teutonic and French forms with the Old English fersc - not salted -, fresh soon also meant not stale. The OED narrows the sense of not dried to fruit, and overlooks supermarkets’ cynical use of it to mask battery hens’ products. Could this Blitz spirit lead to a gruesome revival of dried egg?



In our digitially-manipulated era, when it is the matter of a moment for GQ to spruce up Kylie Minogue’s naked bottom, no newspaper has draped over a barrel the besuited, beleagured Blair, “a round vessel to be stopped close” - a barrel, that is, in Johnson’s definition, which mistakenly gives it a Welsh origin. It is probably from bar, a piece of wood far longer than it is thick. The helpless position, over a barrel, is from one in which the lungs of the near-drowned are emptied, first used by Raymond Chandler in America, where barrel is also a politician’s slush-fund.



At seventy-six, with two hefty volumes of a Picasso biography to go, John Richardson has his work cut out. Meanwhile, his memoir The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is glorious entertainment. Some aunts’ “snug little semi-detached house in depressing Streatham” had a “funky kitchen”. Was a precursor of James Brown on the gramophone? No, from Latin fumus, smoke, it is an 18th-century development from funk, for musty, earthy. In jazz-critic guise, Eric Hobsbawm explains it as a Fifties coining for music that had returned to low-down roots from the arty heights of, say, the MJQ.


WATER n and v

No sooner has Blair contended with petrol than he faces a problem with water in Brighton. Local, cross-party outrage at the Government’s acquiescing in the Council’s collusion with a repeatedly-bankrupt developer to turn a publicly-owned pool into an 11-screen cinema has led to plans during the Conference for a big demonstration (he always sprints from these). Water pervades many languages from a Greek root: diminutive of voda, for example, is the vodka with which Zahid Shafi of the A and K store should surely have desisted from selling Paula Yates seven times a day.


RUE n and v

John Richardson’s wonderful The Sorcerer’s Apprentice recalls that Picasso’s greatest print, Minotauromachie “cost fifty pounds. In the hope that my mother would advance the rest of my year’s allowance, I reserved a copy. She not only refused to do so, she called up nice Mr. Zwemmer and told him she had a good mind to put the police onto him for trying to swindle little boys out of their pocket money.” It now fetches $1.5 million, but he does not rue (after all, a Klee netted him a smart Manhattan home). Not French, rue is from Old English while the calming herb is Greek.


HEAL v Is broadband good for the health? Perhaps it lessens the stress of waiting for a download, but the question is prompted by the leader on Wednesday’s Business pages that referred to “AOL’s well healed customers”. Heal’s origins are in Old English haelan and Old Saxon hal, which, via dialect variations, are linked to being hale and whole. Heel, however, is from hela, souce also of hough: in humans, that hollow behind the knee; in quadrupeds, it is that backward-angled part of the hind legs between the knee and fetlock which is now generally known as the hock.


FAKE n, v and adj

At the Ivy, Elton John and the Beckhams gawp at Michael Holroyd and Margaret Drabble whom Russell Harty called “the Ferdinand and Isabella of English literature” (shaky, his history). She mentions her Oxford Companion’s fake entry. “Via 19th-century slang for kill or wound,” I say, “it’s perhaps from German fegen, to polish up, but faken is also Old English.” Hot from a new edition of Hesketh Pearson’s faked diplomatic memoirs, which predicted the Abdication, Holroyd oversees a hefty edition of Lytton Strachey’s letters. “I’ll order a dozen at Sandoe’s,” says Elton.



Weary at the Conference? Seek refuge at Colin Page’s excellent secondhand bookstore, on nearby Duke Street - and reflect upon dusty fate in its Upper and Lower Chambers. Hakluyt’s Voyages command £650 while, below, John Major’s hardback memoirs are £3.50, as are Harold Wilson’s. A typescript letter by Bonamy Dobrée in his essays (now mine) The Lamp and the Lute says, “I hope you will like this opuscule” - the word befits our era of Longitude and its ilk. This particular diminutive (the OED overlooksculex being gnat) emerged in 1656. O! for opuscular political memoirs.



There is unease at the Conference, for a double-sided poster-truck points to the Council’s hushed-up dealings with a Zurich-based developer whose history of bankruptcy has not precluded its being sole contender to turn a publicly-owned swimming pool into an 11-screen cinema. Among the payments made is £25,000 for an open-ended lock-out agreement of leaky legality. Bung, a stopper, is from Latin puncta- hole - while the bribe is Forties, perhaps from throwing, the 16th-century purse or removing a bottle’s sling . More than Hove, we have a Britain being ruined by such sheds.



In debating Labour’s pain, nobody has noted that it was heralded by the Hillingdon by-election in the summer of 1997, when Blair presumed to visit and his arrogant candidate, Fulham mayor Andrew Slaughter sneered that an opponent was a local shopkeeper - and duly lost. Arrogance is from Latin ad and rogare (to and ask) - take upon oneself. To roger, in Boswell’s sense, is

18th century, from a bull’s organ, itself a variant of roger as a term for a servant, usually thought to be of Teutonic origins but - er - conceivably linked with asking somebody to perform a task.


CUDDLE v and n

She sat at the bar in the Grand, her lips inviting the cuddle that would curdle the minister’s career.” Not quite a sentence from Raymond Chandler, but I like to think that he could have worked it up, worthy of Marlowe. Cuddle is obscure, perhaps from couth which, backformed from uncouth, means snug or cosy. Another theory links its with Dutch kudden, from kudde, flock. More than chronicling new words, to fill in etymologies is a lexicographer’s thrill. Curd, too, is uncertain: crud is earlier, 15th-century. Neither is from Latin crudus, raw. It is probably Celtic.



Last week’s discussion of a need to revive opuscule - a small work - prompts thought of these ever-irritating creatures. The suffix -cule, as in minuscule, is a Latin formation for something especially small, but the OED does not mention that culex means gnat, whose origins are Old English and not, despite its propensity for biting, from the Greek form which gives us gnathic, of the jaw. The first syllable of prognathous should, then, be of three letters. The rarer gnathonical, however, does means parasitical, from such a character, Gnatho, in Terence’s play Eunuchus.



Will gout-sufferers be next to attract the attention of the News of the World’s readers? Mention, on the Paulsgrove estate, that one is podagrical and a boil on the feet would not be the only thing lanced forthwith. Via Latin, podagra is 14th-century, from Greek for foot and a trap while gout, earlier, is from Latin gutta, a drop, the disease allegedly caused by a polluted portion of blood at the joints. That said, Paulsgrove residents could inadvertently be onto something if one medieval theory was correct, that gelded men - undistracted by love - do not suffer from it.


SILVER adj, n and v

Not the Olympics, but a result of discussing funky. “Long-time jazz-lover” writes that in 1954 pianist Horace Silver wrote on an LP cover about a “funky” piece. This “caused some hilarity among black New Yorkers, as funky was the slang used to describe the smell arising when making love to a black girl”. Only Merriam-Webster notes human smell, and limits it to the armpit. No dictionary records “Opus de Funk” by Silver, which is Old English, with Teutonic parallels (seolfor), and defined by Johnson as “any thing of soft splendour” - funky, indeed.


RAIL n, v and adj

Survivors of the Paddington disaster rail at the bonuses awarded the self-same rail chiefs, a situation which yields further paradox. Rail - transportwise - comes via Old French reille from the Latin regula, a straight stick (as in railings), so rails should in fact refer to the wooden planks which the track runs across. The current blurring means that rails can go off the rails. Meanwhile, rail, as in to cast opprobrium, is a 15th-century adaptation of the French railler and supplanted the verb rail in the sense of regulating, or bringing order to, events.



Amphibious Thing , the title of Lucy Moore’s biography of the bisexual, 18th-century courtier Lord Hervey is from Pope’s catalogue of his cleaven failings, such as “a Cherub’s face, a Reptile all the rest”. Greek for both and life, amphibious is another 17th-century coining by Sir Thomas Browne for a creature or - later - vessel that survives on land and in water. Browne used it as such, but firstly as a metaphor for transitory life. Addison referred to a Bowiesque “amphibious dress” in 1712, two decades before the Pope phrase which is overlooked by the OED.



Curse Mark Chapman. 60 today, John Lennon would perhaps have written twice as many songs. His transformation of the Daily Mail report (17 January 1967, page 7) about 4000 holes in the roads of Blackburn, Lancashire prompts one to ask its Highways Department how many holes currently need attention. It turns out that nobody knows (“there’s no log, we wait for complaints to come in”). Dialect survival of holl, howe and hoil indicate the changing pronounciation since Old English hol - and confuses David Bowie’s insisting that Warhol’s name is pronounced “as in hole”.



When John Lennon first played a version of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” for Phil Spector, the producer immediately noted the tune’s echo of “I Love How You Love Me” which he had made with The Paris Sisters. Lennon always admitted others’ inspiration, and could have cited Thomas Gray, who, as shown in Robert Mack’s hefty new biography, liked the cento - a welding of others’ phrases into something new. The OED notes that the Latin means patchwork but overlooks its origins in the Greek for planting cuttings from trees. Post-modernism and “sampling” are nothing new.



