Words on Words

This had its origin in the issues of Cambrensis magazine for about seven issues, starting in 1999, until it was replaced by Stray Thoughts. All I have done here is put these short features together.



By definition, writers have a fascination with words. We've all heard writers talking of their early discoveries in language, and of the unaccountable thrill that reading or hearing a particular word gave them, almost regardless of its dictionary meaning. I can remember myself the childish disappointment I felt when I discovered the prosy meaning of the word several.

Even now I could give you a long list of words that still work as an incantation over me: lake, honey, nurture, shadow, chant, are just a few of the words that are likely to mean more to me than you - just as I'm sure you'd be able to give a similar list of words that mean more to you than they do to me. All this by way of an introduction (or excuse) for bringing in this little feature which takes a closer look at a few words, chosen more or less at random.



* For many years, the word garter to me conjured itchy memories of the horrible elastic thing that accompanied the long woollen socks and short trousers that were inflicted on small boys until as late as forty years ago. But then I came across the story of the Countess of Salisbury who, dancing with King Edward III in 1344, lost her garter. The King immediately tied it on his own leg, declaring to those present Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense, 'shame on he who thinks ill of it'. So was founded the Order of the Garter, the premier honour of chivalry. This still didn't mean a great deal to me until I became acquainted with the Gawain poems, true glories of language if ever there were any. The sequence where Gawain encounters the mysterious Lady, is a delicious blend of romance and eroticism in which the Lady's garter, or luf-lace as it is also called, plays a key part. I often wonder if the old buffers who receive the honour of KG today are aware of its significance as a romantic pledge. Does the Royal pronouncement 'Arise Sir So-and-so' have a hidden meaning?

* Sleaze, that favourite word of the mass media, started life in all innocence (in the form 'sleazy') as the name for a thin, insubstantial fabric produced in Silesia. Over the years, it came to be associated with the low life, sinfulness and squalor. There was a certain dark sensualism associated with it. Then, during the life of the last Government, some Parliamentary reporter or other got hold of the word, and used it as a cutesy synonym for 'corruption' - in the financial irregularity, bribery, abuse-of-office sense of the word. From that time on, the public mind seems to have found it difficult to distinguish between the significance between the odd sexual peccadillo and the kind of corruption born of power of which we should all be constantly vigilant. Who says the pen isn't mightier than the sword?

* Until I read the superb Booker-shortlisted novel by Jim Crace of that title, the word Quarantine for me had purely doggie and medical connotations. But, as any good dictionary will tell you, it has other, older meanings: forty days was the period for which a widow had the right to remain in her husband's chief mansion house, for example, and of course there are the biblical meanings, as in Jim's book. I did wonder if the word itself had played an important part in the genesis of the novel. Not quite, Jim tells me, but once the idea of the novel had rooted, its title became immediate and obvious, and the word itself then provided a sort of sustaining inspiration for the writing of the book. He also says that he was very pleased, whilst doing research in Judea, to discover that the Mount of Temptation where Jesus is said to have fasted is called jebel qurantal ('quarantine hill') in Arabic. And, before any scholars of Arabic out there - you never know - tell me that it should be jebel arbq'een, the hill was named by an officer of the French army who was a bit casual about his Arabic.

* I don't intend this small feature to be dedicated to carping about the modern misuse of words. Language does evolve, after all. But I can't resist echoing complaints I've heard recently about the contrary use of the word literally, as in 'I was so happy I literally flew out of the window'. No you didn't. If you did, I want some of whatever it is you're on.

* Here's a thought. If you said 'the schmaltzy robot ate marmalade on the veranda and howled like a banshee through the window', you'd be using Yiddish, Czech, Portuguese, Hindi, Gaelic, and Icelandic, as well as English (you'd also probably be locked up).

* Words do change meaning. Notorious once simply meant 'widely known'; a villain was a farm labourer; naughty meant 'worth nothing'. Sometimes, they evolve in a kind of graceful circle and end up close to the place from which they started: taxation was 'fault finding' and a publican was a public servant.


