Skip to content

Cooking up a storm

There was a daytime cookery programme on recently – I wasn’t really watching it, but I was in the room – and the presenter promised us that later a celebrity guest would be ‘cooking up a storm’.

Cooking up a storm. What does that imbecilic cliché mean? Does it just mean cooking? I think so, more or less, but it seems to suggest a certain intensity, a bravura quality about the performance: if you are cooking up a storm you are really cooking. But would anyone ever use it in real life? No. Not unless in real life you present a daytime cookery programme.


The true meaning of lager

A couple of weeks ago I went on a trip to a local micro-brewery with some family and friends. The trip involved a talk about the brewing process and lots of beer-tasting; it was arranged by my wife, proving beyond all doubt that she is capable of organising a piss-up in a brewery.

It was on this day that I learned the origin of the word lager. What I did not know was that although ale and lager are produced by a similar process with similar ingredients, they use different kinds of brewer’s yeast: the yeast used in the making of lager takes much longer to ferment and leads to a fizzier and stronger brew. You can make ale in a week, but brewing lager can take anything from six weeks to six months. So it has to be stored for longer, and that is where the name comes from, because the German word for storage is lager.

And here is another interesting fact. Mass-produced German beers such as Beck’s – you’d think they were lagers, right? But if you look at the label on the bottle it doesn’t say lager. And the reason for that is that the big multinational brewers use various technical processes to speed up the fermentation, so that it takes only a few hours. Under the German regulations a beer must be stored for at least six weeks to be entitled to be called a lager. So although Beck’s tastes like a lager, they are not allowed to call it one.


I’ve recently been working on a sample chapter for a series of children’s books I hope to write; and the other day I showed the chapter to Fred before I sent it to the publishers, to see what he thought. (At 14 he is a little old for it but he is the nearest thing to a child in our house now, apart from the dog, who can’t read.) The following dialogue ensued:

ME: So? What do you think?

FRED: It’s lit.

ME: (Shyly pleased) Really? You think it’s literature?

FRED: No, I said it’s lit.

ME: What do you mean? ‘Lit’ is short for literature, like in English lit. Isn’t that what you meant?

FRED: No. it’s just, you know, that’s what people say: ‘It’s lit, man’.

ME: So what does that mean? Does it mean it’s really good?

FRED: It’s just, you know, lit.

ME: Is it another word for ‘marvellous’?

FRED: No one says ‘marvellous’.

ME: But it does mean it’s good?

FRED: Spose. (Shrugs and goes out of room).

So now I have a new word. I sent my manuscript off to the publishers. I hope they think it’s lit, man.

Just (sic) William

I was reading Melanie Reid’s column in The Times today and she referred to the Just (sic) William stories. This recalled to me a post I did over five years ago about what those marvellous stories ought to be called. If you have been following this blog that long you’ll have seen it before, but if not it will be new to you. Here it is:

The William books should not be called the Just William books. They should be called the William books. But virtually everyone refers to them as the Just William books.

It came about like this. The first ever William book was entitled Just – William (note that dash, which seems to have been airbrushed out of literary history). All the later books had the name William in the title, but Just never reappeared; they were called such things as William the Outlaw, William the Good, William the Bad, William the Fourth, Sweet William etc etc. Yet somehow the title of the first book, minus the dash, stuck, and they came to be referred to as the Just William stories (perhaps by analogy with Kipling’s Just So stories?) When a TV series was made of these books in the 60s it was entitled Just William, and ever since that’s been the preferred term for the books and even for the character himself.

True William aficionados don’t like this, however – just as true Dr Who fans insist that their man is called The Doctor, not Doctor Who. But it’s probably too late to do anything about it now. Just William is the standard form, and whenever I refer to the William books people always say ‘Oh, you mean Just William?’ It’s easier to nod than go through all this.

What children call adults

I’ve just been re-reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole – and a jolly entertaining read it is too. But one thing that struck me was how children’s style of referring to grown-ups has changed since the book was published (1984). Adrian refers throughout to the neighbour who runs off with his (Adrian’s) mum as Mr Lucas. And that’s the way it was – back in the day kids always referred to adults by surname. As children we knew all the neighbours down our road by their surnames – the Browns, the Foots, the Spongs, the Strettons and so on. Times have changed and now my kids probably don’t even know the surnames of most of our neighbours. They are on first-name terms with all of them. The only place children now address or refer to adults by their surnames is at school.

Adults who were close friends of the family, however, (I’m talking about the 60s and 70s here) were sometimes called not by their surnames but Auntie or Uncle Whoever. I was about six or seven before I worked out who were the real aunties and uncles and who were the pretend ones. Do kids today still do that? I don’t think they do. As a matter of fact the kids who really are my nieces and nephews hardly ever call me uncle. Another sign of the growing informality of our language.

Bewitched, bothered and beleaguered

I was reading the sports section of the Guardian today when I had to stop and shake my head in disbelief at the following sentence, perpetrated by Barney Ronay: ‘It is tempting at this point to describe the Dijon goal as “beleaguered”. But this would assume, incorrectly, it was ever actually leaguered in the first place.’

Oh, come on, Ronay. I mean, just come on.

Beleageured means besieged. So what Ronay is trying to say is that one could describe the Dijon goal as ‘besieged’, but this would assume, incorrectly, it was ever actually sieged in the first place.


Well, I pretend incomprehension, but I can see what Ronay was trying to do. He actually meant that the Dijon goal was besieged (by Paris St Germain) at a particular point in the game but that it had never not been besieged. And he assumed that be- was a negative prefix, like de- or -un – in which case leaguered would mean unbeleaguered.

He was wrong about that because be- is not a negative prefix. So the wordplay falls on its face. But observe how laborious is the task of decoding and explaining Ronay’s convoluted attempt at wit He’s just making life difficult for his readers. Ronay is one of those journalists (Matthew Norman and Hugo Rifkind also spring to mind) who like to advertise how clever they are in everything they write. But this is wearisome to read. Please, keep it simple, chaps. Try to focus the reader’s attention on the subject you are writing about, rather than your own brilliance.

Lead on Macduff

Last night I went to see Darkest Hour – an excellent film, with magnificent cinematography and a superb performance from Gary Oldman, if just a little hokey in parts. But there was one line of dialogue from Churchill that irritated me. As he’s following someone out of a room he says ‘Lead on, Macduff!’

Lead on Macduff. This facetious expression is a common misquotation from Macbeth. Macbeth would never ask Macduff to lead on. He and Macduff are sworn enemies. What Macbeth actually says is ‘Lay on Macduff – and damned be him who first cries “Hold, enough!”’ In other words, ‘Bring it on Macduff – let’s fight to the death!’

Churchill loved Shakespeare and frequently quoted from his plays. According to Richard Langworth, in fact, Churchill in his speeches and writings quoted from or alluded to no fewer than sixteen of Shakespeare’s plays – including Macbeth. (See

There is simply no way Churchill would have perpetrated that fatuous misquotation. It marred the verisimilitude of the film for me. (So did that scene on the underground, of course.)