A new Oxford Thesaurus , and - “wordbook” - still no thesaurus has a good synonym for thesaurus. Two of the most congenial volumes - George Crabb and A F Sisson - do not even include it. Kingsley Amis favoured Roget - “far from perfect, but it is essential”- and noted that “commence and begin are more synonymous in a way, but only someone with no feeling for words would treat them as interchangeable”. Thesaurus, from Greek for treasure, is Roget’s own, 1852 coining. He, not Oxford, bids one say that alveolar burrows in it are probably not mere caudal-chasing.



Andrew Motion’s grilling recalls Gray. In 1757 he described “the bland emollient saponaceous qualities both of Sack & Silver, yet if any great Man would say to me, ‘I make you Rat-Catcher to his Majesty with a salary of 300£ a-year & two Butts of the best Malaga; and that it has been usual to catch a mouse or two (for form’s sake) in publick once a year’”, he’d refuse. The compact suffix means, of the nature of; in this case, soap. Gray perhaps saw it that year in Dyer’s poem “Fleece”, derided by Johnson in 1776 - as was Grainger’s “Now, muse, let’s sing of rats.”.



Thomas Gray is often thought to purvey a certain beguiling melancholy, above all in that “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, a misleading title which has had the happy effect of preserving Stoke Poges from the grim fate of “development”. As Robert Mack’s new biography reminds us, Gray in fact coined a 1741 variant of melancholy (Greek for black and bile) in leucocholy, from white and bile. Said Gray, it never “amounts to what one calls Joy or Pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of state” - worth more than the nonce status accorded it by the OED.



Justin Cartwright’s latest highly-readable novel Half In Love is out in January and already causes a stir for its quietly devastating portrayal of Blair as a man who puts strategy before humanity. As controversial is a character’s claim, “a nice word, giblets, don’t you think? Giblets.” Called by Johnson those “parts of a goose which are cut off before it is roasted”, it is from Old French gibelet, game stew. It had here first meant something not needed - which is at odds with the 17th-century synonym for marriage, to join giblets. Political puns both?


PRANK v and n

Horace Walpole lamented, after Gray’s death, that he “often vexed me by finding him heaping notes on an interleaved Linnaeus, instead of pranking on his lyre”. An edition of Gray’s commonplace books would be some substitute for unwritten poetry. Prank, in this sense, is to dance or caper, and is perhaps from the Dutch pronk, to show. As for the trick, it is possibly linked with the earlier, 15th-century prank, a fold or pleat, whose origins are obscure, probably not a variant of that Dutch take upon sartorial flair. Walpole’s use is akin to the slang pranker, a horse.


LOAN n and v

No, not that one exactly, but the reflection that a spin-doctor’s nature is never better caught than in Bob Dylan’s lines “...and he says, ‘Here is your throat back / Thanks for the loan’”. Although with a Greek root, it is, in Middle English, of Teutonic origins, from Old Norse lan, which replaced Old English laen, which did, however, yield the verb laenan, whence the main sense of lend. As for Mandelson’s loan (“and here’s to you, Mr Robinson”), it also meant he was out on his lend: the word’s first meaning was buttocks, as in Chaucer.



ohn Bayley’s memoir of his wife Iris Murdoch dilates upon the way in which “the closeness of apartness has necessarily become the closeness of closeness. And we know nothing of it; we have never had any practice”. A philosophical friend of hers - not in the OED - coined the neat word telegamy for couples who spend much time apart. As for Alzheimer’s, Bayley notes that “the words and gestures of love still come naturally, but they cannot be accompanied by that wordless communication which depends on the ability to use words.” Priceless, words.



Grief includes loss of private language. John Bayley tells of a typist’s mistaking “reason” for “Pearson” in Iris Murdoch’s handwriting: throughout the result there were “as Pearson indicates” and so forth. They duly said such things as, “Pearson suggests getting the 4.50 from Paddington home”. During Scrabble with Stephen Spender, Bayley’s stones spelt “bunfish”, a creature of whose existence he feigned knowledge. In the Bayley and Spender households “‘doing a bunfish’ became quite an expressive term for trying to get away with something”.


DROLL n and adj

In her new biography of Lord Hervey, Lucy Moore quotes a 1732 letter in which he says that life at Court is so entertaining that he has no need of “the other drolls”; that is, performances of a farcical nature. A 17th-century coining, from the French, it first meant something deliberately amusing, then, as a noun, a wag (a jackpudding, as Johnson puts it) and, soon after, a stage- or puppet-show. By the mid-18th

century it also meant something unintentionally amusing, and now has more a hint of languid witticism than of frenetic farce.



You darling! And roses are my favourite flower they really are... With them as a gage I shall do frightfully well in the battle tomorrow.” Not an armour-clad warrior but Graham Greene, in 1925, to Vivienne Daryll-Browning, who had sent him the roses before his Finals. From Old French for a token of faith or pledge, it is rooted in the Latin vadem which, via the Teutonic wadgo, gives us two other, more common words, to which those roses led: Greene was wed in 1927, his wages modest until the post-war prosperity of The Heart of the Matter .



Lucy Moore’s new life of Lord Hervey quotes Walpole’s 1742 account of a Bath visit. Some ladies were in Hervey’s usual card-room, so he used the public one. “Being extremely absent and deep in politics, he walked through the little room to a convenience behind the curtain, from whence (still absent) he produced himself in a situation extremely diverting to the women: imagine his delicacy and the passion he was in at their laughing!” Of Latin origin, as an object it was first a conveyance, later a lavatory. This example is earlier than the OED’s. SENNIGHT n Lucy Moore’s life of Lord Hervey quotes his looking in 1731 “with more horror on the meeting of Parliament, than my little son does on Monday sennight, when the holidays determine and he is to go to school again”. She glosses the phrase as “every week”, when in fact it is simply Monday week, sennight being from Old English for seven nights (not from Latin septem,, seven; the nose’s septum is from separo, to separate). Unlike fortnight, it was archaic by the 19th century. Week is of Teutonic origins: simple order or succession.


ALL adv

First Bill and Monica, now this. Did the Bible scholar Clement Clarke Moore lie about his authorship of “A Visit From St Nicholas”? Before reciting it each Christmas Eve, children might have to relocate from his grave in south Harlem’s Trinity Cemetery to one Henry Livingstone, Jr’s in Poughkeepsie. Don Foster, who snared Joe Klein and the anonymous Primary Colors, points to Livingston’s adverbial all, as in the poem’s “all through” and “all snug”. As in all one, root of alone. Gary Larson’s version has the unstirring mouse squashed by Santa’s boot.



One would have thought that there could be some rest from the rigours of maintaining a words column, such as breakfast-time reading of Jack Adrian’s obituary of Edgar Wallace’s secretary. But, no!, she took down his dictating of a play which made “a mort of money”. Ask around, and one and all deem obscure this pleasing variant on pile or heap. “Not in elegant use” (Johnson), it is perhaps from a mass of lard (a product of death) or Old Norse murth (large quantity - or death). Mirth - as in laughter - is a shortening of time.


CARRION n and adj

After our discussion of lard along comes Midas Dekkers’s The Way Of All Flesh a new study of the romance of ruins in all their forms, whether wood, sculpture or our bodies. He points out, à propos the softening which follows rigor mortis, that “what butchers sell isn’t meat but carrion”. Some, such as Johnson shirk the fact (“the carcase of something not proper for food”). It is from Latin caro (caress is not, being a form of carus, dear - hence charity). The OED overlooks Hopkins’s wonderful synonym for despair, “carrion comfort”.




By charging £35 a copy, Brighton Council conceals the horrors of its 200-page Local Plan for the next decade. Its atrocious prose permits hoardings in the country and forbids restoring flats to a whole house while fantasising about “a glamorous place to be” - as if Julia Roberts will step merrily round Whitehawk’s spent needles and burnt-out vehicles. Until Thirties America, glamour meant witchcraft, as revived by Scott from gramarye, a corruption of grammar, originally more spells than spelling. Does the Council leader crave a coven?



Ernest Dowson’s poems, edited by Desmond Flower, surfaced in Hove’s Rutland Road bookshop (open weekends and, oddly, Wednesday evenings). An inscription shows Flower’s eye for feminine beauty: “for the most beautiful grey eyes in the world from their adoring servant, the editor”. As great a mystery as that shift in pronounciation which still masks the Common Germanic link between eye and such Latin forms as ocular and ferocious. Eyes recur in Dowson. Was his “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion” (1891) seen by Porter?



The new edition of that great bargain, Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s hefty, seductively erudite Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD stopped a morning’s work, and one learned, à propos Theo Travis, “‘Brummagen’ used to be the cant for anything shoddily built, ersatz or second-hand but there is nothing but cleanly smelted strength and quality in the work of this Birmingham-born saxophonist.” 17th cenury in origin, it first referred to counterfiet groats. As for Birmingham, Jane Austen’s Mrs Elton said “there is something direful in the sound” - unlike this Travis.



