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Miles Kington

Mugged by the pace of linguistic change

It gives me great pleasure to welcome back Dr Wordsmith, our wandering language expert, for his first language surgery of 2004. As you know, Dr Wordsmith spends a great deal of his lottery money doing field research, ie going into places where the British talk and listening to them, ie going on pub crawls. I am taking advantage of his visit to the office for more beer money to get him to answer some of your questions. Take it away, doc!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I am constantly amazed by the capacity of the English language to spring words on us that we never knew were there. Before the Morecambe Bay tragedy, I don't think I had ever heard the term "cockle-picker", and I certainly hadn't come across "gang-master", meaning, an unscrupulous entrepreneur who pays poor Chinese immigrants peanuts to risk life and limb getting shellfish for the Spanish restaurant trade. (A big job for one small word!)

Dr Wordsmith writes: Do you have a question?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No, I don't. I merely wished to draw your attention to linguistic developments which had taken place in your absence.

Dr Wordsmith writes: You don't mind if I call you a pompous twit, do you? I was well aware of these developments, all of which took place in my presence in the pubs of England. Out there, twixt the lagers and the whiskies, I have heard many jokes about cockle-picking, few of which can be repeated here. I have heard new versions of the old tongue-twister about pheasant-plucking, only now it's "I'm not the cockle-picker, I'm the cockle-picker's son" or something ruder. Believe me, it's all evolving out there.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Have you also seen the word "cockler" which has appeared in headlines?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes, but that's not a real word. It's a fake headline word. "Cockle-picker" would be too long for a headline, so it has to be "cockler". "Gang-master" is an interesting word, because it is a Germanic formation. Most of our word imports are from French, but French can't build up portmanteau words in the way that English and German can, so sometimes we hark back to our Germanic origins. It's also interesting the way German words like "fest" are creeping back into English, as in "Truckfest". Mark you, I don't suppose we will see gang-master back in use until the police catch some, and that may be a long time. Till then, it will go the same way as the word "ganger" .

Dear Dr Wordsmith, What's a ganger?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Old word for a foreman of a gang of workers. Can we change the subject, please?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Have you noticed that sometimes things change and the language doesn't evolve with them? The time has long gone since we drank tea out of cups. We all drink out of mugs now. Yet we all refer to it as a "cuppa"! Why do we persist in such inaccuracies?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Because if we called it a "mugga", people would think we were talking about someone who stops you in the street and offers you violence in exchange for your wallet. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, The other day on Radio 4's Broadcasting House I heard the presenter, Fi Glover, refer to an old Goon Show record called the "Ting Tong Song". I wonder if this is any relation to the old Goon Show record called the "Ying Tong Song"?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Thank you for your supercilious and patronising question. The answer is clearly that she misread her script. A capital "Y" is very like a capital "T". Considering that the title is nonsense, and the song is one of the very feeblest things Spike Milligan ever did, I can't see it matters. I am feeling thirsty now and am off to do some more research. Good day to you all !

(If you hurry, you will find Dr Wordsmith at the bar of the Printer's Widow, our local. He will be glad to answer any questions if you use the code words: "May I buy you a pint, sir?")