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Over and under

A friend of mine, Mr David Alterman, has recently been enquiring about the words over and under and the range of words in which they are suffixes. In their roles as prepositions or adverbs they are simple antonyms. That’s straighforward enough. Over means above, higher or more than; under means below, lower or less than. But when we come to compound words the story is not so clear. In many cases, indeed, they are opposites – if something is underdeveloped it is not developed enough, if  overdeveloped it is developed too much. On the other hand, overtake and undertake are not opposites. It is a litte difficult to pinpoint what work the prefix is actually doing in those words. 

Moreover, under- does not always connote lack, insufficiency or subordination. Sometimes it suggests something more like strengthening or supporting: underpin, undergird, underwrite. Perhaps understand belongs to this group too? Over, meanwhile, does not always suggest excess or on-topness. There are words in which it connotes spread or extent – as in overall or overgrown (which, as Dave points out, makes an odd pairing with undergrowth). 

I don’t have a theory for why these words have acquired such diverse connotations. All I can say is that they are venerable words, found in Old English. Under was exactly the same word in Old English, while over was written ofer. (I remember learning the word ofermode from the 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon, meaning rashness or overconfidence). So they have had plenty of time over the centuries to expand their semantic reach.

Settee or sofa?

The other day I incautiously made a reference to the settee and my son Fred (16) looked at me in bewilderment. 

FRED: The what? 

BRANDON: The settee – you know, this. The sofa.

FRED: Why don’t you say ‘sofa’ then? 

BRANDON: Settee is another word for it. 

FRED: No it isn’t. 

When I was young my parents always called it the settee and the word sofa sounded distinctly posh, used by friends who were higher up in the middle class than we were. I didn’t know it then, but the settee-/sofa distinction was one of Nancy Mitford’s tests for whether the speaker was U or non-U (upper-class or non-upper-class). Settee marked you out as non-U. 

Some of Mitford’s U-forms now sound distinctly outdated, such as looking-glass rather than the non-U mirror. And the non-U toilet is far more widely used than the U lavatory. In this case, however, the U-word has won out and saying settee makes one sound old-fashioned and provincial. I don’t think I’ll use it again. 

I’m reminded of an old ‘Doctor, Doctor’ joke, which would be a nice way to conclude. Ready? 

PATIENT: Doctor, Doctor, I’ve swallowed a settee!

DOCTOR: And how are you feeling? 

PATIENT: All right so-fa. 

It’s National Poetry Day

Yes, it’s National Poetry Day. So here’s a poem for your delectation:


It rained all day today

fine prickly rain

that chills the skin and

soaks through shoes

the sky a yellowish-grey from dawn to dusk

all my emails were boring

and no one liked my tweets

the only letter was from the credit card company

a package was delivered

but it was for next door

the high point was when an angel came

stood in the garden, wings spread,

watched me wisely through the window

as I was at the sink washing up

I felt it had some kind of message for me

it wasn’t permitted to utter

I had to work it out for myself

it was one of those small black angels

that very much resemble crows

An etymological treasure-hunt

Yesterday I was doing the Times crossword and came upon the following clue: ‘Gemstone in Saxony tossed across road (8)’. After putting on my thinking cap I realised that it must be a word for a type of gemstone and that it would be an anagram of ‘SAXONY’ with ‘RD’ (the abbreviation for ‘road’) somewhere in the middle: and so came up with the answer ‘SARDONYX’ – a stone I had never heard of, but when I googled it, sure enough, there it was: a ‘parallel banded variety of the silicate mineral chalcedony’.

So that was interesting in itself: but then I got to thinking about the similarity of this word to the word ‘sardonic’. Could there be a connection? Up until then I had always assumed that sardonic was a portmanteau word: a hybrid of sarcastic and ironic.But this mineral’s name was so close to sardonic – only two letters away, and the first six letters identical – that it seemed unlikely to be a coincidence.

