Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Eclogues and shivering sizars

with 9 comments

Philip Larkin

Why do writers use words that many, if not most, readers won’t understand? And, more importantly, did you know that a sizar can shiver? I’ll come back to that.

Here’s the first word: eclogue

And here’s where I stubbed my toe against it (from Robert Macfarlane’s review of  the Edward Thomas biography, Now All Roads Lead to France, published in the Guardian):

Even as the plains of Belgium were being scorched … the poets were still living out their eclogue, with conversation the labour and poetry the harvest.

And the definition of ‘eclogue’? It simply means a short poem, especially, apparently, a ‘pastoral dialogue’ (whatever that is; I did google it, but got distracted by some shiny things). See Oxford Dictionaries. So, there you have it. Tempted to use it? No, nor me.

Next up, also in the Guardian: sizar. John Banville, writing a review of The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin, suddenly and bizarrely asserts:

 …yet the wealth and profusion of detail within it would purblind Larkin’s own shivering sizar.

Here’s a quick quiz for you:

A sizar is:

a) Always cold, that’s why it shivers
b) A ration of bread or beer
c) An undergraduate at Cambridge University or at Trinity College, Dublin, receiving financial help from the college and formerly having certain menial duties

The answer is c, but the word derives from b which is an obsolete meaning of the word ‘size’. See Oxford Dictionaries.

Larkin went to Oxford University. He couldn’t have been a sizar, shivering or otherwise.

 Oh, and don’t get me started on ‘purblind’, which is an adjective. Not a verb.

More on journalistic writing 


Written by Wordwatch

01/02/2012 at 3:23 pm

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Oh dear, I’m not usually so opinionated at this time of the morning, but I have to say: Please don’t let our obscure words die out…

    As for the two examples you choose – I agree on the second one being rubbish writing(including that awful purblind misuse). Sizar is a great word for a quiz, though.

    But I quite like the first example. I didn’t know the word eclogue (and at first I thought it should be eco-logue), but now I do know it and if you search for it on Twitter you will see quite a few people are using it (mostly literature students, admittedly).

    Although I agree journalists should write plainly, I don’t believe book reviews etc should be dumbed down. I love to find the odd rare word cropping up in an article and I am quite happy to look it up and add it to my word-hoard 🙂


    02/02/2012 at 6:49 am

    • Hi, Pat! It’s lovely to see you here, and thanks very much for retweeting this post.

      Nothing wrong with being opinionated at this time in the morning! Yes, the ‘eclogue’ example is definitely the better of the two (as in, not being as bad as ‘sizar’). I think it got my goat not only because I had to stop reading to look it up, but because after I found out, the sentence still didn’t seem to make sense. Maybe it should be plural to make sense in the way it’s used in the review? Or are we supposed to read eclogue as ‘pastoral dialogue’ (which would make sense)? Perhaps it’s just my strange way of looking at things!

      Thanks again, Pat.


      02/02/2012 at 7:12 am

  2. Hi Deborah! I think your “stubbed my toe against it” (love that!) explains why, though it’s not good to dumb down our writing, it doesn’t serve it to use words that completely interrupt it. Saying that, I love to learn new things, so if now and then a word I’m not familiar with crops up (and I can get the gist of what I’m reading), my detective self enjoys the investigation into it afterwards.

    It’s always a balance, isn’t it? To use language of a high enough standard, without leaving readers hanging.

    Thanks for sharing!


    04/02/2012 at 8:31 pm

    • Hi, Diane

      Thanks for dropping by again; you’re always very welcome. Your summary is a very wise one, I think. You’re exactly right about enjoying the detective work after getting the general idea of what a word means. It’s always difficult to achieve that fine balance (and guard against showing off), but, as you suggest, when a word is exactly right it should be used. Thanks again, Diane.


      05/02/2012 at 9:48 am

  3. Greater appreciation of English and the origins of some words, particularily obscure words, may be greatly helped by learning another foreign language.

    If English is a second language, then some ‘obscure’ English words is less of a big deal.

    I took three years of Latin in high school which makes it easier for me to ‘tolerate’ ‘obscure’ English words. Oh yea, I also forget that as a Canadian I was required to take some French in high school but I didn’t really enjoy it.

    C’est la vie! (That is life –in French.)

    I actually don’t find English word origins as dynamic or creative or poetic as some other languages. Or maybe it’s obscure words that are extra creative.


    16/02/2012 at 2:01 am

    • Hi, Jean

      Yes, you’re absolutely right, of course. We here in Blighty are particularly reluctant to learn other languages, I think. I envy your three years of Latin! Many thanks for your interesting thoughts on this.


      16/02/2012 at 6:36 am

  4. I had to read Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender at University so I won’t soon forget what an “eclogue” is. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive a sizer for doing so.


    24/02/2012 at 2:29 am

    • Hi, there

      Ah, who could forget Colin Clout? (Me, because I just had to look it up on Wikipedia.) However, I did also just find that the word ‘sarcasm’ was apparently used for the first time in that Calendar thingy, so that’s interesting, at least. Thanks for dropping by!


      24/02/2012 at 6:12 am

Your questions and comments are welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: