Fashionable ambiguity

For a few years in the 1950s, independent publishing company André Deutsch rented the top two-thirds of a doctor’s house in London. Diana Athill, then an editor at the company, describes them as “happy years, but still a touch amateurish: did proper publishers have to put a board over a bath to make a packing-bench?” (Stet: An Editor’s Life*).

During its time in that location, however, the company did well enough to buy Derek Verschoyle’s firm and to move into its premises in Soho. Athill recalls one consequence of the deal:

One of the more burdensome books we inherited from him was a pointless compilation called Memorable Balls, a title so much tittered over that we thought of leaving it out when we were arranging our stand at The Sunday Times’s first book fair. Finally one copy was shoved into an inconspicuous corner – where the Queen Mother, who had opened the fair, instantly noticed it. Picking it up, she exclaimed with delight: ‘Oh, what a tempting title!’ André insisted that it was his confusion over this that made him drop her a deep curtsey instead of a bow.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, Memorable Balls has nothing to do with sport or anatomy but concerns formal dances. It was edited by James Laver, an author and fashion historian who came up with a system he called Laver’s Law (Taste and Fashion, 1937) to describe popular attitudes to fashion:

Was the author’s tongue partly in cheek when he composed this table? I don’t have a copy of Taste and Fashion, or any of Laver’s other books, so I can’t infer his tone from context.

It is in any case a revealing list of adjectives, some of which I often see applied to language usages. “Language is like dress,” wrote Simeon Potter in Our Language. “We vary our dress to suit the occasion.”

In honour of Laver’s Memorable Balls, I propose Balls’ Law: Bawdy double entendres never fall fully out of fashion.


* For another anecdote from Athill’s marvellous memoir, see this earlier post.


14 Responses to Fashionable ambiguity

  1. Nothing like a double entendres. I went to a bar and ordered a double entendre and the barmaid gave me one….

  2. On a less flippant note Athill’s memoir looks like a good read

  3. Marc Leavitt says:

    I like Laver’s categories. I think they’re quite smart, but it could be argued that they are also arbitrary, and reminiscent of the type of bon mot we would expect from Oscar Wilde, were he to be resuscitated. By the way, currently in the US, the phrase “That’s SO yesterday!” replaces the entire spectrrum of nuance in his list. Different idiom.

  4. The sartorial analogy for language is apt. I have often used it myself.

  5. Stan says:

    Jams: It’s an excellent book, Jams, and she writes beautifully.

    Marc: I think Laver’s categories are pretty insightful, though a bit arbitrary and clever, as you say. But calling it a Law suggests either irony or an exaggerated sense of its value; I can’t tell which. We could extend the idiom you mention to “That’s SO yesteryear” for something very outdated, and “That’s SO tomorrow” for anything remotely futuristic or innovative. (A Google search shows that many already have.)

    Barrie: Yes, I think so too. Linguistic fads are comparable in many ways to sartorial fashions, for example in being used as signs of aspirational, rebellious, or collective identity – or in creative self-expression. Slang may be the most obvious case.

  6. I was thinking more of the way in which we use different language for different occasions, just as we dress for different occasions. White tie is appropriate for the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, vest and shorts are not. ‘The boy done good’ is appropriate for the football stadium, ‘That player seems to have performed extraordinarly well’ is not.

  7. Stan says:

    Barrie: Yes, that was Potter’s point, and one worth emphasising. I just wanted to add a couple of other ways in which the analogy holds.

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    I am a fan of Diane Anthill and have read her books including ” …Life”.

    I also highly recommend her autobiography:

    which throws a completely different light on aging.

    And I think incorporating your Ball’s Law would greatly assist the sales of some boring books.


  9. […] was a busy week at the sentence clinic; there was time for just one blog post, which featured a funny publishing anecdote and a curious law of fashion. Until I get round to […]

  10. Stan says:

    WWW: Thanks for the recommendation; I’d like to read more of her books. You could be on to something with Balls’ Law – it has potential in all sorts of areas, not least book marketing.

  11. […] Michael Rundell posted part one of his piece on political correctness. Stan Carey also wrote about fashionable ambiguity (how indecent!), and Fritinancy noted another fashionable trend, “adverbish […]

  12. So hilarious! I do love Laver’s dry turn of phrase – and wholeheartedly recommend his books!

  13. Stan says:

    Hi Sarah, thanks for your visit and recommendation! I’ll keep an eye out for Laver’s books.

  14. […] And her description of Virago’s cluttered conditions reminds me of something Diana Athill said (of another indie publishing house) in Stet: An Editor’s Life: […]

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