The 100 Words That Made the English, By Tony Thorne

What a great idea for a book. Thorne gets his lexical portrait of the English off to a good start with "actually", defined as "a timid conveyor of a contradiction", though he might have included the warning given by Felix Leiter to James Bond when 007 was about to impersonate an American that the use of "actually" was a dead giveaway of Englishness. (The same applies to foggiest, as in "I haven't got the", which appears here under "foggy".)

Thorne displays an impressive range in his examples of usage. Aging pop fans will recall the appearance of "grumble" in the Small Faces's "Lazy Sunday" ("How's your wife's lumbago? Ooh, mustn't grumble") but how many know that Mustn't Grumble was the title of Steve Marriott's memorial concert in 2001? Discussing "Oi!", Thorne cites a Mancunian boutique called Oi Polloi but notes that this "menacing, provocative" expletive "should not be confused with the "winkingly suggestive 'Oi, oi, saveloy!'" apparently shouted by girls at passing men.

Though most of Thorne's inclusions are spot on – jolly, fab, posh, yob – a few are plain bizarre. The choice of "cellar door" is not entirely justified by JRR Tolkein's suggestion that the phrase was "one of the most beautiful, if not the most affecting combination of sounds in the English language." Other oddities include "the Hun", "windy" and "Anglosphere", a word not only ugly but scarcely known. The inclusion of "gurning" suggests a slight desperation, while "nitwit" is too passé. Thorne should have given way to his impulse to include "'hoity-toity', 'raffish', 'cringe-worthy' and, if I'm honest, 'arse'."

It is pleasing to see "tosh", "a very English, very robust impatience with pretence and pretension of all kinds". It might surprise Thorne to learn that the "doily" ("the epitome of genteel kitsch, of English prissiness") is enjoying a return to popularity in the wake of the cupcake craze.

Deftly unpacking such potent tags as "chippy", "clever" and "Kevin" ("one of many synonyms for the new, feckless underclass'"), Thorne gives us much to laugh at and, occasionally, argue with. It is interesting to learn that "sarky" (first cited in the OED from DH Lawrence in 1912) has recently been hybridised with snide by "internet geeks" to produce "snarky". Is it snarky to point out that exploration of this lively work would have been much assisted by a contents page and/or index?

Comments