Verbal tangles unravelled by the dipsomaniac logomachist

Sometimes, when he's not in the pub, I welcome a visit from Dr Wordsmith, the language expert

SOMETIMES, WHEN he is not at the pub, I welcome a visit from Dr Wordsmith, the language expert. At other times he just arrives and refuses to go away, or falls asleep in the corner of the office, which is exactly what happened yesterday, so I am glad to say that the great man is still with us to answer your questions on the niceties of language.

Wake up, Doc! And the first query, please...

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I am intrigued by the word just used in that introduction, namely "niceties". When it is written as one word, it is pronounced as "nice-teas". But when written as two words, ie "nice ties", meaning "agreeable cravats", it is pronounced rather differently.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes, yes, no doubt. And your question?

Well, I just wondered if there was a term for a word which was pronounced in two different ways, depending on whether it is split up on the page or not.

Dr Wordsmith writes: I have absolutely no idea. And the next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith: I have recently noticed what I think is a change in the meaning of the word "confirm". Until now, the act of confirmation has been to reaffirm an existing arrangement. So, if you book a hotel room, you write a letter or send a fax to confirm it.

But the other day someone from a recording studio rang me up to confirm a studio date for a record I'm doing, and I said: "How can you confirm it? It hasn't been arranged yet!" and she said: "I know - that's what I'm ringing up to confirm."

So now "confirm" is being used to mean "arrange". Don't you think this is a blurring of language?

Dr Wordsmith writes: You may well be right. And the next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Do you remember the prevalence some years back of phrases using the word "situation"? People weren't flooded - they were in a flooding situation. People weren't invaded - they were in a war situation. It got so bad that Private Eye started collecting egregious examples and pillorying the offenders, and maybe because of that the habit slowly died out...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Are we anywhere near a question?

Yes. It strikes me that the same thing is now happening to the word "experience". The new Bluewater complex in Kent has been described as a new "shopping experience". A coffee bar claimed the other day to provide "a new coffee experience". But surely there is no such thing as a "coffee experience", except the taste sensation you get from drinking coffee, and there is nothing new about that. Is this not another case of word abuse?

Dr Wordsmith writes: You may well be right. In my case I tend to go from one pub situation to another drinking experience, so I can't always rightly remember what people are saying round me. And the next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, In yesterday's question'n'answer session, a book was mentioned called Leith's Fish Bible. I have noticed that there is now a plethora of book titles involving the genitive case...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Oh yeah? Like what?

Like Voltaire's Coconuts. Like The Pope's Rhinoceros. Like the daddy of all these genitive-oriented titles, namely Flaubert's Parrot. And yet before 1970 there was never any example of such a construction in novel titles. We never had The Animals' Farm by George Orwell or Casterbridge's Mayor by Thomas Hardy. How do you explain that?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I have absolutely no idea. Time for one more question, I think...

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I was intrigued to notice that your last correspondent used the expression "question'n'answer session". What I find interesting is the reduction of "and" to "'n'". Why, I wonder, do people bother to reduce the word "and" to "'n'"? Surely the three letters "a-n-d" are no longer than apostrophe-plus-n-plus-apostrophe? And they don't sound any different either. Does "rock and roll" sound different from "rock'n'roll"? Does "rhythm'n'blues" sound different from "rhythm and blues"? Is there a term for this pseudo-reduction? And what do we call "'n'"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I haven't the faintest idea. What do YOU call it?

You're meant to provide the answers, not me. What kind of an expert are you, anyway?

Dr Wordsmith writes: An extremely thirsty one. In 15 minutes you will find me at the bar of the Dog and Printer down the road. Anyone who wishes to consult me is free to buy me a drink.

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

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