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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Raymond Chandler on storytelling and style

August 4, 2013

I’ve begun reading Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, an anthology of 23 Marlowe stories written by different crime/mystery authors plus one by Chandler himself (‘The Pencil’). It was edited by Byron Preiss with the consent of the Chandler estate, to mark the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.

Taking on Marlowe is a tall order, but I expect even the weaker stories will offer much to please and interest. The introduction, by Chandler biographer Frank MacShane, quotes from a letter Chandler wrote in his late fifties in which he muses on writing and style. I found more of the letter elsewhere, and it’s too good not to excerpt at length:

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ETAOIN SRHLDCU, or: What are the most common words and letters in English?

January 7, 2013

Most of us know that ‘e’ is the most common letter in English and the is the most common word. Many are familiar with ETAOIN SHRDLU, the nonsense string that used to appear in print because of early-20thC printer design and now serves as shorthand for the most popular letters.

Beyond prevailing lore and trivia, we’re generally less certain about the English language’s most common words and letters. Different studies over the years have produced varying results, depending on the datasets and methods used.

Now Google’s director of research Peter Norvig has used the vast data from the Google Books corpus – over 743 billion words – to produce updated word- and letter-frequency tables. Here’s his letter count:

Peter Norvig - English language letter count frequency table

As you can see, it violates ETAOIN SHRDLU only slightly, becoming ETAOIN SRHLDCU.

The 50 most common words, in order of frequency, are: the, of, and, to, in, a, is, that, for, it, as, was, with, be, by, on, not, he, I, this, are, or, his, from, at, which, but, have, an, had, they, you, were, there, one, all, we, can, her, has, there, been, if, more, when, will, would, who, so, no.

Norvig also investigated the most common word lengths, sequences of letters (“n-grams”), letters in various positions in words, and much more. It’s a fascinating page – a feast for data fiends and word nerds alike. (And they are often alike.)

Don’t tell Richard Feynman

September 4, 2012

I’ve been reading Don’t You Have Time to Think?, a collection of letters written by (and to) the great physicist Richard Feynman.

As I tweeted earlier today, Feynman comes across as warm, generous, sincere and self-effacing. He was also blessed with wit, patience, and admirable directness.

Here’s a short, amusing exchange he had with Francis Crick in 1978:

Dear Francis,
I regret having to do this, but I’m returning this paper to you unread. My schedule is such lately that I must refuse to get bogged down reading someone else’s theory; it may turn out to be wonderful and there I’d be with something else to think about.
Richard P. Feynman

Crick replied:

Dear Dick,
I would have done the same! The usual expression used in Molecular Biological circles is due to Frank Stahl: “Don’t tell me – I might think about it!”
Yours ever,

Don’t tell me – I might think about it! I may adopt that.

On a linguistic note, the book includes correspondence with A. M. Hughes at the OED, who was seeking further information on the origins of parton, a word coined by Feynman to refer to what we now call quarks and gluons.

The provisional definition of parton to be included in the OED Supplement was: “Each of the hypothetical point-like constituents of the nucleon that were invoked by R. P. Feynman to explain the way the nucleon inelastically scatters electrons of very high energy.” Feynman found the definition “admirable”.

Over on Tumblr, I posted one other letter from the book, wherein Feynman gives his reasons for declining an honorary degree after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics.

If you’re interested in buying Don’t You Have Time to Think?, you can do so at Penguin Books so long as typos don’t bother you inordinately: the edition I have, pictured above, contains several. Steven Poole has a short, accurate review in the Guardian that might sway you.

C. S. Lewis, language botanist

January 5, 2012

C. S. Lewis received a lot of correspondence from strangers, as you can imagine, and he was very diligent about answering it. I read his Letters to Children yesterday, and on Tumblr posted something he wrote to his godchild about the kinds of things people do.

Below is another passage, this one having to do with language. It was addressed to “Kathy” and was sent in April 1963:

By the way I also wd. say “I got a book”. But your teacher and I are not “English teachers” in the same sense. She has to put across an idea of what the English language ought to be: I’m concerned entirely with what it is and however it came to be what it is. In fact she is a gardener distinguishing “flowers” from “weeds”; I am a botanist and am interested in both as vegetable organisms.

The gardening analogy reminded me of Otto Jespersen’s description of the language as “like an English park . . . in which you are allowed to walk everywhere according to your own fancy”. But this might give a child the wrong idea.

