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‘Language’ Category

  1. Quasimodo – Favourite Rhyming Couplet


    April 7, 2013 by IPAlchemist

    Last night I went to see a performance at the King’s Head Theatre of Quasimodo, a musical by Lionel Bart (of Oliver! fame), not quite finished and never performed before this run.  As might be expected from the title, the story is based on Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  One is always nervous about revived or newly discovered pieces – there is often a reason for their neglect – but this was great. Fantastic hummable tunes and emotion-stirring harmonies.  The musical was revived and directed by my friend Robert Chevara and had an amazing cast – every single one gave an astonishingly good performance, with first-class singing, acting, and movement.  It is not on for much longer, so do get to see it if you can.

    There was a lot for the lover of language as well.

    First, the viewer is informed that Quasimodo is named for Quasimodo Sunday, otherwise known as Low Sunday, which, as luck would have it, is actually today. It is the Sunday after Easter and the name come from the introit for the day:  Quasi modo geniti infantes “as newborn babes” (1 Pet. ii:2). According to the story, Quasimodo was found as an abandoned infant on that day, and thusly named.

    The other thing is that the musical contains what could just possibly be my favourite rhyming couplet. Introducing Esmeralda to the bells of Notre Dame, Quasimodo sings the lines:

    They cannot wait

    To tintinnabulate

    It is probably helped by the fact that the word was delivered perfectly , with a knowing pause to signify to the audience that the performer knew the absurdity of this character delivering such an improbable word – absolutely glorious.  (Here I am getting annoyed that spellchecker does not like “tintinnabulate”.)

    So dear readers, this got me thinking. An early blogpost of the IPAlchemist invited submission of favourite words.  We haev probably gone as far as we can with that for the time being. Now my question is – what is your favourite rhyming couplet? From any work, including one that you made up yourself. In honour of Quasimodo I will invite responses during Eastertide. So I will do a roundup around Pentecost.

    Submit by comment, Twitter or email. Over to you!

  2. Call to Rescue Adjectives in Pain!


    November 30, 2012 by IPAlchemist

    How is it nearly two weeks since my last post? I intended to have a period of respite following multiple postings at APAA, but was still vaguely intending an approximate one-a-week rate. But nearly two have slipped by. Never mind – I can remedy the situation immediately. So I shall.

    Today I am going to have a rant. Sorry – polemical piece designed to provoke thought and discussion. No – I was right first time – rant. Everyone likes a rant. I think this will be my first blog rant. And the subject is one of my promised three – language.

    A couple of weeks ago I saw a comment on a blog where a lawyer said that he had “lateraled” into his current position. That’s right – “lateral” as a verb. I don’t know how one should spell it – since it should not be written anyway, the “one l or two” question should never have arisen. So, for the sake of this piece, I shall use one l.

    This is not the first time that I have seen an adjective used as a verb. It is, I regret to say, more often observed in US usage, although (as we shall see later in this post) the most egregious example that I have encountered was in the UK.  The first time I observed the phenomenon was over a decade ago in an advertisement on the New York Subway that informed its readers that a certain printer “compatibles” with a range of popular computers.

    In both these cases, a perfectly innocent adjective has been minding its own business and has then been dragged, kicking and screaming, into service as a verb. This cannot be. In the English language we have parts of speech, and they have to be respected. I fully concede that a language need not do this, and there is no intrinsic requirement in language to distinguish between an adjective and a verb. The Japanese language is quite happy, for example, to press a whole range of words into service, with only minor manipulation, as nouns, verbs and adjectives. And another type of adjective in Japanese displays verb-like qualities such as tense. But this is English we are talking about. It simply will not do to flagrantly disregard the basic categorisations of words.  While I can just about accept the shift of category from adjective to noun, although sometimes with regret, the leap to a verb is a shift too far.