The London Library’s Annual Report contains a mystery. Why was planning permission needed for repositioning the desk used by the reading-room superintendent, Auden scholar Christopher Phipps? Would any desk? This is a perfectly ordinary desk - and a curious word. Via medieval Latin, desca, it is from Latin for quoit, discus, whose eddy and flow also gives us dais, dish and disk. Not in the London Library is that grimly fascinating journal the Grocer, to which this column alerted food scholar Bee Wilson, who reports finding deskfast therein: as in nutribars.



Discussion of desk naturally prompts gorilla. Not a variant of the riddle which likens a desk to a raven, but the fact that such an ape - Ivor - sits by the notebook and helps with this column. Insert a pencil in his rubber jaw, his eyes flash red while he chews and sharpens the implement. Hours of harmless fun! Strictly, Ivor is a woman. Gorilla’s origins are Savage, the surname of the missionary in Africa who, in 1847, coined troglodytes gorilla, from the Greek word used by 5th-century BC explorer Hanno. What were perhaps gorillas he thought hairy women.


STUNT n, adj, and v

Was the failed heist at the Dome really the imaginative stunt which it needed earlier in its existence to show the nation’s true, Ealingesque flair? Stunt’s origins are uncertain but began in late-19th-century American schools: a bold, ad hoc athletic display, from which came the sense of anything done to seek advantage - often foolishly, which links it with a sense for which there is no etymological connection. Old English stunt meant foolish, a boldly politically-incorrect use of Middle High German for short. Hence to irritate, which is checking growth.


BEETLE n and v

Gore Vidal’s eyebrows rose with trademark languid horror at mention of his 1950 pseudonym Katherine Everard, whom I first revealed to the world, and Alison Menzies promptly quoted Horatio’s worry that the Ghost will tempt Hamlet to the cliff edge “that beetles o’er his base into the sea”. Shakespeare’s invention, the verb means hanging (speeding is 20th century), from Sidney’s beetle-browed, beetle being from Old English for bite, the insect’s wont, while as blind as a beetle means a demolition hammer, of Teutonic root, so dextrously wielded by Vidal.


P. n In The Anglers’ Rest, Robert McCrum talks of Wodehouse’s biography. He is re-reading the novels chronologically (“there’s a distinctly sombre tone just after the war”). We discuss Bertie’s reducing words to a letter, as in “a victim to the divine p” - pash. Wodehouse’s ear for slang was acute, Shakespearean in mingling registers. Pash - passion - is pre-Great War. The OEDoverlooks “’S Wonderful” (“in my humble fash / That you thrill me through / With a tender pash”): Ira Gerhswin found Harry Graham “specialised in this lopping-off device long before me.”


TELEVISION n and adj

New light on yesterday’s “pash” came by a chance few minutes of Friday’s Neighbours, which brought Finnegans Wake to mind. Teenage Australian girls talk of “pashing” - having the hots, or more, for a bloke. The OED, meanwhile, reminds us that the word television, as a possibility, existed in 1907, two decades before Baird, but overlooks Joyce in the Thirties: “television kills telephony in brothers’ broil. Our eyes demand their turn.” And now, with the internet, telephony supplants television, a word whose construction Eliot thought ill-bred.



Brighton Council’s notorious Local Plan will hasten recession. It urges more cafés (one ousted an excellent art shop). There are already so many that good coffee is elusive, so poorly milled are the beans and the milk. Milk? From the Latin root for meal, it was long a noun before a 16th-century verb, for fulling cloth, then grinding. The 18th century brought frothing, as in ailing Lord Hervey: “I am like a cup of chocolate: I grow cold and dead, then I mill myself again and in a little while I am cold again and am good for nothing but to catch dead flies.”


COUNT n and v

Will Florida forever harbour doubts that the count remains putative - and perhaps not realize that these conflicting totals have the same origin? Via French, count arrived in the 14th century from the Latin computare while compute itself was first used in the 17th century, as it was in France. The Latin is formed from com - together - and putare - to think: concerted brainpower is, apparently, superior to that solitary one which makes for the idle supposition of putative. Even so, putare, also meant prune, as in lopping off branches - or ballot-boxes.


CALM n , adj and v

Hove chuckles at marginal MP, Ivor Caplin’s reprimand from the new Speaker (“Mr Caplin, you must be calm”). Would,

though, that he spoke out on the Council’s dealing with a developer whose history of compulsory dissolution does not preclude hefty offshore, Zurich funds: a publicly-owned swimming-pool risks becoming a huge multiplex and casino. Calm (“freedom from violent motion” - Johnson) is a paradoxical result of adversity: induced by the heat of the day, the Greek for which absorbed the Latin calor to suggest order; hence a frame.


PORTMANTEAU n and adj More than The Beatles’ Anthology, Martin Gardner’s new edition ofThe Annotated Alice shows that Carroll created the group. John Lennon said, “nothing affected me until Elvis”, but he relished Alice, which pervades his, and our, language. “Semolina pilchard” is worthy of Carroll, whose coining of chortle Humpty explains, “it’s like a portmanteau - there are two meanings packed up into one word”. In France, an officer carried a prince’s mantle; here, from the 16th century, it meant a bag in two sections, at first carried over horseback.


PANIC n, adj, and v

Friday’s word again questioned Hove’s marginal MP, Ivor Caplin’s desire that the town’s publicly-owned swimming pool be made into a multiplex and casino by a developer with a history of compulsory dissolutions and hefty offshore funds. Brighton Council now panics: the deal’s off, no public inquiry. Some say don’t mess with the Words author, but the town’s diverse tough campaigners still want answers of Jag-drivers Lord Bassam and John Prescott, both probably unaware that panic is from the god Pan: he - like us - of pervasive, alarming noise.



In the long hospital stay of My Year Off, co-author of The Story of English Robert McCrum wrote in a diary, “I have made a note here to look up the word ‘autoclaving’, a word that seems to be written on the bottles that are given to us for urinating into”. He does not give the answer, which could be painful, for it mixes Greek and Latin: self and nail (clavus) or key (clavis). Briefly a cooking device, by the late-19th century it was confined to matters medical and scientific. It is akin to clavichord, clef - and the splendid clavate: studded with nails.



Discussion of Robert McCrum’s autoclaving bedpan prompts the thought that cleave is another word with contrary meanings, both sticking and splitting (as in William Boot’s cleft sticks). The forms - clave, cloven - of the two words have run in parallel for a thousand years but the sense of split (as in cleavage, a movie censor’s 1946 coining) is part of that shift in pronounciation which goes back, via Latin glubo - to peel - to Greek, while sticking - which gives us clay - is of Teutonic root. One splits garlic into cloves, but the spice resembles a nail.



Adam Sisman notes, in Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, that the biographer referred at least twice to turning down “a cool thousand” for the copyright in his book. The phrase has a contemporary ring - as in Nathaniel West’s novella A Cool Million - but in fact it was in use several decades before Boswell, a variant of what Johnson was to define as a “soft and pleasing coldness”. It probably means calmly counted, cool’s root being via the Teutonic form kal which is another instance of that slurring of such Latin words as gelus - frost - which gives us gelid and jelly.



Thursday is Oscar Wilde’s centenary. He relished words, as shown by his Letters which Peter Parker has brought back in print (would trains were as organised). Despite worse paper and greyer print than in 1962, they are a bargain (half-price in Sussex Stationers chain). An audience was “dreadfully mulierastic...aged women covered with diamonds of the worst water” and “I have now the reputation of being a ‘mulierast’, as Robbie [Ross] phrases it: it is very painful.” From Latin for woman, the word means a love of them, also legitimate offspring. Wilde had both.


VICE n and adj

Reviewers of the new, 1300-page edition Wilde’s Letters have neither pointed to its previously unpublished ones nor noted that many of these in fact had surfaced in Ian Small’s fascinating bibliographical study Oscar Wilde Revealed (1993): such as one to Arthur Clifton about a poem: “‘vice’ does not do as it is a word tainted in its signification with moral censure - vitium: what is faulty”. He could have added that the grip, worked by a screw, is from vitis - a vine - while deputy is from vicis - change or stead, as in viscount. Device is akin to divide.



Said Anthony Burgess of Wilde, “he was a man of great courage and honour, as well as genius, and he was set upon by devils”. His Letters show all that (little-known is his “whatever people may say against Cambridge it is certainly the best preparatory school for Oxford that I know”) while De Profundis tells of “that dreadful low fever that is foolishly called the influenza”. Folly, perhaps, because it derived, in 1743, from the Italian word - akin to influence - which suggested germs flowed in from an astral plain; perhaps not so foolish as all that.



Whatever happened to the death-rattle? Wilde shook all morning, 100 years ago today , and died, explosively, at 13.50. Said Robert Ross, “terrible offices had to be carried out into which I need not enter”. Bunbury, too, was “quite exploded”. Not “victim of a revolutionary outrage”, but surely a theatrical joke (as is Miss Prism’s deleted “the suggestion, were it not made before such a large number of people, would be almost indelicate”). Classical scholar Wilde knew explode is akin to applaud: from plaudere, to clap, explaudere being to jeer from the stage.



