WORDS FOR THE WEEKEND

Where did Leonardo da Vinci come from? For an answer, you can bank on Bill Hartston

"Are banks open on a bank holiday?" I innocently asked my wife once. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realised that I had committed a Manly Daily. The term is used to describe a question of such blatant inanity that it answers itself. Not just any old blindingly stupid question, such as "How are the English cricket team doing?" but one in which the answer is shouted out in the formulation of the question itself.

The expression dates back to a holiday I spent in Australia several years ago. A friend of mine had been running an event in Manly, a suburb of Sydney, and was on the phone to the local paper. On hearing that a piece would appear in their next issue, my friend asked: "How often does the Manly Daily come out?"

Perhaps the clearest example of the genre, however, was uttered in the office of this very newspaper, when I heard one journalist ask our then transport correspondent, Christian Wolmar, "Are you Jewish, Christian?" (And while on the subject of Mr Christian, I must confess to having been flummoxed for some time when I was asked the name of the ship in Mutiny on the Bounty.)

A friend once admitted to having the following conversation with a librarian:

"Do you have The Diary of Anne Frank?"

"Do you know the name of the author?"

"Sorry, no."

The reason Manly Dailys are so easily perpetrated is that in every case one neglects the primary meaning of a word because it has become embedded in a larger phrase.

A bank holiday is no longer primarily a day on which banks are closed; it's our holiday, not theirs, and might as well be a bang collie day for all we care; The Diary of Anne Frank is a book and film, not Anne Frank's diary; and Daily is just another word for a newspaper, like Gazette or News.

If you are in the habit of asking people what day of the week Good Friday falls on this year, or what time the Ten O'clock News is on (it's about five past ten if there's football before it - do the Trades Descriptions people know about this?), or what town Leonardo da Vinci came from, then you might like to consider becoming a physician. An Oxford classics student I knew once went to his doctor and complained of pain between his ribs. "Ah," said the doctor, "you've got intracostal neuralgia."

"That's what I said," replied the classicist, sounding most unimpressed.

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