A cussed acrostic

September 4, 2016

One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a ‘hopeless mishmash’:

Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.

Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.

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Slangs of New York

June 22, 2016

Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York (2002) has a special feature on the DVD called ‘Five Points Vocabulary’. Five Points is a reference to the Manhattan district where the film is set, and the vocabulary is a glossary of slang from that era (1840s–60s) and place.

It looks like this:

Gangs of New York - Five Points vocabulary 1 from Vocabulum; or, The Rogue's Lexicon (1859) by George Washington Matsell

The glossary is spread over eight such pages, so rather than add images, I’ve compiled the text below. Fair warning: it’s slang, and therefore not politically correct.

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The Old Ways and the old words

June 16, 2016

Find beauty; be still. —W.H. Murray

On a visit to Galway City Library last week I happened upon Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton, 2012), and promptly whisked it from the shelf. A friend had lent me Macfarlane’s The Wild Places a few months ago (thanks, JC) and it proved a highlight of my reading year.

Macfarlane is an English academic and author who writes about nature, travel, landscape and literature and how one influences or nourishes the other. The Old Ways takes pathways as its primary motif: the tracks we find and make across land and sea and how they signify and affect our relationship to place.

A few language-related excerpts follow. First, an entertaining note on the polyglottism of George Borrow, ‘the most charismatic of modern walker-writers’, who Macfarlane says ‘inspired the surge in path-following and old-way romance that occurred in mid-nineteenth-century Europe and America’:

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The history of English spelling reform

February 8, 2016

After the recent fuss about France dropping its circumflex (or not), I was approached by History Today to write something about spelling reform. My article, A brief history of English spelling reform, was published today.

In it I outline the various attempts made over the centuries to fix the knotty problems of English spelling – who tried, what they did and why, and how their efforts fared – while making quick forays into German and Old Icelandic and concluding with some general thoughts.

Here’s a taster:

Reports of the circumflex’s death are exaggerated, but they point to the intensity of feeling aroused by orthography – how personally we relate to something with so arbitrary a connection to meaning. Usage dictionaries reveal age-old disputes that erupt anew every day. Some of the most passionate are over spelling, which, as H.G. Wells wrote, has ‘become mixed up with moral feeling’. . . .

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Dread of the telephone

February 6, 2016

Bruce Sterling’s entertaining 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier contains a brief, lively history of telegraphy and telephony. (Since reading the paperback I’ve learned that the book is also available online and in podcast form.)

In the mid-1870s the US had thousands of telegraph offices and hundreds of thousands of miles of telegraph wire: as communication technology it was thoroughly established. The telephone began inauspiciously, often considered more toy or parlour trick than momentous innovation. It took a little while for its particular value to become apparent. Sterling:

After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the real selling point of his invention. Instead, the telephone was about speech – individual, personal speech, the human voice, human conversation, and interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal, intimate technology.

When you picked up a telephone, you were not absorbing the cold output of a machine – you were speaking to another human being. Once people realized this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie, unnatural device swiftly vanished. . . . The real point was not what the machine could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a person and citizen, could do through the machine.

I’m old enough to remember the world before mobile phones and the internet, let alone smartphones, back when house phones were central to real-time remote communication. Technology has again let us change our preferred modes of remote interaction, and the use of phones as a channel for speech has declined precipitously.

For some people, wariness and even dread of phone calls are creeping back.

[click to enlarge]

Candorville comic by Darrin Bell - never answers the phone

Candorville comic, 13 May 2012

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What should we call ‘Grammar Nazis’?

December 1, 2015

For some people the answer is in the question. Certainly Grammar Nazi is a popular and catchy phrase for referring to people who decry errors of grammar – or what they think are errors, or grammar – and who correct other people’s language unsolicited.

This looser, more general sense of nazi is well established in informal English. I’m not trying to outlaw it – that would make me a ‘nazi’ nazi. But personally I don’t like the term unless it’s used with heavy irony, because it cheapens and trivialises the horrific historical events that it blithely hijacks for rhetorical effect.

This comic by Kris Wilson slyly turns the tables:

cyanide and happiness - explosm - grammar nazi comic strip

Whatever about using Nazi hyperbolically in political contexts to refer to a non-actual-Nazi behaving in a way that may be construed as fascist, I can’t quite get my head around its casual use to refer to attitudes to language use. It has become conventional to the point where many people self-identify, even proudly, as a ‘grammar Nazi’.

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A flitch of etymology

October 19, 2015

I was reading Claire Keegan’s short story collection Antarctica* when I came across a fairly uncommon word:

He talks about sheep and cattle and the weather and how this little country of ours is in a woeful state while Bridie sets the table, puts out the Chef sauce and the Colman’s mustard and cuts big, thick slices off a flitch of beef or boiled ham. I sit by the window and keep an eye on the sheep who stare, bewildered, from the car. Da eats everything in sight while I build a little tower of biscuits and lick the chocolate off and give the rest to the sheepdog under the table.

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