Oscar Wilde told Ernest Dowson in 1897, “Psychology is in its infancy, as a science. I hope, in the interests of Art, it will always remain so”. From gaol, he told Douglas that Hamlet’s mask of madness made him “the spy of his proper actions”; that “in the making of mows and jests he sees a chance of delay”. Wilde, the glass of fashion, was equally the observed of all observers. Mow, a synomym for jest, is a grimace (“wry mouth”, Johnson, who rhymes it with now), akin to French moue, and perhaps Dutch mouwe (thick flesh).Wilde’s complete journalism is needed.


TOADY n and v

Adam Sisman, in Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, quotes a descendant who disliked “greatly any allusion to Dr. Johnson, considering that Mr. James the grandfather degraded himself and the family by acting the toady to the Dr.”. David Buchanan’s The Treasure of Auchinleck dates this 1844, two decades after Disraeli’s coining. It had previously meant baby toad but, in the servile sense, would have been known to BÄ well as toadeater, from those hired by fraudsters to taste an animal “accounted venomous, I believe truly”: Johnson, who overlooks toadeater.



Brighton Council’s fatuous city-bid “the place to be” is widely derided as “the place to pee?”: it compounds an inability to collect rubbish by closing public lavatories. The desperate are told to nip into shops or brave publicans’ glares. Billed as thwarting drug addicts, it is in fact cost-cutting and a bilking of the resultant florist’s and wine-bars. From the French for a small cloth, toilet became a dressing-table’s contents, then the thing itself or sitting at it; then a dressing-room and, via America in the Nineties, a non-U synonym for lavatory.



Justice for the late Alun Owen! The OED credits grotty to John Burke, who merely novelised Owen’s A Hard Day’s Night script . George, in Anthology,: “I say, ‘Oh, I’m not wearing that - that’s grotty!’ Alun Owen made that up. I didn’t.... It was a new expression: grotty - grotesque.” John: “we thought the word was really weird, and George curled up with embarrassment every time he had to say it.” From Italian, via Old French crotesque, it was an art term: “distorted of figure” ( Johnson) - apt, then, a guest’s calling Basil Fawlty a “grotty little man”.



Brighton Council soon, illegally, forbids some residents a motor-car while those that reach the Downs will find that it has there allowed advertising hoardings. How is this a secreting of money in a sock and Wonderbra’s unabashed “Hello, Boys!”? Of Teutonic root, hoard is Old English for treasure, hence its hiding place. 15th-century confusion with hurdis meant the surrounding pallisades, from which the 19th-century temporary structure, a hoarding, upon which posters were craftily pasted, duly an official site, a hoarding - with only green hills behind.


BANAL adj Paul McCartney recalls in The Beatles Anthology that Brian Matthew said “She Loves You” was “banal rubbish”. Oddly, Paul adds, “none of us had heard the word ‘banal’ and we thought, ‘Banal’? What’s that? Soppy? Too rebellious? What does ‘banal’ mean?” Suffix -al is pertaining to. A ban, in old French, was a calling to arms, a proclamation (as in banns but not banner), something which affected the bulk of the population - commonplace. In the 19th century came banal. In 1963 the country swiftly went “wow!”, and Matthew conceded, “it grows on you”.


DOUBT n and v

Off with their heads!” In the TLS Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones lambasts the editors of Elizabeth I’s “collected works”. They supply a sewn-in ribbon but omit much. Absent are splendid letters to Lord Hundson, who so enjoyed Bath’s waters that she feared his drowning. “I somewhat doubt that there hath been too great abundance of the same squashed upon you.” Doubt, via Old French, from Latin dubitare, to waver (hence dubious), was firstly a 13th-century noun - duly regaining a b. Thise sense of fear survived until the early 19th century.



Ashes to ashes, and grease to grease. Even the dead are not safe from Brighton Council. A byword for bad taste, it moots a McDonald’s shed next to a historic Hove cemetery. McJob - coined by Douglas Coupland - has reached Jonathon Green’s Slang but not, after many centuries, a return of large as a verb. McJobbers’ sales-pitch of “do you want to go large?” - buy a bigger one - has led to meaning general excess, a gross-out, as in “we larged it on the town last Friday night” - the stuff of pill-popping Brighton not stately Hove, which plans to secede.



The Government is opposed to sport. The thought is prompted by that most exquisite of activities: lolling on the sofa with a glass of port and the eight volumes of The History of The University of Oxford whose jigsaw is completed with 1050 pages on 1871 to 1914. H. S. Jones’s essay reminds us that until the 1860s sport was hunting; other exertions were athletic pursuits. A shortening of disport (Latin for carry away, divert), sport meant a pleasant diversion until hunting took over in the 17th century. Such is love that the sense of dalliance survived.



No sooner has England confounded expectations and won the Test than one thinks of Bosanquet’s Logic Or The Morphology of Knowledge. That might sound a Stoppardian take on events, but is prompted by the new volume of The History of the University of Oxford. The googly was invented by Bosanquet’s namesake and relative at Oriel between 1897 and 1900 - several years before the first citation in the OED, which does note that by 1912 it was also known as a shortening of his name, a Bosie. A tantrum was more likely thrown by Wilde’s friend.


STOOGE n and v

That mainstay of the dry-cleaning industry, Martin Bell MP says that if he is a stooge, then he is “a people’s stooge”. An admirable stand and an ambiguous word whose origins, moreover, are obscure - perhaps a version of student. It first surfaced in America before the First World War to a stage-hand This mutatied into a conjuror’s assistant - a butt - and duly existed both as a novice and a gofer in the Thirties before becoming a wartime RAF word for sorties without bomb-dropping. Hence a verb for aimless flight, mooching - not Mr Bell’s style.



Inaccurate, hysterical, resentful, paranoid, obsessive codswallop.” Brighton Council reaches top of the loony stakes with this headline-making reaction to Hove residents’ cogent objections to being renamed “West Brighton”. The Sixties word is obscure. Perhaps a case of hitting with a wet fish, it also echoes the ancient cods (balls) while wallop first meant to gallop or to boil. Another theory suggests the gassy-drinks bottle invented by Hiram Codd, wallop also being beer. Illegally, the Council credits its aspersions to a “spokesman” - if man it is.



Wallace Stevens named his daughter Holly, but his letters nurse “my usual grudge against Christmas. Somehow it makes me sore to see all those Christmas cards.” Via grutch, from Old Frenchgroucher , it always meant particular animus. (Alas, we have lost a grutcher.) The next Christmas was his last. “I got a small keg of dates in brandy from a niece in Southern Califonia and Peter, my grandson, got a very horsey waistcoat from her which leaves a space of about 4” between the end of the waistcoat and the top of his breeches, but he loves the red buttons.”



Andrew McKie, of the Telegraph’s op-ed page, is one of many addicted to buying dictionaries. His test of a single-volume edition is whether it contains ranarian - concerning frogs. Most fail. Even ranarium - a place for frogs - is absent. This noun came 50 years after Thomas Love Peacock’s 1814 coining of the adjective - from Latin rana, a frog - in his poem “Sir Proetus”, a precursor of his fictional satire upon Romantic contemporaries. He described “ranarian minstrels”: from which bunch, in this season of goodwill, we shall consider excluding Des O’Connor.



Her Majesty, having ill-advisedly made a city of Brighton and disgruntled neighbour Hove, must be aghast at the scandal-ridden Council’s plans to rename Queen’s Road as Ocean Boulevard: grey Channel, and no trees in sight - just belching buses. An 18th-century import, it slurs the Teutonic bulwark: bole and work, something made from trunks, and close in sound to the expletive notoriously hurled at a female colleague by councillor Simon Battle in a planning meeting. The Deep Sea Fishermen’s Club, but not the Council, bars one for that.


BLAH n and v

Each quarter’s Verbatim is an elegant joy (details at Jesse Randall takes the OED dating of blah to 1918 America but moots origins in blague, German blech or, most likely, Scottish and Irish blafum. She notes the Eighties Iggy Popp/David Bowie song “Blah Blah Blah” but, as does the OED, overlooks Ira Gershwin’s 1931 use of the title as a love-song parody in the movie Delicious. (He dropped a cod-Russian refrain, adapted in Lady in the Dark.) Earlier, the tune had ordinary words - as did “Bill”, “Blue Moon” and “Jealous Guy”.



Having a party, are you?” Thus the droll staff in Hove’s Fine Records as I bought a box-set of John Dowland’s lute music. I remarked that one could say, “handy that the builder’s brought his lute”. Eyebrows were raised. The instrument should be ute, from Arabic al-ud (al is the), while Latin lutum - mud - gives us hole-filling clay; the same Latin word, differently stressed, means yellow, hence luteous and so forth. Lute could indeed make a Boxing Day party-game: combine all three plausibly and add loot for good measure - that being from the Hindu.


