Monthly Archives: June 2012

Word of the Week, Idle


So true!

As any cat owner will tell you. These creatures are the epitome of idleness. Mine sleep all day; wake for just long enough to eat and – if we’re lucky – empty their bowels in either the litter tray or the neighbour’s garden; then curl up and sleep again.

Idle is one of those words which divided moral opinion.

“The condition of perfection is idleness…”
-Oscar Wilde

“Purity of mind and idleness are incompatible…”
-Mahatma Gandhi

“Idleness is the only refuge of weak minds, and the holiday of fools”
-Lord Chesterfield

Idle demonstrates the living, evolving, mutating nature of language. I’m sure there must be a Darwinian theory of language development somewhere. It originated in Old English as idel and it is related to Old High German, Saxon and Dutch words ital, idal and idil respectively meaning “worthless, empty, vain”. This meaning persists to this day in phrases like “idle gossip”, “idle speculation”.

Around 1300 it acquired a secondary meaning – or a mutation if you like – to mean “lazy” and “unoccupied”. It is because of this mutation that the following cartoon works:


The sound of the word is also lovely: the stretched and elongated initial /ɑɪ/ sound that lingers and rolls around our gaping mouth as we utter it; a long lazy sound like a summer’s Sunday afternoon. And somehow the remaining consonant sounds are swallowed up by the /ɑɪ/.

It is a yawn in the form of a word.

Of course, we shouldn’t mistake lack of movement with idleness. Whilst the body may be static, the mind may be traversing great cerebral plains, leaping over mental peaks and swimming intellectual oceans. At least, that is what I hope the beautiful Mrs P believes when I’m still on the sofa in my dressing gown at twelve tomorrow!


The Serial Comma

Lovely post on the serial comma or the Oxford comma: the placement of a comma before the coordinating conjunction at the end of a list.

However amusing the post and image, however, my inner grammar nazi – who lurks in my unconscious wearing full Victorian frock coat, top hat and mutton chop whiskers so large various forms of wildlife have taken up residence – balks at it. It’s just wrong he hisses at me: it’s American, it’s lazy, it’s unnecessary.

Surely the context make any ambiguity clear; and, if not, a bit of shuffling of the word order would resolve any ambiguity. Why should we invite “the strippers, Hitler and Stalin” when we could invite “Hitler, Stalin and the strippers”?


Courtesy of Sasha by way of Alan May on Facebook, we came across this lovely literary nugget this morning:

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The Value of Mistakes; The Curse of Tippex

So, here I am.

It’s Saturday morning. It’s Bloomsday. Radio 4 is plugged into my ears. My back is turned on the TV which has been glued to CBBC. Two stories lie before me in need of marking.

One is undeniably beautiful in its presentation. Penmanship is exquisite. Words, sentences and paragraphs are precisely and clearly spaced.

The other story is – lets face it – scruffy. It looks like something produced by a Bash Street Kid. Crossings out. Letters formed irregularly. Ink spots and blotches that make me think of a Rorschach test (butterflies on a still pond in a summer’s day; opening petals on a flower … Never ever say anything else!)

Now, both kids made mistakes and corrected themselves.

Child A has neatly tippexed out her errors – extraordinarily neatly! My attempts to use tippex always led to a scruffy scratchy lump of slob in the page! – I gather tippex these days (other brands are available) includes strips and pens and magic brushes…

Child B has scrawled through her errors.

But I can still see the first attempt beneath the scrawl. I can see evidence of drafting, of consciously trying to select appropriate vocabulary for effect, of worrying about spelling. For example, if auto-correct will forgive me, she wrote

fumeing fuming seething seathing furius so angry

I gave her additional marks.

Neat girl, for all I know, could have tippexed out something utterly irrelevant, wrong, a doodle, an offensive doodle… I do seriously doubt it but unless I can SEE I don’t KNOW!

SO, children of today, I plead with you! Abandon your obsession with neatness; reject the tippex; take up arms against the Primary School culture of perfection. You are not perfect; we are not perfect. Our mistakes show our thoughts and our thoughts are valuable!

Carnegie Winner, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A MASSIVE congratulations to Patrick Ness for the historic achievement of winning the Carnegie two years running AND winning both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Prizes simultaneously.

A Monster Calls is a truly exceptional book and a mighty winner! It is one of those books that EVERYONE should read! The story is moving, evocative, primal, mythic and personal; the language is beautiful and elegant and so economical; the illustrations are breath taking. Truly, genuinely inspiring!20120615-061732.jpg




Word of the Week, endure

Imagine the scene.

You are in love; you have got married. You have tattooed the date of your wedding to one wrist. Whilst lying in each other’s arms, you consider having the Chinese symbol for “forever” tattooed on the other wrist. You google it. The result looks good.


When you share this lovely image and thought, your other half removes herself to the other side of the sofa. “Endure?!” she hisses at you through gritted teeth, ignoring the “Forever” part of the description!

Enduring, lasting and continuing and ongoing and eternal. Enduring like “the eternal rocks beneath” on which Cathy’s love for Heathcliff is founded. Enduring, the opposite of Cathy’s love for Linton which is “like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it … as winter changes the trees”.

Enduring, putting up with, suffering, to remain firm under suffering.

I remember the same ambiguity – presumably deliberate – arising when teaching Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love at A level. Is he having to put up with love; or is he enjoy a love that will last forever?

Etymologically, the ambiguity seems to persist. In fact, very close to Cathy’s description of her love, the somewhat cliched image of “my rock” or “my foundations”. It comes from Latin in and durare being to become hard, solid, firm, lasting which became endurer in Anglo-French and enduren in Middle English.

