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

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

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

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

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?

I grabbed my husband by the lapel outside Waitrose and he leapt – if not like a young deer, then like a deer in retirement that had spent a long time grazing undisturbed in a bean field. ‘Sorry, darling,’ he exclaimed. ‘I didn’t recognise you.’ It was not as though I was wearing a balaclava. Recognition can say as much about the recogniser as the recognised. It’s particularly true of recognising a ‘characterisation’, a fancy word for a description. When the PM was asked in a Commons committee before Christmas whether he recognised the characterisation of ‘a Blob wandering down Whitehall thwarting the ambitions of ministers’, he replied ‘No.’ He’s not

Is orthogonal nonsensical?

Even with ruler and compasses I couldn’t make sense of a remark I found on Twitter or X, as we all pleonastically call it. Someone had posted this observation: ‘One’s bank balance and number of children are orthogonal to social media usage.’ I knew the prefix ortho– meant ‘straight, perpendicular, right’. So orthogonal meant ‘right-angled’. But how could children be at right angles to social media usage? I hadn’t cottoned on to the fashion for using orthogonal figuratively to mean ‘unrelated’, ‘irrelevant’. That is quite a stretch, for things at right angles are not unrelated. But there is no stopping orthogonal now, though the term seems unhelpful. It’s not even

Is loitering really so bad? 

E. Cobham Brewer seems, from his most famous work, the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, published 1870, an agreeable old cove. But a biographical sketch by his grandson in the centenary edition praised his fearlessness in taking a stick to a ‘rough-looking man asleep in the stable’. He belaboured ‘the trespasser… exclaiming “Be off, you scoundrel!”’ This came to mind when I saw a sign prohibiting loitering. I wondered what exactly loitering was. The OED suggests as a meaning ‘to linger idly about a place’ and remarks that the verb appears ‘frequently in legal phrase to loiter with intent (to commit a felony)’. But now there are no felonies, only