* What is the word with the greatest range of meanings in the English language? One contender must be the word mean or meaning, itself. I'm not talking here about same-spelt words (as in the senses of 'ignoble' or 'average'), but the semantic usages: intend, indicate, import, purpose, convey, refer to, and a whole subtle spectrum of other things. Think about it for a moment and you'll realise just why writing is an art and not a science. Or you could just follow the example of Humpty-Dumpty, who tells Alice 'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less'. Well, let's be fair, he was an egg, not a writer. But his creator can still teach us a thing or two. Like youth, Through the Looking Glass may be wasted on the young.

* Onomatopoeia is an ugly word for a delightful concept: plump, tinkle, sizzle, thump, balloon, swish, dream, coax, stink, shoot, slab. I could go on all day. I do sometimes.

* Urged on to have another gentle pop at modern misusages, my sights are set on hopefully, or hypefully as we hear it in a certain species of television and radio and television interview. Using the word as a sloppy alternative to 'it would be nice' or 'with a bit of luck' robs it of its life and makes the speaker sound so wet. When Robert Louis Stephenson said 'to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive' he and his readers knew exactly what he meant. Not a bad example to follow.

* Isn't it just a bit sinister, the way some of the darkest euphemisms creep into normal language? When the expression ethnic cleansing was first used, the words were uttered by commentators with distaste, to make it clear that the use of such a phrase was as immoral as the act it described was criminal. Now you hear commentators casually using it as if it were just another military manoeuvre. What will come next - encounter politics for war, or population engineering for selective murder?

* The question was asked in the last issue as to whether the word punk would have been used in the nineteen-forties. Well, it certainly would, as any Cagney-Bogart fan will tell you, and in just the way Shirley Edwards used it in issue 40. In fact the word was used as far back as the eighteenth century with the meaning 'worthless person' and two centuries before that it was yet another synonym for 'prostitute'. Only in recent years has it taken on a slightly narrower meaning.

* Her is one of those little words that can get you into a lot of trouble, mainly when you forget to use it, as in the modern 'his or her'. As with 'he or she', the PC brigade have taken over and it's too late now to say that in a grammatical sense, 'his' and 'he' can stand for both genders when used non-specifically. Gender itself is a word that's been corrupted in recent times. Once it was a purely grammatical term, now it's also a prissy synonym for sex. Ever read the appendix to Nineteen Eighty-four?

* Armadillo - a slightly comic waddling creature, as we all know. But William Boyd, in his recent novel of that title, reminds us of an earlier meaning - the diminutive of the Spanish armado, or armoured man. I suppose Boyd chose that title to epitomise the insecurities of his hero Lorimer, a confused Londoner desperately seeking certainty in a world that is being turned upside-down. What appealed to me was the way in which Boyd used a facsimile of a dictionary entry to open the novel. I used the same device myself once, in a fictional contribution to an early issue of Cambrensis - my word was Vendace. At the time I thought it original, although no doubt someone else had done it before. Still, it does show that a single word can sometimes act almost as an incantation. It's a power to be used with care, but not to be afraid of.


* The verb To Nuke is a newish and ugly addition to our language. Ray Jenkin points out that once upon a time we referred to H-Bombs and A-Bombs, and the hint of science-fiction gave them a nightmare quality. Then it was the more neutral 'nuclear weapons' Now 'to nuke' sounds flippant and easy. Ray suggests that we've learned to live with the unspeakable through our language. But does thought shape language or language shape thought?

* I hear that Mr. Virgin, who has a South Wales carpet business, has been threatened with legal action for using his surname for trading purpose. It's a registered trade mark, apparently. If this is true, what can we expect next? Will traditionalist bridegrooms have to spend their honeymoon with a bearded businessman? Is it all a wicked plot by Balloonman to exercise some new kind of jus primae noctis? My advice to Mr. Virgin (the one who claims that name by birth that is, not the one who may be trying to buy it) is to register his own trade mark. Branson Pickles has a nice ring to it.

* Or is it more serious than that? If the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary can seemingly be intimidated into excluding the neologism McJob from the latest edition, perhaps the Captains of Commerce pose a real threat to language, and thereby to freedom of thought.


