(11 June 1997)
All of us, no matter how well educated or imaginative, are often at a loss for the right word to describe a certain action or object. That word, in fact, which the French so inimitably call the mot juste. Well, not all the French, perhaps, because there are some French people who do not call it le mot juste.
I am thinking of those very snobbish French people, who call it "ze right word", because things always sound a bit better in another language, don't they? I mean, imagine if the pop group Status Quo had been called "The Same Old Normal Situation" –do you think they would have become world-wide stars? And imagine how bigger they would have been if they sounded better... !
I am sorry. I seem to have lost the thread of the introduction to today's column, when all I wanted to say was that all of us are sometimes at a loss for the right word, which is where Professor Wordsmith comes in. Professor Wordsmith is of course our resident expert who deals with all your language problems, and he is here again today to leap fearlessly into the breach of malapropism. All yours, Prof!
This is a bit of a medical question, Prof, but if I knew the answer to it, it would save me a lot of time. You know when you are reaching at an awkward angle for something – like behind the driver's seat in a car or on top of a wardrobe – and you reach just a bit too far and stretch, and something in your shoulder just goes, and it causes tremendous pain, as if you had pulled a tiny muscle – well, I wonder if there is any name for this agonising process?
Because it quite often happens to me, and when my wife asks my why I am whimpering, it takes me so long to explain that she has lost interest in me before I have finished, so it would be nice to be able just to say, "I have merely done such-and-such to my shoulder" and retain her sympathy. Is there in fact such a word?
Professor Wordsmith writes: I wish I could say there was, but I do not think there is.
You know when they paint yellow lines on the edge of the street? And they paint straight over things like drains and manhole covers? Is there any name for this unwanted bit of yellow decoration?
Professor Wordsmith writes: If there is, it is unknown to me.
You know when you get a tune in your head and you can't get rid of it, and it just stays there all day? In my case it tends to be a very old tune recorded by Nat King Cole called "Sweet Lorraine". I don't know if you remember "Sweet Lorraine", but it was a 1940s song which had a smashing tune but stupid words, like so many of those evergreen standards recorded by Nat Cole, which makes you remember that Cole was in fact a damned good jazz pianist before he ever became a syrupy singer. In fact, my feeling is that even when Nat King Cole became a millionaire through his singing, he still chose the sort of songs that a pianist would...
Professor Wordsmith writes: I am sorry to interrupt but I am not quite sure of the question... Are you asking if there is a name for obsessive humming, or are you asking if there is a name for an obscure pianist who later becomes famous as a singer?
Neither. I am asking if there is a name for the kind of song like "Sweet Lorraine" which has a great tune but rotten lyrics?
Professor Wordsmith writes: Not so far as I know.
There is a word "iatrogenic" which refers to illnesses caused by doctors. You can use it of an ailment caused by misdiagnosis or of side-effects caused by the wrong treatment – anyway, it is a very good word to use about what happens when a doctor gets something wrong and inflicts unnecessary illness on a patient.
What I want to know is whether there is a word for the opposite process, that is, for when a patient inflicts disease on a doctor. It is quite possible that a doctor – who, after all, only sees ill people – may pick up some infection or condition from a patient. It would be very helpful if there were some description for this process.
Professor Wordsmith writes: Yes, it would, wouldn't it? Let us hope that such a word exists.
Professor Wordsmith will be back again soon with more answers to your frustrating language problems. Keep those queries rolling in!Reuse content