Miles Kington: In pursuit of the unspeakable

'There is no word for failing to recognise a sandwich's flavour by taste and having to study the label to find out'
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The Independent Online

Yesterday, when Dr Wordsmith came to the office to answer your queries about modern English, he claimed that there are hundreds of activities that have no word in our language to describe them. A disbelieving reader challenged him to fill a column with such activities. Today Dr Wordsmith rises to the challenge.


IT IS quite a common thing for us to try to open a door the wrong way (writes Dr Wordsmith) by pulling when we should push or vice versa, yet there is no word for such a common action. You have to spell it out in full. "I pushed the door when I should have pulled". That is the shortest you can make it. There is no verb to describe it, such as "mispull" or "mispush".

That is the sort of thing I mean.

Here are some other actions for which there is, as yet, no single word.


1. Trying to fold a newspaper back when you are reading it, so that you can turn tidily to a new page, but succeeding only in producing a crumpled mess like a collapsed parachute.

2. Slitting an envelope open with a paper-knife, and unwittingly contriving to slit all the contents of the envelope in half as well.

3. Turning on a football or rugby game on TV between two teams you know nothing about and deciding within five seconds – for completely worthless and emotional reasons – which team you want to win.

4. Sticking the wrong end of a cigarette in your mouth and lighting the filter.

5. Apologising to a dog for calling it "she" when it's a "he" or vice versa.

6. Failing to recognise a sandwich by its taste and having to look at the label on the package to see what flavour it is.

7. Going to the theatre fully determined not to buy a programme this time, because the cost is astronomical and you never get any interesting information about the current production, only about previous productions in which the actors have taken part, and yet ending up paying £1.50 or £2 for the programme anyway and spending most of the first act furtively reading through it to prove how irrelevant it is.

8. Going along the street with an umbrella that you wield like a walking stick, getting it stuck in a grating by mistake and looking behind to see your umbrella sticking out of the street like a sapling.

9. And being too embarrassed to go back and get it.

10. Experiencing the pleasure of sitting through a trailer at the cinema and knowing, halfway through, that this is a film that you will never ever want to go and see.

11. Being able to change the time of the alarm on an alarm clock, but not being unable to see how to change the time of the clock itself.

12. Having an irrational urge to overtake an interesting-looking woman on the pavement and see if she is attractive from in front as well.

13. Finding a telephone number you have written down on a piece of paper but with no name attached, and not knowing whether to keep it or, indeed, to ring it up and find out whose it is.

14. Walking along a pavement at exactly the same speed as a moving line of traffic, it being your misfortune to walk alongside the one car that houses a throbbing disco.

15. To walk determinedly under a ladder because not to do so would be superstitious.

16. The act of putting down an object in a temporary position in your house, prior to putting it away, and then never putting it away so that gradually the object is accepted as having a permanent right to be in that place.

17. Getting up from your desk and forgetting to take your reading glasses off, so that when you turn round and walk away you are still looking at the world through reading glasses and everything is distorted, and you trip over something that you have always successfully avoided in the past and fall flat on your face.

18. Failing to recognise yourself in a photograph.

19. Going to a dictionary to look up a word and finding so many other interesting words first that you forget what the original word was.

20. Trying to get to sleep again to finish off a really exciting dream from which you have just awoken.


Full list of thousands of unnamed activities on request. Just send blank cheque