GONE adj

Discussion of Ira Gershwin’s cod-Russian recalls American servicemen’s habit of switching the syllables in obscenties to pass them of as Latin (our back-slang). Such a spirit, somewhat moderated, is behind “The Pig-Latin Song” by Nellie Lutcher, best-known for “A Real Gone Guy” - one in fact palpably, joyously present (“his technique simply takes me outta this world”). The OED first notes the intensifier in Mezz Mezzrow’s 1946 book Really The Blues but Miss Lutcher gave it currency. The OED only mentions a magazine article about her: “a real gone gal”.


ZIMMER n and adj

This being the quiz season, one can amuse and amaze friends by asking: what is the connection between Ethel Merman and Bob Dylan? They both changed their surnames from Zimmerman. Bonus points for saying that he is the infinitely more subtle singer. One can be sure that, in due course, jaded headline-writers will resort to a new cliché as the great man keeps working: It’s Zimmer- man! And so on. Depending on your age, the device was patented as recently or as long ago as 1951 by an Englishman Mr Zimmer, whose name suggests a muted zoom.


SABOTAGE n and v

Mysteriously, flints have recently dropped from a beautiful, ancient wall beside a site in Hove which British Gas wishes to vacate. Some are reminded of Hitchcock: in his recent, inspired book on the director, Peter Conrad reminds us that sabotage is Edwardian. It is from the French saboter - kick with sabots, that is shoes - which is from the same Latin root which supplies the Italian ciabatta (they often taste like it). Paradoxically, a sabot can also be part of a gun that supports a projectile before it is despatched upon its sabotagical errand.



And so, against the odds, civilization reaches the 21st century, and we can mark the event with Johnson. He excluded the word from his Dictionary, allowing only civility. Boswell disagreed. The word, then, was around but the account of its exclusion is the first recorded instance. It is from civilize, to raise from a barbaric state. Definitions are disputable. The OED could add Virginia Woolf’s view of Clive Bell’s book on it: “he has great fun in the opening chapters but in the end it turns out that Civilization is a lunch party at no. 50 Gordon Square”.


MUGGLE adj, n and v At the Independent of Sunday, Jenny Gilbert’s wireless listing advised one to tape Stephen Fry’s reading of Harry Potter and enjoy it “when all those pesky muggle relatives have gone home”. J K Rowling’s coining for unimaginative non-wizards and -witches is absent from her publisher’s Encarta dictionary even though the word is now used in business circles. Earlier meanings, all of obscure origins, are a tailed man, a perplexing drinking-game and, since the Twenties, a marijuana addict. Jonathon Green adds the 18th-century verb, to move restlessly.


SHANTY n and adj

Lord Bassam arouses derision by telling residents of Brighton and disgruntled neighbour Hove that being a city means they can “walk tall”. He sounds like Val Doonican. Which came first, rough song or town? The town is from early-19th-century Canada, a hut, from the French noun chantier , which the OED overlooks as being a slurring of gantier - gantry - via Latin cantherius, from Greek for pack ass. Song, from chanter, came fifty years on, just when there fizzled out the 17th-century shanty - from gentil, via genteel and jaunty - to mean smart.


DRANT n and v

Is Norfolk the new Essex? June Wilson adds “very boring” to Coward’s “very flat”and A.N. Wilson revealed the medical note NFN - normal for Norfolk. In 1889, A. J. Ellis wrote of “the Norfolk ‘drant’, or droning and drawling in speech”. It is 18th-century Scottish, fitttingly pronounced draunt. Safe in Aylesbury, Tony Hall writes in the latest Verbatim: “to speak Norfolk correctly, you must open your mouth like letterbox, then keep your lips as motionless as possible. If you can contrive to have loose-fitting false teeth, they will add to the accuracy of the impersonation.”


DITHER n and v

A surreal note is struck when foraging among the “buttons” of a computer screen. One option is to “dither colour”. Enquiries reveal that this sense, absent from the OED, is to blur the edges of constituent dots so that, when printed, a single colour gives the illusions of several shades. Complex philosophical territory - from the American sense of confuse. Trembling or indecision is 17th century, a variant of 14th-century

didder (d frequently softens), akin to dodder and dadder while the uncertain childhood walk - dade - tottered on until the end of the 19th century.


CAREER n and v

A motorist, preoccupied with his c.v., careered off the road and could not work again. A futher pun is hidden there: career is, via French carrière, a racecourse, from Latin carrus, a wagon. In the 16th century, it meant a short gallop, a racecourse or movement of a planet, hence a pathway. By the early 19th century, with the changing nature of employment, it meant a series of jobs. Oddly, there was then revived, as a verb, the noun for a horse’s shifting from side to side. Careerist - always perjorative, often political or religious - is early 20th century.



Better scan Gerard Gilbert’s pithy back-page dismissal of television programmes than watch them. The other day, some telly movie was “this suds”, which is a new variant on sudser for a soap, and - strictly speaking - the opposite. Often thought be white, the 16th-century suds meant dregs - hence in the suds, disgraced. Only later did it become “a lixivium of soap and water” (Johnson). It is from Middle Dutch, sudse, bog. American readers might assume that Gilbert suggests the movie-makers were drunk: not in the OED , suds now means beer over there.



There was a run on smelling salts and heart-pumps at Brighton Council when disgruntled Hoveian Julie Burchill spoke for many by writing, “wanting to be a city seems to me about as sensible and life-affirming as wanting to be a wart”. Johnson calls it “a corneous excrescence” and quotes Dryden: “in painting, the warts and moles, adding a likeness to the face, are not to be omitted”. This is not in the OED , which does add Cromwell’s expression, first recorded by Walpole as “warts and everything”. Only with Maugham’s Cakes and Ale (1930) was it “warts and all”.



Steve Richards has recently discussed the Government’s cynical hijacking of the word “radical” and attaching it to many of its peremptory, bogus proposals. Always distrust a politician who speaks of his “vision” - it smacks of Nuremberg. A Government confident of its plans would have gone five years to show the result of these. The word to revive is succudrous, a 15th-century Scottish variant of surquidrous - arrogant - which survived many centuries in several forms. Via Old French, it is from the would-be lordly thinking of the Latin supercogitare



Paul Keegan’s admirable New Penguin Book of English Verse includes George Darley’s “... O, hurry me / Far above the grovelling sea” (1835). It now means less “to creep low on the ground” than Johnson’s other sense, “to be without dignity or elevation”. He posited the root “ground feel”. It is, in fact, Shakespeare’s backformation from 14th-century grovelling - face down on the ground. Via groof, it is from Old Norse á grufú. On one’s grufe survived until the 19th century. Wilde’s being in the gutter but looking at the stars means one is supine, not prone.



One wanders in and around Peter Ackroyd’s excellent collection of essays on London, and reaches the suburbs. These are now - at least outwardly - far from the brothels and cut-purses of Shakespeare’s time. As Ackroyd puts it, “they were once the spillings and scourings of the city, unhappy and insalubrious”. He could add that the 17th-century phrase “suburbs of Hell” was Hell intensified, not diluted. Long before Osbert Lancaster’s “stockbroker Tudor”, came the mid-19th century synonym for bland, and in 1817 Byron had written “vulgar, dowdyish, and suburban”.




A propos Webster’s Dictionary, we have discussed Johnny Mercer’s 1937 movie lyric “Too Marvelous For Words”. A deleted refrain now surfaces: “adding words like magical, /Mystical / Seems just too apotheostical”. Which is clumsy (unlike the final “...I’m borrowing / A love song from the birds”). It is Mercer’s coining, from 16th-century apotheosis - making a god of. The Greek root is partly a matter of separating something, which links it with the more mundane apothecary and Greek for storeroom. Of course, some say love is merely a chemical reaction.



We continue to hear much of rave “culture”, such as the Dutch immolation and the sacrifice of Brighton’s historic Aquarium Terrace to a 1500-people cavern. A true raver was Lancashire-born, Mexico-living surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington, described by Peter Conrad as “a wild embodiment of erotic impulse and maenadic madness”. Meanad, Greek for a Bacchante, is from its word for rave, akin to mania, mind, mention, mathesis and so many words to do with mental processes that to attempt to chronicle them here would induce calenture.


COWSON n and adj

In Alan Ross’s terrifying account of the Arctic convoys, part of his Blindfold Games, a sailor refers to “some cowson Jerry battlewaggon”. It sounds as if from the Wild West but is a Thirties English coining which gained currency in the Services and is akin to the 14th-century construction whoreson. The expression “son of a gun” - as Carly Simon whispers at the start of the acerbic “You’re So Vain” - is an 18th-century naval expression, as recorded in the log when a woman aboard gave birth and there were several likely contenders for the father.


SCROUNGE n and v

Many might balk at allegations of selling a grandmother, Worse, perhaps, is a sailor’s slur, as recorded by Alan Ross on the Arctic convoys in Blindfold Games “’e’d scrounge the drawers orf of ‘is granny if ‘e ‘adn’t nothink to blow his nose.” The word had gained currency in the previous War but been around in Edwardian times, for boys’ filching apples. This could link it with scrump, itself a noun for withered fruit (from Teutonic scrimp). Another theory links it with Scottish scringe, from the dialect skreenge, a form of illicit fishing with small nets.



