Etymology

The myth of the global majority

‘You make the cotton easy to pick, Mame,’ sang my husband with execrable delivery. ‘No,’ I said, ‘You can’t sing things like that now. In any case, I was talking of Bame, not Mame.’ The hit musical from 1966, starring Angela Lansbury, has only the most tangential relevance to the latest lurch in approved terminology for what we were encouraged to call Black and Minority Ethnic people until that term was expelled from polite conversation. Now the trendy label is global majority. ‘The term Global Majority was coined as a result of my work in London on leadership preparation within the school sector between 2003 and 2011,’ says someone called

Can you ‘go gangbusters’? 

‘Is it anything to do with cockle-picking?’ asked my husband, confident he was on the right track. Naturally he wasn’t. We’d just heard that the economy, growing by 0.6 per cent, was ‘going gangbusters’. The nearest my husband could get was gangmasters, a word we had both learned in 2004, when at least 21 Chinese migrants drowned in Morecambe Bay while picking cockles for a gangmaster, later sent to prison. The Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 then made it a crime to be in charge of people harvesting shellfish or agricultural produce without a licence. Twenty years earlier, the name of the film Ghostbusters was added to the world’s vocabulary. An

Do sparks really fly?

‘Sparks,’ said my husband, after a short pause. I had asked him what one could spark. His answer was true but not all that helpful. I had come across a headline on the BBC News website that said: ‘Record hot March sparks “unchartered territory” fears.’ The inverted commas around unchartered territory were not meant as so-called sneer-quotes, but to indicate quotation. Later the same day the headline was amended to uncharted and sparks was jettisoned. There is such a word as unchartered. My distant relation by marriage, William Wordsworth, used it in his ‘Ode to Duty’, the one that begins: ‘Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!’ It is not

Can MPs really defect? 

‘He did it years before William Donaldson did The Henry Root Letters,’ said my husband querulously, as though I had accused him on peak-time television of saying the opposite. The ‘he’ in question was Humphry Berkeley, who as a Cambridge undergraduate just after the second world war pursued an elaborate hoax by assuming the identity of a fictional public school headmaster, Rochester Sneath, to write embarrassing letters to the famous, eliciting risible replies. The collection was not published until 1974. The Henry Root Letters were published in 1980. Berkeley wrote another book about leaving the Conservatives and joining Labour, published in 1972. It was called Crossing the Floor. The title

Where does ‘stuff’ come from?

Pelham, the hero of the novel of the same name (which came out in 1828, the first year of The Spectator’s existence), visiting his old friend Glanville, is conducted by ‘the obsequious and bowing valet’ into a room where his host sits ‘opposite to a toilet of massive gold’. (Yes, words change meaning. This toilet would not have resembled the lavatory of gold on display at Blenheim Palace, to the theft of which a man has pleaded guilty.) The narrator declares: ‘I had never seen so perfect a specimen of masculine beauty.’ The anonymous reviewer in The Spectator attributed the book to Benjamin Disraeli. He was wrong. It was by

Amol Rajan is right to change his ways on ‘aitch’

My husband thought it brave and manly of the BBC’s Amol Rajan to resolve publicly to change his pronunciation of the letter-name aitch. He’d said haitch all his life, but declared in a blog: ‘Dear reader, I’m here to tell you: it’s aitch.’ This attracted wide attention. He also announced that biopic is pronounced bio-pic, not bi-opic. That is true too, but attracted little attention. Amol Rajan is 40 and took an English degree at Cambridge, but has only just caught up with the eighth letter in the alphabet. Still, we all have blind spots. The key to the mispronunciation haitch is hypercorrection. Children were so often told to pronounce

We ought to banish more words

Why do people say: ‘You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment’? Are they using it as they would a Shakespearean quotation such as: ‘The lady doth protest too much’? Or do they think that by speaking the line made famous by Ian Richardson in House of Cards, they generate wit anew so that some rubs off on them and cheers the conversation? I wondered whether I was encountering second-hand humour from some television series when I began to notice the phrase Wait. What? It tends to be used archly, as though for an invisible audience. My husband finds it used on X, that social media platform for

When is a Lord not a Lord? 

