I am gladto announce the return of Dr Wordsmith, our resident if wandering language expert. He has been very busy working on his new book, out this autumn, called Is American The New English? but now that the proofs have been corrected, he is out and about again, and as willing as ever to answer your queries on the state of English today.
Take it away, Doc!
Dear Dr Wordsmith, I was watching The Weakest Link the other day...
Dr Wordsmith writes: The what?
Dear Dr Wordsmith, The Weakest Link. This is a knock-out TV quiz on which the quizmistress, Anne Robinson, pretends to be the smartest person present even though she answers none of the questions.
Dr Wordsmith writes: Then it is no different from any other quiz show I have seen. Have you ever seen Jeremy Paxman on 'University Challenge'?
Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes.
Dr Wordsmith writes: Well, then. Next question.
Dear Dr Wordsmith, I haven't asked my question yet.
Dr Wordsmith writes: Get a move on, then.
Dear Dr Wordsmith, Well, I was watching The Weakest Link the other day, and Anne Robinson asked a man the following question: "If Ja is the German word for Yes, what is the German word for NO?"
Dr Wordsmith writes: This seems a very basic kind of quiz.
Dear Dr Wordsmith, No, hang on, I haven't got there yet. The thing is that Anne Robinson pronounced "Ja" as if it were the English word "Jar", with a "J" on the front, whereas of course it is pronounced "Ya".
Dr Wordsmith writes: She must be illiterate.
Dear Dr Wordsmith, Perhaps. The point is that her question was a conditional one. "IF Ja is the German word for Yes, what is the German word for No?" But "Jar" is not the German word for No! So the man should not have said "Nein"!
Dr Wordsmith writes: And did he?
Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, he did.
Dr Wordsmith writes: Then he was wrong to give the right answer. Next!
Dear Dr Wordsmith, We have always been taught that the Americans don't say "autumn", they say "fall". Spring, summer, fall and winter. So why is it that the word "autumn" occurs so often in the titles of American songs? I can think of "Autumn Leaves", "Autumn in New York" and so on, but I can't think of a single one which celebrates "Fall".
Dr Wordsmith writes: This is because songwriting abhors a monosyllable. If there is a two-syllable alternative, songwriters will go for it. "Spring" is also a monosyllabic season, but it has no alternative name. Or has it? Yes it has - "springtime"! I fancy you will find more songs about "springtime" than about "spring".
Dear Dr Wordsmith, You have often taught us that many words survive because of one single usage. For instance, that a "shrift" is always short, and that nothing ever gets scotched except a rumour. Well, I think I have another one for you. "On bended knee". I don't think anything is ever bended except a knee.
Dr Wordsmith writes: Thank you. I will add it to my collection. Any more?
Dear Dr Wordsmith, You have also taught us that one word may often mean two contradictory things. I think I have come across another one. "Diary". I was looking at 2004 diaries the other day, and it suddenly occurred to that we use diaries for two opposing functions. We use them to write down things planned for the future which have not yet happened. Appointments, engagements, meetings, etc. We also use them to write down descriptions of things which have already happened. I kept a diary on my holidays - that sort of thing. One is a diary of the past - one is a diary of the future. Nobody ever mixes up the two functions in the same diary. And yet we have the same word for both!
Dr Wordsmith writes: Excellent! I like it very much! Especially as it neatly rounds out the column without any further work from me! Any care for a quick pint down at the Printer's Widow?
Dr Wordsmith will be back soon. Keep those queries rolling in!