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Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent

I read that Dick Van Dyke has publicly apologised for his “Cockney” accent in Mary Poppins, a mere 53 years after the film was made. And indeed it was a terrible attempt at a Cockney accent. If it weren’t for the context – he played a London chimney sweep – I do not think I would have known it was even supposed to be a Cockney accent. I might have thought it was a West country accent, or an Australian one, but I probably would not have guessed Cockney.

Anyway, Dick Van Dyke’s apology was disarmingly candid and self-deprecatory. He says he had no idea how badly wrong he was getting it, and the director and other cast members were too polite to tell him. I find it surprising that a big-budget film like that could not afford to employ a voice coach for one of the leading parts, but there you go.

The atrocious accent used to annoy me at one time, but it doesn’t now; I just think of it as one of the film’s curious quirks, which actually adds to the fun. Besides, as the years go by the traditional, Alf Garnett-style Cockney accent is becoming rarer and rarer (at my son’s East London school the predominant accent is Black Urban Vernacular, spoken by black, white and Asian kids alike, which has very different vowels from Cockney). In another 53 years Van Dyke’s accent won’t sound strange, because no one will remember what proper Cockney sounded like. Or rather, all the accents will sound strange, Van Dyke’s no more than the rest.

Van Dyke (91) has a part in the forthcoming sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. I wonder what accent he’ll do?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Havering

Yesterday I was driving through the London Borough of Havering, and this got me thinking about the word havering, which has different meanings depending on whether you are English or Scottish. For an English person, the London Borough of Havering suggests a borough where nobody can ever make their minds up about anything. For a Scottish person, it suggests a borough where everybody talks nonsense all the time. For in English English, haver means to dither; while in Scottish English, it means to say silly things (as in the Proclaimers’ song 500 Miles: “And when I haver/ I’m gonna be the man who’s havering to you”).

That’s all I have on havering, folks.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Alternative 3

I was doing a listening comprehension with my Chinese students yesterday, and the man on the recording said: “There are three alternatives for each question. Listen carefully and circle the correct one…”

Three alternatives? Well, that’s not right, is it? Strictly speaking, there can only be two alternatives. One or the other. Either/or. This or that. To speak of more than two possibilities we should use options. That, at any rate, is the traditional rule. I remember many years ago (circa 1976) a spoof TV documentary about life on Mars: it was called Alternative 3, and the deliberate mistake was intended to be a clue that we shouldn’t take it seriously.

The rule has, however, more or less fallen into desuetude; few people are aware of it and still fewer are bothered. I am not that bothered myself. I personally wouldn’t say “three alternatives” simply because it’s hard to break a rule once you know it; but I don’t mind hearing it from other people and have no impulse to correct them. But. This particular usage was on an IELTS recording (‘International English Language Testing’) – the international standard for foreign students learning English – so you would expect they’d get it right, wouldn’t you?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

coffee as metonym

I was in Camden Town on Saturday and saw a woman walking towards me wearing a T-shirt with the words “My day doesn’t start till after coffee” emblazoned across her chest. What could be the point of sporting such a slogan? Personally I drink tea in the morning, two or three cups of it, but it wouldn’t cross my mind to advertise the fact on a T-shirt. I just wouldn’t imagine that anyone else would be interested. Yet the strange thing is that I didn’t find the woman’s T-shirt strange. I’ve become used to people bragging about their coffee consumption; in the last few years it has become more and more widespread. I follow a number of writers on Twitter and they’re always posting comments about how they rely on coffee: “Ideas + coffee = books” was a recent tweet. And there is a cafe near me in Walthamstow with a blackboard saying “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you coffee, which is the next best thing.” (Is it, though? Really?)

Maybe the phenomenon is connected to the rapid proliferation of coffee shops on British high streets in the last ten years or so; or people working at home and so drinking more coffee; but whatever the reason(s), what seems to have happened is that coffee has become a sort of metonym, standing for a whole bundle of positive qualities: cool people drink coffee, creative people drink coffee, busy, energetic, happening, groovy people drink coffee. Being dependent on coffee is also seen as somehow humorous, but in a safe way, without connotations of debilitating addiction (“My day doesn’t start till after a can of Special Brew” would not hit quite the same note).

Obviously, I am happy that people enjoy their coffee. Good luck to them. But could they, you know, just get on with drinking the stuff without making such a song and dance about it?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Have a good nice

This summer I am teaching English to foreign students at the University of Greenwich. After my first class, a young Chinese student came up to me and, obviously searching for something polite and friendly to say but not quite finding the appropriate idiom, said: “Thank you, teacher. Have a good nice!”

Have a good nice! Isn’t that a great expression? I’m going to start using it.

Have a good nice, everyone!

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Emma, Shirley, Rebecca

Emma, Shirley, Rebecca: what do those names have in common? Yes, that’s right, they are all the titles of famous novels.

I think there is an asymmetry in English novel titles, in that a one-word title which is a woman’s first name is not at all uncommon (I could also have mentioned Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, Fanny Burney’s Camilla, Andre Gide’s Madeleine, Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Stephen King’s Carrie); but a one-word title which is a man’s first name is rare or non-existent. Novels are sometimes given men’s names for titles, but then you get the surname too: Joseph Andrews, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, Silas Marner, Barry Lyndon, etc. In fact sometimes the first name is dispensed with and the surname alone designates the male protagonist (Babbitt, Enderby). But that would never happen with a female protagonist.

Explanations welcome (I assume it has something to do with patriarchy).

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

Why isn’t it ‘teethpaste’?

I’ve just read an interesting item on the Merriam-Webster website, which was retweeted by Stephen Pinker: why do we say toothpaste, rather than teethpaste? After all, you use the stuff to clean all of your teeth, not just one of them.

But while teethpaste might be logical, it would not be English. For it turns out – and once this is pointed out you realise you kind of knew it all along – that there is a rule that whenever a compound word includes a body part, that body part is always singular. Thus we say legwarmers, not legswarmers, and shinpads rather than shinspads. This rule holds not just for nouns but adjectives too (rib-tickling, not ribs-tickling, ear-splitting rather than ears-splitting).

So we’ve all learned something there, I think, even though at an unconscious level we already knew it.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.