The Financial Times seeks applicants for the Sir Samuel Brittan fellowship. Announcing this, the paper refers to him as Sir Samuel, which is correct. It also quotes its obituary of him where he is called simply Brittan. That is also correct for a dead man, as we might say Churchill, not Sir Winston. It would have been wrong, though, to call Brittan Sir Brittan. That is a rule of the English language. Yet the FT has taken to referring to peers by their first names and titles, with Lord tacked on before: Lord David Cameron, Lord David Alton. That is as wrong as to say Sir Brittan. The FT style

Why does Elon Musk see legacies as leftovers?

‘Is this legacy beetroot?’ asked my husband, poking a yellowish slice on his plate in a restaurant. He meant heritage beetroot, a ludicrous enough phrase. But legacy has been extending the hedges round its semantic field, so his question may sound normal in a few years’ time. A report in the Telegraph the other day referred to apprentice stonemasons as entering a legacy trade. This edges into the territory of heritage. Historic England is the government’s statutory adviser on the landscape and built heritage. From 1984 to 2015 it operated as English Heritage. But English Heritage remains as a charity that looks after national monuments, such as Stonehenge. Perhaps Historic

The normalisation of ‘normalcy’

My husband devotes his decreasing hours of daytime wakefulness to looking at Twitter, as he still calls it. He shouted out, ‘Look at this’, just as I was putting the potatoes in the oven to roast. It was a post criticising the ENO for saying 2021 was ‘a year spent slowly returning to normalcy’. The author said, ‘Brits don’t use the word normalcy’. Is that true? In 1899, on leaving Eton at the age of 17, Evelyn Wrench was well on his way to making a fortune from selling picture postcards at tourist spots. Then he overstretched himself and went bust in 1904. Instead he turned his energies to promoting

Are hyenas really relatable?

A new television wildlife series called Queens (the ruling kind, not the screaming kind) shows competition among hyenas that involves infanticide. ‘I want it to feel that you see yourself, your family and your friends in these stories, that they’re relatable,’ the writer of the series told the Daily Mail. Well, Veronica has reached adulthood without my murdering her, though I recognise the temptation. Anyway, everything has to be relatable now, so much so that the word has almost been emptied of meaning. Yet I find curiously alien things fascinating, such as conditions on other planets. And I have not entirely given up trying to understand what people mean by

What are frameworks for?

A brand new ‘robust’ framework was being woven and nailed together, so the Prime Minister announced at the end of last week. It’s barely a year since he presented the UK with a similar kind of structure, which he called the Windsor Framework. I imagined it to resemble in some way a Windsor chair. In 1766, the newspaper Jackson’s Oxford Journal (which still had more than a century of success ahead of it) declared that ‘the Bodleian Library has most confessedly been very much improved by the Introduction of Windsor-Chairs, so admirably calculated for Ornament and Repose’. The Windsor framework didn’t prove quite so reposeful. There is no agreement on

Texting is a pain in the neck

‘Would you believe, looking down at your phone can put about 60lb of force on your neck,’ wrote Dr Miriam Stoppard in the Mirror. ‘Lift your phone up to eye level to avoid text neck.’ I didn’t quite understand about the 60lb, but my husband tells me there are other text ailments, notably text claw, a pain in the hand and wrist from too much tippety-tapping with the thumb. Apparently rolling cigars can have the same effect. I wonder if Carmen suffered from it. But another pain from texting comes from the formation of the past tense. ‘I text you yesterday but I never heard back,’ people say. It ‘sounds

How do you say Southwell?

