Category Archives: Quotations

Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge 

She dreamed that she was in a dressmaker’s shop to be measured, but that when she took off her own frock to try on the new one, she found she had another dress on underneath. She took off that one as well, only to find yet another dress beneath that one. Dress after dress she removed, becoming thinner and thinner all the while, until it came to her that in the end there would be nothing left of her, except a pile of discarded clothes and a disembodied wail. 



Twilight Breaking Dawn Part One

I was forced to watch this appalling aberration of a film last night.

50 minutes of people and vampires not having sex; 50 minutes of werewolves not killing vampire-spawn…

But the post-credits section…. Beneath a very rock soundtrack a young blonde girl walks through a darkened and dingy corridor with a note on a silver platter.

Was it my imagination? Or did the sinister camp chaps to whom she gave the note – the Volturi? – have her murdered because she spelt Carlisle “Carlyle” and mangled her grammar?

“First it’s the spelling. Then the grammar.”

Watch for yourselves here!

Spelling Bee Extreme Expert Level!

To be played as a starter in every English lesson henceforth?!

Perhaps the only 90 seconds worth watching from the 480 minutes of the so-called saga thus far.

I wonder whether the reason why I am so offended by this series is the word saga. I mean, fair enough, people like it; I don’t. There’s plenty of room in this world for a plethora of tastes and preferences. I’m not keen on many films or books but I don’t have the vehement hatred I do of the Twilight saga which is not a saga! Its just not. It’s not Icelandic; it’s not heroic; it’s not mythic; it’s not got the scope or power of a saga. If anything, it’s a melodrama. A domestic melodrama. Beowulf, a saga; Twilight, not! Snorri Sturluson would be spinning in his grave!

Now, feeling rather like Polonius, I shall retire.

Word Of The Week, Bear


Please bare with us while we undergo renovations

read the sign in the shop window. Imagine my disappointment when, entering the shop and slowly stripping off, no-one joined in!

And the police were called.

And cautions given.

Apparently, according to the judge, the sign should not have been read as either invitation, request or instruction

Not a true story!

But when the lovely Mrs P. asks how to spell “bear” as in “bear with me”, it is an image that flashes through my mind!

And it is a totally understandable confusion: bear is so strongly linked with its homonym of bear the animal, the ursidae in their Latin name


that it just doesn’t feel right to use it in other contexts.

And it’s use as a verb, transitive and intransitive, to mean to endure or to carry something is a tad archaic now. Even though the most fundamental and primal human experience of being born is the past participle of this verb, do we even refer to a pregnant woman as bearing a child? Even though I remember my grandmother complaining that my uncle had married a woman

past child-bearing age

it sounds rather Victorian and squeamish and euphemistic. Nowadays, don’t we just have children rather than bear them? The intransitive connotations of the word – suggesting to endure or to suffer hardships and trials – are also rather archaic in the contexts: are children a trauma to be borne with fortitude; or a blessing to be celebrated?

Perhaps women have a different attitude. I mean, as a guy, I accept that we have it easy!

And that this is dangerous territory!

Let us move to another use which still persists: particularly in America perhaps, the right to bear arms is a cherished right. But, once again, it is a right enshrined in the Second Amendment of The Constitution in 1791 and therefore has the power of history, and is used almost ritualistically, almost fetishistically, amongst some people. But once more I fear I may be treading on dangerous ground.

And it may say an awful lot about me that I’m more afraid of the wrath of pregnant women!

To have said that the word bear is a tad archaic is literally true: the word derives from the Middle English beren and Old English beran with kinship to the same word, beran in Old High German and, with the shift between the unvoiced /f/ phonemes to the voiced /b/ over time, the Latin ferre and Greek phérein.

It is therefore – fittingly with its universal and primal sense of our being born – an ancient word whose use goes back literally beyond the rise of English as a language.

Word Of The Week, Mote

A mote.

A mote plays havoc with my autocorrect here. If, my dear iPhone, I had meant ‘more’, ‘moat’, ‘mots’, ‘motte’ or ‘mite’, please be assured that I would have written that! I am a man with a brain; you are a piece of plastic connected to the Internet. Therefore in all things, I am right and you are wrong!!

But is it my phone’s fault that it does not recognise the word mote? Let us consider: my iPhone is 6 months old, give or take; the word we’re looking at is perhaps over a thousand years old. I will have trouble next week putting names to faces of classes I’ve not seen for six weeks, let alone a thousand years!

