Miles Kington Remembered: There's a word for it... or at least there ought to be

30 May 1996
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The Independent Online

When you got an Oxbridge degree in English in the old days, it fitted you for absolutely nothing. Nowadays, that's all changed. It still fits you for almost nothing, but, if you're very lucky, it may get you a job writing a newspaper column on English usage and the derivation of words. Such a man is Professor Wordsmith, who is back again today to talk about words and their often very specialised meanings. All yours, Prof!

When you leave a toothpaste tube open on the bathroom basin, and forget to put the cap back, the top of the toothpaste soon goes hard and forms a sort of green or stripey plug which blocks up the aperture. Is there any technical name for this little bit of hardened toothpaste?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Interesting point. I had never thought of that one. No, I don't think there is.

I am very interested in the behaviour of chains and plugs, in baths, sinks, bidets etc. I don't mean when the plug is actually in the plughole and the chain is at rest – I mean when the plug is reclining quietly on the back of the basin or the side of the bath.

I have noticed that very often, just when you think all is at rest, the chain starts a very gentle slithering motion, then gathers speed as it falls into the bath or basin, and finally brings down the plug with it. Is there any word in English for this distinctive motion of the chain?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Not so far as I am aware.

Is there any word for the one rogue piece of coloured washing (usually a red pillow slip, in my experience) which gets into a washing machine load of white washing, and tints everything else slightly pink?

Professor Wordsmith writes: There may well be, but I have never come across it.

Recently I went to an airport to meet a friend, and as her flight was late, I got a good chance to watch the way in which the people who were waiting greeted the people who were arriving. Very often the meeting took the form of a kiss, or hug, or some other form of embrace, but I couldn't help noticing that in almost every case, one of the partners to the embrace was less keen on the act than the other one – perhaps through being young and shy, or travel-worn, or just not very keen on the other person. Whatever the reason, most of the hugs were a bit one-sided. Is there any word to describe the less willing partner in a close physical union?

Professor Wordsmith writes: That's a very good point, and there is a very clear need for such a word. Oddly enough, it does not, so far as I know, exist.

You can insert one finger into the handle of a dainty teacup and two into the handle of a larger one. When it comes to mugs, you can often get three fingers in the handle and very occasionally four, but almost always there are superfluous fingers dangling outside the handle, fingers which are not, if you know what I mean, load-bearing. Is there an adjective to describe such unused fingers?

Professor Wordsmith writes: No.

Recently I was introduced to the wife of a peer of the realm at a party, who was very nice in her own way – of course, she wasn't a lady born and bred, she had only become a lady through marrying this peer of the realm, having been an estate agent beforehand, I believe – and when I asked her why her husband was called a peer of the realm, rather than just a peer, she was quite unable to tell me. Nor did she seem to want to talk about her husband much – she was, however, very interesting about secret South American poisons and methods of inflicting death without leaving a mark – not a subject you would normally find a peeress clued up on! But as she talked, I could not help noticing that she had on one cheek a somewhat prominent mole out of which a single dark hair was growing, and it occurred to me for the very first time that I had often seen such moles in my life, with the single dark hair growing out of it – not near it, not beside it, but right in the middle of the mole, like a lone beech tree on one of those hilltops in the Chilterns, or along some of the Wiltshire ridges near the M4.

There must be a technical name for such a mole. Do you know what it is?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Yes, there must be. No, I don't.

Keep those queries rolling in to Professor Wordsmith...

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