Miles Kington: The day the doctor was grabbed by the ballcock

'When a critic says that a work has "gravitas", it means that it wasn't nearly as funny as he had hoped'
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The Independent Online

I am delighted to tell you that our resident language expert, Dr Wordsmith, has returned from his summer holiday. As far as I can make out, he spent his entire vacation in various pubs and bars in London being bought drinks and listening to people talk, which means, I suppose, that he is one of the few people who do exactly the same on their annual break as they do when working. Anyway, he is back and raring to go, so let's have the first question, please!

Dear Dr Wordsmith: In that build-up to your entry, I was interested to see the expression "raring to go"; "raring", when you look at it, is a very odd word. Is it a verb? If so, why do we not "rare" at any other time? Or is it an adjective, like "willing"? If so, why is it only used in the expression "raring to go"? In that case, is it a bit like the word "middling", which only ever occurs in the expression "fair to middling"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: That's a lot of questions there. But you only get to ask one question per person. Which one do you want me to tackle?

Dear Dr Wordsmith: None of those. The question I really wanted to ask was this: when critics say that a certain work has "gravitas", what does that mean?

Dr Wordsmith writes: It means they have just read a book that wasn't nearly as funny as they had hoped, and they are trying to be nice to the author. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith: Getting back to the word "rare"; it has always puzzled me why we talk about an underdone steak as being "rare". What's rare about a steak that isn't cooked properly? Very common in my experience!

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes, yes, very funny. Actually, the funniest thing is hearing someone like you expect language to behave logically. Don't forget that the French word for a rare steak is "un biftek bleu". Why do the French call a rare steak "blue"? A steak is never blue, any more than "white wine" is ever actually white. And don't forget that the French use the word "bleu" to signify someone who is new to the game.

Dear Dr Wordsmith: Which game?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Any game. They use the colour blue as we use green. We say that someone is green, or a greenhorn. They say blue. No logic. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith: When a critic says that a book or film has "resonance", what exactly does that mean?

Dr Wordsmith writes: It means that it reminds them of some other book or film they've enjoyed recently, but they can't remember which.

Dear Dr Wordsmith: And if it reminds them of a book or film they didn't enjoy, what do they say then?

Dr Wordsmith writes: They say that it is formulaic.

Dear Dr Wordsmith: You have often taught that we never talk about things that have no name, and I have often passed on this thought to other people, but they always say: "Oh yeah? What sort of things don't we ever talk about because they've got no name?" And I can never think of anything. Can you give me a good example?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes. You know when you rub out pencil writing with an ordinary eraser? And it leaves behind little rubbings from the eraser, bits of rubber that have come off and lie on the paper like ant droppings till they are swept away? Well, those tiny bits have no common name and I have never heard anybody talking about them.

Dear Dr Wordsmith: When I was a lad we talked about "pencil rubbers". Now they are called "erasers". Is this a prudish reaction to the American meaning of "rubber" as a contraceptive?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Not at all. The English are quite capable of using the same word to mean something harmless and something risqué at the same time. Otherwise they'd never use the word "ballcock". Time for one more question!

Dear Dr Wordsmith: When a critic says that he has had a moment of "epiphany", what does it mean?

Dr Wordsmith writes: It means he thinks he has had a good idea. He never has, of course. If he had good ideas, he wouldn't be a critic.

Dr Wordsmith will be back soon to answer more of your questions. Keep 'em rolling in!

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