Languishing in the realm of the census

'It said question No 9 was not applicable to residents of England, but it did not say what the question was'
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I am very glad to welcome back to the column our linguistic expert, Dr Wordsmith. Dr Wordsmith has spent the past month or so in pubs up and down England, monitoring changes in the way we speak English. Nothing odd about that: he has also spent the past 20 years in pubs up and down England, monitoring the way we speak English. Now he has been forced by a monumental hangover to adjourn to this office, where we shall take advantage of his presence to put some of your queries to him.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I heard a discussion on TV the other day about athletics, centring on one runner in particular, and one of the experts said: "I wouldn't be surprised to find him meddling soon", which sounded libellous to me until I realised they were saying: "I wouldn't be surprised to find him medalling soon"; in other words, converting the noun "medal" into a verb.

Dr Wordsmith writes: This must be the first recorded example of athletes saying something interesting. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I have often noticed that when you look at handbags, suitcases or other luggage in a shop, they are always stuffed with paper wadding to make them look full. Is there a name for this luggage wadding?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Indubitably. Next question!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, When I was completing the census form yesterday, I was intrigued by question no 9, which said that this question was not applicable to residents of England. They did not say what the question actually was. But I gather that it concerned the matter of speaking Welsh.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes, I believe it did. Many people in Wales learn to speak Welsh, often to very fluent levels. I suppose the idea behind it is that it will be of great help to them when they go abroad on their holidays and meet other Welsh-speakers. Do you actually have a question?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, I do. The assumption of the census seems to be that Welsh-speakers live only in Wales. What about people living in London who come from Wales and still speak Welsh?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I don't think they will get too far on the Central Line.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No, seriously, though ­ isn't it unfair on Welshmen living in London not to be asked about their native language?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Not at all. There are plenty of Chinese people living in London. They don't get asked about their native language, which is even more widely spoken than Welsh, and they don't get hot under the collar about it. If Welsh people want to be asked about speaking Welsh, they should go home for the census. Mary and Joseph had to go back to Bethlehem for their census, after all.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Are you saying that Jesus spoke Welsh?

Dr Wordsmith writes: God save us. Next question!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I have noticed that each new political crisis tends to produce its own vocabulary or to revive long-forgotten words. The spread of foot-and-mouth disease has brought the word "pyre" back into the headlines and has also reintroduced the word "contiguous" to those of us who had forgotten all about it.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Have you a question to ask me or are you just showing off?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I am just showing off.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Fair enough. Next question!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I am intrigued by the word "shoal". Normally a "shoal" is a term confined to fishes, meaning a great quantity of them. But I have noticed that great quantities of letters are also referred to as "shoals". "We have received shoals of letters on this subject", you sometimes read. Now, letters are nothing like fishes at all. They come in bags, not in shoals. So why do people say "shoals of letters"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Because when you start to write, "We have received bags full of letters", you think to yourself, "No, there's something wrong there ­ perhaps that would look better as, 'We have received bagsful of letters' ", and then you think, "No, that's spelt wrong; it should be: 'We have received bagfulls of letters' ", and then you think, "Maybe that should be: 'We have received bagfuls of letters' ", and then you think, "Sod it", and you write: "We have received shoals of letters... "

Keep those letters shoaling in!