Because mote evolved – I was going to say coined but I’m assuming that evolved is a better word: the deliberate coining on neologisms to describe new inventions or concepts feels very modern and industrialised; evolution feels more traditional, natural and organic. But these are just feelings and my prejudices with absolutely no evidence – around 1000-1200 AD. It seems to have come from Old English into Middle English.

And it means a speck, a particle, a tiny thing. A nubbin. Which is a glorious word itself: nubbin.

Anyway, I am being distracted!

Back to mote.

Phonologically, it is pronounced to be a homophone for moat.

On an aside and returning to the frustrations of autocorrect functions: when writing homophone the iPhone autocorrects it to homophobe. What a sad indictment of the universe we live in that we might be more likely to be discussing the prejudiced and abhorrent world of homophobes before the world of language and phonology.

Anyway, digressing again Mr P!

Phonologically, we open with the long sensuous /m/ rolling around inside our mouths, our lips pressed together. This /m/ could last for as long as we wanted it to. We could savour it, linger over it, prolong it.

Until, that is the short vowel /əʊ/ and precise /t/ cut it off short.

It is almost as if the tiny precise /t/ phoneme is the speck, hidden in the vast and rolling world encapsulated by the /m/.

And the word mote has a poetic and lyrical depth to it for such a tiny word.

The word is used biblically to describe hypocrisy:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

This at least is the King James translation of Matthew 7:3. More recent translations have tended to go for speck, speck of sawdust or even the – in my opinion very ungainly – chip. I understand why: speck of sawdust has a more direct comparison with beam or – even more ungainly – plank. And these are translation of the Greek word Καρφος meaning splinter – which is itself a translation from the Hebrew. But mote is just so much more resonant!

And the second massively familiar quote is from Carl Sagan who describes our own planet – our green and pleasant land – our terraqueous globe – as

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Who says scientists can’t be lyrical?! What a beautiful phrase to encapsulate the beauty, preciousness, miraculousness and perhaps insignificance and fragility of our daily squabbles.


This is the photo taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 which inspired Sagan. Beneath is a more recent and spectacularly beautiful photo that shows again the mote on which we live, love, hope, dream and die.

This picture was found here and has been scaled for effect.

Word of the Week, Shard

This week I ask you all to face the metropolis of Old London Town, home to the smog of Victorian industry; home to Holmes, to Jekyll, home to Jack the Ripper; Old London Town in which Blake’s Chimney Sweeps and harlots wept through which the chartered Thames did flow….

Old London Town which this week unveiled a new monolith to modernity, forged of modern glass, steel and chrome, The Shard. A chorus of phallic adjectives and verbs seem to have hailed the birth of this monster: it is invariably thrusting and proud, erect and erected, making Mr Grey look to the floor in shame.


Apparently the tallest building in Europe and a shade shorter than the Eiffel Tower – why is that not a building? Or have I misunderstood the figures? – The Shard is an unmistakeable feature now of our London skyline.

But, let us turn to that word shard.

It is a deeply resonant word evoking images of sacred objects broken up to prevent their powers being used for evil – and no doubt being pursued by Lara Croft or Drake or Indiana Jones. It suggests the existence of some traumatic event that has broken an object asunder and all that remains is a shard. Shards may be the broken remnants of something whole yet the word suggests that they retain done element of power or threat.

And the sound of the word itself is evocative. We breathe rather than enunciate the initial /ʃɑ/ sound, rolling it around our mouth, teeth parted, throat open, a sound that could continue indefinitely – or for as long as we have breath in our lungs! And finally the long stretched /ɑ/ is cut off, shorn and snipped by the sudden biting down on the plosive /d/.


If we return to the architectural monolith of the building, we recognise it’s modernity and it’s thrust towards the future. Yet, if we turn to its name we find it’s history dates back – as a word – back into time: prior to Victoria, prior to Elisabeth, prior to Viking invasions, we have been using this word since the 12th century at least. It derives from the Old English sceard and Proto-Germanic skardas.

And so we have a symbol of modernity named with an ancient word; soaring above and rooted in ancient streets, its lineaments composed of modern materials; futuristic ambition rooted in ancient memories.

Not a bad metaphor for the city itself!

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!

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.