Revealed: why aardvark isn't such a silly name after all

Do words have the same impulse as builders called A1 Construction - to come top of a list?

MY READERS are obviously very keen on the ins and outs of the ever-changing English language - some weeks, when I am feeling lonely, I make a deliberate grammatical error in order to guarantee shoals of friendly letters chiding me - so I am sure you will all welcome another visit from that linguistic maestro, Dr Wordsmith, who has dropped in at the office for the very good reason that the pubs aren't open yet. As usual, there are many queries from readers, so without further ado, take it away, Doc!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I had a quite different inquiry in mind, but it suddenly occurred to me that the phrase "Without further ado" (which has just been used) is a very odd one. At least, the word "ado" is a very odd one. For one thing, it is only ever used in that one phrase, and I do not think you can use it any other way. For another thing, it seems to belong to that extensive but largely unremarked family of words beginning with a-, such as "ajar" and "agape", "aflame", and "akimbo", which all seem vaguely old-fashioned.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Have we come to your question yet?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Not yet. Of course, some of these words have become staple ingredients of the language, such as "away", "aside" and "apart", so much so that we probably don't think of them as belonging to the same family as more recondite words such as "athwart" and "agley".

Dr Wordsmith writes: "Agley"?

Dear Dr Wordsmith: Yes. As in Robert Burns. "The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley"

Dr Wordsmith writes: Look, we are gathered here today to discuss the English language, not some Scottish bastard relation. I am paid as an English expert - paid very little, I might add - and for the money I get you can expect no advice on foreign matters as well as English-related ones! Have we come to your question yet?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Not yet. I was just wondering why so many words like this do have a- tacked on the front. Sometimes the join is almost visible, as in words like "a-quiver" or "a-tremble". It does occur to me that perhaps words have the same impulse as mini-cab firms called AAA Cabs or builders called A1 Construction - namely, to come top of a list! In fact, I wonder if there is a word meaning, "adopting a name full of As and 1s which gives you a good chance of coming near the top of every list"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Is that your question?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Not yet. Another couple of examples are "askance" and "adrift". One can see where "adrift" comes from, but "askance" is a real puzzler.

Dr Wordsmith writes: No doubt it is. I remember you saying at the beginning of this consultation that you would talk about "without further ado" before getting to your real enquiry. Might this be a good time to come to it?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Why ever not? This week, I was reading about all the publicity surrounding the new HarperCollins dictionary, and the survey they had done on famous people's usage of the language - spelling, apostrophe misuse and so on - and it occurred to me that people rarely distinguish between spoken usage and written usage. I mean, an apostrophe can't be heard, whether it's used wrongly or rightly, and by the same token, a mispronunciation can't be reflected in written form.

So there IS a dislocation between written and spoken English. For instance, I have noticed that there are many forms of study ending in -ology, such as "geology" and "paleontology", but only one I can think of ending in -alogy, which is "genealogy". But I have noticed that people are tending to pronounce it as "geneology"! Is it not curious that people who once used to pronounce a thing correctly now say it wrong!?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Is that your question at last?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Not quite. There is one linguistic affectation which I find upsetting, and which is committed by HarperCollins themselves, and that is the odious habit of putting a capital letter in the middle of a name! Is there a word meaning to put an unwanted capital in the middle of a word?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I see from my watch that the Three Jolly Typesetters is opening its doors, and within five minutes I shall be leaning against its bar. If an intelligent question should occur to you, you can find me there. Goodbye, and good riddance.

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

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