My fourpennyworth (Words)


Tuesday 4 July 2006

Mobile meanings

An item from the Guardian’s ‘Culture Vulture’ site appeared in my rss feed reader Vienna some minutes ago:

Quiet riot: Charlotte Higgins discovers, to her horror, that there are new ways to annoy people with a mobile phone at performances.

For some reason I immediately assumed that the piece would describe other members of the audience rising up and abusing mobile phone owners. Of course, when I got to the web page I discovered that the phone owners are doing the abusing, as usual…

So what was that, I wonder? Poor subbing, or just wishful thinking on my part?

(Category: Words)

9.08 am

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Wednesday 7 June 2006

Some name-calling

(I’ve just heard from an old friend that she is expecting, which gives me all the excuse I need to sign off this long-gestated but highly spurious orphan of an entry…)

I am, of course, as far as ever from fathering a child; and my old dreams of joshing domesticity are long-gone, most of the women I had in mind having settled down with (and, as I like to think, settled for) a complaisant hubby and begun (and in some cases already finished) producing offspring. Actually, even though, as a man, I have a decade or so’s advantage on women in terms of my biological clock, the evidence seems to be that sperm does start to go off after your fiftieth year – the fact that Queen Victoria managed to pass haemophilia onto most of the crowned heads of Europe is often blamed on the advanced age of her father when she was conceived – so I really ought to start casting about for suitable helpmeets. In the meantime, I keep the project in mind by focusing on potential names for my potential children…

In my family we have the following naming tradition (dating back all of a generation): three forenames, of which the first should be new to the family, with the other two representing each side of it. In my case, I am ‘Stephen’ after the church my parents married in, ‘James’ after my maternal grandfather and ‘Michael’ after my father – which means that, on the standard administrative forms that have fields for only two forenames, I am regularly called on to deny my father, ho ho…

Although the singular dearth of females in my immediate family cuts down the options for variety in the second/third name, it seems to me that unusual first names for girls are much easier to justify than for boys. One I’ve long cherished for a daughter – Adela, the name of King Stephen’s mother (mother, daughter, what’s the diff?) – is sufficiently close to the more popular ‘Adele’ to avoid the raising of eyebrows, even if the original plan was to combine it with two more of my favourite female names, Laura and Frances, and refer to the unfortunate child by the initials: ALF. (I’m not sure where to put the stress when pronouncing ‘Adela’: first or second syllables?) I’ve become a fan, too, of Kay, mostly through the wavvishing Kay Fwancis in the film Trouble in Paradise, but also because it sounds like its own initial. Foreign names work pretty well, too, although one I like very much, Celine (after the villainous writer of the same name – or, strictly speaking, after his mother) has been ruined for me by Ms Dion, while its anglicised counterpart, Selina, suffered the same fate at the hands of the now-forgotten Ms Scott… (The similar-sounding Sabine/Sabina is still an option, perhaps, embodied as it is for me by two delightful actresses: the glorious French star Sabine Azéma and an English pin-up from my youth, the very lovely Sabina Franklyn – Jane (aka ‘the pretty one’) in Fay Weldon’s late-70s/early-80s version of Pride and Prejudice for the BBC. There’s also the ‘Sabine Women’ aspect, of course: perhaps not ideal.)

Foreign names don’t do the same for boys, unless of course their mother is herself foreign (now there’s something to think about). My work on printing history made me wonder about the names of typographical pioneers: unfortunately, Aldus/Aldo/Aldous (ugh! Huxley!), after Aldus Manutius (strictly speaking Teobaldo Manuzio, if I remember right), doesn’t really do it for me. I quite like Emery – after the British printer Emery Walker, often-unsung collaborator of both William Morris and Cobden-Sanderson, and also after the great screenwriter Imre/Emmerich/Emeric Pressburger – but I can see a boy called that being bullied within an inch of his life. I also wonder about Lewis – named for that unholy trinity of Luis Buñuel, Wyndham Lewis and Robert Louis Stevenson – but I’m not sure about the whole surname-forename crossover thing. Mention of Stevenson reminds me that I’ve also wondered about Robert, as it also refers two more of my heroes, the printer Robert Estienne and the poet Robert Herrick, but it’s a bit boring. (Let’s hope the missus has an interesting surname, that’s all I can say.)

