The Weasel

The millennium dome - planned to be `the largest structure in the world' - looks, at least in model form, very much like a dustbin lid
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Indy Lifestyle Online
After reading of Prince Charles' concern that the millennium celebrations lack spirituality, I instantly made tracks for Greenwich Borough Hall, where there is an expensively-mounted public exhibition devoted to the quaintly-named "Millennium Central", a pounds 400 million extravaganza planned for the site of a former gasworks a mile or so downriver. To be honest, this vacuous display hasn't much in the way of spirituality about it, unless you count solitary contemplation. At the time of my visit, receptionists and guides outnumbered visitors by a ratio of four to one (I was the one). Most of the room was taken up with designs by the ubiquitous Richard Rogers for the "millennium dome". Planned to be "the largest structure in the world", it looks, at least in model form, very much like a dustbin lid.

Responsibility for planning the innards of this handsome edifice rests with a company called Imagination, which has cornered the market in lavish product launches, promotional exhibitions and similar flim-flam. Judging by the Borough Hall display, it is hard to see how the outfit merits its name because there isn't a word about the interior of the vast dome. "We know quite a lot about the inside," a company representative indignantly assured me, when I rang them up. "It will be divided into 12 time zones: activity time, discovery time, time as experience and so forth." Inexplicably, corporate sponsors have so far displayed a marked reluctance to produce their cheque-books in response to this somewhat nebulous agenda.

Instead of boring the citizens of Greenwich with tedious minutiae about the content of the exhibition, Imagination has supplied two videos about "Millennium Central". Fortunately, I missed one of them, which apparently features a runner dressed as a rabbit, but I steeled myself sufficiently to sit through the second, about a young local lad who is thrilled to bits when asked to tootle his trumpet during the recording of the millennium theme. The sole lyrics of this uplifting ditty are: "All together now across the land", repeated ad nauseam. "Wow," the urchin gasps, when he enters the recording studio, "Cliff Richard and Eric Clapton." In fact, the two great stars appear only in the form of transportation cases stencilled with their names. A bit cheaper than the real thing, I suppose, and equally entertaining.

Interspersed within this narrative are several shots of Imagination's ritzy London offices and the illuminations which the company organised on the top of the BT Tower for the VE Day celebrations in 1995. Imagination's deep concern with spiritual matters can be gauged from the description of this event in its corporate brochure. "Representing a national beacon, symbolic of hope and peace, the illuminated BT Tower brought the BT brand message `It's Good To Talk' to life."

However, I'm sure His Royal Highness will be pleased to learn that I have discovered elements of spirituality tucked away within the pamphlet which accompanies the Borough Hall display. This points out that "more than 10 million visitors from all over the world" are expected to visit "Millennium Central", which has "a capacity of around 100,000 visitors a day". (The organisers insist that only "1-2 per cent" of visitors will arrive at the inaccessible East Greenwich site by car, though the basis for this optimistic estimate is something of a mystery.) If only a fraction of this massive influx choose to escape from Lord Roger's modest pleasure dome to take a peek at Greenwich's historic town centre - already uncomfortably crowded with tourists and constantly clogged with traffic - then local residents will undergo a prolonged martyrdom for this two-year duration of the exhibition.

One of my favourite books of 1996 has appeared at the year's last knockings. The Penguin Book of Exotic Words by Janet Whitcut is an entrancing caper (Latin for "goat") through the luxuriant jungle (from the Hindi jangle, "desert, waste") of the English language. En route, she torpedoes (Latin for "numbness", originally applied to the electric eel) any amount of bunkum (from Buncombe County, North Carolina, the seat of a particularly long-winded Congressman). For example, the word "posh" has nothing to do with "port out, starboard home" but was a Victorian slang expression for a dandy. (While we're debunking, I might add that the Elephant and Castle has no connection with the Infanta di Castile.) The name of the publication which you are now holding in your hands derives from the Arab word makzan, a "storehouse", appropriated in 1731 for the Gentleman's Magazine. Still on the topic of printed matter, the mild term "bumf" has a surprisingly earthy origin, "bum-fodder", a Victorian vulgarism for lavatory paper. Conversely, the schoolyard expression "goolies", meaning testicles, has a quite respectable etymology from the Hindi goli "ball, bullets".

Appropriately for this season, Ms Whitcut points out that "alcohol" derives from the Arabic al "the", and kuhl, "kohl" used in eye make-up (which came to mean any chemical). She also notes that "butler" really means someone in charge of bottles, from the Old French bouteillier. I read somewhere that the playwright JM Barrie was famous for having both a day butler and a night butler. "Presumably," Max Beerbohm remarked, "so he can be sure that at any time of night or day there is a spot of buttling going on somewhere."

Indexes are unpredictable things. Due to publishers' stinginess, half the books you might expect to have them don't, while occasionally they crop up at the end of novels. But the first magazine I have come across which boasts an index is the US business journal Fortune. In a recent issue, the two Bills - Clinton and Gates - are the leading individuals with four entries apiece. Peter Ustinov gets in for a weedy quip (he once described Toronto as "New York run by the Swiss"). Diane Keaton appears because she wore clothes designed by Ralph Lauren (the subject of a feature) in Annie Hall, while Charlie Sheen crops up because he is mentioned in a pastiche horoscope.

Finally, a certain "flamboyant British entrepreneur" makes a single appearance. I name no names, but if British journals were ever to adopt indexes, he would lead the field in every issue. Last week, he even managed to garner extensive press coverage by shaving off his beard.

I suppose that public-school classicists will have known (and dreaded) the book for generations, but it was only last week, via a review in the Times Literary Supplement that I discovered Liddell and Scott's Greek- English Lexicon was still in print. Though it has been extensively revised over the years, a new volume bearing their names has been published by Oxford University's Clarendon Press. Both authors were senior Oxford academics in the mid-19th century. Robert Scott was Master of Balliol, while HG Liddell was Dean of Christ Church. The latter was also, of course, Alice's father and a heartily-disliked colleague of the Rev. CL Dodgson, otherwise Lewis Carroll.

Liddell is mainly known today as a mere footnote to Carroll's great comic fantasies. Yet in the academic stakes, it is Liddell's work which has survived, while Dodgson's mathematical treatises have been long forgotten. But this scholastic eminence was not without its drawbacks. When Liddell became headmaster of Westminster School, he was occasionally faced by pupils who claimed that some error which he had condemned "was in his dictionary". The lexicographer had a ready answer: "Scott wrote that part"