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cherubims (sic)

In her Foreword to The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers writes: ‘My grateful thanks are due to Mr W.J.Redhead, who kindly designed for me the noble Parish Church of Fenchurch St Paul and set it about with cherubims’.

With what? I am surprised to see the erudite Dorothy Sayers, who graduated with a First in Modern Languages from Somerville College, Oxford, a poet, novelist, critic and translator of Dante, making such a vulgar error. Cherubim is a plural. The singular is cherub. In Hebrew, the plural of masculine nouns takes -im. Compare seraphim, kibbutzim, goyim. Writing cherubims is as redundant as writing angelses.



I’ve just been re-reading Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat, and was struck by the following sentence: ‘She would be cold and hard and purposeful and vile.’

That’s a good sentence, isn’t it? I like the way it comes crashing down on that heavy, emotive word vile. But vile didn’t always mean what it means today. Today it means utterly foul, loathsome, sickening and disgusting. It suggests an emotional attitude of visceral repulsion. Clearly it already had that meaning or something close to it when Iris Murdoch wrote the above line, in 1970.

But a few centuries ago it simply meant worthless, of no value. The words ‘in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body’ occur in the Church of England burial service (taken from St Paul’s Epistles, but translated into English by King James I’s 47 scholars, or at least one of them, in 1611); and there ‘vile’ does nor seem to mean disgusting, but imperfect or low-grade. In 1819, Bishop Reginald Heber wrote the hymn ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains’, which includes the line ‘Every prospect pleases, and only man is vile’; here again the word doesn’t seem to mean loathsome so much as low, common or base.

It’s interesting to note that the phrase corpus vile (ie vile body in Latin) used to be used to refer to the bodies of animals that were dissected in scientific experiments: they were ‘vile’ in the sense of being dispensable, without value.

I notice, by the way, the word despise has recently undergone a similar journey. Within memory it used to mean to look down on, but now it is far more commonly used to mean loathe or detest.

Two-word towns

I was in Exeter yesterday, teaching a course. I like Exeter. Beautiful Norman/Gothic cathedral, lovely people, and  a brilliant second-hand bookshop (Hospiscare Books and Antiques Shop in South Street). Devon has long been one of my favourite counties. And here’s an interesting thing about Devon: it has a large number of towns/villages with two-word names. Examples: Newton Abbot, Combe Martin, Bovey Tracey, Budleigh Salterton, Bishop’s Tawton, Ottery St Mary and the wonderfully-named Westward Ho! (though that last one is a special case, being named after a novel by Charles Kingsley). I don’t think other English counties have these two-noun settlements, or not to the same extent. Any explanations welcome.

Gloriously understated

The other day, in Sainsbury’s, I noticed the Higgidy range of pies, tempting little meals for one in their colourful boxes, each variety with its own shoutline: thus the chicken and bacon pie is quietly cheering, the spicy chicken and coconut pie is vibrant and warming, the cauliflower cheese pie is entirely comforting, the mushroom pie is velvety and vegan and the spinach, feta and pine kernel pie is… gloriously understated.

Gloriously understated? Oh, do sod off. This is an oxymoron which might in some contexts be effective, eg to describe a writer’s use of irony, or someone wearing a very simple outfit to a red-carpet event. But to describe a pie? No pie should be understated. A pie should be big and fat and golden and greasy and crammed with rich flavours. An overstated, pie, yes, OK. Now you’ve got me interested. But an understated pie – let alone a gloriously understated one – is welcome to go and eat itself, as far as I’m concerned.


I was watching The Chase the other day (yes, I know: virtually any other activity would have been a better use of my time) and I noticed that the presenter, Bradley Walsh, pronounced the word mongrel as it is spelt (a spelling pronunciation, as it is known) – that is to say with the first syllable rhyming with con. This pronunciation is quite common, although it is not the traditional one. The traditional pronunciation is of course mungrel.

Why is this? Well, I do happen to know the answer, because I learned it at university when I was doing my English degree. Long ago, before the printing press was invented, manuscripts were copied by hand, usually by monks. Their calligraphy involved the use of minims – that is, downward strokes of the quill for straight lines. But when you got a lot of minims together – eg when you got a u next to an n or m – then that was quite difficult to read. It looked like a bunch of four or five (or seven, if the u was sandwiched between an n and an m) downward strokes all crammed up together. So to get round this, when they came to that letter combination, they used an o instead of a u. So words like mungrel, as it would then have been both spelt and pronounced, came to be written as mongrel. The same is true for monk, incidentally.

See it, Say it, SHUT UP!

Is anyone else driven to a frenzy of irritation by that public security announcement one keeps hearing at stations: See it, Say it, Sorted? It’s all over the place – both on the Underground and national rail networks. I have heard it in Lancashire, Lincolnshire and London. As soon as the voice begins ‘This is a security announcement…’ I grit my teeth in anticipation of what’s coming; and when it finally gets to that bright, smug, ineluctable, barely grammatical “See it, Say it, Sorted!” I want to cover my ears and shout out ‘La la la can’t hear you!’ like a little kid in the playground.

I’d be curious to know if the creative genius who thought up that slogan is still proud of themselves, or if, like me, they cringe whenever they hear it. I would like to think it is the latter.

The Bristol L

I am in Bristol today, teaching a training course, and enjoying the colourful, characterful Bristolian dialect. One of the learners on the course has just been telling me about the ‘Bristol L’that is, the Bristol habit of adding the /l/ sound between or after vowels. Drawing becomes drawling; an idea is an ideal; a banana a bananal.

Thus one could say: “I’ve had an ideal – I’ll buy a bananal in Asdal”.