Unlikely things happen, however. It was a coincidence. But it turned out that sardonic has an interesting etymology in its own right. It is not a mash-up of sarcastic and ironic (the similarity with those words is a coincidence as well.) The real derivation is as follows. It comes, via Latin and French, from the Ancient Greek word sardonion, which referred to a Sardinian plant, Ranunculus Sardous. Apparently eating this plant caused one’s face to contort and convulse as if one was laughing bitterly or scornfully. (That scornful expression would probably be your last, as the plant is highly poisonous.) Isn’t that a great etymology?

Twitter clichés

I am considering coming off Twitter. It is not just the bad temper, the snark, spite, sarcasm and unreasonableness of so much of the discourse, nor is it the constant bragging and self-promotion, nor the inexhaustible supply of feeble quips and limp witticisms (though each of those things is quite bad enough, alone, to justify turning one’s back on the whole shitshow). The thing that is currently grating on me most is Twitter’s love of cliché.


“I’ll wait.”

“It’s almost as if…”

“If only there was some way of…”

These are all home-grown clichés – that is, they originated on Twitter and you seldom see them elsewhere – and they’re always trotted out with a sickeningly self-congratulatory air. Although all of recent coinage, they feel worn and tarnished; they have passed through too many hands. I don’t understand it. Personally when I notice a phrase is over-used I make a conscious decision not to use it. But it seems many people take the opposite approach: if everyone else is saying it, better join in.

The death of elision

Just watching Pointless, and an answer to one of the questions was Westminster Abbey. All three people who said it – the contestant, Alexander Armstrong and fnally Richard Osman – pronounced it the same way: Westminste’ (tiny pause) Abbey. No r, in other words. Not Westminsterabbey, which is what I would say.

This seems to be the new norm: no elision. It used to be the case that when a word ended in r, that r would be sounded if the next word began with a vowel. In fact this habit of sounding the r was so widespread that people even smuggled it in where it did not belong: Laura Norder for law and order. No longer. I’ve even recently been hearing people pronounce forever as faw (tiny pause) ever.

It isn’t only words ending in r that are affected by the change, either. The time was when the word the preceded a vowel, the vowel sound of the would be lengthened and a y sound inserted before the next word: thee yelephant, thee yapple, thee yumbrella. This form of elision, too, seems to be dying out. It’s usual now to hear people pronounce ‘the E.U’ as th’ (tiny pause) E.U. instead of thee Yee-You as would until recently have been normal.

So goodbye elision. To me the new norm sounds somewhat clipped and staccato. I haven’t gone over to it yet; but I suppose sooner or later I will as the trend seems unstoppable. On the upside, I think the clearer separation of words will make English easier to understand for foreign speakers.

‘Would have liked to have done’ revisited

I’ve just finished reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Bookshop. It’s very good indeed and also temptingly short, so if you haven’t read it do put it on your library-list. But on page 53 Fitzgerald makes a mis-step:

She would have liked to have been instrumental in passing some law which would entail that he would never be unhappy again.’

That is a sweet thought and it increase the reader’s sympathy for the thinker, Florence Green. But it is clumsily expresssed. Fitzgerald is normally a laconic, lapidary writer who leaves much unsaid. But here she has used too many words. ‘She would have liked to have been…’ Why the second have?

Maybe at first blush the construction looks right. But let’s parse it. She would have liked is the past form of she would like – which means she wants or wishes. In the past, therefore, it translates as ‘She wanted to have been instrumental in passing some law…’ What? She wanted to have already been instrumental in passing it? I don’t think so; the sense suggests that it was something she wanted in that moment. She wanted to be instrumental in passing some law. Just so: She would have liked to be instrumental in passing some law.

That’s not only crisper, but the use of tense is more accurate. There are two quite separate constructions with separate meanings: x would have liked to do y (ie x wanted, in the past, to do y); and x would like to have done y (ie x wants, now, to have completed y, to have it as an achievement, experience or memory). Mashing the two together is no aid to clarity.

Penepole Fitzgerald is not alone. Many excellent writers do it. Iris Murdoch was a serial user of this construction. But (as I’ve noted before on this blog) while it may give the impression of mastery over the complexities of English grammar, that impression is an illusion.

