Miles Kington: A few bons mots from my literary saloon

'Why do we talk of "lying through one's teeth"? Do we not also tell the truth through our teeth'
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The Independent Online

I cannot tell you how glad I am to announce another visit from our resident language expert, Dr Wordsmith. As you know, Dr Wordsmith spends most of his working day in his language laboratory, also known as the saloon bar of the Kings Arms, where he listens to the evolution of the English language as practised by the drinkers. Today he has agreed to answer more of your questions on language. Take it away, Doc!

 

Dear Dr Wordsmith: I was intrigued to see the term "saloon bar" used in the introduction to your reappearance. Would I not be right in thinking that we no longer have a saloon bar in British pubs, that the existence of the saloon and the public bars side by side, like the existence of first and third class on the railways, was a relic of the British class system that has now been swept away? Vive la révolution! Aux armes, citoyens! Up the workers!

Dr Wordsmith writes: I fear that anyone enlisting in the class struggle has a lifelong battle ahead. The British are simply not that interested. I notice that, of the three class-war slogans you chant, two are not even in English but had to be imported from France. And we still have first and standard class on the railways, so no change there.

 

Dear Dr Wordsmith: I can see why the word "saloon" would be used for a room in a pub, but why are cars called "saloon" cars? Are there cars called "lounge" cars or "cocktail coupés"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I fear we have a troublemaker in our midst. Next!

 

Dear Dr Wordsmith: I recently saw a notice on the front door of a bank that puzzled me. It said: "Automatic Door. Push To Operate." Now, if it were truly automatic, you would not need to push...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes, yes, I get the point. I am not stupid. Are you sure, however, that you are not another troublemaker? Have you made this up?

 

Dear Dr Wordsmith: I swear I have not.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Then let us have the bank's name so we can all enjoy it.

 

Dear Dr Wordsmith: It was Barclays Bank, on Whiteladies Road, Bristol.

Dr Wordsmith writes: I hope you have got your facts straight. We are in trouble otherwise. Next!

 

Dear Dr Wordsmith: I saw a well-known columnist refer to "not liking the cut of your gib". He should have written "not liking the cut of your jib". Unless he was referring to Gibraltar and to not getting a slice of the action on that famous rock. But I fancy it was just an illiterate mistake by the columnist. His name was...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Hold it! I have long since learnt that it never pays to criticise another writer. I am already half expecting a lawsuit from Barclays Bank. I do not wish to make an enemy of a rival columnist into the bargain.

 

Dear Dr Wordsmith: I respect you for that thought.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Still, having got this far, we might as well know.

Dear Dr Wordsmith: It was Craig Brown in The Daily Telegraph.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Fancy that! Old master-of-all-styles Craig Brown himself making such a basic error! Still, let us not mock. We can all make mistakes. Poor old Craig, eh! And the next!

 

Dear Dr Wordsmith: I often wonder why we use the expression "to lie through one's teeth". Is there any other place that we could lie? You cannot lie through your ears. In any case, how do we tell the truth? Do we not also tell the truth through our teeth, as well as lie? What is so important about the teeth anyway?

Dr Wordsmith writes: You only get one question. Which one is it to be?

 

Dear Dr Wordsmith: None of those. This is my question. The other day I was having a conversation with a friend about the great French photographer Brassaï. To my surprise, my friend said he thought that Brassaï was over-rated and just a vulgar ego trip. It then turned out he was talking about, not Brassaï, but Brass Eye! How we laughed! Is there a word for a conversation based on this sort of cultural misunderstanding?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Not in a family newspaper.

 

Dr Wordsmith will be back after Christmas. Keep those queries rolling in, especially about mistakes by famous columnists on other papers!

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