With glee, I unboxedThe New Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians - and turned to volume 9’s entry on the part-song. From Old English for mirth or entertainment it was, via the madrigal, an enduring substitute - popular in Victorian parlours - for songs which had been “largely limited to obscene catches”. The joy is 13th century, in and out of use, deemed by Johnson “not now used, except in ludicrous writing, or with some mixture of irony or contempt” (ludicrous being playful). That gloating tinge is from gleeful, as in Shakespeare’s “gleeful boast”.


DOWN n, v, adv and adj

Chris Smith deems Britain too run down for the 2012 Olympics but, alarmingly, word comes from a large City firm that Brighton Council, at no little cost, harbours Olympic aspirations. Fears are aroused of concrete upon the Downs. The word gives us the opposite of up. It is from dun, Old English for hill, of Dutch origins. By the 13th century it meant high, open land. Down, to suggest fall or lowly, is a shortening of adune, itself a slurring of Old English of dune - off the hill. Down, as in hair, is Old Norse. Ideal for the Games is Birmingham.



The splendid new collection of 1000 20th-century Broadway songs, Reading Lyrics credits “naughty and nice” to Haven Gillespie’s 1934 “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town”. It was, of course, adapted by Seventies ad-writer Salman Rushdie as “naughty but nice”, also title of a 1939 movie. Maurice Craig of Dublin points out that Norman Douglas, in Alone (1921), had pictured telling a grandson of loafing in the Great War. “That was naughty, grandpapa.” “Naughty but nice...” Old English Naught - no wight - is no strength, and soon meant wicked, but is now milder.


FIB n and v

Yesterday’s discussion of the now-mild sense of naughty brings to mind the distinct shades of being economical with the truth that are fib and lie. “A cant word among children” (Johnson), fib is a 17th-century coining, probably a shortening of fible-fable (perhaps itself a slurring of feeble fable). Johnson quotes several instances from Pope, all absent from the OED. Meanwhile, it became a word for hitting, not now in much use. Also not in the OED, it is a recent American term for coronary fibrillation: something that could be brought on by arrant lies.



Bogglingly, perhaps, some of those in The Anglers’ Rest not only believed our recent suggestion that Brighton Council is bidding for the Olympics but said, “what a jolly good idea! Going the whole hog after wanting to get rid of two pools and build one on a school’s playing field... A spoof? What’s that?” A card-game, invented in the 1880s by long-lived comedian Arthur Roberts (he merits a place in the revised DNB). It sounds French, but isn’t (their term is canular). Some hoaxes become true: Graham Greene’s Yours Etc details his Anglo-Texan Society.


BRIBE n and v

A civilised retreat from the fray, the New Grove’s none the less brings the Election to mind: both Tony Blair and William Hague will be eager for every possible bribe. Hold your legal horses! The composer André Souris - another famous Belgian - published a book Bribes (1950). That is, bits or scraps - of, say, political ammunition. Our sense probably derives from Old French for a piece of bread. Hence beggar, whence thief, extortioner. So English is bribe now that Europhiles chould revive the 18th-century douceur. Sweetener is mid-19th century.


BATTLE n and v

Many ask whether mankind can sink lower than battle. Cows might well disagree. Peaceful creatures, they enjoy nothing more than a battle. Not a matter of locking horns, but a gentle pursuit that would stymie any soldiers keen to make use of the same field. Not only, from Latin for beat, is battle a brutal fight to the death but is also, via Scotland, from the Old Norse for improvement which, paradoxically, gives us batten in the sense of eat gluttonously. Hence battle means both pasture and feeding upon it. All we are saying is give battle a chance.



Blink and there is another book of old postcards. The painter Tom Phillips’s hefty The Postcard Century, however, is a work of art and refreshingly droll social history . He notes that such collectors are deltiologists, a coining “as legitimate in the end as philately, since the ancient Greeks had neither stamps nor postcards”. Deltiologist - Forties American - combines writing tablet with word (or study). 19th-century Frenchphilatélie does so with philo (love) and “free of charge”: the recipient does not pay (a stamp shows that the sender has done so).



The Hinduja/Mandelson to-do is routinely described in print and on the air as concerning a passport, for all the world as if a style accessory, expensive cardboard chic. The correct term is dual nationality - a phrase which makes clearer the price it commands. Of simple etymology and complex legality, passport is 16th century, intermittently used until the Great War, after which Norman Douglas spoke of the “passport nuisance”. (OED citations peter out in the 1870s.) Will Casablanca and its “letters of transit” ever give Mandelson the same pleasure again?



Neil Ansell, esteemed regional manager of The Big Issue, says, “it is easier to get a bag of heroin than a cup of tea in Brighton”. A 19th-century German invention, this powerful morphine substitute was wrongly thought to be less addictive. The name derives from the Greek hero, a wry comment on the deluded state it induces: suffix - in(e) is from Latin -inus for something which belongs to the order of a subject. (Latin -ine is feminine variant; femininus is of woman.) Neutral compounds are now -in, others -ine, but heroin - an alkaloid - it remains.




Don’t pylon the misery!” A little-remarked sabotaging of democracy is to deem a petition one objection. To thwart an unpublicised, 70-foot cellphone pylon by a conservation-area playground, my slogan urged mass letter-writing. Only a rash strip-club owner would proclaim “nude giant girls!”: Stephen Spender’s image for the pylons which infested the Thirties countryside. An odd word for a solitary object. From Greek for gateway, it was a 19th-century coining for its constituent towers, then something around which a dirigible flew, hence its mast and our pylon.



In appointing George Davies to run up a new line in clothing, will Marks and Spencer be regarded as nuts? The thought springs from a letter by the artist Carrington, printed in Ronald Blythe’s First Friends: Dorothy Brett’s “father is a nut in his highland kilts and aristocratic demeanour”. Perfectly sane, he was in fact a dandy. Nut, of Teutonic root, has numerous contrary meanings (coincidentally, nutare is Latin for nod). Carrington’s use was Edwardian, perhaps from the 19th-century nutty, abounding (originally, in nuts), first used in Byron’s Don Juan.



The weekend quiz linked a writer, railway chief and Spiderman’s alter ego - these Peter Parkers are, probably, separate people and, certainly, far from petering out. (Did Thunderbirds Parker have a Christian name?) The name Peter is from Syriac for stone but the verb has another geological root: a mid-19th-century American mining term for an exhausted stratum of ore. The OED calls it obscure but Jonathan Green notes the French verb for explode weakly, and adds other usages. In LA, it can be quicker to call for Peter Jay than Spiderman: slang for policeman.



Peter Ackroyd’s series of essays upon London - a volume so often more congenial than the place itself - contains a fascinating debate upon the elements from which it is built and, in an aside, remarks that coal’s etymology is obscure. Of Teutonic origins, it first meant glowing carbon or burnt wood - that is, our charcoal (as in the cancerous bane of suburban patios) - before the meanings reversed: char-. probably from chare, means turned into, while, foodwise, it has associations both with the French for flesh and the Mandarin Chinese for tea (hence the caff term).



To continue the geological theme: why Corus? The word always needs the explanation, “formerly British Steel”. Latin for north-west wind, it has certainly blown hard in South Wales. Perhaps they wanted to echo coruscate, which means glitter. Coruscating wit is often thought savage, by mistaken link with corrosive. Steel - from Old Norse for rigid - certainly corrodes. A flaky name, then, just as Consignia suggests “to the rubbish-bin”. Meanwhile, why don’t loyal TLS readers get a discount when renting one of those ubiquitous vans and trucks which bear its name?



The other, wet afternoon, the local, marginal MP (described in the Daily Mail as resembling “a trainee assassin”) was at an open doorway. Assistant and agent tallied lists nearby. Heard from a next-door porch, he was promising the earth. Is an Election closer than May? In the 11th century husting was grander than this door-to-door blarney. Old Norse husping - house assembly - was a council held by a king, duly one by the Mayor at the end of the Guildhall, from which came the platform upon which candidates put themselves forward. Hence, the general, plural term.


SEAL n and v

Strangely overlooked in Wilde’s centenary year was the long-awaited first volume of his Complete Works (OUP). It sheds new light upon his poetry, quietly making a separate poem of “The moon is like a yellow seal / Upon a dark blue envelope”, not the daytime Tuileries. The eight lines are more haunting than that suggests - if no match for Dorothy Fields’s “You’re calmer than the seals in the Arctic Ocean, / At least they flap their fins to express emotion”. These are of Teutonic root. The impress is from the diminutive - sigillium - of Latin signum.


JONQUIL n and adj

Oscar Wilde’s genius is that his vocabulary is less exotic than the result. That said, the emerging Complete Works include unpublished poems, and one, about a woman’s undressing, refers to her “jonquil-coloured gown”. A pale-yellow flower, it is a diminutive from the Latin juncus, a rush, and now little-used as an adjective. Wilde perhaps chose carelessly, for Johnson quotes Philip Miller: the flowers “are greatly esteemed for their strong sweet scent, though few ladies can bear the smell of them, it being so powerful as to overcome their spirits”.



