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Out and out-out

Sometimes I ask one or both of my two daughters, Miranda (21) and Ros (18), ‘Are you going out tonight?’

And often they reply, ‘Yes, but not out-out.’

It’s an interesting and useful distinction that they’ve evolved. Going out just means going somewhere local, to the pub, say, or round to a friend’s house. But going out-out means dancing at a club, or going to an all-night party. If they say they’re going out, I expect them back before midnight; but if they say they’re going out-out, they won’t return until dawn.


Poignant revisited

I see that the model and actor Lily Cole has been in the news because of her appointment as a creative partner for the bicentenary celebrations of Emily Bronte’s birth. Some have argued that she isn’t qualified for the role, not being a writer herself; and literary scholar Nick Holland has resigned from the Bronte society saying that Emily would never have approved the appointment. Obviously the words storm and teacup come irresistibly to mind. But the reason I am writing about the affair is Lily Cole’s choice of words when defending her appointment. She said: “2018 offers us both the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the UK, and the 200th anniversary of Emily Bronte’s birth, so it feels poignant to begin the year on the topic of prejudice.”

It feels poignant. What was she getting at? The word poignant means very sad. Piercingly sad. Like a thrust from a knife (from the French word for dagger, poignard). But I don’t think that is what Lily Cole meant. I think she was employing a newer usage, or misusage of the word, to mean timely, fitting, appropriate or to the point. And I think this usage has come about because poignant sounds a bit like point.

Cole is a highly educated woman, with a First in Art History from Cambridge; one might reasonably expect her to know the meaning of the words she uses in a public statement. But perhaps I shouldn’t single her out for blame; no doubt she is using the word as she has heard it used, and it is used in that way a lot. The new use is spreading so rapidly that it cannot be long before it ousts the old meaning. So far, no dictionary that I am aware of gives the new usage. But soon they will have to.

I’m not happy about this. But I think it is unstoppable. Often when one expresses sadness about the old meanings of words falling away, people respond by saying, in a superior way, “But language changes all the time, didn’t you even know that? That’s a basic fact of linguistics. You can’t arrest the development of English, so you should just accept it.”

This is obviously true, but it misses the point and is no consolation. As I’ve said before, it’s a bit like going up to a mourner at a funeral and saying “But people have to die, didn’t you even know that? It’s a basic fact of biology. You can’t stop people dying, so you should just accept it.”

Although linguistic change in general is inevitable, specific changes may be painful to live through. So I reserve my right to mourn the poignant passing of poignant.

Censoring Homer

I have often had strange and unreasonable requests for changes from editors; but the one I’ve received today takes the biscuit.

Over the summer I wrote some educational books for Scholastic International – stories in simple English for use in schools. One of these was a simplified re-telling of The Odyssey. As is well-known, that story includes a scene where Odysseus’s men are turned into pigs by the witch Circe. I’ve just received an email from an editor at Scholastic telling me that because these books will be sold to schools in the Middle East I am not allowed to mention pigs; so could I take them out?

I would feel uneasy in any case about censoring Homer in deference to religious sensibilities; but the truly ridiculous thing is that there are no religious sensibilities involved here. The Islamic prohibition is on eating pigs, not reading about them.

It really does take the biscuit, doesn’t it? It waltzes off with the jolly old Huntley and Palmer.

hooking up

Rosalind, my middle child, started university this year (at my old college, as it happens); and an old friend of mine, Sarah, whose son goes to the same university but in the year above, remarked to me that it would be nice if the two of them were to meet up there.

Well, of course it would. So I passed this on to Ros, saying, ‘Sarah says it would be good if you and her son were to hook up.’

I couldn’t see anything exceptionable in that, but Ros stared at me in incredulous disgust. ‘She said that?’

‘What’s wrong? I think it would be a good idea too.’

‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this.’

Explanations ensued, of course. In my day the phrase hook up just meant to meet up with somebody. But nowadays it means to have sex with them.

lucked out

There was a piece by Julian Baggini in yesterday’s Guardian – about Bitcoins and the casino aspects of our economy generally – in which the following sentence, or something very like it, appeared: ‘If you’re lucky you worry about paying the mortgage; if you’re a little less lucky you worry about paying the rent; if you’ve lucked out completely you worry about being kicked out of your hostel’.

I was brought up short by that phrasal verb lucked out. In the context it clearly means ‘run out of luck’; but I had always thought it meant to have some great and possibly unexpected stroke of good fortune.

I googled the phrase and discovered that in the USA and Canada, to luck out does indeed mean to get lucky; while here in Britain it means to be out of luck, just as Dr Baggini used it. So this is another of those words/phrases (like moot) which have opposite meanings on different sides of the Atlantic. The British usage seems more logical, yet it still doesn’t sound right to me – simply because I encountered the American use first, I suppose. I think I’ll avoid its use altogether from now on. Not that I ever used it much anyway.


I was thinking today about a word my father used to use to refer to gluttony. I remember him saying it about a friend of my older sister’s, who was in the habit of demolishing a whole family-sized bag of crisps in front of the telly each evening. When this was reported to him my dad responded: “That’s just pigwork!”

Pigwork. Isn’t that a great expression? My dad was from Yorkshire. What I’d like to know is, is that a known Yorkshire expression, or was it his own coinage?

Two new expressions

I like to keep up to date with slang (well, sort of up to date) by taking note of the expressions my son Fred (aged 13) brings home from school. One of the latest is calm, meaning fine, cool, OK, no worries. So for instance I might say “Did you get in trouble for forgetting to take your homework in?” and he’ll reply, “No, it’s calm.” I like that one.

Another is flex. This means to boast or, as we used to say, to swank. I asked Fred for an example of its use and he said: “If you put up a picture on Snapchat of yourself sitting in a new BMW which your dad had leased for the day, that would be flexing.” I like this one too, with its suggestion of flexing imaginary muscles.