They were talking about the origins of the Bramley apple on The Kitchen Cabinet on the wireless last week, and naturally they spoke of Southwell, that agreeable minster town in Nottinghamshire. I was surprised, almost let down, when a local man pronounced the place-name to rhyme with mouthw’ll. I had long been careful to pronounce the –outh– like the –oth– in mother. I needn’t have been so shocked. The careful work of Klaus Forster published in 1981, A Pronouncing Dictionary of English Place-Names, includes a version of Southwell rhyming South– with mouth. Indeed it was the version, he tells us, listed in Broadcast English: Recommendations to announcers regarding the pronunciation

Are cosmonauts really Russian?

Oleg Kononenko has been in space since 15 September last year and has just broken the cumulative record for time in orbit of 879 days. Being Russian he is referred to as a cosmonaut. Americans are astronauts. It seems odd that Russians can decide what English-speakers call their spacemen. It seemed odder to me that, when the Soviet Union promoted atheism, it should focus on the orderly universe that cosmos suggests. Cosmos is an ancient Greek concept. Pythagoras was credited with seeing all things as an ordered cosmos. The meanings of cosmos in Greek included ordered troops in battle and the ornaments of a woman’s dress. The Latin equivalent of

The unforeseen nature of consequences

In March 1847 the world first read of Mr Toots saying: ‘It’s of no consequence.’ He went on saying it for the next 13 months until the last number of Dickens’s Dombey and Son had been published. His embarrassed sallies into affairs of the heart had gained a catchphrase. Mr Toots’s remark meant ostensibly, ‘It doesn’t matter,’ but I was reminded of it by the warning that the United States issued after the killing of three of its service people in Jordan. It promised a ‘very consequential response’. To me consequential suggested a different knot of meanings, about causal effect. The insurance world thinks of consequential loss not as an

Is retro-fitting really ‘retro? 

I read in the New Yorker about people who make sound effects ‘in a large, retrofitted barn, painted baby blue’. It made me wonder again how people imagine retrofitting works. It seems to be the work of time-travellers. Do they think that refitting a barn now implies that a photo taken of it 50 years ago would show the new fittings? Retro– signifies ‘backwards’. I am quite retro. I like looking at the past. My husband is almost entirely so. He lives in it. Six centuries ago a child of ten was expected to understand what the retrograde movement of a planet entailed. A planet such as Mars appears to

What’s in a place name?

There is a place in Westmorland called Wordsworth’s Well, but I must tell you that it is not named after me. A field in Westmorland is called Wordy Dolt, and I am glad to tell you that it is not named after me either. Here wordy (like –worthy elsewhere) means ‘enclosure’, not ‘voluble’ nor indeed ‘valuable’, and dolt means ‘share of the common field’, not ‘idiot’. I discovered this from the glorious English Place-Name Society. I call it glorious because it has been going for 100 years and is still pegging away at a survey recording and analysing historically all the place-names of England. So far 91 volumes have been

The genteel roots of dunking

When I was a girl, it was bad manners to dunk a biscuit. Then I went abroad and found that Italian biscotti could scarcely be consumed in any other way. Back home, dunking a ginger nut seemed less criminal. Now I hear people using dunk and dump indifferently. Can this be right? After all, words of similar pronunciation, such as bought and brought, are often misused, one for the other, though the meaning is very different. I’m not sure what word people used before dunk turned up, which was little more than 100 years ago. Did they say sod, seethe, soak? I was surprised to find that dunk is a

How do events become unrecognisable?

Sir Ed Davey, who leads the Lib Dems, declared last week: ‘Squatter Sunak is holed up in Downing Street, desperately clinging on to power.’ It was odd of him to remind voters of the origin of this little joke about squatting. On 8 May 2010, two days after Labour’s defeat in the general election, the Sun ran a big headline: ‘Squatter holed up in No. 10.’ A subheading read: ‘Man, 59, refuses to leave Downing Street.’ That was Gordon Brown, of course, but anyone who remembers those uncertain days will know that he was waiting to see whether the Tories and the Lib Dems would form a coalition or whether he