GOOD QUESTIONS / A man of letters (previously four)

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The Independent Culture
WHY do so many rude words in the English language have four letters? (Geoffrey Walker, Pulborough, West Sussex)

There is no doubt that a disproportionately large number of obscenities do indeed have four letters. Chambers Dictionary adorns no fewer than 22 words of four letters with the epithet 'vulg.', (although a dozen of those are essentially non-vulg words borrowed for vulg purposes). By comparison, there are five rude three- letter words (or six if you include an Americanism), 10 of five letters, two of six, and only one each of 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12.

From a total of 2,826 four- letter words in the language (as listed in the Longman Crossword Key) the 22 rude ones form a relatively high proportion, although the 3- letter curses are not far behind. The total figures for words of 3, 5 and 6 letters are 812, 4,907 and 7,910 respectively.

The old idea that four-letter words are predominantly Anglo-Saxon in origin does not stand up to examination. Geoffrey Hughes, in his excellent Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English, traces Anglo-Saxon origins for only three of the big 10 four-letter obscenities.

He does, however, defend the emotive rhythm of the old tongue: 'The Anglo-Saxon element of the language provides much more emotional force than does the Norman French or the Latin. Copulating pandemonium] conveys none of the emotional charge of the native equivalent fucking hell]'

While the rhythm of expletion must be the primary cause of short swear words, there is also a tendency for words connected with the body to be short. The 3-letter non-rude body parts, leg, arm, eye, toe, ear, lip, gum and hip, form an even higher proportion of the 3-letter total than do rude words among the four-letter ones.

Interestingly, the expression 'four-letter word', first sighted around 1929, was predated by 'four-letter man' as a euphemism for what is now called an 'ess-aitch-one-tea', or three letters and a number. The French, incidentally, for 'he let out a four-letter word' is, according to Collins Dictionary, 'il a sorti le mot de cinq lettres'.

Why do we have salt and pepper on our dining tables as a pair? (Briony Hudson, Ross-on-Wye)

What a good question, and what a pity we don't have a good answer. It seems to be one of those little socio-gastronomic mysteries that has evolved without any firm reason. The only connections seem to be that both salt and pepper have, at various times, been used as currency, and that both are of almost universal applicability.

Salt is certainly the older and more basic of the pair. Leviticus 2:13 commands: 'And every oblation of thy meat offering shalt thou season with salt; neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of they God to be lacking from thy meat offering: with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt.' The expression 'salt of the earth' comes from Matthew 5:13: 'Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?'

Tolstoy's War and Peace recalls the practice of offering visitors 'the bread and salt of hospitality'. He also refers to the 'three primordial elements' - sulphur, mercury and salt - in the mystical beliefs of Freemasonry.

The essential nature of salt in the human diet has made it important throughout history. Cassiodorus, a 5th-century Roman who administered the Goths, said: 'It may well be that some seek not gold, but there lives no man who does not need salt.' Its economic importance gave rise to the word 'salary', referring to the salt-ration (salarium) issued as payment to the Roman army.

Our salt-cellar is a tautology, perhaps a confusion between the cellar, where salted goods were stored for preservation, and the saler (meaning 'for salt') where the salt was stored. We had salers on the table as early as the 11th century.

Linguistically speaking, the salt-cellar was not joined by a pepper-pot until the 17th century. 'One Mustard-Pot and Pepper-Pot of Silver' is an item mentioned in the London Gazette of 1679, the earliest reference to a pepper- pot in the OED.

Pepper, however, had been an important commodity since the 5th century BC, as much for medicine as food. Hippocrates recommended it, mixed with honey and vinegar, to treat 'feminine disorders', and Theophrastus prescribed it as an antidote to hemlock. In the cookery book of Apicius, a Roman gourmet of the 1st century, there is scarcely a recipe that does not demand pepper.

When the Crusaders returned with their spice-rich bounty, pepper became a common currency. 'Peppercorn rent', now a term for a nominal sum, was a fortune a millenium ago, when a pound of pepper could cost a month's wages.

Why, when a comet hits Jupiter, does in appear as 'Home News'? (R Bannerman, Cambridge)

'Foreign News' is a planar phenomenon and extends laterally; 'Home News' is three-dimensional and expands vertically. At least for some part of the day, Jupiter is in our air space.