I’ve toyed with calling a son Alfred Arthur (another ‘Alf’), but 1) that gives him a hell of a lot to live up to, and 2) since I would want to stick to our family’s triple-forename structure, what name could stand up next to those two?* Oh, Alexander, I suppose (not terribly English, though), which reminds me: a (Suffolk?) corruption of that name that I saw on a gravestone in Orford struck me as rather good – Sarnder. (The same churchyard also had an interesting variation on Alan: Allin, another good ‘A’ name.) No doubt people would wonder why I didn’t just go for the more obvious version, instead of being so pretentious…

If all this seems irresponsible – and perhaps even a form of abuse – consider some real-life examples. One friend, finding himself a father-to-be rather earlier in his young marriage than he was expecting, wanted to use a palindromic name: Hannah if a daughter, Otto if a son. (A good example of the less painful nature of choosing girls’ names… Fortunately, it was a she.) Other friends of mine toyed with the idea of calling their daughter-to-be Io, so that when people asked how it was spelled, they could just say: ‘IO’. (I wonder if there was a computing gag in there, too: the man in question, an accomplished programmer, is quite capable of that.)

* There is of course that great and forgotten Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan (imagine it – you could call your son ‘Stan’!), but that’s almost certainly an arrestable offence.

(Category: Words)

11.52 am

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Monday 17 April 2006

On of

Amongst the numerous imported Americanisms that assault my forty-one-year-old nervous system on a regular basis, I think I would have to cite the peculiar use (and non-use) of of as one of my least favourite. The expression ‘outside of’, for instance, seems completely unnecessary, when ‘outside’, surely, does the same job. (Consider ‘outside of the immediate family’ and ‘outside the immediate family’ – do they mean different things?)

Perhaps people who do this could take the ‘of’ out and restore the balance by putting it back into phrases like ‘the seventeenth April’. The other nasty and increasingly prevalent chronological example that involves a missing ‘of’ is ‘at age 41’ instead of ‘at the age of 41’: just plain unpleasant…

(This isn’t to say that I hate all American expressions – I quite like the idea of using ‘than’ with ‘different’ (‘apples are different than oranges’), which if nothing else bypasses that annoying British argument about whether ‘to’ or ’from’ is correct. However, I have to admit that I remain being plainly baffled by the use of ‘in back of’ instead of ‘behind’. Apart from anything else, it would never work to say ‘You’ve got a really nice in back of…’)

(Category: Words)

3.07 pm

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Friday 17 March 2006

I bind unto myself today

Today – 17 March – has had a familiar ring to it for some time now, and I’ve been racking my brains trying to remember what. Somebody’s birthday? A deadline of some kind?

The answer came a few hours ago, as I went into town. Emerging from the Pickerel were a bunch of nitwits with big leprechaun hats on, drinking Guinness out of plastic glasses. Of course – St Patrick’s Day.

Despite being a bit Irish myself (the Dublin ‘Ascendancy’, don’t you know?), I’ve rather gone off them in recent years. Such is the peculiarly high opinion in which the Irish appear to be held that I begin to miss that far-off time when we could insult them with impunity (well, apart from the bomb threats, that is – ah, the good old days of terrorism…). I dare say it’s better this way, but I do get sick of hearing their voices on the radio and TV.

Seeing those fools in the street made me think of one of my favourite bits from The Godfather, when the consigliere Tom Hagen goes to see the film director who will subsequently wake up with his horse’s head in his bed. The director shouts at him to leave, calling him a ‘wop’. ‘Actually,’ says Hagen, ‘I’m German-Irish.’ ‘Then get out of here, you kraut mick!’ says the director without turning a hair. (Or something like that.) I wondered about the derivation of ‘mick’ for the Irish: the obvious explanation is that it’s to do with the name ‘Michael’, as ‘paddy’ derives from ‘Patrick’. But Patrick is the Irish patron saint, so the connection is obvious, whereas there’s nothing specifically Irish about Michael. I wondered whether it came from ‘Mc’, which one tends to think of as Scottish, but is also a common feature in Irish surnames: eg McMorris in Henry V. I don’t think I’ll investigate further as I’m not particularly interested, but, hey, it passed the time.

(Category: Words)

7.11 pm

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Monday 13 March 2006

Curse of the coprophage

Now here’s an expression I don’t get: shit-eating grin. What does it mean, and where does it come from?

I tend to assume that the grin in question is a wide, cocky, rather insincere object – best exemplified, perhaps, by Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy (and, come to think of it, in The Right Stuff, InnerSpace, etc, etc). But then again, it might be something else altogether. In any case, why should it be associated with that particular diet? A colleague has theorised that the grin is so plastered-on, so impervious to the outside world, that even were its owner to chomp his (and I suspect it always is ‘his’) way through several toilet bowls’ worth, it would stay fixed on his face. It’s an ingenious hypothesis, but if anything it’s a little too ingenious: it feels as if there’s a stage missing.

Wouldn’t you expect a someone ‘eating shit’ to be displaying humility? (Cf eating crow or humble pie – now there’s a menu…) If so, how did it get to be associated with arrogance? Is Bob Monkhouse somehow involved? Etc, etc.

(Category: Words)

6.38 pm

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Friday 10 March 2006

And again

… And that the Words category is another turquoise (to link it in some way to the ‘Writing’ category).

(Category: Words)

11.48 am

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