Dr Wordsmith makes a house call at the Tower of Babel

He has popped in on his way from the Dog and Printer to the Three Jolly Typesetters
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I AM glad to say that we have been honoured by a visit from language expert Dr Wordsmith, who spends most of his waking life on licensed premises, listening to the English language evolve round him. Luckily, he has popped in here on his way from his second favourite pub, the Dog and Printer, to his favourite pub, the Three Jolly Typesetters, in order to pick up funds, and I have persuaded him to answer some more of your questions while he is here. All yours, Doc.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I have noticed that sometimes when you leave two garments of a different hue in a washing machine, the colour may run from one and affect the colour of the other. The odd thing is that it doesn't dye the affected garment the same colour as itself - it often creates a new colour which is a slightly sickening blend of the new added colour and the original colour.

Dr Wordsmith writes: I hope I wasn't dragged out of the pub to answer minutiae about how to prevent colours running in the wash!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No, not at all. I merely wished to know if there were a word for a colour created artificially by blending two other colours in a washing machine...

Dr Wordsmith writes: There may well be. Let me know if you ever come across it. And the next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I notice you used the word "minutiae" just now - a Latin plural. Do you happen to know the singular form?

Dr Wordsmith writes: When it comes to the behaviour of foreign plurals in English, there are two schools of thought. One maintains that you should stick to foreign rules - that the plural of "poltergeist" is "poltergeister" and the plural of "curriculum vitae" is "curricula vitae". And the other - the Jack Straw school of thought, perhaps - thinks that immigrant words should obey English rules while they are here, and that the plural of "stadium" should be "stadiums" and not "stadia".

Dear Dr Wordsmith, And which school of thought do you belong to?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I belong to a third school, the A-Plague-On-Both- Your-Schools School, whose motto is: I couldn't give a monkey's.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, That's an interesting expression...

Dr Wordsmith writes: I'm afraid I can't give you the full version of that, not in a family newspaper.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No, I wasn't going to ask that - I was merely going to point out that people say "I couldn't give a monkey's", but never "I could give a monkey's". There are some sentences which are always used in the negative, never in the positive. "He couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery", or "I couldn't care less", for example. Conversely, some sentences are never negative. No-one ever says "I shouldn't coco" or "Chance wouldn't be a fine thing". So, is there a word for a sentence which is invariably negative or positive, never the opposite?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Who knows? There may well be. Stranger things have happened at sea. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I recently came across the word "titlist" in an American newspaper, and wondered if you had encountered it.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Never. Is it a list of tits?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No. It is pronounced tight-list and means "title- holder".

Dr Wordsmith writes: Did you bring that up just to show off?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Fair enough! Time for one more, I think.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, The word "hove" often appears in old sea stories, as in "the ship hove in sight round the headland". But nowadays people use it as if it were a present tense verb, eg, "She's hoving into sight right now". Surely "hove" was the past tense of "heave"? Shouldn't we be saying "She's heaving into sight right now"? And another thing. My dictionary says that when a ship is heaving to, it is actually slowing down or stopping. So how can a ship heave into sight?

Dr Wordsmith writes: In the immortal words of Rhett Butler, frankly, I don't give a damn. And now that I have funds enough, I shall be off to the welcoming snug of the Slug and Leader Writer!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I thought you were off to the Jolly Typesetters?

Dr Wordsmith writes: That is what I asked the man to say. It might serve to throw readers off the track, so that I can be left in peace at the bar of my choice.

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

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