Philology without tears

hoep Everyone loves words, whether they know it or not. Even the least educated, literate or not, take pleasure in wordplay, creating and repeating slang, slogans, puns, doggerel rhymes, sarcastic quips, nicknames; man is the talking animal par excellence.

Most of us do this as second nature, oblivious of the long, weird, colourful history of English, once an obscure tongue evolving in a remote and primitive island but now virtually a global lingua franca — what linguists call a vehicular language.

But note that I’ve used one French and one Italian expression; English just adopted them, as it has so many words and phrases from other languages. Many more, though, have been fused invisibly from languages as diverse as Persian, Hindi and Inuit into a colossal and always growing vocabulary.

It’s a marvellous story and it’s been told over and over again in a myriad books, from the informal — Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue, for example — to the more solid, like David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language and determinedly recondite books, such as Eric Partridge’s Origins.

But the sheer volume of the reading necessary for the full story, not to mention the expense of all those books, is daunting.

The web comes to your assistance with a peculiar bastard of a neologism: a podcast.

It’s the History of English podcast and it cannot be recommended too highly, whether you’re a high-powered pedant or you have only a mild curiosity about why we talk the way we do.

As befits the subject, it has been executed on a grand scale; with 39 episodes of up to an hour’s duration, at the time of writing, its creator, Kevin Stroud, has not yet reached the time of the Norman invasion.

He has done this without being dull, stuffy or terribly technical, in a relaxed, conversational style that still manages to convey the complexity and the sheer weirdness of English and its origins.

The History of English podcast website shows that he has a lively community of fans. You can subscribe to the podcast from the site or via iTunes. It’s free, but well worth the modest donation he suggests.

Presence of mind

The gift of speedy repartee is given to few, which is why the French invented that serviceable phrase ‘esprit de l’escalier’ — the crushing retort that comes into the mind after one has been chucked down the stairs and which, delivered smartly, would have crushed the enemy under a mass of ridicule.

It was always unwise to tangle with George Bernard Shaw, for example.

He once encountered a very fat man lumbering up a narrow staircase and, being in a hurry, pushed past him. “Pig!” said the fat man.

Shaw raised his hat politely and said: “Shaw. Good afternoon.”

Dorothy Parker had the gift in abundance. She and society queen bee Claire Booth Luce conducted a life-long feud and Dorothy’s waspish wit was guaranteed to keep the humourless Claire seething.

They once arrived at a social event at the same time; Claire stood aside for Dorothy to enter, saying “Age before beauty.” As Dorothy swept past her, she replied “And pearls before swine.”

Those who challenged Winston Churchill rarely came off best. As he was speaking one night in parliament, Bessie Braddock, a very large lady member of the opposition, called across the chamber: “Mr Churchill, you are drunk.”

Churchill riposted: “Madam, you are ugly — but I shall be sober in the morning.”

There is some doubt as to whether it was the eighteenth-century radical John Wilkes or the English playwright Samuel Foote who routed the crusty, dissipated Lord Sandwich in this exchange:

“I think that you must either die of the pox or the halter.”

“My lord, that will depend upon one of two contingencies — whether I embrace your lordship’s mistress or your lordship’s principles.”

In Australia, the bumptious and inexplicably dislikeable conservative politician Peter Costello was known for caustic wit. He once twitted the secular saint, Senator Bob Brown, that the Greens party he leads is like a watermelon — green outside but red inside.

The Senator rose to the challenge and said the Greens were actually like an avocado, green inside as well as outside. Costello pounced at once: “Yes, true — and with a big Brown nut in the middle.”

And there is the perhaps aprocryphal Australian parliamentary anecdote about a politician who opened a speech with the words “I’m a country member…” only to face a roar from the opposition benches of “We remember, we remember.”

Which are you?

Slang is essential in any living, growing language; some slang words lose their vulgar stigma and pass into respectable usage. But because slang is also a fashion, it means that many serviceable words and subtle shades of meaning can be lost.

Take, for example, some English Edwardian slang terms for ill-behaved men — bounder, rotter, stinker and cad, all of which could be intensified in stages with the qualifiers fearful, frightful and absolute. These originated in the speech of students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the 1880s, migrated into smart London speech before World War I and were still in common use in the 1950s.

A cad — or perhaps a stinker — receives his comeuppance

Their passing, along with other subtly graduated terms of opprobrium, has deprived us of an important set of social nuances.

The bounder was a crass, uneducated, contradictory sort of fellow quite unaware of the dislike of others and of the irritation caused by his loud and over-confident tone and behaviour; a bounder was often nouveau-riche and an energetic gate-crasher.

The rotter displayed most of the characteristics of the bounder but added to it a jeering sense of humour perceptible only to himself; to rot something, such as a friend’s new car, clothes or girlfriend, was to criticise loudly and usually ignorantly.

The stinker had elements of both bounder and rotter, but added greed and indifference to the comfort and patience of others. The rotter might cast aspersions on the character and appearance of your girlfriend — but the stinker would do his best to steal her with as debonair a mien as he would guzzle the last three inches of your last bottle of Napoleon brandy.

