In memoriam - in praise of the language journal that has come to a full stop

Verbatim, the quarterly journal for lovers of good English on both sides of the Atalntic, has announced that the current issue - number three of its 23rd year of publication - will be its last. Its leading article by Adrian Room: "By Their Notes Shall Ye Know Them: A Look at Onomatopoeic Ornithonymy" is typical of its erudition over that time. Where else could one learn that a partridge's name is imitative of the sharp whirring sound made by its wings on take-off. "This sounds like a fart, a related word," says Mr Room, adding "(Compare Greek perdix `partridge' and perdesthai `to break wind'.)"

Under the editorship of Laurence Urdang, who must be North America's leading lexicographer/grammarian, Verbatim established itself as a unique source of authoritative information on every aspect of English. Some of its best and most erudite contributions came from Urdang himself in the form of scathing reviews of works by less meticulous authors. In the last number, however, it is the equally estimable Leslie Dunkling whose criticisms of a recent book of names include a particular mention of the author's failure to consult the National Apple Register of the United Kingdom: "We need not cavil, of course, at the absence of such obvious reference sources ..."

Verbatim taught me a great deal in the few years that I knew it. Without its help, I might never have known that bonureso hamu was Japanese teenage slang for a girl with a figure like a hunk of boneless ham; or that both Latin and Greek had more than one word for beard, but both lacked a precise word for moustache; or that the Thai for a condom is tung yahng arnamai (literally, "hygienic rubber bag"); or that our word budgerigar was first written as betcherrygah and was a transliteration of the Yuwaalaraay Australian Aborigine word gijirrigaa; or that arfogwl is the Welsh for "a dried skin on a post with pebbles in it"; or that the Anglo-Saxon for nasal mucus was hrog; or that PG Wodehouse had been translated into Latin. (Jeeves, in case you are wondering, appears as Jaevi.)

Without Verbatim I might still believe that "kangaroo" meant "I don't know" and was based on a misunderstanding (when in fact it means a species of kangaroo) and I might never have learnt the medieval Arabian proverb: "Never tell the truth unless you have one foot in the stirrup".

Laurence Urdang and Verbatim always had both their feet firmly in the stirrups of our language. They will be greatly missed by all lovers of gentle pedantry.

William Hartston

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