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Emma, Shirley, Rebecca

Emma, Shirley, Rebecca: what do those names have in common? Yes, that’s right, they are all the titles of famous novels.

I think there is an asymmetry in English novel titles, in that a one-word title which is a woman’s first name is not at all uncommon (I could also have mentioned Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, Fanny Burney’s Camilla, Andre Gide’s Madeleine, Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Stephen King’s Carrie); but a one-word title which is a man’s first name is rare or non-existent. Novels are sometimes given men’s names for titles, but then you get the surname too: Joseph Andrews, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, Silas Marner, Barry Lyndon, etc. In fact sometimes the first name is dispensed with and the surname alone designates the male protagonist (Babbitt, Enderby). But that would never happen with a female protagonist.

Explanations welcome (I assume it has something to do with patriarchy).

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Why isn’t it ‘teethpaste’?

I’ve just read an interesting item on the Merriam-Webster website, which was retweeted by Stephen Pinker: why do we say toothpaste, rather than teethpaste? After all, you use the stuff to clean all of your teeth, not just one of them.

But while teethpaste might be logical, it would not be English. For it turns out – and once this is pointed out you realise you kind of knew it all along – that there is a rule that whenever a compound word includes a body part, that body part is always singular. Thus we say legwarmers, not legswarmers, and shinpads rather than shinspads. This rule holds not just for nouns but adjectives too (rib-tickling, not ribs-tickling, ear-splitting rather than ears-splitting).

So we’ve all learned something there, I think, even though at an unconscious level we already knew it.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Bonce

I was thinking today about the slang word bonce, meaning head. Bonce. I like that word. There is something very comical about it. I decided to look it up in my massive great Oxford English Dictionary and there I discovered that a bonce was originally a type of large marble; the word is first recorded in the 19th century but nobody knows its origin. The OED cites two examples of its use as a slang term for ‘head’: in 1909, somebody called R. Ware wrote in Passing English, “Look out, or I’ll fetch you a whack across the bonce”; and in 1962, Len Deighton wrote in The Ipcress File, “This threat is going to be forever hanging over your bonce like Damocles’ chopper”.

The word has a dated air now; but so do all the slang words for head that I remember from my youth. Does anyone still say nut, napper, dome, swede or loaf?

I don’t know what occasioned these thoughts. They just floated into my bonce.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Japanese words

I was thinking recently about the extraordinary number of Japanese words that have found their way into English in the last three or four decades. I don’t mean loan-words, but words that are in everyday use, which would not when used in normal prose be written in italics (the key sign that a foreign word has not quite made itself at home). Examples include, but are not limited to: anime, bento, bonsai, emoji, futon, geisha, haiku, hara-kiri, ikebana, judo, karaoke, karate, kimono, koi, manga, origami, samurai, sashimi, satsuma, shiitake, sudoku, sumo, sushi, tempura, tsunami and umami.

The point is that these are not just words; in many cases we have the actual things as well. Yet familiar as the things may be, they still retain a distinctive air of Japanese-ness. Can any other Asian language rival this impact on English? I don’t think so. Clearly Japan is a cultural powerhouse – extraordinary when you consider that its population is about a tenth of China’s, or India’s.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Musings on the letter W

I’ve just come back from a philosophy conference at the University of Minho in Braga, Portugal, and one of the things I noticed is that they call the toilet the WC over there. The WC – now, why is that, I wonder? The term is an English one – short for “water closet” – but is rarely used in English, so I am puzzled as to why it has become such a popular export, especially to languages where the letter W is rare or non-existent. French, which also uses the term WC, does have a W but it’s very seldom used; in French Scrabble the W is worth 10, and if you get it pretty much the only words you can put it in are wagon and weekend. But Portuguese doesn’t even have a W in its alphabet, although it occasionally uses the letter for foreign words. Very strange.

The W is an interesting and, strictly speaking, a redundant letter. We think of it as a consonant, but it is actually what linguists call a demi-vowel – it is the vowel oo pronounced very briefly before another vowel (try it – water is really pronounced oo-ater, if you say the oo quickly enough). The other demi-vowel in English is y – that is, the vowel ee pronounced very briefly before another vowel.

So languages like French, Spanish and Portuguese do actually have the sound w – they just don’t have, or they hardly ever have, the letter. Except in WC. Strange, that.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Observations occasioned by marking a shitload of essays

Here is another batch of common uses/misuses of English I’ve spotted whilst marking several score OU essays this summer:

Within used in place of in (“the protagonist within this novel”). Sounds odd to me, as if one is talking about something physically present between the pages; but they’re all doing it. I suspect this is because within has twice as many syllables as in, and so is thought to sound more impressive.

Simplistic used in place of simple. There’s no awareness that simplistic has a different meaning from simple (it means excessively or inappropriately simple); again it seems to be chosen just for the extra syllables.

Cleverly, as term of praise for author’s technique (“Stevenson cleverly makes Long John Silver a morally ambiguous character”). This one is really popular. It irks me considerably. One shouldn’t pat great writers on the head.

Asserts, instead of claims or argues (“Philippe Aries asserts that childhood as a distinct stage of life was not recognised until the late Middle Ages”). The unintended effect is to make the critic sound as if they are making dogmatic claims, simply asserting things without evidence or argument.

Incredibly as an intensifier (“Alice in Wonderland was an incredibly influential book”). To me, incredibly is too colloquial for an academic essay – I would choose highly or extremely instead – but to the large number of students who use it, it must sound appropriately scholarly.

But this is what mystifies me: why are these usages so widespread and where are the students getting them from? Not from the texts they’ve read on the courses, that’s for sure. The students come from all over the country and are unknown to each other – what’s the common source for these common errors? It as if there is an invisible cloud of bad-essay-language, drifting across the land like airborne bacteria. 

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Lead or led?

I’m in the middle of what feels like an endless sea of marking, having undertaken marking duties on three Open University courses this summer; and, as usual, when marking so many essays one starts to see patterns across them, new trends in English, new usages, newly popular errors and so on. One that I have seen a great deal of is the use of lead in place of led, as in “The development of the railways lead to the rise of the British seaside resort”, or “Romanticism lead to a new conception of childhood”. I always take a petty, private revenge on this mistake by pronouncing lead to rhyme with feed in my mind as I’m reading.

It’s an interesting mistake, though. It is logical enough, in a way: the word read, for example, changes its pronunciation but not its spelling in the past tense, so why shouldn’t lead? What’s more, the element lead (Pb) is spelt lead but pronounced led. And indeed in American English there’s no such word as led – it’s spelt lead for the present tense, the past tense and the past participle. So one can see why there is a pull to replace led with lead in British English too; and it wouldn’t surprise me if led became obsolete in the next few years.

Incidentally, here’s an interesting fact about the band Led Zeppelin. When they first formed, so I’ve heard, they called themselves Lead Zeppelin – lead as in the metal, that is. I like this surrealist idea of something being made out of a material totally unsuited to its purpose (like Meret Oppenheim’s fur tea-set). But they had to change it to Led as too many people didn’t know how to pronounce it.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.