Can I have a word (or two) in your ear, please, Doc?

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The Independent Online

I am delighted to say that our resident (by which I mean generally absent) language expert, Dr Wordsmith, has visited the office again, looking for a corkscrew he thinks he left behind somewhere. Before he finds it and floats off again in the direction of the nearest off-licence, I have lashed him down to the office chair long enough for him to answer some of your queries.

All yours, Doc!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I am delighted to know that you carry a corkscrew around with you wherever you go. My father, when I was young, said that if I took a corkscrew, a cigar-cutter and a pencil-sharpener with me wherever I went, I wouldn't go far wrong. Oh, and a penknife. And a piece of paper. And five bob. He said also that a compass would be very...

Dr Wordsmith writes: For God's sake, man! The pubs are going to be open in half an hour! Get to the point or I shall become very thirsty!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, well, the thing is that I have read that the days of the cork in the top of wine bottles may well be numbered. Apparently wine researchers Down Under (in New Zealand, I believe) have concluded that those metal screw tops that we were all taught to despise are actually far better for the wine. You obviously can't get corked wine without a cork! So maybe, despite the protests of the cork tree growers, we shall all switch over to screw tops.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Unless I dropped off to sleep for a moment, I don't think you have asked a question yet.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, This is my question. If corks become obsolete, then corkscrews will also be unnecessary. But will the word "corkscrew" also become obsolete? Can a word be outmoded because the thing to which it refers becomes obsolete? Does obsolescence...?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes, yes, I get your point! Rephrasing a question doesn't make things any better, only more boring. The answer is, on the whole, no.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No, what?

Dr Wordsmith writes, When a thing stops being used, it doesn't really go out of circulation. On the contrary, it increases in value, because people are still collecting it. People already collect corkscrews. Imagine how much more avidly they will be collected when they are unusable! Imagine how collectable will be all those new high-pressure cork removers, looking like bits of heavy engineering, which are now coming on the market! And which, if you are right, are soon to be prematurely outmoded! And when a thing stops being used it not only goes on being collected, but it starts being used in films as period detail. I mean, we don't use stage coaches any more, and we haven't for a hundred years, but we still use the term and know what it is, and someone somewhere keeps stage coaches and hires them out for a vast profit to film-makers. And antimacassars.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Pardon?

Dr Wordsmith writes: In Victorian times, a Dr Macassar invented a hair oil that was bought by lots of gents to slick down their hair. Unfortunately, it left nasty marks on chairs when gents with oily hair leant backwards. So people started putting little doily things on the backs of chairs which became known as antimacassars. Thus did a huckster of cheap oil become immortalised in the English language in a way that never happened to Mr Brylcreem, or Mr Vosene. Now, we still have antimacassars but not Macassar's hair oil, a rare example of the cure outliving the problem.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Can you give us some other examples of words that live on in the English language, even though the object to which they refer can no longer generally be found in the shops?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Certainly. Cuspidors. Spittoons. Humidors. Fobs. Asafoetida. Isinglass. Life preservers. Pemmican...

Dear Dr Wordsmith, OK, fine, thanks.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Oh, but there's more. Jujubes. Smelling salts. Ulsters. Reticules. Farthingales...

As Dr Wordsmith seems to be on a roll, let us hope he can continue tomorrow.

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