Good Questions: Partridge in a fair plea

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SINCE when has it been possible to bore the pants off someone? (Tim Paine, Bristol)

Since the late 1940s, according to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, although you could bore someone by wearying them as far back as 1768. The earliest citation of pant-boring in the OED comes from P G Wodehouse's Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954): 'They were creeps of the first water and would bore the pants off me.' For a higher class of boring, we refer to Malcolm Muggeridge's description of Sir Anthony Eden: 'He was not only a bore; he bored for England.'

Why are nave people wet behind the ears? (Mollie Caird, Oxford)

According to Everyman's Modern Phrase and Fable, it is because most mammals are born wet behind the ears, especially foals and calves, 'whose ears were believed to be the last part of their bodies to dry after birth'. Since the phrase appears to have originated as military slang, this seems less likely than the alternative explanation, given by both Partridge and Phythian (Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable), which relates to children's lack of thoroughness in drying behind their ears after washing. An inexperienced recruit or officer by implication still needed his mother to check that he had dried himself properly.

The corresponding expression in French, however, is avoir encore du lait derriere les oreilles. How the water turned to milk is not explained.

During a recent thunderstorm, I told my young daughter about counting seconds between lightning and thunder to estimate its distance. Is this right, or just a folk belief? (P Jackson, London)

It's right. The distance of the lightning flash is roughly one kilometre for each three seconds of time-lag before the start of the associated thunder. Generally, thunder can be heard only at distances under 15km, although there are records of up to 100km with a five-minute lag between lightning flash and thunder roar.

The whole lightning phenomenon is still not totally understood. The most likely explanation is that electrical charges are held by super-cooled droplets of water or ice particles within a thundercloud, and the violent air currents within the cloud turn it into a huge electricity generator by separating positive and negative charges.

Lightning is the visible discharge of this electrical energy. A typical flash of lightning may be caused by a difference in potential between ground and cloud of hundreds of millions of volts. It may carry a current of around 20,000 amps and generate temperatures in the region of 30,000C.

This all happens very quickly, and sudden heating makes the air along the lightning channel expand at supersonic speeds. This creates a compression wave in the air, which is heard as thunder. The rumble of thunder is the effect of hearing sound waves at different times from nearer or further points on a long lightning channel.

Since sound waves travel at about one- third of a kilometre per second, if you count seconds between lightning (which is seen almost instantaneously) and thunder, you must divide by three for the distance in kilometres.

FEEDBACK:

What would Fowler have said (asks Richard Abram of London) about your opening formation 'Fowler's The King's English . . . '? That in English the possessive subsumes (or it jolly well should) the article: cf Thursday's Late Show, Haydn's Creation, VW's Sea Symphony . . . .

I can't find this in Fowler, but Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage is very firm on the matter. Regarding another of his own books, he says: 'I write 'My A Dictionary of Slang'. If the title had been The Dictionary of Slang, I should have referred to the book as 'my The Dictionary of Slang'.'

He explains: 'Admittedly, the general practice is against 'my A Dictionary of Slang': but should not exactitude overrule a practice that can hardly be classified as idiom?'

While permitting 'my Dictionary of Slang' as a colloquialism, he continues: 'I do recommend that scholars and reputable, serious writers (or humorous writers desirous of a reputation for good English as well as for acceptable humour) and cataloguers should retain the A and The that form the first word in a title.'

Anyone who dares refer to J M Barrie's A Window in Thrums as 'Barrie's Window in Thrums' is castigated by Partridge as 'both ambiguous and impertinent - and just a little cheap'.

Thus supported by Partridge's pedants' charter, I shall continue to call it Fowler's The King's English, although I must admit I cannot hear 'my A Dictionary of Slang' without wincing.

As for the Late Show, Haydn and Vaughan Williams, I am happy to omit the article in all these: the first, because it is permissible to lapse into colloquialism for television programmes, the second because it is a translation of Die Schopfung and the 'the' is not mandatory in English, and the third because I am unsure whether it should be 'A' or 'The'.

Perhaps your Fowler should, after all, subsume my Partridge, as indeed any good Fowler would.

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