Comment: Why the water vole never made it to Ireland

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I'M DELIGHTED to say that it's time to welcome back Dr Wordsmith from the pub to answer your queries about the way we speak now. This week we're going to start the ball rolling with a query from a Mr Bernard Sharp, who asks why people have started using phrases in which both words mean the same, such as "Or, alternatively..." and "So, therefore..."

Dr Wordsmith writes: Because they are lazy, ignorant swine. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I know that the proper word for the above is tautology, where you get two words meaning the same thing. But is there a name for a phrase in which three consecutive words mean the same?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I don't believe there ever was such a phrase.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, How about "free, gratis and for nothing"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Mmm, well, yes, but that's not an accidental misuse, that's sort of ironic.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Well, what about the name of a hi-fi shop I once saw in the Tottenham Court Road? It was called "Sonic Sound Audio". That's three-ply repetition, isn't it? So what's the name for it?

Dr Wordsmith writes: You're absolutely right. And I have no idea. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, One of the modern phrases that puzzles me is when people say "It's all gone pear-shaped", to describe a disastrous outcome. What is so wrong about being shaped like a pear?

Dr Wordsmith writes: A lot, if you're a banana.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, And if you're not?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Not much. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I just wanted to say, thinking of Jeffrey Archer, how odd it is to say that someone is "lying through his teeth". You couldn't lie anywhere else, could you? And when you tell the truth, you tell the truth through your teeth as well, don't you?

Dr Wordsmith writes: You certainly do. Good point. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, While we are on the subject of images drawn from the human countenance, I have often wondered why people who display a brazen effrontery are said to have "barefaced cheek". Why "barefaced"? Is cheek more virulent when shown by a clean-shaven person? Or is the possession of a beard conducive to politeness?

Dr Wordsmith writes: It's a good question. Of course, you might equally have asked why we use the word "brazen" to describe effrontery. What is particularly brassy about cheek?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I don't know. What?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I don't know. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, As you must know, there are said to be no snakes in Ireland at all, and I was delighted to have this confirmed on a Radio 4 nature programme the other day, when the presenter said it was indeed true. What surprised me was that he went on to say that several other well-known creatures are also absent from Irish shores. They have no woodpeckers, for instance, and I believe he also said that there are no water voles. But what surprised me above all was his statement that there are no moles in Ireland. It's extraordinary to think that, all these years, no mole has ever successfully made the crossing of the Irish Sea. Not that many would have tried, of course. But even so...

Dr Wordsmith writes: It is very nearly opening time and a freshly drawn pint of stout awaits me on the corner table of the Printer's Widow, a nearby hostelry. Do you have a question or do you not?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, I do. If they don't have moles in Ireland, do they have a word for "mole" in the old Irish language? Or "molehill", come to that? You'd think that if they don't have it, they don't talk about it.

Dr Wordsmith writes: I disagree heartily. We have words in English for the elephant and the alligator, even though they are unknown residents. Why, if an Irish-speaker wishes to boast that there are no moles in Ireland, there must be a way of saying that, too! I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere in Ireland there isn't a zoo devoted to animals you don't get in Ireland, full of snakes and moles and water voles and woodpeckers... And now I must bid you all a fond farewell.

Dr Wordsmith will be back soon. Keep these questions rolling in!

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