Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 1 November 2003

A Lexicographer writes

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My husband’s favourite programme on television, to judge by what he shouts at the screen, is Grumpy Old Men. You should hear him when they sound off about automated telephone answering (‘Press 2...’, etc). I think I have caught something from him, because when I was listening to Poetry Please on the wireless, I too began to bay at the machinery.

Someone was reading ‘Jabberwocky’, and she said ‘borogroves’. I don’t blame her; this is a common misreading of borogoves. She did it both times. I do blame the producers. Someone ought to have noticed. She said ‘frabjuous’ too, for frabjous, and she pronounced tulgey with a hard ‘g’. That isn’t right, is it?

Anyway, Grumpy Old Men came to mind when I read my postbag (it has DW embroidered in maroon on it) on something about which I thought I had written enough (Mind your language, 4 October) — the remark often attributed to Goering: ‘When I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver.’ The sentence was in fact written by Hanns Johst in his play Schlageter. That we knew. In German it is, ‘Wenn ich Kultur höre entsichere ich meinen Browning.’

I know more about the poet than the gun. Mr David Wilson from Matlock rather disarmingly, as it were, begins, ‘People who write about firearms are often thought to be psychotics.’ But he sanely explains that the best-known Browning handguns are not revolvers at all but self-loading pistols (less accurately called ‘automatics’).

Revolvers, he adds, do not have a safety catch, for I had suggested that entsichere meant ‘release the safety catch’. But P.G. Urben writes a long letter explaining that it was unlikely that the character in Johst’s play would rely on the safety catch of his Browning pistol, since it is ‘comparatively easily moved accidentally by the motions of sliding a pistol into or out of holster or pocket’.

The safest condition, Mr Urben says, is to have ‘the magazine charged but no round in the chamber’. Then you can cock the weapon, which apparently means that, according to the mechanism, it will either charge a round to the chamber or ensure that one will be charged and fired when the trigger is pulled.

From all this perhaps we should conclude that the quotation should be translated, ‘When I hear the word culture, I cock my pistol.’ Even so, in a dramatic context ‘reach for’ still seems better than ‘cock’. Not that the horrible play is ever produced. I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I’d still got the technical side wrong. You men and your toys!