Henry Hitchings

Spelling it out: the volunteers who made the dictionary

‘Everything obscene comes from France,’ wrote James Dixon, an eye surgeon retired to Dorking, in 1888. He was provoked by learning of an item called a condom, and explained to his correspondent, James Murray, that this was ‘a contrivance used by fornicators, to save themselves from a well-deserved clap’. Surely the word had no place

An inspirational teacher: Elizabeth Finch, by Julian Barnes, reviewed

‘Whenever you see a character in a novel, let alone a biography or history book, reduced and neatened into three adjectives, always distrust that description.’ So says the protagonist of Julian Barnes’s latest novel, the poised, droll, epigrammatic Elizabeth Finch, who is loosely modelled on his late friend and fellow Booker Prize-winner Anita Brookner. A

Are the English exceptionally gullible?

The word ‘hoax’ did not catch on till the early 19th century. Before that one spoke of a hum, a frump, a prat or a bilk. But 18th-century Britain, even if not rife with talk of ‘hoaxes’, was full of incautious souls at risk of being bilked. James Graham, a Scottish quack, was able to

Science and philanthropy meet in the Royal Society of Arts

What does Jony Ive, the designer of Apple’s iPhone, have in common with Peter Perez Burdett, the first Englishman to produce aquatints, and Ann Williams, a postmistress who bred silkworms at her home in 18th-century Gravesend? The answer is that they all received awards from the institution known today as the Royal Society of Arts.

Can giving voice to the horrors of the past re-traumatise?

It is 50 years since Ronald Blythe published Akenfield, his melancholy portrait of a Suffolk village on the cusp of dramatic change. Akenfield was actually a composite of two real villages, Charsfield and Debach, and Blythe’s oral history was a patchwork created from about 50 conversations — with figures including a pig-farming colonel, the over-stretched

Who’s who and what’s what

Asked to name a reference book, you may well choose the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. But perhaps you’d pick something less elephantine — the Guinness Book of World Records, with its tributes to figures such as Smudge, holder of the record for most keys removed from a keyring by a parrot,

Down and out in Park Lane and Plaistow

‘I was born in London,’ Ben Judah tells us early in this vivid portrait of Britain’s capital, ‘but I no longer recognise the city.’ London has become a building site where dirty money is converted into gleaming blocks of bullion. The smartest parts of town are lined with empty houses owned by foreign plutocrats, and

All the men and women merely players

How many books are there about Shakespeare? A study published in the 1970s claimed a figure of 11,000, and today a search of the British Library catalogue yields 12,554 titles that contain the playwright’s name. But good short introductions to Shakespeare’s life and work are not exactly plentiful. Students and teachers are therefore likely to