Miles Kington Remembered: It should be a simple as ABC. But not with this alphabet

29 December 1998
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The Independent Online

All journalists have their own system of fact-checking. Mine is quite simple and the most reliable of all. If I am doubtful of a fact, I print it unchecked, If it is right, I get away with it. If it is wrong, several readers will write to put me right.

In fact, they seem to enjoy putting me right, using such phrases as "I am surprised you didn't know that..." or "Honestly, Mr Kington, I find it hard to believe you are unaware of the correct date of...". Thus I am educating myself and giving pleasure to readers at the same time.

Today I am going a little further than usual. Today I am actually going to plead for information. I have a collection of facts which is incomplete and I know of nowhere I can go for the missing information, nowhere like an encyclopaedia or dictionary. I doubt that I could consult the Internet, even were I able to. (Yes, much to the horror of people even older than myself, I am not yet properly hooked up to the Internet, and am in no hurry to be so.)

This all started the other day when I found myself saying to myself, "A for Ism, B for Lamb..." and stopped, wondering what I was saying. Then I remembered. It was the beginning of a quaint, joke alphabet taught to me by my father. The point of the alphabet was that it sounded as if it were a genuine alphabet, A for this, B for that, C for that and so on, but in fact it made use of pre-existing phrases and words to merely masquerade as an alphabet.

And now that I think of it, it didn't start "A for Ism". I think I made that up. I think it started "'Ay for 'Orses..."

Anyway, I never wrote it down, and I have never seen it written down, and now my father is dead, so it resides only in my memory, and before I forget any more of it, here is what I remember:

'Ay for 'Orses

Beef or Lamb

Cephos Salt


'Eave a Brick


At this point my memory clouds over for G and H, and comes back in for I, and continues rather patchily thereafter...

Ivor Novello

Jaffa Oranges

'Ell For Leather


Over the Rainbow

Queue for Nylons

Arf a Mo

Tea for Two

You've a Nerve

Vive la France

That's it. That's about all I can remember. But there must have been a complete alphabet, because anyone who constructed such an ingenious series of definitions must have constructed all 26. Mark you, one or two of them are a little dated ( I have to explain "Queue for Nylons" to younger people ) and one or two depend on slightly twisted pronunciations. "Jaffa Oranges" only works if you pronounce Jaffa as Jay- fer, and I rather suspect that the missing K was "Kaffir something", with Kaffir similarly mispronounced.

I feel a a bit sorry about "'Ell for leather", which seems the only possible solution to L, but which is a bit torpedoed by the fact that L really is for leather. But I am even sorrier about the ones I can't remember. What on earth is P for? There is a French jazz violinist called Pifarelly, but I think that is a bit obscure. And what about W? And X and Y and Z...?

Hold on, hold on. The mists of time have parted slightly and a voice is trying to tell me that Y is for Bath. Wife of Bath... Y for Bath... Yes, they sound pretty identical. Yes, I like Wife of Bath... But what about Z? "Zed for"? Zephyr, perhaps? It is just possible, I suppose, that S might be for Foetida, as in "Asa Foetida", but I have never heard anyone say asafoetida, only seen it written down, so I have no idea how it is pronounced. In fact, I am not sure I have remembered correctly all the ones my father taught me. Did he really say "Over the Rainbow" or was it "O for a Muse of Fire"? Did he really say "Ivor Novello" or was it "I've a Funny Feeling...."?

Enough. This is a shameless appeal for information from readers. If you know any of the missing items, please tell me, so I can bring you the full and complete alphabet in turn. If I have got any wrong, please tell me.

If there is a website on the Internet listing all known odd alphabets, please don't tell me. I might be severely tempted to find it.