Silly Questions: Various vacuous vexations verified

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VALIANT vicars and virtuous vegetarians have been writing to us to protest at the denigration of the letter 'v' last week. The Reverend Barry Etherington of St Christopher's, Luton, cites venerable, valuable, valentine, valour, verdant, vivacious, victory, vitality and voluptuous, 'and, dare I say, vagina and vibrator', as evidence that the English language does not practise 'v' discrimination.

Gillian Harrison says 'there are various very vibrant v-words like violet, velvet, vine or Venice, and vigorous v-words like vitality and vim. And virtue herself is a v-word as well as vice. Could we be influenced by the vicious nature of the v-sign in the language of gesture? Stewart Smith believes that it is based on the letter 'v' being a misreading of the v-shaped Greek 'nu', thus carrying on a nasty, nauseous, neurotic and noxious tradition.

'Licking my lubricious lips thesaurously', writes Alan Long, 'I want to knock the 'l' out of the louts denigrating the vital, venerable, vegan 'v'.' Reminding us of lustful, lewd, lascivious, libidinous, lecherous, lazy, louche and licentious, he asks: 'And if 'l' gives us love, doesn't Venus generate its vocabulary of beauty?'

Several readers have ideas about what occasional tables and part- time traffic lights do when off duty. Geoffrey Lane believes that part- time traffic signals ghoulishly 'hang around at accident blackspots hoping to witness accidents which they knew could easily have been prevented by keeping them in full-time employment.' Len Clarke thinks there is a government restriction on the working hours of traffic signals, keeping them on short-time. He is firmer on the subject of tables: 'The rest of the time, an occasional table is obviously a whatnot. In extremis it can be a water table or two-times table.'

Despite our definitive, relativistic, quantum mechanical answer to the question: 'How long is a piece of string', we are still receiving opinions on the matter. Julia Shrimpton says 'two inches shorter than required'; Ian Abbott says 'two inches', claiming that a nine- inch length of string is, in fact, five pieces with a bit cut off. If anybody knows of a club where people can meet and compare bits of string, we will be happy to forward details to Ms Shrimpton and Mr Abbott. The correct word for fear of string, incidentally, is linonophobia.

This week, Geoffrey Walker would like to know: 'Why is colourless wine always described as 'white', and why do I and other like me enjoy your Silly Questions?'

Duncan Bull asks: 'Why are all policemen 'officers'?' Nigel Greenwood wants to know: 'Why do non- natives pluralise place names, as in Marseilles and the Orkneys?'

Rachel Wilson asks, irritatedly: 'Why do insect bites always itch more in bed at night when you are trying to get to sleep?'

The longest question, however, comes from Bob Frost: 'I have been trying to impress upon my daughter that it is considered rude to 'break wind' in public. She has countered by asking what will happen to the noxious gases if she does not do so to prevent her inflating to bursting point. (My son has a theory that they gradually escape through the armpit, thus necessitating underarm deodorants.) Perhaps your readers could put her mind at rest with the true explanation?'

Answers and questions please to: Silly Questions, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.