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black is Black

In October, for Black History Month, the historian David Olusoga did a series of articles for the Times about the black experience in Britain. Or rather, the Black experience, for Olusoga adopts the new fashion of capitalising Black when it refers to people. The articles were very good popular history and brought home the fact that black people have been living in Britain for much longer than might be realised (there was a black trumpeter in Henry VIII’s court orchestra). But I’m still undecided about that capital B – as you see I am not (yet) employing it myself. It seems somehow forced, especially since white is not capitalised. The implied claim might be that the experience of black people has been neglected and the word ought to be capitalised to emphasise its importance; or the claim might be that because black history is a history of shared experience (mostly oppression), black people have the same sort of bond and identity as a nationality or religion. The second of those claims seems to me to have more force than the first. But now that I’ve written them down they both seem to have something going for them. Hmm. I think I’ve persuaded myself. I might feel self-conscious at first but I’m going to start writing Black with a capital B


A scary poem for Hallowe’en

It being Hallowe’en, I thought readers might enjoy a scary poem about a werewolf. Here you go:


The werewolf stood at the window

gazing into the night

and the hair grew long on the back of his hands 

in the full moon’s silver light

He said, “What a lovely evening – 

I’ll change and then go out.”

And his ears pricked up on top of his head

and longer grew his snout.

And fur sprang up on his body;

his hands turned into paws;

his teeth transmogrified into fangs

and his fingernails to claws.

He opened his mouth in a wolfish grin;

his fangs were sharp and white;

and he said to himself, “I certainly must

go out and have a bite.” 

(This poem can be found in my collection of children’s poems, These Are a Few of my Scariest Things – available on Amazon.)


Long-term readers of this blog will know that I object to over-scholarised notes in contemporary editions of classic literary texts (see my post ). Nevertheless, there are times when the notes do tell you something interesting that you didn’t know. I am currently reading Trollope’s The Way We Live Now – which has only 11 pages of notes for a 760-page novel, an acceptable ratio, I’d say – and was pleased to come upon a gloss on the phrase the cynosure of her eyes. Now, this is quite a well-known phrase and I didn’t need a note to tell me what it meant; however, I was interested to learn that the word cynosure literally means the Pole Star. I don’t need to know that to appreciate Trollope’s novel, but I am glad to learn it all the same. 

Subsequent investigations tell me that the (North) Pole Star is a bright star in Ursa Minor and was known to the Ancient Greeks as kynosaura, meaning ‘dog’s tail’. (The Greek word for dog was kyon, from which we get the word cynic and, through a different route, the word canine.) Kynosaura eventually metamorphosed into cynosure, via Latin and French. 

So thanks to the editor, Frank Kermode. And now, back to the novel…

Somewhere or other, someone remarks

Philip Hensher begins a review (of Rupert Everett’s To the End of the World) in this week’s Spectator with the words: ‘Somewhere or other Martin Amis remarks that…’

As soon as I read this opening I was struck by its familiarity, and a moment’s mental searching brought up the reason why. It is a re-cycling of George Orwell’s opening to his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’: ‘Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longueur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen not to have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion’. 

Given how well-read Hensher is, I doubt that the resemblance is a coincidence. But I am curious as to whether it was an unconscious echo, or a deliberate homage.

Warning: this post contains strong language

Yesterday I had occasion to phone one of Her Majesty’s prisons. An inmate has enrolled for an Open University philosophy course and I was calling to speak to the Education Officer and arrange a telephone tutorial for the student. My heart sank as I was met with a recorded message, which – of course – proceeded to go through all those ghastly stock phrases that you get these days whenever you call any sort of institution, be it a prison, a bank, a university, an insurance company or the council. 

‘If you know the extension you require…’  If I knew the fucking extension I’d have called it, wouldn’t I?

You may wish to visit our website…’ No, no, I don’t. Trust me, I really don’t. 

Please listen carefully to the following options…’ Like I have a choice?

Your call may be recorded for training or monitoring purposes…’  I bet you don’t make the trainees or monitors listen to this bit, though, do you? So why make me? 

And, perhaps most irritating of all, ‘Your call is important to us…’ No, it isn’t. It clearly isn’t. If it was you’d pick up the fucking phone, wouldn’t you? 

I had to wait two minutes and fifteen seconds before I got to speak to anyone. Two minutes and fifteen seconds of my life wasted listening to these maddening, mind-numbing clichés; and even then I still had to wait to be put through to the Education Officer. And for what purpose? Whom does it benefit? The Education Officer got to speak to me two and a quarter minutes later than she would have done if a living person had picked up the phone straight off – how does that help either her or me? 

I did manage to arrange a date for the telephone tutorial in the end. But I made sure that the prison will phone me for itI’m not fucking going through that fucking waste of fucking time again.

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.