    I said that this usage was not restricted to the US. A few years ago, I was talking to a friend about his company taking over a contract to provide certain public services. I asked what would happen to the employees of the existing provider. “Oh,” he said, “we just TUPE them over.” (For those of you who may not be familiar, “TUPE” stands for “Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations”, and refers to the rules protecting employment rights in such situations where one company takes over the provision of services from another.) “TUPE them over?” I shrieked, wincing. “You are using an acronym as a verb! Can’t you hear it scream? Can’t you hear its pain as you mutilate it in your Procrustean bed of a sentence?” (He couldn’t.) “Everyone says it,” he justified. As if that forgives flagrant disregard of all linguistic sensibilities. (It doesn’t.)

    So here I stand, founder member of the Call the Rescue Adjectives in Pain. Post a comment if you share my pain and wince when you hear a word used as an incorrect part of speech.

    And next time – watch out for news of the Society to Salvage the Subjunctive!


  3. Favourite Word


    September 15, 2012 by IPAlchemist

    You know how sometimes you think of something, some people think it is a bit odd, and then things that you see around you reflect the idea?  And then something else feeds into it as well…?

    Well, I have recently been involved in interviewing for a new trainee patent attorney.  It’s not an easy thing to spot talent for this job (or vocation as I consider it) in a science or engineering graduate, for whom writing and language skills have probably not been a regular part of their life for some time.

    Anyway, I was thinking how I might approach this, and I decided to ask the candidates their favourite word – what is it, why, and what does it mean? (Mine by the way is squaloid [see more below], but preantepenultimate scores highly too).  Some of my colleagues laughed at this (literally), while some thought it was rather a good idea. I found it very helpful in the interview process, although it was clear that some of the candidates subscribed to the “this is very odd” school of thought on the issue.

    Anyway, with my favourite words in my mind, @OxfordWords shortly after tweeted one of its words for the day – “porcine” (appertaining to pig).  So I thought of my word, squaloid (which means appertaining to shark) and tweeted it back to them.  A few tweets later and suddenly I am deeply involved in twitter conversation with @Hirst_Shark, Damien Hirst’s shark sculpture. No, really.

    Then, in a further coincidence, on Friday, by a circuitous Twitter route, while on the bus into work, I came across an article online in The Atlantic (not a publication I had previously come across) about a gentleman called Ted McCagg (not a gentleman I had come across before either, but his blog Questionable Skills is here) who, by a heroic effort of comparing pairs of words and choosing the “best”, has found the Best Word.  Ever.  And…

    The Best Word is “diphthong”.  A jolly good word, I am sure you will agree.  But one that lands us in another dilemma straight away.  Do you pronounce the “ph” as “f” or as “p”?  And, in the third serendipitous link, I had just a few days before been reading on the OUP blog about that very issue, in a lovely piece that you can read here by Anatoly Liberman.  This article makes clear that the “p” pronunciation is “substandard”.  But very common.  So common that some people go so far as to spell it without the first “h”.  (And Mr McCagg may have undone the good work he did by bringing “diphthong” to the attention of the world by being quoted saying “that silent ‘h’ in diphthong made all the difference.”  WHAT SILENT “H”?)

    The OUP blog also taught me the wonderful word “monophthong”.  If you can slip that into a dinner party conversation you are doing very well.  The author complains that his spellchecker does not recognise the word.  Spellcheckers don’t recognise “squaloid” either, and I am fighting a battle in this post, as I always do with the word, having to go back and amend where computer has cheerfully substituted “squalid”.  Ho hum.

    I will take some time to decide whether “diphthong” will over time replace “squaloid” as my favourite word.  It will have some work to do.  The reason I like it is because I needed it, and had to go and find it – I wanted to refer to the shark-like quality of a patent attorney poker player, and “sharky” doesn’t really cut it.  (Just as, I have discovered, when one wishes to refer to the monastic quality of something, “monky” doesn’t really do either.  In fact people seem to think it rather funny.)  So whereas most words I learnt, and then found ways to use, “squaloid” I needed, and had to go and find.  So I have a completely different relationship with it, compared with how I feel about the rest of my vocabulary.

    Do feel free to contribute your own favourite words.  If you want some suggestions to get you thinking in the right direction, may I suggest you visit Questionable Skills.