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This is just to say…

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Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom

… that ‘ensorcelled’ means ‘enchanted’ or ‘fascinated’. See Oxford Dictionaries. You can see from the word that its derivation is linked to the word ‘sorcerer’ (which I just had to check how to spell). I kind of like all of that, but is it a good choice in this article in the Guardian? The first paragraph includes the following sentence:

I was immediately ensorcelled by the singularity of the Shrigley worldview: here were pictures that had a bewilderingly complex naivete about them – it was as if a preternaturally intelligent child were rendering the attempts of a smart-aleck adult to draw like a kid.

Ensorcelled? Really? Why send your readers away (probably never to return) to consult a dictionary when ‘enchanted’ or ‘fascinated’ would work just as well (probably better) there? Yes, I learnt a new word, no, I didn’t go back to read the rest of the article (I wrote this post instead). And is the writer just showing off? Oh, I don’t know. Sunday morning tea and toast calls.

Up at Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin’ kanga-bloody-roos

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I was going to make this quick, but then I found a poem, and that led to a YouTube clip… any-old-how, my word of the day is ‘tmesis’, and – by complete coincidence – ‘any-old-how’ is a brilliant example of it.

Possibly the only word in the English language to begin with the letters ‘tm’, ‘tmesis’ is a noun and means the practice of separating a word with another word (as in ‘old’ inserted into ‘anyhow’).

These days, it’s a device that is mostly used for emphasis and humour. In Blighty, for example, we are very fond of inserting the mild expletive ‘bloody’, as in, for example, ‘abso-bloody-lutely’. It’s interesting to note that you have to insert the interloping word in the right place for it to ‘work’. ‘Ab-bloody-solutely’, for example, doesn’t cut the mustard.

Other examples include:

  • Some-damn-where
  • A-whole-nother
  • Inde-goddam-pendent

The plural is ‘tmeses’ and it’s derived from Greek meaning ‘cutting’ or ‘to cut’.

The Australian writer John O’Grady (1907-1981) provides some brilliant examples of tmesis in his 1959 poem The Integrated Adjective including ‘e-bloody-nough’; ‘kanga-bloody-roos’; and ‘Tumba-bloody-rumba’. (Tumbarumba is a town in New South Wales, Australia.)

The Integrated Adjective

I was down on Riverina, knockin’ round the towns a bit,
An’ occasionally restin’, with a schooner in me mitt;
An’ on one o’ these occasions, when the bar was pretty full
an’ the local blokes were arguin’ assorted kinds o’ bull,
I heard a conversation, most peculiar in its way,
Because only in Australia would you hear a joker say,
“Where yer bloody been, yer drongo? ‘Aven’t seen yer fer a week;
“An’ yer mate was lookin’ for yer when ‘e come in from the Creek;
“‘E was lookin’ up at Ryan’s, an’ around at bloody Joe’s,
“An’ even at the Royal where ‘e bloody never goes.”
An’ the other bloke said “Seen ‘im. Owed ‘im ‘alf a bloody quid,
“Forgot ter give ut back to ‘im; but now I bloody did.
“Coulda used the thing me-bloody-self; been orf the bloody booze,
“Up at Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin’ kanga-bloody-roos.”

Now their voices were a little loud, an’ everybody heard
The peculiar integration of this adjectival word.
But no one there was laughin’, an’ me I wasn’t game,
So I stood around an’ let ’em think I spoke the bloody same.
An’ one of ’em was interested to ask ‘im what he’d got-
How many kanga-bloody-roos he bloody went and shot-
An’ the shootin’ bloke said, “Things are crook; the drought’s too bloody tough;
“I got forty-bloody-seven, an’ that’s good e-bloody-nough.”
An’ this polite rejoinder seemed to satisfy the mob,
An’ everyone stopped listenin’ an’ got on with the job,
Which was drinkin’ beer and arguin’ an’ talkin’ of the heat,
An’ stickin’ in the bitumen in the middle of the street;
But as for me, I’m here to say the interestin’ news
Was “Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin’ kanga-bloody-roos.”