It seems that the word has always had that duality between being long lasting and the process of becoming hard. Whether your preferred image is geological – some vague voice from Year 7 geography lessons is whispering words like metamorphic, pressure and temperature – thank you Mr Hollister – or culinary, the process of becoming hard seems somewhat arduous.

The problem here is ambitransivity: endure is a verb that can have an object – “I can endure pain” or “I can’t endure popular music” – and hence be transitive; or can exist without an object – I (or my love) can simply “endure” – and be intransitive.

Clearly my tattoo idea focussed on it as an intransitive verb; my wife chose to hear it as a transitive one; McEwan chose to be deliberately ambitransitive.

Phonetics on the word are strange too: /en-dyʊr/, a strangely polysyllabic word sounding like “en-d-yoor” seems to be the most English; yet the more French /en-dʒʊər/ also seems rather natural, sounding like “en-d-jour” the final vowels lengthening and stretching into eternity and the /r/ being almost under the breath as if it is a word that is itself endless.

Like the love my tattoo would describe.

Word of the Week, prosaic

Take my hand; come with me; let’s take an (abbreviated) tour of my bookcase.

To our left we see Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, The Millennium Trilogy, The Snow Child, Dracula, The Name of The Rose, even, ahem Twilight

And what do these titles have in common? They are all prose and therefore, by definition, prosaic.

Don’t get me wrong, I love poetry too: Browning, Marvell, Shakespeare. But most of my reading is prose and (most) is great. But the connotations of the adjectival form of the word, prosaic, are so strongly negative! It is almost synonymous with banal to suggest how dull, uninspired and mundane something is. How terribly unfair! I love prose; prose writing can be as just as enchanting and magical and wonderful and, yes, lyrical as poetry.

Anyway, rant over, let’s look at this word.

Prosaic. That little collection of vowels at the end which I love. The /eī/ followed by the sudden drawing back of lips to articulate the /ī/. It is such a precise, careful enunciation, possibly reflecting the use of prose to create precise and careful meanings; whereas lyricism conveys impressions and feelings….?

The etymology is interesting too. It derives – as so many of my Words of the Week do – from Latin: provotere is “to turn forwards” and its past participle is proversus, “turned forwards”. So is it truly “straight forward” or “forward facing”, perhaps even “looking to the future”?

What a strange word to have come to refer to a style of writing!

Or is it?

The novel is the form of writing most obviously written in prose – yes I know drama can be; I know there are analyses of Moby Dick that have identified pages written in perfect Shakespearean iambic pentameter; I know verse novels do exist – but as a rule it’s pretty accurate. And the word novel is derived from the word for newness, novelty. So prose – and therefore prosaic writing – is forward facing, looking to the future, creating novelty, innovative?

And instead of this very positive ideal of writing, the word – presumably as a result of nothing more than prejudice and ignorance and habit – it means little more than “banal”.

On a side question…. Is there a difference between the two words? I think so. Banal to me has a greater connection with the idea of being valueless and worthless; prosaic suggests perhaps a greater value but an uninspired expression.

Shades of Meaning, horror and fear

So, a follow up to the post on happiness and joy, let’s look at the flip side: fear and horror. Again, the question is what is the difference? Is ‘horror’ just a synonym for fear? Is it just a “very strong” fear?

The quotation that led to this question being asked in class was from Athol Fugard’s Tsotsi from the point at which the title character is about to rape a woman and

she had stopped her scream and was staring at the box with a horror deeper than her fear of him


Let us start with a consideration of – perhaps my least favourite – genre of film: the horror film. I do tend to watch these through my fingers, cringing behind half-lidded eyes. I remember squealing – most definitely not screaming – out loud in the cinema when I went to see The Exorcist: the attic, why enter the attic?! Cold shivers!


But what makes these horror films and not just fear films?

Let’s look at a less intimidating example. To be honest, after the attic, I didn’t see much of The Exorcist!

Let’s try Jaws.


There is horror in the dramatic irony – shared by Chief Brody – that beneath the surface of the ocean lies danger, unseen; horror in the vast unseen threat hidden from sight. Once we see the shark – even accounting for its terribly rubbery appearance to a modern audience – we experience fear but no longer horror. We can rationalise it, flee it, fight it, analyse it and therefore contain and control it.

The same technique creates horror in What Lies Beneath and the wonderful Black Swan – those mirror images that don’t turn around with Natalie Portman! – as well as the gloriously outrageous Piranha 3D and 3DD.

If we think about Chief Brody or Naomi Watts in the Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, is their quest not to reduce horror to fear in order to control and contain and destroy it?


Hmmm… Look at all these luminal images that congregate and cluster around the genre: surface and depths; reality and fantasy – that moment in The Ring when Naomi Watts plucks from the screen the image of the fly as well as Samara’s crawling her way through the television screen; dream and waking; known and unknown; life and death

So what does this tell us about the shades of meaning? Horror seems deep, primitive, irrational; fear seems rational.

To use Freudian language language, horror seems to be a deep, unconscious response from our Id; fear is a conscious response.

To use (probably with serious errors) the language of neuroscience, horror may be the reaction of our primitive, reptilian hindbrain, that first part of our brain to have evolved; fear, the reasonable mammalian response of the – wonderfully named – amigdala of the Limbic System.

The etymology of the word seems to support this too. From the Proto-Indo-European ghers- and the Latin horrere meaning “to bristle with fear”, it suggests that the word has connotations of very physically and viscerally reacting in that very reptilian way.

So, if you met a wild eyed, snarling tiger, fear would seem the right word to fit; on a darkened night, alone in the forest, when a breath touches the hairs on the back of your neck, horror seems entirely apt.