Comment: A seasonal discussion with the wordlywise

IT WOULD have been sad to end the year without another visitation from Dr Wordsmith, our peripatetic expert on the way we speak today, so I am delighted to say that this unpredictable linguist has just blown into the office on his way from one Christmas-tide party to another. He has expressed his willingness to tackle your end-of-the-year queries and to raise a glass to you all, so over to you, Dr Wordsmith!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, when I was buying calendars before Christmas I noticed that these days they are almost all wrapped in cellophane, which means you can't have a look through them and make sure you like all the pictures. The only one you can be sure of is the one on the cover. That is why they print tiny reproductions of all 12 of the pictures on the back, to give you a chance to check the other illustrations.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Is this getting anywhere, may I ask?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes. Is there a name for these small reproductions on the back of a calendar?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I am certain there must be.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Do you have any idea what it is?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I haven't the faintest. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, By this time next week we shall know whether there really was a Millennium Bug or not. But what if there wasn't? What if nothing goes wrong, and nothing crashes? How can you use the term Millennium Bug if there is no such thing? Can you use a word to describe something that doesn't exist? Are we justified in wasting good words on non-existent things?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Well, go on, give me an example of a word we commonly use, which describes something that doesn't exist.

Dr Wordsmith writes: How about "Utopia"? How about "progress"? How about "Promotion for Fulham Football Club"? Or "A cure for the common cold"? "A tuna and peanut butter sandwich"? How about, and this is really one for my atheist readers, how about "God"? How about...?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, OK, I take your point. May I pass on to another closely related topic?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Be my guest.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I have noticed that when people want to dignify the urge to collect rather naff objects, they tend to invent posh names based on the Latin to make it sound more respectable. People who collect beer- mats or cigarette cards or postcards or chewing gum all have ludicrously inflated names for the activity. And I wondered if there was any name for the urge to give activities posh names to disguise their essential sadness?

Dr Wordsmith writes: There may well be. Anything else you wish to know?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes. Is there a name to describe a person who collects carrier bags?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes - a bag lady. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, You know when a widescreen film is being shown on an ordinary TV, they have to cut off the bits at either side to fit the rest of the picture on? Well, I wondered if there was any word to describe these bits?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Why on earth would you want to have a word for them? Would you ever need to talk about them?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, As a matter of fact, yes. I am trying to sell a new quiz game to TV based on these bits. The way it works is that you show the contestants the two outside bits of a famous film scene, and they have to identify it and say what's going on in the middle bit. So, for instance, if you were showing the final battle in The Gunfight at OK Corral, all you would see would be bits of fence and sand as well as the occasional boot...

Dr Wordsmith writes: May I just say that I devoutly hope this game never makes it to the screen? May I also say that that fine pub, the Printer's Widow, will be open in 10 minutes' time, and that any reader who wishes to buy me a Christmas present in a pint pot will find me a reasonable man to do business with?

Dr Wordsmith will be back next year. So make sure you keep your questions flooding in!

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