The cad displayed none of the more egregious characteristics of the bounder and the rotter, but like the stinker he would not only try to steal your girlfriend but actually succeed in doing so, only to cast her carelessly aside when he spotted his next victim.

And among artists, a crude, vulgar or overly sentimental painting dashed off as a speedy pot-boiler was known as a cad-catcher.

It was the misfortune of the Edwardian bus conductor to also be known as a cad, but it is likely that everyone understood the difference.

The Knocklofty Catechism of Cliché

Everyone knows what a cliché is: a tired old phrase or expression dropped in thoughtlessly by speakers or writers who are either too lazy to express themselves properly or, much worse because it is intentional, so cynical that they know exactly what button it will push in their ignorant audience.

Take, for example, just elected or re-elected politicians who claim to be ‘humbled’ by their success. They have been selling their almost always aggressively ordinary personalities with a bag of catch-phrases, denigrating the opposition and generally bamboozling the electorate into polishing their hypertrophied egos with their votes.

This requires a more than usual degree of arrogance, hypocrisy and bumptiousness. The prize of power for which they have connived, plotted and overspent finally falls into their slavering jaws — and they’re humble? Always suspect anyone who makes a public virtue of humility.

Politics and journalism are the factories of cliché – Fox News is only the most egregious — and the history of the word itself is telling. In nineteenth-century France, when newspapers were even more astonishingly venal than they are today (hard to believe, we admit), the compositors who set the type by hand, letter by letter, would save time by reaching for a phrase or expression which, because of its familiarity, they had caused to be set against inevitable need in a single slug: a cliché, from the verb clicher, to cast, in this case appropriately in lead.

Technology has done little to battle the cliché, as a cursory glance at most blogs will show. But there is some hope. Editors of the Tasmanian Hansard, the reports of parliamentary debates, have developed a set of macros which will eliminate such expressions as ‘at the end of the day’ (voted most annoying cliché of 2006) with very few keystrokes.

Knocklofty intends to keep an eye on fashions in cliché. Many Australians will recall a period in which politicians, prominent usurers and other dubious public figures would regularly ‘refuse to resile’ from whatever position they had felt it expedient or profitable to adopt for the nonce. The expression fell out of fashion round about the end of the day.

Language, language!

mrs-grundy1“You take the trouble to construct a civilization…to build a society…you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same…you bring things to the saddest of all points…to the point where there is something to lose…then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.” — Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

At Knocklofty we are well aware of the immense diversity and excitement of the web. Ideas and information, both dazzling and brilliant, as well as stupid and meretricious, flow freely. It is a wonderful resource and will become a true mirror of humanity.

It is in the process of developing a new language and it is one of the largest contributors to our stock of words; some are the embodiment of wit, expressing complexity with brevity, and remain. Others arrive and fade away as slang fashions continue their inevitable change.

But there is one depressing feature of language on the web that seems to endure, and that is the use of a couple of dozen common offensive words. We all know what they are — sexual, anatomical or excretory, used as nouns, adjectives, intensifiers or just as plain expletives — so there is no need to list them here.

Their too-frequent use, especially in otherwise well-conducted weblogs, robs them of any impact they may have had in the bad old days of taboo and prudery. Those who do use them are demonstrating not only poverty of thought and imagination but also contempt for their readers; in effect, they are saying ‘I can’t be bothered to find a word to explain what I mean, so I’ll just drop in a dirty word to show how cool and smart I am.’

In doing that, however original their thoughts might be, they have the effect of signalling that here is yet another dreary, foul-mouthed, semi-articulate ranter and that it is probably not worth the effort to read further. These over-used, worn-out and essentially stupid words will drive readers away even more effectively than cliché, muddled grammar and slipshod punctuation.

If you are stuck for a word, there are plenty of resources at hand without leaving the keyboard; find a thesaurus, a dictionary or an apt quotation on the web. If you show a little respect for your readers, more of them will come back.



The head of our political semiology monitoring unit had a varied and interesting career, including finally a stint in journalism which so depressed him that he sought sanctuary in the quiet corridors of Knocklofty Towers.

Exhausted by the diseased, cliché-clogged maunderings of politicians, spokesthings for sinister think-tanks, greed-crazed merchant princes and the ghastly sprightliness of advertising, he performed obscure and menial tasks for some time in the firm’s punctuation research laboratory before the management noticed his formidable experience and his repressed urge to puncture some of the bladders of foul air infesting parliaments, boardrooms and editors’ offices.

At a Knocklofty picnic he let slip the fact that he once worked in the quality control department of a glue factory. It was rather overstaffed and had more than the normal quota of wags found among technicians, who are as a rule not distinguished for egregious waggishness.

By the time he took up his duties there his colleagues had tired of finding amusing new ways of testing glue by spreading it on chairs, the earpieces of telephones and toilet seats. To pass the time, they turned to more intellectual pursuits such as crosswords and other word games.

Read more…