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A new bit of rhyming slang

Today my daughter Ros was on her way out and said, “Oh, I need my dog and bone.” Bit of Cockney rhyming slang, you know. When she’d found the phone and was about to leave I said, “And have you got your…” (searching for a rhyme for wallet)… “Tobias Smollet?”

Tobias Smollet. That’s a good new bit of rhyming slang, isn’t it? Where’s my Tobias? The receipts are in my Tobias. I bought him a nice new leather Tobias for Christmas. Etc etc.

Who thinks it will catch on?



Has it ever struck you that the word quite has two different meanings? And they’re almost contrary meanings. If it is applied to what is called a gradable adjective – that is to say, an adjective of which there can be degrees, like warm or nice or good – then it means to a moderate extent, and tends to imply a dilution of the quality. Something that’s quite good isn’t as good as something that’s good.

But when it is applied to an ungradable adjective – one which is all or nothing, such as true, or perfect, then it means absolutely – it is no longer a diluter but an intensifier: quite true, quite perfect, quite hopeless.

In this latter sense it used to be used on its own to denote agreement, as one might say “Absolutely” or, these days, “A hundred per cent”. You don’t hear it used in that way much today. But I remember a ghost story I read when I was a child, by Henry Cecil, which employed the word quite in this way to great effect in the final line. The story was an account, told by a stranger in an inn, about two men who fell to their deaths from a mountain. A lawyer who happened to be in the company cross-examined the raconteur and having established that there were no witnesses, triumphantly pointed out that the story could not be true; “unless,” he added facetiously, “you are the ghost of one of the men.”

“Quite,” said the stranger, and vanished.


Mark Petchey is still at it with the malapropisms: he has just referred to Wawrinka having only a slither of the court to aim at.

No, Petchey. He had a sliver to aim at. A sliver. Repeat after me: a sliver.

An oratorical question

I’m watching the French Open (or Roland Garros as we must now call it) quarter-final between Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, and I have just heard commentator Mark Petchey say to his commentator, “I assume that’s an oratorical question”.

An oratorical question. That’s a rare case of a malapropism that nevertheless still makes sense.

A brilliant pun

I love a good pun (of course like everybody else I hate a bad pun) and today I came across a brilliant one. It occurred in a Mick Herron novel, Real Tigers (if you don’t know Herron’s fantastic, witty, cynical spy novels, get started on them as soon as you can). Dialogue between two characters:

“…Horses for courses.”

“I know they do.”

You might need to say that aloud to get it.

Thoughts of a grumpy examiner

I am marking a load of exam scripts right now. As always, I am struck by how the same expressions, errors, solecisms, clichés and tropes crop up again and again, from students all over the country. It is as if they have conferred with each other and agreed on a stock vocabulary. Here are a few:

the word assert used in place of claim, maintain or argue (particularly common, and particularly annoying, in philosophy essays);

bias used as an adjective (instead of biased);

however used as a conjunction (instead of but);

within used instead of in;

this consistently used in place of which in non-defining relative causes (in fact this use of which seems to be going extinct)

therefor instead of therefore;

and, in creative writing assignments, a widespread inability to punctuate dialogue correctly.

Do I sound grumpy? Very well then, I sound grumpy, I am large, I contain grumpiness.

colliding with a bridge

I was at Victoria Station yesterday and an announcement came over the tannoy that a service had been cancelled because a train had ‘collided with a bridge’. Can anything collide with a bridge (except during an earthquake)? I was taught that a collision was when two moving objects came into contact, not when one moving object hit a stationary one.

But what else could the announcer have said? ‘A train crashed into a bridge’. ‘A train smashed into a bridge.’ These ways of putting it, though more accurate, sound rather emotive and violent and might have alarmed passengers. I can’t think of a neutral, official-sounding way of giving the information; so maybe collide, though not strictly accurate, was the best choice in terms of register.