The chronic misuse of ‘dire’

‘Dire?’ said my husband. ‘It’s something chronic.’ He was putting on his idea of an Estuary accent, in a manner that might soon be unacceptable. But it is true that everything has been called dire lately, and that’s no small claim. ‘Dreadful, dismal, mournful, horrible, terrible, evil in a great degree,’ was the semantic landscape sketched for the word by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary. Johnson illustrated its usage by quoting Milton: ‘Hydras, and gorgons, and chimæras dire.’ As a matter of fact, in the first published edition of Paradise Lost, the line (Book II, line 628) is ‘Gorgons and Hydra’s, and Chimera’s dire’, with apostrophes that might put us

The cereal ambiguity of ‘corn’

‘Wha, wha?’ said my husband in a slack-jawed way, throwing over a copy of the Guardian, as though it was my fault. ‘“Today,” it said, “just three crops – rice, wheat and corn – provide nearly half of the world’s calories.”’ I saw the problem. It was obvious, from a process of elimination, that by corn it meant ‘maize’. Elsewhere ambiguities abound. Since the Ukraine war began, discussion of wheat and maize has increased no end, but it is often impossible to tell whether wheat or maize is meant by corn. I thought we had agreed to differ with America on this. ‘As a general term the word corn includes

The changing language of ‘mental health’

It is easy to laugh at young people asking for sympathy because ‘I’ve got mental health’. I think I heard the journalist-turned-teacher Lucy Kellaway on the wireless recently noticing in a half-baffled way the tendency of pupils to call mental illness mental health. Mental health hasn’t quite achieved that meaning in standard speech, but it could. It is partly a matter of euphemism. Mad and madness are now hardly usable at all with reference to everyday circumstances, being reserved for different times and cultures, for King Nebuchadnezzar, King Lear or King George. A mental case is ‘increasingly avoided’, noted the Oxford English Dictionary in its 21st-century revision of entries that

Why everyone is ‘struggling’

‘Quicksand!’ yelled my husband, flailing his arms wildly. Since he was sitting in his armchair, his dramatic representation of a scene from a western failed to convince, though it endangered the tumbler of whisky on the occasional table next to him. He’d been set off (not that it takes much) by my mentioning the ubiquity of struggling. Instead of the hard-working families that we were forever being told about, it is now struggling families, torn between having another pie for tea or turning on the heating in these sweltering days. Everyone is struggling. ‘Mateo Kovacic is struggling with knee problems,’ the Telegraph told me. Others are ‘struggling to care for

No, Boris Johnson isn’t ‘missing in action’

Someone in the Guardian wrote that Boris Johnson had his ‘out of office’ on, and the Chancellor was ‘missing in action’, but the Sun reported that ‘Downing Street denied Boris Johnson had been missing in action during the cost of living crisis’. Ed Miliband said: ‘The Tories are missing in action.’ A Liberal Democrat spokesperson called Christine Jardine said: ‘We have a zombie government and a Prime Minister missing in action.’ Dozens of people are using the phrase missing in action. What is the matter with them all? Don’t they realise it means ‘missing presumed dead’? Thomas Hood in his ‘Waterloo Ballad’ pictures a dying man on the battlefield found

Will ‘hosepipe ban’ make it into the dictionary?

‘Got any ’ose?’ asked my husband, falling into his Two Ronnies ‘Four Candles’ routine, in which he likes to play not only the shopkeeper but also the customer, with disastrous results. In both the pantyhose and the garden hose in the sketch, the hose was originally the same word. Hose meant the leggings or trousers our Germanic forefathers wore. In some contexts it long retained the archaic plural hosen. When Nebuchadnezzar in his rage commanded Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to be thrown into the burning fiery furnace, they were bound ‘in their coats, their hosen, and their hats’, according to the translation of 1611. In the pleasantly named A Pisgah-sight

What do ‘catcalls’ have to do with cats?

