Tag: language

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.”

A prophecy fulfilled

When the American people get through with the English language, it will look as if it had been run over by a musical comedy.

— Finley Peter Dunne, 1938

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.

Jeder macht eine kleine Dummheit

The Knocklofty dialect laboratory has been listening to Australian radio and television journalists struggling with the pronunciation of the name of John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

This varies along a spectrum from ‘Beener’ to ‘Bainer,’ indicating the Australian media’s usual uncertainty with anything that isn’t phonetically manageable English (not that they always succeed even when it’s that simple).

Given its Germanic origin, the correct pronunciation for this name ought to be, says the laboratory, something closer to ‘Burner,’ although the majority opinion among our dialect consultants favours ‘Boner,’ which they feel is more apposite as it is homophonic with the American slang word, which means ‘an egregiously stupid mistake.’

A case of anachronologia

The Knocklofty journalists’ consulting service was established not to provide ways of manipulating the inane, wretchedly pliable and disgustingly venal media to which they are enslaved, but to help to make life a little easier by providing information which will help them get past that deadline and into the bar that little bit faster.

Requests are frequent and often somewhat recondite; for example, the timing of the Italian spaghetti harvest, what was Joseph Stalin’s favourite brand of underwear or George W Bush’s inside leg measurement. These we take in our stride, but recently a very prominent journalist contacted us wanting to know the Latin word for chainsaw.

Our consultant did point out that such things were at best extremely uncommon in the Roman Empire but the questioner was so persistent that eventually our semiotics laboratory concocted a suitable word.

Keep an eye on your local media — it’s going to crop up one day really soon.