Dot Wordsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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,

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

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,

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

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

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

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

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