‘A law against catcalls?’ asked my husband sceptically. ‘What next, criminalising booing and hissing?’ He often gets the wrong end of the stick, but in this case I hardly blame him, for the press retailed widely Liz Truss’s resolve to make a law against catcalls and wolf-whistles. But to an older generation like my husband’s, catcalling is something to do with the theatre. In Practical Cats, T.S. Eliot assures us that Gus the Theatre Cat acted with Irving and Tree – Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905), who Shaw said revealed on stage ‘glimpses of a latent bestial dangerousness’, and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917), noted for histrionic versatility. But then Eliot

The etymological ingredients of ‘flageons’

‘Don’t you know the answer?’ asked my husband with mock surprise, throwing over to me from his armchair a copy of the Daily Telegraph. The question, from a reader on the Letters page, was what Mrs Beeton meant by flageons of veal. I had no idea and nor did the Oxford English Dictionary in 20 volumes. The recipe was for a sort of giant hamburger or hot meatloaf made from minced veal, suet, eggs and breadcrumbs. That gave no clues about its name. It could hardly have connections with flagons or flagellation. A day later another reader found in her edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management from 1915

The ever-shifting language of ‘culture wars’

‘Come on, old girl,’ said my husband as though encouraging a cow stuck in a ditch, ‘you must know.’ It was because I’d asked him in the far-off days of last week what woman meant, just after Rishi Sunak had said: ‘We must be able to call a mother a mother.’ Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch then tussled in a hate-crime triangle on television over who said what, when about people self-identifying in a gender. Such matters are said to belong to culture wars, which we had thought an American phenomenon. Culture wars acquired their name only in the 1980s. Since then we have grown used to language

‘Our’ by ‘our’, Boris’s resignation speech

There was a word I didn’t understand in Boris Johnson’s resignation speech (in which he did not resign). He spoke of ‘our fantastic prop force detectives’. Prop? Prop forwards, clothes props, proprietors, propositions, propellers? Perhaps they are personal protection officers, though I don’t think those are detectives. Or it might be family slang made up by Wilfred, two: ‘Ook, Papa, prop-props…’ More cunningly deployed in the 900 words of the speech was our. Not just our props but ‘our police, our emergency services, and of course our fantastic NHS… our armed services and our agencies… our indefatigable Conservative party members… our democracy’. First he had thanked ‘Carrie and our children’.

‘Pinch’ has long packed a punch

Before pinch as a verb appears in any written sources, it already formed part of surnames. Hugo Pinch was walking, breathing and possibly pinching in 1190, and in 1220 in Oxfordshire Ralph Pinchehaste was repenting at leisure. When William Golding wrote the painful Pincher Martin, he knew that any sailor called Martin was nicknamed Pincher. A likely eponym is Admiral Sir William Martin, 4th baronet (1801-95), who headed a drive for discipline. In his biographer’s judgment, ‘his insistence on obedience was not always agreeable to captains and commanders, but if not loved, he was feared, and the work was done’. It seems to me that pinching was highly Victorian. Dickens,

Dominic Raab and the problem of ‘distraction’

Dominic Raab blamed distraction for Boris Johnson’s woes when the Tories failed in two by-elections last week. ‘He has track records as long as his arm of misinformation and propaganda and this is a distraction from the real issues.’ Oh, no, I beg your pardon, that was what Mr Raab said about Vladimir Putin in March. What he said about the by-elections was: ‘I think we’ve had distractions because of partygate, because of too much Westminster internal, if you like, focus.’ Mr Raab hates distractions. They seem to drive him to distraction. ‘It’s a big distraction from the bread and butter issues,’ he said of June’s party vote of confidence

Lord Geidt’s ‘odious’ remark

Lord Geidt said in his resignation letter that he had been put in an odious position. He meant it was hateful, though it is impossible to forget the malapropism (avant la lettre) of Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado: ‘Comparisons are odorous.’ Lord Geidt’s adjective seemed to me old-fashioned and classically inspired. Odious would have been fashionable in the Regency period. Leigh Hunt remembered from the great actor Kemble examples of ‘vicious pronunciation’: odious, he complained, became ojus. Kipling went one better in the Just So Stories by making hideous an adverb pronounced in like manner: as the crocodile pulled, the ‘Elephant’s Child’s nose grew longer and longer—and it hurt him

The not-so-sweet roots of ‘nice’