Today was to have been more Wildean subtlety (yesterday’s undressing woman chanced to strike a romantic note), but this has been waylaid by the bravura of the Valentines page. One Jane was proclaimed “the best wife and most menkal lady in the world”. Is this a variant of menked? That is an adjective from the verb meng, which, of Teutonic root, should be pronounced minge by now and is linked with among. It meant to mingle or mix, hence either to have sexual intercourse, marry, or both. Is one to infer that Jane is a medievalist and a bit of a goer?


CUIRASS n and v

Alan Ross was somebody whom one had thought would live forever. He died on Valentine’s Day, and one thinks of his poem, set in the Florida Keys, where “from the bed I reach out / For the softness / At the back of your knee, / The cuirass of high bones, / Roughed by the Atlantic, / Over breasts caught by the sun.” A paradoxically resonant word, which he may have first known as a naval term, for armour-plating a ship. Earlier, in the 15th century, it had come from Latin corium, leather: part of the armour to cover that flesh here evidently naked.


HIATUS n One amazing night. At Brighton Town Hall, the Greens, Tories, LibDems and boldly dissident Labour members threw out the motion to rush into a referendum on the back of a May Election for a directly-elected Mayor and his highly-paid cohorts. Aghast, the ruling body called this vote “a constitutional hiatus”: that is, major embarrassment - a hiatus hernia! - for those who had told Blair the way was open for “Lord” Bassam to stand. From Latin hiare, to gape, it was first physical absence, then metaphorical, and the silence between two vowels (“sore ire”).


QUALITY n and adj

Alan Ross’s most unlikely talk was with Paul Simon. Did it influence Simon’s collaborating with Ross’s friend, West Indian poet Derek Walcott, on their under-rated The Capeman? “Trailways Bus” is a masterpiece and there’s swinging doo-wop in “Quality”. Suffix -ity is from Latin tatem, condition of, while qualis is of what kind. Firstly, of a general nature, quality duly meant an occupation, especially acting, as in Hamlet’s asking the players “give us a taste of your quality”; misunderstanding of that brought our sense of “the way move / It’s got quality”.


ANECDOTE n Alan Ross was adroit at anecdote. He published a novel by Barbara Skelton, and John Sutro sued. They consulted Leon Brittain, then a lawyer. Barbara Skelton, cigarette in hand, put her feet up on his desk, and said that she did not know what the fuss was about. Brittain looked even more startled than one might expect by this. Only later did Ross discover why: she’d had no knickers on. An anecdote in the true sense. First used by Marvell, it is Greek for unpublished histories. By the mid-18th century, it was gossip, published or not, then stories of any hue. GOSSIP n and v Having discussed the three Peter Parkers, there are the Brian Moores. Not only the commentator and the rugby player but the short-vowelled novelist, described by Diana Athill in Stet as a great gossip, “and when I say great I mean great, because I am talking about gossip in its highest and purest form, a passionate interest, lit by humour but above malice, in human behaviour”. Clergymen enjoy gossip, of course - and they could claim theological justification, for it is from Godsib (as in sibling): a sponsor at a baptism, hence a friend, and, well, friends gossip.


HARASS v Julie Burchill has written one-and-a-half articles for the Guardian about Brighton Council. It tells the Editor that if she does so again, it shall sue for harassment - which vindicates her description of “ex-Maoists and thwarted idealists who, while in the political wilderness of the Thatcher years, mutated into strange beings to whom power was not a means to an end, but an end in itself”. Johnson thought harass from French for heavy buckler. More likely it is harer - to set a dog upon. It first meant devastate, mutating into “labour and tire with uneasiness”.



Such are the rigours of running a words column that even when one feels a need to loaf, the brain continues to whirr - with the thought that Leon Brittain, then a lawyer. Barbara Skelton, cigarette in hand, put her feet up on his desk, and said that she did not know what the fuss was about. Brittain looked even more startled than one might expect by this. Only later did Ross discover why: she’d had no knickers on. An anecdote in the true sense. First used by Marvell, it is Greek for unpublished histories. By the mid-18th century, it was gossip, published or not, then stories of any hue.


GOSSIP n and v

Having discussed the three Peter Parkers, there are the Brian Moores. Not only the commentator and the rugby player but the short-vowelled novelist, described by Diana Athill in Stet as a great gossip, “and when I say great I mean great, because I am talking about gossip in its highest and purest form, a passionate interest, lit by humour but above malice, in human behaviour”. Clergymen enjoy gossip, of course - and they could claim theological justification, for it is from Godsib (as in sibling): a sponsor at a baptism, hence a friend, and, well, friends gossip.



Julie Burchill has written one-and-a-half articles for the Guardian about Brighton Council. It tells the Editor that if she does so again, it shall sue for harassment - which vindicates her description of “ex-Maoists and thwarted idealists who, while in the political wilderness of the Thatcher years, mutated into strange beings to whom power was not a means to an end, but an end in itself”. Johnson thought harass from French for heavy buckler. More likely it is harer - to set a dog upon. It first meant devastate, mutating into “labour and tire with uneasiness”.


LOAF n and v

Man cannot live by loafing alone. That is, companion means somebody with whom one breaks a loaf: a late-Latin construction (com panis) prompted by a similar one in German, a language which gives us bread, which first meant the fragments into which a loaf was broken. The OED disputes that the mid-19th-century, American coining of the idling verb was from German landlaüfer - that is a vagabond, a landloafer.



MERE n and adj

Diana Athill recalls a flat shared with George Weidenfeld and Henry Swanzy. “The men’s floor had an enviable bathroom, all black glass and chrome, given extra distinction by containing a piano on which Henry often played moody music. Our bathroom was very mere.” A multiply inadvertent pub, for one meaning of mere - from Latin mare is sea or pond, and - from murus - it is also boundary. Aquatically, merus brought undiluted - as in wine -, hence a metaphorical usage which mutated from complete to insubstantial, as in “mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all”.


JOVIAL adj and n I am described in the Spectator as “wispily jovial”. Presumably, the adverb is to counter any portliness associated with jovial, an adjective which derives from the Classical precursor of Jupiter (jovis pater). That is, the supreme god. Thus it was that jovial’s first, 16th-century meaning was those born under his sign, and, as so often, it was perhaps a misunderstanding of Shakespeare - Lady Macbeth’s instruction to “be bright and jovial among our guests tonight” - which brought our clubbable sense, which has outlasted that of majestic and an inhabitant of the planet.



Should the wispy among us stoke up on potatoes? Diana Athill describes George Weidenfeld, who “at twenty-four already had a portly presence and a frog face. But he also had five times the intelligence of most of the young men we knew, and a great deal of sexual magnetism”. Of Teutonic origins, frog early became a general insult, duly applied especially to the Jesuits and the Dutch before being settled upon the French in the 18th century. Links with “the hollow part of the horse’s hoof” (Johnson) or a buckle are disputed, but in Australia it is a banknote and condom.


SWILL n and v

Day after day, hapless pigs guzzle at their swill little knowing that they themselves will be quickly swilled. That is, swill is from the Old English for stirring something about in a basket, and then “to drink luxuriously and grossly” (Johnson), while swill as a willow basket is of another, unknown origin. Swill is also a variant of sweal which, via Old English, is from the Old Norse svaela, to smoke out. Hence to singe a pig. (One almost hear Jennifer Paterson humming “thou sweal! thou witty!”) It can, in happier times, be used of a candle’s guttering.


FISH n, v, and adj

Tony Blair’s latest eye-catching initiative is to allow fish to vote. Mackerel, plaice, any remaining cod: all are eligible. What? In studying the Local Government Commission’s draft proposals for redrawing the Brighton ward constituencies, one boggles that a line will now go miles south of the Marina. As with aqua/water, the piscis /fish shift is interesting, but more so that fish will certainly have an Election rôle. A patching of up breaks and cracks: a naval term for a yoking piece of wood (also used of railtrack), not from the sea but French ficher, to fix.



To continue with the misinterpretations caused by Shakespeare’s ambiguities, Brian Vickers says in the TLS that Cleopatra’s “let’s have one other gaudy night” does not mean innocent merriment - as in Latin gaudium, joy - but echoes the Aeneid. Ominously, the night before the sack of Troy, the Trojans had a “gaudia noctem”, a phrase echoed by Seneca whose work Shakespeare read. Parallel with joy and with luxury, gaud had already long existed to mean a trick or pretence, and it is perhaps Polonius’ sartorial advice “rich, not gaudy” which spurred our flashy sense.


FUSS n and v

The consequences of the foot-and-mouth scare reverberate as it becomes clear that this was a fuss about nothing. The disease does not affect humans and for animals it is no worse than ‘flu. Slaughter must seem akin to not coming round from a minor NHS operation. First short for fussock, a large woman, fuss became a bustle early in the 18th century, the verb following decades later. It is probably a variant of fuzz - volatile particles - akin to Scottish fozy - spongy -, from Dutch voos. Ian Maclaren wrote, “he’s fair fozzy wi’ trokin’ in his gairden an’ feeding pigs.”



