Wordwatch Towers

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

Archive for the ‘Wordwatching’ Category

Word order, wrong words, and old chestnuts

with 2 comments

Wordsworth, the butler here at Wordwatch Towers, likes things to be in good order. Including words. So, reader (hope you’re OK, Gladys), we have him to thank for this one.

Why don’t we write: “the blue big boat”? Or: “a square huge table”? Or: the “meal French lovely”?

As Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence points out, these are examples of ‘hyperbaton’ – or putting words into an odd order.

He explains that certain words have to be put in a certain order or the whole thing sounds wrong. For example, in the case of adjectives (descriptive words), the order has to be:

opinion – size – age – shape – colour – origin – material – purpose – with the noun coming at the end. So our phrases above should be:

  • the big blue boat

  • the huge square table

  • the lovely French meal

We can hear they sound right, but it’s nice to know there’s some method in the English language madness.

Geniuses can do what they like …

Hyperbaton is not always a complete no-no. As Oxford Dictionaries points out, it can be used as a stylistic tool. For example, to emphasise something as in: “This I must see” instead of “I must see this”.

And as Mark Forsyth points out in his book, the line “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II) has far more impact than the correctly ordered “The head that wears the crown lies uneasily”. But then Shakespeare was a genius; it’s probably best if the rest of us stick to the right word order, unless we want to a bit like Yoda sound.

 Not music to my ears …

The BBC, eh? They’re usually very good at getting words in the right order, but selecting the correct ones appears to be more of a challenge. This old chestnut slipped into the latest issue of the Beeb’s Music magazine while the editor was taking a nap (and not reading my previous post on this topic):

New York’s Met Opera has a long association with Wagner’s Parsifal as it was, in 1903, the first opera house to stage it outside Europe, flaunting the composer’s wishes …

Flaunting? No. In fact, the New York Met would have been flouting Wagner’s wishes. Flout means to openly disregard  a rule or convention; flaunt means to ‘display ostentatiously’.

 One thing leads to another …

The phrase ‘old chestnut’ is an idiom. While writing this post I became curious about why ‘old chestnut’ came to mean ‘a joke, story, or subject that has become tedious and uninteresting through constant repetition’. (See Oxford Dictionaries) Thank you, Wiktionary, for the answer.

Advertisements

Written by Wordwatch

10/02/2018 at 12:06 pm

Is there a word for . . . ?

leave a comment »

One of my favourite aromas (another being geranium leaves) is the one that rises from dry ground when it starts to rain. How would I describe it? No idea. Until now, that is. Because I’ve just discovered a word invented for this very purpose: petrichor.

Arriving like an interesting latecomer at a party, petrichor wasn’t coined until the 1960s. Oxford Dictionaries explains that the word is a “blend of petro- ‘relating to rocks’ (the smell is believed to be caused by a liquid mixture of organic compounds which collects in the ground) and ichor.”

Ichor? I know, one thing always leads to another. But I’m very glad it did in this case because, as Oxford Dictionaries explains, ichor is “the fluid which flows like blood in the veins of the gods.” How poetic!

Anyway, if you want to find out a bit more about this word, the people who coined it and the science behind it, here’s the Wikipedia article, plus a really interesting piece in Scientific American.

 

Revamps, vamps and vampires

leave a comment »

Thinking of having a revamp? Then you’re probably not planning a trip to your local shoe repair shop.

If you revamp something or vamp it up a little you’re making it better or improving it in some way. So why the shoes? I’m glad you asked, because I’ve just found out.

Polidori: Byron’s personal physician, author of The Vampyre, and maverick speller

The word ‘vamp‘ has its origins in Middle English and referred to the foot of a stocking. The word was later used to mean attaching a new upper to a boot or shoe. It was probably sometime in the nineteenth century (views differ) when the term ‘revamp’ began to be used in a much more general sense to refer to making improvements.

Vamp can also mean a woman who sets out to exploit men.  In this case, the word is related to ‘vampire‘, referring to a corpse who drinks the blood of the living.

(Favourite moans revisited: the sheer amount of female-specific abusive words that exist is covered here).

By the way, men can be vampires too. But they’d probably wear shoes more like these:

 

Written by Wordwatch

25/04/2017 at 3:02 pm

Posted in Wordwatching

Tagged with , , ,

Anchors, beech trees and boks

with 4 comments

Anchors and beech trees. I know, how come I’ve not covered these already? Anyway, the first bit of this will be a confession about how thick I can be, and the second bit is designed to take your mind off the first bit.

Until very recently I thought that ‘anchors aweigh’ was spelt ‘anchors away’. Well, in my defence, I’ve never had to actually write the phrase down and the ‘away’ spelling that was vaguely lodged in my mind does kind of make sense; after all, the anchor is pulled away from the seabed when the ship has to start off (or whatever the nautical phrase is for a ship starting off).

So why ‘anchors aweigh’? Well, here’s a pretty good explanation from the US Navy website:

The word ‘weigh’ in this sense comes from the archaic word meaning to heave, hoist or raise. ‘Aweigh’ means that the action has been completed. The anchor is aweigh when it is pulled from the bottom. This event is duly noted in the ship’s log.

However, the soup thickens. Apparently, says Oxford Dictionaries, nautical types are allowed to spell ‘under way’ (as when something is in progress) as ‘under weigh’. Who knew?

Root and branch investigation

So, we’ve established that I shouldn’t be editing the next edition of The Big Book of Nautical Words, but what about the beech trees?

515rbud1rl__sx362_bo1204203200_This is from the enchanting Tree Wisdom by Jaqueline Memory Paterson. She explains that the beech tree has a unique place in European legend due to the belief that thin slices of beech wood were used to create the first book, as well as surfaces for writing on.

These stories, says the author, are backed by etymology, as the Anglo-Saxon for ‘beech’ was ‘boc’ which became our word, ‘book’. ‘Buche’ is the German for ‘beech’ and ‘buch’ the German for ‘book’, and the Swedish word ‘bok’ means both ‘book’ and ‘beech’.

See, now you’ve forgotten all about the anchors aweigh fiasco. Although I will be including the phrase in future spelling tests, so be warned.

%d bloggers like this: