Monthly Archives: May 2012

Word Of The Week, cant


That is all.

Such a tiny word. A monosyllable. Surely not enough to write anything about. Really?

Challenge accepted!

Let’s reflect first on the sounds of this word, such as they are. The opening “c” is a harsh /k/ clicking away in the back of the throat; the vowel is the short /æ/. It sounds like a cat coughing up a furball; or an old man choking on his false teeth. It is one of those combinations of sounds that just reeks of disdain; one of those sounds beloved by English teachers trying to drum the notion of alliteration for effect into students’ minds!

But this is odd. The origin of the word is the Old French chanter. Chanter. Which opens with such a soft /ʃ/ and long sensuous vowel /ɔː/. Such lengthy and soft sounds in a word has somehow mutated over time into to the harsh and spiky sounds of our cant.

And the meaning has mutated as much as the phonology. Chanter meant to sing; cant means an insincere and meaningless babble, often deriding one profession’s jargon based language.

The lawyer’s cant sounded incomprehensible to the ears of their clients, making as much sense as the squeaking of a badly oiled hinge.

The question then pops into my head: has the sound changed because of the altered meaning; or has the meaning varied in response to the increasing sharpness of its sound. Cause and effect? Egg and chicken? Is the Darwinian language of evolution apt to language? Pressure leading to mutation? I think so. Memes suggest so. Oh well it will serve!

Cant is what the Plain English Campaign would deride and mock. A jargon used to exclude people who don’t belong to your group. I suppose the difference between cant and jargon is that at times jargon can be what us (ex) lawyers might call terms of art and actually be vital for describing specific shades of meaning that are usually unnecessary.

… Hmmm I wonder what the Plain English Campaign would make of my blog…

… Consider yourselves invited, guys!

… Hurriedly spell checking post to ensure no offence has been caused by unexpected autocorrections!


WTF, Fuck

Hmmmm… Reading Mantel’s sublime Bring Up The Bodies and really loving it but she has used the f-word twice now I think, in 126 pages. Gosh, it says something about my upbringing that I still shy away from using it save in extremis. Putting it as the title to this blog actually made me shudder a little! I am such a prude!


“let’s fuck about with Cromwell.

This comes from a chapter set very specifically on Christmas Day 1535 and, frankly, the word grates on me! I know Mantel is using modern language and not attempting a faux Shakespearean dialogue and I fully applaud that! Whilst a self-confessed prude (see above!) I understand that Cromwell, the son of a violent Putney ne’erdowell, the soldier, the merchant would have a range of choice vocabulary and our narrator reflects that. All well and good. I understand that at this precise moment, said choice lexis may be appropriate: he has just been excluded from negotiations between his King and his friend (who happens to also be the Spanish ambassador) Chapuys over his request to visit the erstwhile Queen Katherine.

But fuck? Really? It grates it really does!

So, on with a spot of research online…

Its literal sense seems to be suitably ancient – much to my chagrin – Germanic and Scandinavian words ficken, focken, fukka or fokka which no doubt arrived with Vikings and were grafted onto our mongrel tongue. There is a poem prior to 1500, at least according to Wikipedia which includes the line

non sunt in coeli, quia fvccant vvivys of heli

which translates as a description of Friars who are not in Heaven because they’re too busy fucking the wives of Ely. And what a brilliant mongrel sentence of language! Shifts straight from Latin to English within a single breath of the speaker! I love English!!

Anyway, back to fuck. I am forced to concede that the word exists within the time of Cromwell. Indeed, there’s even a graph!


So, somewhat oddly fuck was most common in use around 1590 and 1700. Much more common then than it is now in fact. Why? To me, logically, that suggests its use was less taboo earlier and therefore more frequently employed. As records of writing was much less and skewed towards the more educated and socially adept in 1600 and 1700 it suggests that even more strongly. It makes me wonder if the explosion of twitterati and the blogosphere may have caught up! Here’s my contribution to spurious research into word frequency: fuck, fucked, fuck you, fuck off, fucking hell, fuckity fuckity fuck fuck, FUCK.

Oh dear, I’m blushing now.

But does the sense in which it’s used – as a verb meaning to toy with or to really piss off or to seriously annoy – exist in that time?

The answer is… who knows! To me it just feels too modern and contemporary. It feels too Americanised; too “Call Of Duty” to be used in the 1535 context in this sense. But this is entirely based on me and my personal, subjective reaction to it as a word.

Your views??

One thing that did make me giggle was the myth that it derived from some 1800s acronym for Found Under Carnal Knowledge or Fornication Under the Consent of the King. In fact myth seems to strong a word. This explanation ignores the previous 300 years of use and is just totally silly!! One could say, a fucking joke!

Ebooks vs Paper Books


One book (Hilary Mantell’s Bring Up The Bodies) an inch and a half thick, chunky, heavy, fills my bag;

982 books, less than a centimetre thick, slim, lightweight slips into a jacket pocket.

That is why I love my ebook.

But having the same book in paper and electronic format, I’d still always prefer the paper. The weight, the smell, the feel of the paper under the fingertips. A lovely immersive sensuous experience. And one I can take to the bath with me! However I wrap my ebook up in food bags and freezer bags, it just doesn’t like it!

Shades of Meaning: nauseous, nauseated

This shows the quality of Year 11 students I currently teach. Imagine the following scene, if you will.

You are a sixteen year old girl.

You have woken up unwell: your throat hurts to swallow, your voice is croaky, your stomach aches, your head burns. All the tell tale signs of a growing cold.

Your mother asks if you want to stay home but you say “Mother, no! I must go to school! I have a drama performance to make and can’t let anyone down!”

You struggle into school (incidentally speaking to and infecting your tutor for which I will never forgive you) and in a mathematics lesson you ask to step outside because you’ve started to feel sick and hot and the walls seem to be closing in on you. Whilst taking a breath of cool fresh air the aforementioned tutor walks by and, concerned, asks how you are.

As a result of this innocent, concerned question (in addition to continuing to breathe on me and infecting me further) you choose to ponder whether to use the word nauseous or nauseated.

Well, which should you use? What’s the difference?

Both words obvious describe the same feeling: a sudden and imminent urge to revisit your last two meals, with added carrot chunks! Both clearly derive from the Latin noun nausea and apparently ultimately from the Greek ναυσίη.

Nauseous then is the adjectival form of the noun. When we are simply feeling unwell, this seems to me to be the word to use. When we genuinely and literally feel on the verge of up chucking (what an god awful phrase, brought to you from the people who created Ben 10!), we feel nauseous.

To nauseate is the verb form of nausea, meaning to cause in another person a feeling of sickness. We use it much more figuratively: bad jokes, offensive comments, horrific news items could all nauseate us without being in danger of genuinely vomiting. Some of my jokes have that effect on the lovely Mrs P!

To be nauseated therefore seems to me the passive form of the verb, albeit used adjectivally. It suggests that the cause of our sickness is external not internal; that the sickness itself may be more metaphorical, perhaps more accurately described as horror or disgust. It’s also an odd word: whilst it means a feeling of sickness and implies a deep, visceral reaction to something, it is a word that has become so mired in a medical and clinical register that it seems quite distant.

Maurice Sendak RIP


It is with genuine sadness that I learn of Maurice Sendak’s death today. This man will have the status of icon, myth, legend and inspiration for all time.

I feel it wouldn’t be right, as a reader, not to mark his life in some way. He was the one man whose story, Where The Wild Things Are has stayed with me throughout my life. I remember my mother reading it to me; it was the first book I ever read alone; I remember having to draw the Wild Things in an art lesson at school when I was 10; it was the first book I bought to read to my adopted son and daughter; it was subsequently eaten by my son but quickly replaced; I have taught it in A level English classes and at GCSE.

I do not know enough about Sendak to write an obituary and there will be countless. The first (perhaps) is here

What I can do is explore what Sendak means to me and what he woke in me.

He taught me that language is alive and resonant and beautiful and playful and true. His line that Max “sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year” is still one of my favourite lines in all writing! The way the sentence moves from the literal to to symbolic; the interplay of movement through time and space – “in and out of weeks” – is controlled, simple, elegant and just sublime. It is language at its best and reminds us that beauty, depth, poignancy and truth are not limited to long, pretentious, showy language.

Another thing he was the first to teach me was that the creatures and shapes that peopled the inside of my head – and I assume others’ – were valid and real and true in a way that transcended the mundane truths of our banal world. They were parts of me. Contradictory, antagonistic, childish, irritating, unruly, scary and – in it’s richest sense – wild but all parts of me.

He taught me that no one can limit or control human and my own imagination. The limitlessness of the Max sent to his room in which

That very night … a forest grew and grew- and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by

. Yes I know it’s “just” a kids’ book but Max in his room is Mandela on Robbins Island, is every wage slave, is every oppressed individual or group or race. Mandela in fact said, of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that it was the book that caused the “prison walls fall down”. Sound familiar? And the vastness of our human imagination: unbounded even by the ocean.

Yet despite his unbounded oceanic imagination, Max returns home to “be where someone loved him best of all” and through this I learnt that we cannot exist in our imagination alone. And as a parent, trying to discipline an unruly (book eating) wild thing of my own, I learnt that discipline does not stop the child loving and feeling loved “best of all” however much he may be screaming that he hates me!

Through Sendak, I learnt that love can be so possessive it becomes destructive. When he leaves, the Wild Things howl “Oh please don’t go- we’ll eat you up- we love you so!”. Watching Jeremy Kyle or recalling the disputes I got involved in as a barrister, other people would have benefitted from learning that too.

I learnt through Sendak that the label of “children’s” or “young adult” books is patronising. I recall Patrick Ness’ sublime A Monster Calls and I wonder about the debt Ness owes Sendak; I read Neil Gaiman and China Miéville and Sendak seems to echo through them. I have no idea whether these people have read or valued Sendak but I hear Max’s spirit in them.

So, Maurice Sendak, dead today at the age of 83, I thank you! You have in a very real sense made me who I am today. And I like who I am!


Word of the Week: Corpulent


Another way of calling someone fat without them realising? Although be careful with royalty: they are well versed in the slightly more obscure insults. Leigh Hunt was arrested, imprisoned and suffered all the usual fates that prisoners do for calling the Prince Regent “corpulent” in 1812. What offence would it come under, I wonder? Offences Against the Person? Treason? Abusive words?

Because this is the thing with this word, “corpulent”. Is it an insult? Really? Is it a synonym for fat or obese? Or is it something else?

Lets investigate its sound. /ˈkɔpjʊlənt/. Well, that initial /ˈkɔ/ sound is undeniably harsh. It is the echo of the raven’s “caw”: dissonant, aggressive, carrion somehow. It sticks in the back of the throat. A sound which is coughed or vomited out rather than exhaled. And the word is punctuated with the plosive /p/, coupled with grimacing, sneering, snarling /jʊ/. It is not a pleasant sound; wholly appropriate to anti-Royalist phlegm and invective.

And as we look at the word we discern the corpse within the corpulent body: the poor victim of this erudite insult is a dead man walking a rotting carcass of a man swaddled in multitudinous layers of fat and grease! We hear “corpulent” and we understand “morbidly obese”. But again is this fair?

It is undeniable that corpse and corpulent share a root, the Latin corpus. But to my untutored and non-latinate mind, corpus means simply body, our physical, corporeal form. Frail or healthy, male or female, young or old, living or dead, Platonic prison or sensual garden. Just “body”. And -ulentus means nothing more than “full of” or “replete”. Our corpulent gentleman may therefore resemble a powerhouse of a man, a man of complete and powerful body. Could we describe an athlete, a wrestler, a dancer as being fully invested in their bodies and therefore “corpulent”?

Alas, only in my mind. It seems that we poor limited Britons have limited the word to just “fat”. Which still doesn’t exclude the wrestler from its application!