Dr Wordsmith decides to call time on the last baguette

PEOPLE ARE as concerned about the state of the English language as ever, and, to deal with the flood of inquiries about lexicological niceties, I am happy to welcome another visit from Dr Wordsmith. He has given up a few minutes from his ceaseless research into the evolution of modern English, conducted in pubs the length and breadth of the land; and here he is to deal with your latest problems. Take it away, Doc!

Dear Dr Wordsmith

I was standing in the check-out queue at my local supermarket the other day when the man in front finished unloading his purchases on to the conveyor belt and then put that little divider thing at the end of his shopping to signify I could now start putting MY shopping on to it. It occurred to me that nobody knows what these things are called. A shopping divider? A customer barrier? A purchase partition? One is not likely to need the word often, of course, but if I ever have to say to the cashier that I need one, what should I call it? Does it actually have a trade name?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I'm sure it does. And the next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith

I recently bought a baguette at the supermarket and when I got home I started slicing it to make sandwiches - not top-to-bottom but end-to- end. Well, whether it is a property of English-style baguettes English supermarkets fob us off with or not, I do not know, but I found - as I've often found - that it is very hard to slice along the centre of a baguette without the white interior of the loaf becoming bunched up around the bread knife, and then getting carried along inside the loaf until it has coagulated into a small ball rather like compacted cotton wool. Is there a word for this process?

Dr Wordsmith writes: There may well be, but I have never come across it. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith

The other day I was in a supermarket getting baguettes for a picnic and fiddling with my change, when it occurred to me that, in all the years since decimalisation, none of our coins has acquired a nickname. In the old days we called a shilling a shilling, a sixpence a tanner, and so on. Nothing like that has happened to our new coins. Is there a word meaning "a coin that has no nickname"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: It seems unlikely, but it is just possible, I suppose. Next, please.

Dear Dr Wordsmith

I was vacuum-cleaning the kitchen floor (I had just been preparing baguettes for a picnic, and the floor was littered with crumbs) when it occurred to me that, though vacuum-cleaning is generally a quite efficient process, there always seem to be something left behind that has to be picked up by hand - sometimes, indeed, it's a thing which you would have thought the vacuum cleaner would have easily picked up, such as a cherry stone or a rolled-up bit of sticky tape. Is there any word for an object consistently rejected by a vacuum cleaner? And, as a corollary, is there any word for a valuable or useful object that is NOT meant to be picked up by a vacuum cleaner, but which you realise just too late was lying in its path? A wedding ring, for example, or a false tooth?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Not to my knowledge. And the next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith

I was out for a picnic with the family the other day and I was trying to tell my children something about the technique of building dry stone walls and of laying hedges, when my 15-year-old boy, who is very articulate and observant, said: "You talk as if there were a clear-cut distinction between walls and hedges and fences, but it isn't so. If you look at many hedges, you'll find there's often the remnants of an old wall inside the hedge, which has grown up round it. Similarly, some of these hedges have the framework of an old fence in their interior. Other hedges, which have collapsed in places, have been partially patched up by lengths of fence, so they are half hedge, half fence. And some fences are a mixture of metal rods and barbed wire strands. Are there any words to express these differences, even if they are technical and agricultural?" I told him I would ask you, which I am now doing.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Oh for heaven's sake, was I dragged out of the warm and cosy snug of the Three Drunken Printers to answer this farrago of mega-trivia? In 10 minutes I shall be back there and willing to talk to any real seeker after truth who'll buy me a pint!

Dr Wordsmith will be back again soon. Keep those queries rolling in!

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