Miles Kington Remembered: Dr Wordsmith explains how to preserve expressions

3 July 2000
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The Independent Online

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!