Monday 20 January 2003
The way of the word
'Ricin? It looks and sounds as if it were one of those things that you generally see listed on the side of packets of breakfast cereals'
It has been nearly two months since we last had a visit from Dr Wordsmith, our trusty language expert. As you know, Dr Wordsmith spends most of his research grant on beer, by which I mean that he spends as much time as possible in licensed establishments listening to the English language evolve around him, and now that many pubs are open 24 hours a day, this is becoming a full-time activity! So, we are lucky to have his presence today to deal with a few more of your queries.
All yours, Doc!
Dear Dr Wordsmith, It isn't often that we see a new word coming into the English language before our very eyes, but this has actually happened in the last week, and I wondered what you made of it.
Dr Wordsmith writes: What? Where? Eh? What are you on about? New word? What new word?
Dear Dr Wordsmith, Ricin.
Dr Wordsmith writes: Ricin? Ah, yes, ricin!
Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, ricin. It's the name of this fashionable new poison much favoured by asylum-seekers with an axe to grind, which has recently been found in a raid by the police in London. A week ago, nobody had heard of it, and yet now, it is common currency. Does that not prove that with today's media, you can teach people anything?
Dr Wordsmith writes: Nothing of the sort, sir. Nobody has any idea what ricin actually is or does. In a month's time, I dare say, it will be forgotten, just as mustard gas is now forgotten. Ricin looks and sounds as if it were one of those things listed on the side of packets of breakfast cereals. One day we shall no doubt find that it should have been spelt with a capital R all along, and that it is a brand name with a corporate identity...
Dear Dr Wordsmith, May I introduce myself? I am the brand-licensing attorney for the company that produces ricin, the poison of choice for assassins of distinction, and we are indeed in the process of registering this as a bona fide product in the same way as Prozac and Viagra are. When we have gone through all the legal niceties, I will get in touch with you again and insist that whenever you use the name, it must have a capital letter, as we will then be a registered tradename. I need hardly spell out to you the terrible death that might befall you should you choose to ignore this letter.
Dr Wordsmith writes: See what I mean? They're tough, these guys. Next time someone tells you that words don't matter, think of the Ricin mob. Next!
Dear Dr Wordsmith, You say that words like ricin come and go, and that one day soon they will be forgotten. But what happens to words when they are no longer needed? Where do words go when they die? When a word is no longer used by anybody, who looks after it?
Dr Wordsmith writes: The Dr Wordsmith Home For Veteran Vocabulary does a marvellous job looking after words that can no longer look after themselves. Words such as "prang" and "spiffing", for instance. Words that were once young and popular in the 1940s, and that nowadays have been all but forgotten. We look after words such as "dekko" and "mufti", or "flapper" and "floozie", even though they are now just a shadow of their former selves. But this work takes money. We receive no official support. So may I beg you al...
Dear Dr Wordsmith, Never mind about old words that nobody needs any more – what about new words that nobody needs? There are many words that arrive unbidden from America, and are adopted here rather like cuckoo fledglings in a nest. Words such as 'rookie', for example, which I think is a baseball term for 'novice'. The other day, in the 'Radio Times', I saw listed a programme about novice clergymen called 'Rookie Reverends'. Rookie Reverends! What has that got to do with anything?
Dr Wordsmith writes: I wouldn't trust anything you read in the Radio Times, dear. Their mistakes are legendary. I saw another radio programme listed the other day that said that somebody would be "trolling" through the archives. Anyone who can't tell the difference between "troll" and "trawl" shouldn't be allowed to edit magazines without a grown-up in attendance.
More from Dr Wordsmith tomorrow. Keep those queries rolling in!
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