Villanelle: the Microwaved Pie

Today I bought myself a salt-beef bagel for lunch (or should that be beigel? – See ). Conceive my horror when the fellow in the shop shoved it into a microwave oven. No! But it was too late to protest; the deed was done, and the bagel, or beigel, became all spongy and steamy and weirdly, persistently, unnaturally, savagely hot. A curse on microwaves! I thought readers might appreciate a villanelle I wrote on this subject some time ago. It’s about a pie rather than a bagel/beigel, but the principle is the same.

Villanelle: The Microwaved Pie

It won’t give up without a fight

It radiates a furious heat –

Dare I take another bite?

I think no pie should have the right

To be too blazing hot to eat;

It won’t give up without a fight.

It’s like a tiger – burning bright;

I think this pie has got me beat.

Dare I take another bite?

This pie has given me a fright –

This pie of overheated meat.

It won’t give up without a fight.

And will it cool ere falls the night?

I thought this pie would be a treat.

Dare I take another bite?

This pie is full of rage and spite:

I think I’m facing my defeat.

It won’t give up without a fight;

Dare I take another bite?

No more poetry at GCSE

It seems that the study of poetry is no longer going to be compulsory for English GCSE, following a re-think and slimming-down of the curriculum due to the pandemic. And if it’s not going to be compulsory, my guess is that many schools won’t do it, and many teenagers will miss out on the opportunity to be entranced, delighted, moved and of course annoyed and frustrated by poetry. Which I think is a great shame.

It’s true that teaching poetry for English GCSE is not easy. Students sometimes resent the fact that poets don’t seem to be able to say what they want to say without cloaking it in mystery, metaphor and symbolism. They treat the poems like cryptic crosswords; and it is all too easy to teach them like that too. But if poetry is not taught as a form of puzzle-solving, but instead students are led to pay attention to the rhythms, the rhymes, the musicality, the images, the structure, the way it’s crafted etc, they can learn to appreciate it as a work of art without worrying about the meaning – something that just sounds good and stirs your imagination. (Of course once they’ve been through all this the teacher had better tell them what it means as well; they’ll need to know that for the exam. But by that stage the meaning(s) should acquire a lot more significance for them.)

I still remember with pleasure many, many lines of poetry I learned at school. Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note. Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me. Had we but world enough and time this coyness, lady, were no crime. Go and catch a falling star; get with child a mandrake root. And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds. Do I dare to eat a peach? Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forests of the night. Clear, unscaleable ahead rise the mountains of Instead. I think we are in rats’ alley where the dead men lost their bones.

If pressed on what any of these lines mean I might be able to dredge up some sort of answer, but that wouldn’t really be the point. They are just lovely, evocative, memorable, mood-changing arrangements of words; and that is what GCSE students who don’t do poetry are going to miss out on the opportunity of experiencing.


Recently I have been re-reading one of my old William books, William – In Trouble (and by the way, they are called William books, not Just William books – see my earlier post on this issue at  – and in the wonderful story ‘William Among the Poets’ I came across this sentence: ‘Their four bullet heads peered furtively over the window sill of each downstairs window’.

Bullet heads. That’s an interesting expression, isn’t it? You don’t hear it so quite often these days, but once it was in common usage. Richmal Crompton uses it on several occasions, and so too does Frank Richards in his Greyfriars stories. It even appears in a Beatles song, Bungalow Bill: ‘He’s the all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son’. Bullet Head  is also the title of a 2017 heist movie.

But what does it mean, exactly? My Compact Oxford English Dictionary (1994) defines bullet-head as ‘a. a head round like a bullet; b. a person with such a head; in U.S, fig. A ‘pig-headed’ obstinate person’. Online sources such as Collins, Merrion Webster and the Free Online Dictionary give similar meanings. But I don’t actually think this does justice to the word. It might suggest something about the shape – small and roundly pointed – and maybe in America it does suggest obstinacy, but to me it also has connotations of hardness, toughness, with a suggestion of vigour and energy; perhaps not over-burdened with thought. I think you’d be more likely to use it of a boy than a girl; and also of a boy rather than a man. I feel if someone had referred to me as ‘bullet-headed’ when I was a kid I’d have felt vaguely flattered; but if it were said of me now I would be rather annoyed.