Good Answers: Verbatim erudition

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The Independent Culture
AROUND 300BC, Romans ceased wearing beards, writes William Hartston. Indeed, the first Roman known to have shaved daily was Scipio Africanus (237-183BC). That is the sort of thing you learn from reading Verbatim, the Language Quarterly, published in Indianapolis.

Those little gems come from an article in the Spring 1994 issue entitled 'Barbarians: Babbling, Bearded, Bizarre', written by Mary M Tius. It's all very relevant to the question of whether the Latin barba (beard) derives from barbarus (barbarian). And the answer is probably not. It's more likely from the Old Slavic barda or Old High German bart.

Book reviews and readers' letters form a large chunk of each issue of Verbatim, almost all of mind-boggling erudition. The gaps are filled by language- related news items.

The English answer to Verbatim is the 'Quote . . . Unquote' Newsletter, published and edited by Nigel Rees. Largely reliant on the knowledge of its readers, this works almost as a lost-and- found column for curious phrases and other linguistic oddities.

If you want to know who likened the Beatles to Beethoven, or whether any judge actually did ask: 'Who are the Beatles?' or who recommended saying: 'Yes, but not in the south', as the best way to put down an expert, then this is the place to look.

Perhaps most useful of all, readers now know who was the first to utter: 'There's nothing like a good screw.' It comes from Anthony Trollope's Phineas Redux and continues: 'A man'll often go with two hundred and fifty guineas between his legs.' A 'screw', Mr Rees explains, means a broken-winded horse.

Current concerns of the readers include who first used the formulaic put- down: '(Mr A) did for (profession B) what the Boston strangler did for door- to-door salesmen.'

It has been traced back, via Denis Healey (on the former president Reagan and monetarism) to David Steel (on Mrs Thatcher and women in politics). Sightings before 1987 are eagerly sought.

They are also still trying to track down the seven basic plots of literature, as discussed in a Good Questions column some time ago. And if you know who said: 'God protects fools, drunks and the United States of America', then Nigel Rees would love to hear from you.

Subscription details of the above publications are available as follows: Verbatim: Mrs Hazel Hall, PO Box 199, Aylesbury, Bucks, HP20 2HY. The 'Quote . . . Unquote' Newsletter: Nigel Rees, 24 Horbury Crescent, London W11 3NF.

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