There is much to admire in the metaphor Lewis uses to convey, without prejudice or guile, the difference in attitudes between Kathy’s teacher and himself.


A post I wrote for Macmillan Dictionary Blog looks at some more examples of the linguistic botany analogy.

Joyce, Shaw, Pound and pence

June 16, 2010

In the early 1920s, when the soulful and fearless Sylvia Beach was preparing to publish Ulysses at Shakespeare and Company, she sought subscriptions from potential readers, and received among the replies a mighty refusal from George Bernard Shaw. Shaw had read part of Joyce’s book in serial form, and in his letter to Beach he described it memorably as “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but . . . a truthful one”. His letter finished as follows:

I must add, as the prospectus implies an invitation to purchase, that I am an elderly Irish gentleman, and that if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for a book, you little know my countrymen.

Shaw said elsewhere that he wouldn’t pay three guineas for the book. Joyce, meanwhile, had a bet on with Sylvia Beach that Shaw would not subscribe. Losing the bet meant giving his patron a silk handkerchief; winning it meant receiving a box of Voltigeurs, his favourite cigars. He loved Shaw’s letter to Beach, and sent copies to several friends — including Ezra Pound, to whom he wrote:

if you imagine that the elderly Irish gentleman who wrote it (the letter not the book) has not subscribed anonymously for a copy of the revolting record through a bookseller you little know my countrymen.

Pound was far from satisfied, though, and exchanged about a dozen letters with Shaw on the matter. In March 1921 he grumbled to H. L. Mencken: “Shaw now writes to me twice a week complaining of the high price of Ulysses.” The correspondence ended with Shaw quipping: “I take care of the pence because the Pounds won’t take care of themselves” (also reported as: “I take care of the pence and let the Pounds take care of themselves”).

L–R: Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, and James Joyce. In Pound's rooms in Paris, 1923. Photograph from Cornell University.


Last year I said I had never taken part in Bloomsday — not in any official events anyway. This year is no different, but like Leopold Bloom I’ll be walking around taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city (Nora’s Galway, not James’s Dublin). I might bring a Joyce-related book. That will do. If you’re on Twitter, you’ll find me making occasional Joyce-related tweets.

In a tradition I beganagain last year, I’ll finish with a poem — this time a Limerick from the pen of Pound:

There was once a young writer named Joyce
Whose diction was ribidly choice,
And all his friends’ woes
Were deduced from his prose
Which never filled anyone’s purse.

(Pound told Joyce that choice and purse would rhyme perfectly in certain parts of New York.)

“Attacks” on the language are greatly misunderstood

August 15, 2009

Last Thursday’s edition of the Irish Times included an opinion piece about the English Language. When I saw the title (“Attacks on the language are rising, basically”) I wondered what the author, David Adams, might be referring to. Was his article a damning assessment of funding for education? A protest at misplaced apostrophes, those errant marks whose ubiquity some would have you believe portends an imminent apostrophopocalypse? A penetrating analysis of contemporary Newspeak, Doublethink, and political framing, such as the redefinition of “war”?

No: Mr Adams spends almost half the article complaining about people using the word “basically” too much, while the rest is a scattershot rant about the nouning of verbs, dialectal intonation, and assorted fads and verbal ticks that annoy him. He makes a reasonable point or two near the end, but along the way he takes tiresome potshots at the “blogosphere” (his scare quotes) in “cyberspace” (mine), where “words are regularly invented, mangled or forced against their will from nouns into verbs, or vice versa” (about which more below). He concludes by having another go at “basically”. His barely suppressed rage at the utterance of this word is more than a little alarming:

Only good manners and not wanting to be thought a complete lunatic stop some of us from screaming: “There is no ‘basically’ about it. . . .”

Unwilling to suppress my own more temperate feelings about the matter, I emailed a response to the Irish Times, reprinted below. My letter (which is rather long, but shorter than it was originally) does not appear in today’s Times, though there is one short letter congratulating Mr Adams “for highlighting the abuse of ‘basically’”. At this point I’d like to refer all interested parties to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage,* whose entry on basically makes the level-headed point that “the rigorous pursuit of excising ‘basically’ does not look like an important path to better prose”.

* Freely available in the dreaded “cyberspace” or for a modest fee from any good bookshop.

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