Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Do dendrologists ever get a hangover?

`Long John Silver, not John "Long" Silver; Sugar Ray Robinson, not Ray "Sugar" Robinson. Why is this?'
OUR LINGUISTICS expert Dr Wordsmith was here yesterday answering your questions about the way we speak in the Nineties, and he's here again today - indeed he may well have spent the night here in the office, judging from the ashtrays and empty Beamish tins. But I think he's just about ready to tackle your inquiries about the state of the English language today, so here we go with the first one...

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Have you noticed that in autumn trees shed their leaves in different ways ? Many poplars, for instance, lose all their leaves at the bottom but keep some at the top, so that from a distance they can look like a peacock's feather, all bushy at the top. Other trees lose the top leaves first, which is what you would expect, and keep the last ones at the base of the tree.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Do you have a question?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, I do. I just wanted to know if there were any dendrological word to describe the two complete opposite processes.

Dr Wordsmith writes: There may well be. Go ask a dendrologist. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Further to your last correspondent, I have noticed that sometimes you get a street light in London right up against the foliage of a plane tree, and the leaves within two or three feet of the lamp stay green long after other leaves have turned brown and fallen, so many a London plane has this odd patch of green in an otherwise bare tree. I wonder, is there a name for the process whereby warmth can arrest autumn in its tracks?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Then you wonder alone. Ask an urban dendrologist. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Recently someone has discovered the remains of a huge dinosaur in the Southern States which they have christened the `sauroposeidon', which apparently is Greek for `lizard that causes earthquakes'. What I want to know is, why do prehistoric animals all get Greek names, with the sole exception of `Tyrannosaurus rex', whereas living animals and plants all get Latin-based names?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Good question.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, And what's the answer?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I only wish I knew. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I was listening to BBC Radio the other day...

Dr Wordsmith writes: This isn't going to be another anti-Melvyn Bragg exercise, is it?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Certainly not! I was listening to Russell Davies's excellent `Jazz Century' series on Radio 3, but couldn't help noticing that he said the guitarist Richard Green was a former alumnus of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. Can that be right?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I have no idea. My interest in jazz and country guitar is strictly limited.

Dear Dr Wordsmith: No, no, you get me wrong. I am just interested in the phrase `former alumnus'. Is that not tautology ? An `alumnus' is by definition a `former pupil' or `old boy', so a `former alumnus' would be a `former former pupil', which is nonsense. You can never stop being a `former pupil', any more than you can ever stop being an ex-wife of someone.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Except by marrying them again, of course.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, but...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, In the jazz connection I have a curious observation to make. Many jazz musicians have had nicknames, such as `Muggsy' Spanier and `Zoot' Sims. Sometimes these musicians are called by both their first names and their nicknames, as in Henry `Red' Allen and Eddie `Lockjaw' Davies, but if so, the nickname always comes after the first name. They are never called `Red' Henry Allen. But in other spheres this is not so. Long John Silver is not called John `Long' Silver. Sugar Ray Robinson was not called Ray `Sugar' Robinson. Do you know why this is? And why do we say Alfred Lord Tennyson and not Lord Alfred Tennyson? Was `Lord' a nickname?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Go ask a nomenclaturist.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, May I ask why you have so signally failed to answer any query today?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Because I have the mother and father of all hangovers, and I shouldn't be here at all, I should be in the saloon bar of the Rat and Crossword, where I shall be in five minutes. If any reader cares to consult me there and buy me a hair of the dog...

Dr Wordsmith will be back again soon, so keep those queries rolling in!