Such is Brighton’s unending rumpus and scandal that the Council’s Leader suddenly quit after residents’ outrage at its spiteful scheme to take over a shop near the Pavilion for a dreary parking-fines office which would foil the expansion plans of the Italian restaurateur who is a colourful, well-connected critic of the Council. Spite is not an onomatopoeic hiss but an eliding of despite, from Latin despectum, a looking down upon (the verb is dispicere). Spite emerged simulataneously with 14th-century shades of meaning. “In spite of” was duly a neutral phrase - as in the weather.


FITCH n and v

It is always curious to reflect upon diverse meanings. To a gardener, a fitch is a bean-like plant - from vetch, of Latin root - while a basketmaker knows it as a form of cane-twisting, origins unknown. Zoologists and those in search of an insult (Shakespeare among them) use it is a diminutive of fitchew: via Old French, this is from Dutch visse, a polecat. It is also a bridge between fike - from Middle Swedish fikja move briskly - and fidge, as in “are you going to buy that or just fitching them?” Filch is of another, obscure origin while fitché means fixed.


COOP n and v Life is full of regret. What sport we schoolboys could have had with the knowledge that the name of one of our class - Coups - meant dungcarts. It is of the same root as coop - a basket - also existing as kipe. These are from various German forms and perhaps the Latin cupa, a cask. By the 15th century it had become a hen-house as well as the surrounds which gave the dungcart its name. Again, a misreading of Shakespeare brings the sense of imprison. The Duke of Austria laments the White Cliffs of Dover and the sea which “coops from other lands her islanders”.



The more one looks at a word, it can seem absurd. How do snoozing cattle inspire, say, the ripping through downland at Hastings? Bull, which shares will bell the Teutonic root for making a loud noise, supplies the leather which, in tandem with dose - from the Greek for give - brought a late-19th-century American coining for a flogging. Hence it soon meant a bully and the heavy pistol which such a character might use. All in all, a more suitable name for those vehicles than caterpillar: it is the very devil for swampies to make them metamorphose and fly away.


LAUGH n and v J

apes with a pop-gun on the West Side (8 2 5 6). My career as a crossword-setter reaches three clues. As for the answer - laughter on Tenth Avenue -, the contrasting states have their roots in different Old Norse words. Slaughter is from slatr, butcher-meat. Laughter - “an inarticulate expression of sudden merriment”, Johnson - goes back, via Old Norse, to Greek for cluck. It is not this, however, which also makes laughter the total eggs laid by a hen before sitting upon them. That is from Old Norse lattr, akin to Latin lectus, a bed, as are lay and lie.


SHAMBLE n and v

Yesterday’s discussion of slaughter reminds one that only pedants will describe the foot-and-mouth crisis as being far from a shambles. What? Via Teutonic forms, it is from Latin scamellum, dimuntive of scamnum, a bench. Hence a market-stall, and, by, the 14th century, one for selling meat. This mutated into a slaughter-house. In 1593 Thomas Nashe described “a shambles of dead bodies” and so grew the sense of carnage. Not until Twenties America was it general chaos. To shamble along is not walking wounded, but derives separately, from a shamble’s wonky legs.



It is a scandal,” says Hugh Byrne, Irish Minister for Natural Resources, of British ministers’ attitude towards foot-and-mouth. It has mutated from a Greek root in a snare for an enemy - literally and metaphorically - and has links with the root skand, to spring up, as in scan and scale. Scandal’s first meaning was theological, a stumbling-block to belief. From the verb scandalize - to let such reports spring up - came our noun scandal, popularised by Shakespeare, many of whose characters could use the 19th-century scandalize: to shorten a sail, from scantalize.



Another Irish agriculture minister says of controlling foot-and-mouth disease that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. This might appear a sweet, jammy or treacly proverb to use of matters carnivorous. Is he being more subtle than that? Pudding - of obscure origins perhaps akin to French boudin (Johnson mooted the Welsh potten) - first meant the stomach of an animal when it was stuffed with meat and oats to form a sausage. Hence such matter without that casing. By the 16th century the final course of a meal arrived, the proverb 150 years after that.


TREACLE n and adj

Our discussion of whether the Irish agriculture minister was using an unduly treacly metaphor about the foot-and-mouth crisis brings another paradox, for that sweet word’s origins are fleshy, and rather more dangerous than foot--and-mouth. From the earlier theriac (still in use), it is, via late Latin theriaca, from the Greek diminutive to mean a small reptile - part of which is used in the antidote for a poisonous bite. By the 16th century it was a general remedy, and then “the spume of sugar” (Johnson) - poison again, of course, in our ever-dieting era.



A little forethought on the part of a civil servant would have saved the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries much heartache and embarrassment. Not simply a matter of vaccination but of acronym. References to it as Maff inevitably bring to mind maffle. From the Dutch maffelen, this means to stammer, a 14th-century import which has continued to mean that and also, as Robert Southey noted, “she was, what they call in the country, maffled; that is, confused in her intellect”. In America, maffies are middle-aged affluent folk, people our farmers can only envy.




Despite the pyres, commentary on the vegetarian vote has been scant. Evidence in Brighton - outraged by “Lord” Bassam’s sneer that Greens are “small-time politicians” - is that these, with the statesmanlike Keith Taylor, will come to the fore. Pyre is another 17th-century return by Sir Thomas Browne to a Greek root. It had long given us fire. A similar word gives us pyrene, a fruit stone, and a pyramid is either “because fire always ascends in the figure of a cone” (Johnson) or because it stored fire-shaped wheat. Pyrex is simply a smoothing of pie and -ex.


STING n and v

Our discussion of wheat makes one ask: what is the most common subsequent occupation of America’s elected mayors? Prison. Fifty languish there. It is returning to the committee system. Here, people question the urging of mayors by the New Local Government Network, a body which, harbouring the likes of “Lord” Bassam and Ivor Caplin MP, seeks such corporate sponsors as KPMG and Capita. What’s in it for these? Sting’s Teutonic form perhaps derives from Greek for an ear of corn. The racket, a Twenties American noun, was an early-19th-century English verb.



In discussing the John Bayley controversy, David Aaronovitch refers to houghmagandy - milions are engaged in this while others sit on trains. If either could reach for a popular dictionary, edificiation would be elusive. A rare, Scottish term: fornication. Hough, in humans, is part of the thigh, but also a hollow. The rest of the word is a corruption of canty. Cant - lively - derives from a root in Latin cantus - edge, hence keen - which in its turn is perhaps from Greek for corner of the eye. Is there any greater aphrodisiac than explaining etymology?



Emma Donoghue prefaces her fascinating study of 18th-century sapphism, Passions Between Women, with an account of “what lesbians do in dictionaries” - the thrust being: not enough. Such terms long pre-date OED citations. A word that does surface early there - 1601 - is tribade, a synonym for Lesbian. This is from the Greek root for rub. “There’s the rub” could be acknowledgment of discovered ecstacy - the very opposite of tribulation, which comes from the same root. The OED’s next citation of tribade is 1890 but Emma Donoghue finds it throughout the 18th century.


RIBALD n and adj

Discussion of tribade gives rise to questions of a link with ribald. These are discounted by Emma Donoghue, who posits a root in another word for rub. Meanwhile, the OED notes various Teutonic parallels but does not spell out that the Middle High German riben is to be on heat or to copulate. At first, for whatever reason, these were the lowest people in French royal households, duly mutating into “a loose, rough, mean, brutal wretch” (Johnson), hence bantering behaviour, something which, from Shakespeare’s “the ribald crows”, is also applied to birds.



The chain of spurious association from tridbade to ribald naturally, if dubiously, leads to bawdy. More likely, this is from bawdry, the supply of sex, itself from bawd, a procuress. Some have likened this to the French for lively, which is certainly more the thing for repeat-business than torpor, but it is in fact probably a shortening of bawdstrot, the latter syllable being either Anglo-Norman for hag or old woman, while the OED deems it to mean to parade lasciviously, and points to the splendid 17th-century corruption of it as bronstrops, much used by Middleton.



In referring to his learning the word bronstrops from a Middleton play, John Webster used the synonym a tweak. This slang term for a harlot survived into the 18th century, and is evidently from the verb which means pull - itself popularised in Hamlet’s “who... tweaks me by the nose?” Of obscure origins, it is linked by Johnson with tweague (“perplexity; ludicrous distress”) and goes back to twick, itself supplanted by twitch, last cited in 1924 by the OED although John Lennon dubbed his mother’s “new bloke” Twitchy. Twitcher, a bird-water, is a 1977 coining.


COOK n and v

What is a domestic goddess to do if stuck on a train, in need of hot food and wary of the buffet-cart? Grab the mobile, not for a take-away to be waiting at the next “station-stop” but to ring another such deity on board; when answered, place the devices either side of an egg: three minutes, and it’s white inside. Fried-brain garnish, anybody? Cook is from Latin coquus, part of a throaty link with the Greek which gives us peptic. Meanwhile, education standards plummet: no grandmother now demonstrates the art of sucking eggs - originally a Spanish expression.