Skip to content

On the perils of sports-writers trying to be clever

If you have the misfortune to be a fan of Tottenham Hotspur, then like me you will have experienced that familiar sickening feeling of disappointment and dismay at their pathetic toothless performance against AC Milan the other night. Bad as that was, however, it wasn’t quite as bad as reading the review of the match by Henry Winter in the Times the next day. This is what Mr Winter had to say about Cristian Romero getting himself sent off for two reckless challenges: 

            ‘Romero, Romero, wherefore art thou’s brains?’

            Isn’t that dreadful? It gives me an almost physical pain. How do I hate it? Let me count the ways. 

First, because of its horrible mangling of a famous line from Shakespeare in the service of a joke that’s about as funny as a slipped disc. 

Second, for the witless misunderstanding of the word wherefore. Wherefore means why, as any fule kno. When Juliet asks ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ she means ‘Why are you Romeo?’ – ie why did you have to be Romeo; why couldn’t you come from a family who aren’t sworn enemies of my family? 

And third: thou’s. I mean, come on. Just come on. Does Winter really not know that the possessive form of thou is thy? And even if he doesn’t, isn’t his spellcheck working?  There’s no way you could type that imbecilic coinage without incurring a squiggly red line. 

The worst of it is that Winter is Chief Football Writer on the Times. The chief? Good God, what are the others like? 


Deeply salient

This post is something of a delayed reaction: the offending phrase appeared in The Times about five weeks ago and I did not get round to commenting at the time; but it has niggled at my mind ever since and at last I have to speak out. A columnist called Sebastian Payne was writing about some problem he’d identified (I no longer remember what) and he described it as ‘deeply salient’. 

            Deeply salient. 

            What the…?

He meant, of course, ‘deeply serious’ or ‘deeply significant’. Maybe he’d looked up important in a thesaurus and salient came up as a synonym. And so it is, in many contexts. But the literal meaning of salient is sticking out, jutting, projecting, prominent. This doesn’t fit with deeply at all. The effect is oxymoronic. Of course, salient in the sense of important is a metaphor, and one without much life in it – but it’s not so totally dead that the literal meaning has been forgotten. Shape up, Payne. We expect better from someone who gets paid to write. 


My daughter works at a climbing wall in Walthamstow, in the cafeteria. Last week she was chatting to a colleague about some object of her disapproval or other, and several times used the word ‘lame’, meaning substandard and pathetic. The third time she said it, the colleague turned round and said ‘I don’t think you should use that word. It’s disablist.’ 

            Well, there’s no denying that it is. If I actually were lame, and heard someone using the word in this sense, I’d think… well, I don’t know what I’d think. Would I be offended? I’d like to think that I wouldn’t be. I also think that compared to some of the disablist terms that were common currency when I was young – spaz, mong etc – lame is pretty tame. However, I can see that there is the potential for offence here. Ros was suitably chastened, anyway, and won’t use the word in that way again. 

            Are the Offence Police over-zealous? There’s no doubt that sometimes they are. But in this case? I’m really not sure. Views welcome. 

Spot the Error

I do a lot of walking in London, just for fun, especially on Sundays. Sometimes I go on specific routes recommended in books. Recently I was perusing a book by Andrew Duncan, Secret London, to see if he had any tempting trails to offer. And in the section on Westminster I came upon the following: ‘Inside the Palace of Westminster’s clocktower is a little prison cell where suffragette Emily Pankhurst was detained for a time in the early twentieth century’. 

Can you spot the error? 

Obviously, that should be Emmeline Pankhurst. How could Duncan make such a mistake? That she was imprisoned in the clocktower is a somewhat recondite piece of information; how could he contrive to know it without knowing her name? And how could his editors let the mistake through? 

Sadly, this crass error is fairly common. Possibly it stems from a confusion with another famous suffragette, Emily Davison. But such carelessness smacks of sexism. I think it unlikely that a male figure of comparable fame from that period would be misnamed; would anyone refer to Herbert Asquith as Hubert Asquith? 

I’m back

I’ve suspended posting on this blog for the last couple of years – for no particular reason, except that I’d been doing it for nearly a decade and that seemed long enough. But I’ve decided to return to it, prompted by a recent review of my book on political philosophy, Should a Liberal State Ban the Burqa?, which I feel the urge to share. Here it is


And I’ll be writing more posts about the state of the English Language soon.

It’s good to be back.