* Robert Nisbet reminds me that Egregious is a fine-sounding word. So much so that it's pressed into all sorts of uses - shocking, remarkable etc. I remember it best from my schooldays, when it was an all-purpose intensifier of insults: 'egregious smock' was the combination I remember best (no, I don't mean 'schmuck' or 'schlock'). It's as well to remember the origin of the word, from the Latin grex gregis - standing out from the flock. I'll never use it again without feeling suitably sheepish.


* Several years ago, in a distillery in County Cork (where better?) I learned that whiskey is a direct translation of uisce, 'water of life'. I was pleasantly reminded of this in reading Seamus Heaney's introduction to his translation of Beowulf. I liked it even better when he went on to point out that the word has the same root as the name of our greatest river, the Usk (or Wysg). Perhaps this was because my maternal ancestors had their home near the river's headwaters 150 years ago. I can thoroughly recommend this translation for the quality of its poetry and the subtlety of its alliteration. The real treat for me though, was Heaney's forthright use of archaic and local words like tholed, keshes and mizzled. It seemed to me that this was the poet's assertion, or celebration, of the magic of language.


* Next time you have a bad dream, think twice before saying you've had a nightmare. The word really means the experience of something heavy sitting on the chest. That something was the night-hag, or 'the riding of the witch' - the witch in this case being that friendly medieval visiting spirit, the incubus or his female equivalent, the succubus.


* When the world of politics adopts a word, should we laugh or run for cover? In the case of reshuffle, it might be the former. There's something almost endearing about seeing the likes of Blair and Hague, or a straight -faced journalist, talking about their lesser colleagues as if they were inanimate objects. Although you will now find the word in dictionaries with the secondary meaning of 'interchanging of government ministers', I prefer to think of its root meanings: '[again] move with scraping or sliding or difficult motion' or '[again] keep shifting one's position; get out of evasively'.

* Your editor has suggested that the word foible should feature in this column. Now, because I can't say it without smiling, that's probably a good idea. As you'd expect from its sound, it's a French word in origin, though is obsolete, and means no less than the modern faible (weak). I'm sure it's to do with differences in pronunciation!

* Another word I've long wanted to quote (mainly since I got a book of them) is preface. This derives from a churchie Latin praefatio, and everyone will know the long-standing slight broadening of meaning: an introduction which prepares the reader for what follows without being essential to it. But this generalisation belies a whole sub-genre of literature. Prefaces may have begun innocently enough as asides connected with works such as the Venerable Bede's History, and Caxton's early recycling of the tales of Aesop (Here begyneth the preface or prologue to the fyrste book) but ever read Shaw's prefaces?


* One of my favourite adjectives is golden, if only for the variety of situations in which it finds itself. Naming golden age, golden bull, golden fleece, golden hello, golden oldie, golden tongued only whets the appetite. How would it be if gold were suddenly devalued?

* The root of infant is, strangely, nothing to do with children. It comes from the Latin in + fari = one unable to speak, the same root as the obsolete infand in fact. The infantryman only dates from Wellington but infanta (Portuguese or Spanish royal girl child not destined for the throne) dates from much earlier, so we're just about safe to refer to the youngest children without testing their conversational skills first, I reckon.

* Globalisation is a word I first heard used by a work colleague almost forty years ago in my first job, for Taylor Woodrow Construction. He used it about thirty times in a about ten minutes in fact, which made the other three of us smile a bit. Anyway, the three of us were not witnessing the early birth of perhaps the most frightening development of modern capitalism (at least for the rich half of the world). He meant something other than what the word means today - at least I think he did. What was his name again?


* A second chance for your editor. This time I've got him in writing. He mentions tardy as suitable word for inclusion in this column. But to my disgust I find that it's NOT another fairly recent French import, but has roots back to at least Middle English. Worse, it meant much the same then as now.


* I've nothing against the use of foreign expressions in English, provided that readers will have a fair chance of understanding them. But I have to laugh when I see cum laude (usually with American degrees: it means with praise, or distinction). Correctly pronounced, it reminds me of a painful accident (hint: we're talking about the second word here).