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midrift (sic)

My friend David Alterman recently alerted me to a rather endearing mispronunciation: ex-footballer Steve Sidwell, commentating on the Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur FA Cup tie (a tragic result for Spurs; but life goes on), referred to a player controlling the ball with his midrift (sic). Obviously he had heard the word but never seem it written down, and assumed it must end with a t. It reminds me of when my daughter Miranda was a really little girl and used to refer to her cardigant.

What is the derivation of midriff? I am relying on wikipedia here, but it seems it comes form an Old English word, midhrif (hrif meaning stomach). In Middle English it was written as mydryf. But after the 18th century (by which time, I assume, the word had arrived at its modern spelling, midriff) the word became obsolete, according to wikipedia. And it was not revived until the 1940s, as a respectable alternative to the word belly, which people had become sensitive about using (wikipedia says this was because belly connoted obesity, but I think it’s because belly was often used informally to refer to a somewhat lower-down part of a woman’s anatomy).

So anyway, it’s midriff not midrift. A slight pity, because that means there is no rhyme in English for spindrift.


Making a spectacle of yourself

I have recently been noticing a new gesture, or posture, adopted by people for posed photographs. Maybe it’s not new, maybe I have only just become aware of it; because the very first time I was conscious of seeing it, I felt there was something familiar about it. The pose consists in touching or holding the right-hand side of the frame of one’s glasses while looking straight out of the photograph at the viewer. Obviously only glasses-wearers can do it; and so far I have only ever seen men doing it. Recent examples include Sathnam Sanghera in the byline photo for his Times column; Chris Evans in the ad for his new radio show on Virgin; and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s picture in some balls-aching story about Brexit in the Independent.

What does the gesture signify? Such a gesture would not be done haphazardly when one knew one was being photographed; it must signify something. Yet it is hard to put one’s finger on it exactly. I do know it conveys a message. I feel it conveys a message. I just can’t quite pin it down. Let me try. First, it suggests a certain informality and humanness: ‘Look, I’m normal, I make these little movements, I adjust my glasses just like you do.’ Then again, it seems to imply a certain intelligence and alertness, as though the subject was adjusting his specs to scrutinise something more keenly; and the gesture of course draws attention to the glasses, which have long been a metonym for braininess. And something about the directness of the movement, combined with the gazing straight ahead out of the photo, also suggests confidence and authority, even in the Evans example where he is grinning a great big goofy grin.

I know this post isn’t about the English language as such, but it is about body language, so I think it is within my remit. In fact research by Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLA finds that only 7% of verbal communication which involves feelings and attitudes is to do with the actual words spoken: the rest is tone of voice, facial expression – and body language.

“take no lectures”

I see that Emily Thornberry in the Guardian says that Labour will ‘take no lectures’ from Theresa May about respecting democracy. God, how I hate this tiresome, snitty, intellectually feeble but rabble-rousing Question-Time-style cliché. Take no lectures. What does it mean? It means, roughly, ‘I don’t actually have much of an answer to your point but I don’t need one because you’re just as bad as me, in fact you’re worse.’ There is a term in philosophy  for this kind of argument: tu quoque (which means ‘you too’). It is a logically fallacious argument, for a proposition advanced by a hypocrite may nevertheless be true. ‘Smoking is bad for you’ is still true even if it is said by somebody puffing on a cigar. Its widespread use in political discourse (and Thornberry is very far from being the only culprit; it’s beloved of both left and right) is symptomatic of our dreadful tribal, adversarial political culture, where utterances are judged not according to their content but according to who says them.

Not my monkey

Here is a nice expression, courtesy of the character Peter Barlow in Coronation Street: “Not my monkey, not my circus” – meaning, This is not my problem and I don’t have to deal with it. It’s like “Not my pigeon”, I suppose, but more picturesque; and I like the way it moves from the particular to the general. The expression somehow works even though monkeys are not well-known for appearing in circuses. I wonder if it is a real expression, or did a clever scriptwriter make it up?

Trip a Little Light Fantastic

Just been to see Mary Poppins Returns with the family. It’s an enjoyable two hours and fans of the original won’t be annoyed by it: the storyline is consistent with Mary Poppins and it is extremely faithful to the spirit and the aesthetic of the earlier film. It’s not groundbreaking and the songs aren’t as good as the Sherman brothers’ songs but it is a respectful homage and has lots of spectacular scenes; and the acting performances are brilliant.

This isn’t supposed to be a film review, however. I wanted to comment on one of the big set-piece numbers, Trip a Little Light Fantastic. This song, sung by the lamplighter Jack (Bert the chimneysweep’s equivalent), is all about how if you get lost in the dark you could give up and despair or… you can trip a little light fantastic! Now trip the light fantastic is a jocular phrase meaning to dance. It was used by David Essex in his song ‘Me and my Girl’; and no doubt Procol Harum’s ‘skipped the light fandango’ in ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is a version of the same expression. It is a curious phrase, which if analysed logically makes no sense at all. That’s because it is a corruption of some lines by Milton in his 1645 poem L’Allegro: ‘Come, and trip it as you go/ On the light fantastic toe’. In Milton’s poem ‘light’ means that one’s toes, or feet, are light; and ‘fantastic’, also referring to the toes, means ‘imaginative’. In modern parlance, however, these meanings have been forgotten, and the whole thing is just a fancy way of saying dancing. In Mary Poppins Returns, the phrase is somehow stretched to mean both dancing and finding light in the darkness, a meaning embodied by having a load of lamplighters lighting lamps as they dance around.

Shanks’s pony

I was thinking today about the expression Shanks’s pony, meaning the legs as a means of locomotion: that is to say, walking. (“How are we getting there?” Shanks’s pony”.) I like that expression. I don’t know where or when it originated. Brewer’s Dictionary gives it as a variant of Shanks’s mare, and also offers going by the Marrowbone Stagecoach (a pun on the Marylebone stagecoach, I’m guessing) and going by Walker’s bus as alternatives.

Most speakers of British or antipodean English are familiar with Shanks’s pony, if not the alternatives; but for some reason the expression is unknown in American English. They have their own completely different version instead: the Ankle Express.

That’s all I have to say about Shanks’s pony. Happy New Year, everyone!


My children gave me a stocking this Christmas, with such welcome goodies as socks, pens, chocolate and a bottle of Chivas Regal therein – and also a book, sourced from a second-hand bookshop, called Tom Merry and Co. of St. Jim’s by Frank Richards. Now, I know Frank Richards’ Greyfriars stories (starring Harry Wharton and Billy Bunter etc) very well indeed; but I knew much less about his St Jim’s stories, so I read it with pleasure and interest. The boys at St Jim’s use all the same slang as the Greyfriars bunch: Rats, Go and eat coke, You howling ass, You image etc and, the subject of this post, fathead.

Fathead. That’s a funny insult. It’s not unique to Frank Richards. Enid Blyton used it a lot too. But I have never heard it used in real life. No one ever says it. It’s a word that is used only in books. And in fact, when I first came across it I didn’t understand it and thought it was pronounced fath-eed. Are there any other words, I wonder, which appear only in books, not in real life? The only similar example I can think of, off the top of my head, is the expression Naff off, which was invented for the sitcom Porridge. The strange thing about that one is that, post-Porridge, people did start saying it in real life, for a while at least. But I have still never heard anyone say fathead.