A neighbour recently asked if we’d like to meet for ‘bin-drinks’ over the Christmas period. Isn’t that a great new coinage? It means, obviously, having drinks in the front garden next to the wheelie-bins. Of course we accepted the invitation. Who would turn down bin-drinks? It makes me want to invite the whole neighbourhood over just so I can use that expression. Can’t help feeling rather sad that it will lapse into disuse when the covid-crisis is over… 

I might

Here’s an interesting usage I’ve been noticing recently – mostly because I use it a good deal myself. It’s the deployment of might to mean will, shall or going to. For example: I might stop off and have a pint while I’m there. Or: I might finish that curry that’s in the pan. Or: I might knock off work for the day now…

In all these cases I am absolutely going to do the thing proposed, there’s no doubt about that. But saying I might do it sounds more polite, somehow. More tentative, more reasonable, less of an egotistical statement of intent. I’m not the only person who uses might in this way. My wife does too. Is this widespread? And is it a recent phenomenon, or has it been going on for ages and I’ve only just noticed? 

Murie Xmas

So, here we are in December again. It is time, if one hasn’t done so already, to send Xmas cards, buy an Xmas tree, do Xmas shopping… 

Xmas. That’s an annoying abbreviation, isn’t it? I have always disliked it. It always struck me as somehow brash and vulgar and seemed to have no rhyme or reason behind it: Xmas neither looks nor sounds anything like Christmas.

But there is a reason behind it. The in this case stands for the Ancient Greek letter X (chi) which is usually transliterated as Kh.The Greek word for Christ is Khristos. Therefore is simply an abbreviation for Christ – reasonably enough, since the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Christianity can be abbreviated as Xtianity – and is, throughout the whole of the novel Augustus Carp, by Himself (Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man). (By the way, if you have not read this wonderful satirical comic novel, published in 1924, you really ought to.) And so Xmas = Christmas – and they should be pronounced the same. (Though perhaps strictly speaking it should be written Xtmas.)

The other word I feel like musing on today is merry. We hardly use this word at all the rest of the year, but it comes into its own about now. It derives from Old English myrge, meaning ‘pleasing, agreeable’; in Middle English it took the form mirie or murie. It derives from a proto-Germanic word, murgijaz, meaning short-lasting (thanks to the online etymological dictionary etymonline for that). Presumably it evolved into its present meaning from the idea that time flies when you’re having fun. Apart from Merry Christmas, its other uses are the slightly outdated term merry to mean pleasantly tipsy; the phrase to lead someone a merry dance; and merry England, used to denote a mythical Middle Ages where everyone feasted and drank and danced around maypoles. 

Murie Xmas, everybody!

Linguistic imperialism

Has anyone else noticed that the traditional expression in the light of has dropped its definite article over the last few years, and now takes the slimmed-down form of in light of? I first noticed this in philosophy articles and papers but it has become more widespread. I have a feeling, which I could not substantiate with evidence, that the change is American in origin. Which is odd because in some contexts Americans are keener on the definite article than we are: they tend to say in the hospital where a British speaker would say in hospital. 

While we are on the subject of the influence of American on British English, has anybody noticed the creeping use of likely as a synonym for probably? As in ‘The game will likely go to extra time’. Not keen on that. In British English, likely belongs to that small groups of adjectives which end in -ly, even though though -ly is the regular suffix for adverbs. Others include friendly, spindly and leisurely. To my British ears, likely used adverbially sounds crashingly wrong. But American linguistic imperialism is irresistible and we’ll likely – I mean probably! – all be using it before long.

Leyton and Leystonstone

Always nice when a mystery is cleared up. Actually in this case it wasn’t exactly a mystery, just something I didn’t know but never wondered about much. It’s only a mystery in retrospect. 

I grew up in a part of East London called Leyton. Adjoining it was another suburb called Leytonstone. There was no clear demarcation between them; one just shaded into the other. As a boy I was always aware that Leytonstone seemed a little bit posher than Leyton. I used to go to the shops there with my mum. It had a cinema and a department store, Bearman’s, which billed itself as ‘a West End store in the East End’. But it didn’t occur to me to wonder about that stone suffix. I took it for granted. Where did it come from and what did it mean? – These were questions I never asked myself. 

Well. A few days ago I was out on a run, which took me through part of Leytonstone, and I ran past the standing stone you see in the picture. I have passed this stone while running, walking and driving probably a hundred times and never stopped to investigate. But on this occasion I did. 

Next to the stone is a plaque which states that the obelisk is called the High Stone, it is a mile marker giving the distances to Hyde Park, Whitechapel, Epping and Ongar, it has stood there since the early eighteenth century and ‘The name Leytonstone means the part of Leyton near the Stone’. The current obelisk is a replacement dating from the 1930s, the first Stone having been damaged by a vehicle; but its base is a remnant of the original 18th century structure. 

How about that? The answer to a question I never asked has been standing right there in plain view all my life.