Miles Kington Remembered: Dr Wordsmith explains how to preserve expressions

3 July 2000

Related Topics

It is some time since we have had a visit from our linguistic expert, Dr Wordsmith, the man who is incapable of passing a pub without going in and listening to the conversation, so I am very glad to announce the arrival of the great man himself today.

Without further ado, over to you, Doc, and the first question! Dear Dr Wordsmith, That's a curious expression, "Without further ado". When you look at the word "ado" closely it is one of those old survivals with "a-" on the front of another word like "ablaze", "ajar", "akimbo" and "afar". But a lot of them survive only in very limited contexts. We only use "akimbo" for legs and arms, nothing else. And we only use "ado" in the expression "without further ado".

Dr Wordsmith writes: You may well be right.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No, I tell a lie. We also use it in the expression "much ado about nothing". But that's probably because that's the title of a Shakespeare play, and the expression is preserved in the amber of the name of the play.

As long as the play lasts, so will the expression be preserved in the title. I wonder if any other old meanings or words have similarly been kept in this strange petrified state beyond their natural expiry date?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I wonder. Dear Dr Wordsmith, What about Wuthering Heights? You never heard "wuthering" outside the title of the book. And what about the play by Goldsmith called She Stoops to Conquer? If a play were written with such a title today, we would assume it was about a very tall woman, or one with some disability. But I seem to remember that the word "stoop" is in fact a technical term from falconry and means to dive from a great height, or something. Falconry is all but dead, and so is that meaning, but there it lives on in a play title. I wonder if other readers have examples of book titles which perpetuate a dead meaning.

Dr Wordsmith writes: I feel dreadfully sure they do.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Surely some book titles go even further and perpetuate a dead language? There was a time when it was not uncommon to give one's work a title in Latin or ancient Greek, on the grounds that the educated reader would understand it, even if most people today can only guess at the meaning.

Cardinal Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, for instance, or that great Victorian travel book by A W Kinglake called Eothen, which would be much better known if he hadn't given it a silly Greek title, whose meaning I can no longer remember.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Not one of you has asked a question yet. You are all intent on showing off. Let's have a proper question or I'm off down the pub. Dear Dr Wordsmith, I was having a discussion the other day about the origin of the place name "Stansted", and this bloke claimed that it was named after two saints, Saint Anne and Saint Edward. "Saint" had been shortened to "St", Anne had been shorted to "An" and Edward reduced to "Ed", hence "St-An-St-Ed".

This idea is ludicrous, but somehow attractive. Is there any word which in fact means "an idea which is patently false but is so likeable that it hovers around in the memory?"

Dr Wordsmith writes: There may well be. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, You have often said in the past that when a thing has no name, we seldom refer to it. May I suggest that tying your shoelaces is a very good example of this?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Is it? I think we often refer to tying shoelaces. I have just done it. You have just done it. Dear Dr Wordsmith, Ah, but I am referring to the different techniques of lacing shoes! None of them has any name to distinguish it! You know that there is one way of lacing a shoe where you pull the lace up from the bottom eyelet to the top on one side, and then do all the lacing with the other end? Then there is another way of doing alternate lacing with a diagonal pattern, and another...

Dr Wordsmith writes: I cannot believe I have been hired to preside over a discussion on the different ways to lace your shoes. I have had enough. I am off, and in 10 minutes will be in the saloon bar of that fine pub, The Printer's Eror. Any reader with an inquiry can buy me a pint there.

Dr Wordsmith will be back again soon. Keep those queries rolling in!

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own