‘That’s nice,’ said my husband, taking a Nice biscuit with his coffee. It was his little joke. The biscuit is named after the French city, though no one knows why. Like the trainers, the city was named after the goddess Nike when it was founded by Greeks in the 4th century bc. Nice, as in ‘a nice cup of tea’, was a word loathed by my schoolmistresses, like got. Their cue may have been Jane Austen. ‘This is a very nice day,’ remarked Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, ‘and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice

The strangeness of station names

In Kyiv they have voted to change the names of some metro stations. Heroes of the Dnieper is to become Heroes of Ukraine. The station was named after the street outside, and there’s nothing wrong with the river Dnieper, which winds its S-shape through Ukraine like the Grand Canal through Venice. The trouble was that the counter-offensive in 1943 by the Soviet Union against the German invaders made much propaganda of a united effort by all nations under the Marxist flag, even though Stalin had not so long before presided over a famine that killed millions in Ukraine. Another Kyiv metro station is changing its name from Minsk to Warsaw.

Why nothing ever comes ‘for free’

‘It’s not as nice as it looks,’ said my husband, not leaving time to look it in the mouth before wolfing down the lemon and sultana Danish that I had thoughtfully bought him, reduced on account of its age. ‘Every day in this store,’ the till at Marks & Spencer’s had told me in a tone indicating that I might be interested, ‘someone gets their shopping for free.’ Yes, I thought, it must be that bloke that exits pursued by the security man. I thought other things too, since I am afflicted by what the French call déformation professionnelle and tend to sub-edit other people’s utterances – those of machines

Why disgraced MPs head for the Chiltern Hundreds

I saw in last week’s Spectator that the tractor MP had applied for the stewardship of the Manor of Northstead. After only a few days, the Chancellor of the Exchequer granted him this office of profit under the Crown, which disqualifies him from continuing as an MP. These days, when it is hard to book a doctor’s appointment and impossible to get most public corporations even to answer the telephone, it’s quick work on Rishi Sunak’s part. The Manor of Northstead is in Scarborough. The former manor house was reported in 1600 to have been used by a shepherd ‘until it fell down’. Previous stewards include David Cameron and Gerry

The wonder of the Metaphor Map

‘What’s that?’ asked my husband, looking at my laptop. ‘Fibonacci fossilised?’ His question made no sense, but I saw what he meant. I was looking at a diagram of ‘the fabulous semantic engine, a sort of virtual sausage machine’ that I mentioned last week. The diagram was circular, like a compass-rose with 37 points. Each point was connected to each of the others, like a church column to vaulting tracery. It is a metaphor map: the points represent categories for pigeonholing every word in English over the past 13 centuries. An underlying 415 semantic categories sort 793,742 word forms. It is not like some delusion in which the secrets of

The linguistic ingredients of ‘salmagundi’

‘It makes me hungry,’ said my husband when I mentioned the word salmagundi. That is his reaction to many words. But he liked the sound of it. I think in its sound, suggestive of something impossible to pin down, it resembles serendipity. The obscure French original of salmagundi, a dish of chopped up meat and whatnot, must have become known in English through Rabelais’s gluttonous epic. Thomas Urquhart’s translation of 1653 speaks of the ‘Lairdship of Salmigondin’. Various rationalising respellings emerged, such as Sallad-Magundy (1710). Salad, by origin something salty, was not limited to raw greenery. ‘Sallet,’ wrote Randle Holme, the herald painter, ‘is either Sweet Herbs, or Pickled Fruits,

The Aesopian language of algospeak

To evade algorithms that hunt down forbidden words, users of platforms like TikTok employ cryptic synonyms. So dead becomes unalive, and the pandemic becomes panini or Panda Express. A technology journalist in her mid-thirties, Taylor Lorenz, drew attention to the trend last week in the Washington Post, calling the vocabulary ‘algospeak’. But why should anyone be banned for using the word dead? Because young people in chatrooms online discuss suicide, and since this is thought to encourage it, online proprietors try to weed out messages with giveaway words. Their algorithms penetrate chatrooms like those metal jellyfish in the Matrix films attacking the spaceship. (My husband, rather worryingly, knows that they