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21/02/2012 at 4:52 pm

Eclogues and shivering sizars

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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 

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01/02/2012 at 3:23 pm

There is an evil hand afoot ahead

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Caricature of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron ...

Image via Wikipedia

I have been out and about, watching films and reading books. As a result, I have discovered that the sky can be ‘cerulean’ and now know the meaning of the lovely word ‘passaggio’. And by serendipity, I came across the even lovelier word ‘passeggiata’.    

I have also found out who coined the phrases ‘the great unwashed’ and ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.  The very same person, as it happens, who first wrote the classic opening line, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ –which led me to some competition results that made me laugh out loud. All this, and Ashima too — a beautiful name I came across.    

Cerulean, passaggio and passeggiata     

I came across ‘cerulean’ and ‘passaggio’  in Jonah Lehrer’s fascinating book, The Decisive Moment, about how the brain makes decisions.    

Recounting the moments before a catastrophic mid-flight explosion, Lehrer writes poetically:  The sky was a cloudless cerulean blue. ‘Cerulean’ meaning, I discovered, ‘deep blue’, derived from the Latin ’caeruleus’ meaning ‘sky blue’.    

And in describing how the brain’s workings can make performers and sportsmen and women ‘choke’, he uses the example of opera star Renée Fleming who faltered during a performance of The Marriage of Figaro.  Lehrer points out that: Most sopranos struggle with Mozart’s tendency to compose in the passaggio, or the awkward part of the vocal range.    

I’m glad he provided that definition as the word is not listed in my Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) or the online Oxford Dictionaries. Here’s a very detailed explanation if you’re interested.      

While searching for ‘passaggio’ in the ODE, I came across ‘passeggiata’. Obviously from the Italian, and meaning a leisurely walk or stroll, especially in the evening for socialising. The plural is ‘passeggiate’. You can listen to the pronunciation of ‘passeggiata’ at Merriam-Webster.      

It was a dark and stormy night…    

This, I learnt at the excellent Evolving English exhibition at the British Library in London, is the opening to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. He also coined the phrases mentioned in the introduction above. I then discovered that the San Jose State University in California holds an annual tongue-in-cheek competition in Bulwer-Lytton’s honour. Entrants are invited to, ‘compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels’. Be sure to check out all the winning entries for 2010.    

Here are my favourites, both from the detective genre category:    


She walked into my office wearing a body that would make a man write bad checks, but in this paperless age you would first have to obtain her ABA routing transit number and account number and then disable your own overdraft protection in order to do so.      

Steve Lynch, San Marcos, CA     


As Holmes, who had a nose for danger, quietly fingered the bloody knife and eyed the various body parts strewn along the dark, deserted highway, he placed his ear to the ground and, with his heart in his throat, silently mouthed to his companion, “Arm yourself, Watson, there is an evil hand afoot ahead.     

Dennis Pearce, Lexington, KY     


I liked this entry too, from the romance genre:    

Cynthia had washed her hands of Philip McIntyre – not like you wash your hands in a public restroom when everyone is watching you to see if you washed your hands but like washing your hands after you have been working in the garden and there is dirt under your fingernails — dirt like Philip McIntyre.     

Linda Boatright, Omaha, NE      


The most outstanding film I have seen recently is The Namesake (2006), directed by Mira Nair and based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Both the acting and the script are beautifully understated, and Nikolai Gogol’s mysterious short story The Overcoat (1842) is woven through it with a restrained lightness of touch. As quoted in the film, Fyodor Dostoevsky said: We all come from Gogol’s overcoat.    

Anyway, the mother’s name in the film is ‘Ashima’, a Hindu name meaning ‘without borders, limitless, endless’. Isn’t that lovely?    

Sorry all that was a bit longer than usual – hope some of it caught your fancy. Summer has suddenly arrived here in Blighty; the sky is cerulean and I am going out for a passeggiata.    

 Literary terms  

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