There's nothing like the joy of sects

'What seven seas? Are there really only seven seas? Either there is only one, or there are lots of them'
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The Independent Online

Dr Wordsmith is, I am glad to say, gracing us with a return visit today. As you must all know by now, Dr Wordsmith is the leading expert on the state of spoken English today and has bar bills from all four corners of Britain to prove it. He has never been afraid to tackle the most thorny of linguistic enquiries from my readers, so let battle commence!

Dr Wordsmith is, I am glad to say, gracing us with a return visit today. As you must all know by now, Dr Wordsmith is the leading expert on the state of spoken English today and has bar bills from all four corners of Britain to prove it. He has never been afraid to tackle the most thorny of linguistic enquiries from my readers, so let battle commence!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I am intrigued by the phrase just used in your introduction, "all four corners of Britain". Britain, as a glance at the map will show, does not have four corners. Indeed, it does not have corners at all. So why do we pretend it does?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Because mankind likes to simplify and aggrandise things at the same time.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, How's that?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Whenever people talk about the world in big brush strokes they like to make it sound grand yet simple. When someone is off in a boat to far-off lands, he commonly says that he is going to "sail the seven seas". What seven seas? Are there really only seven seas? I think not. Either there is only one sea, or there are lots of them. But "seven seas" sounds neatly specific as well as mythically magnificent. The same with "four corners". The same when we say we are going to do something "the length and breadth" of a country. The word "breadth" has a sufficiently antique feel to make it grand. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I am constantly coming across the expression "movers and shakers" but am not sure what it means. I think the Shakers were an American religious sect who also made rather attractive simple furniture, but beyond that I am lost.

Dr Wordsmith writes: No, you are absolutely right about the Shakers. What is less well known is that the Movers were also an American non-conformist sect. They had a passion for moving furniture in an attractive but simple way, usually by horse and wagon. Predictably, the Shakers, who had absolutely no talent for transporting their simple attractive furniture, got together with the Movers to form a partnership. Hence "movers and shakers", to mean "people who get things done".

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Is that true?

Dr Wordsmith writes: It is now.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I have noticed that the English language seems to have a penchant for this sort of double act. Not just "shakers" but "movers and shakers". Not just "elders" but "elders and betters". Not just the "great" but the "great and the good". And we often describe a bad hangover as being "the mother and father of all hangovers". Always a partnership of some kind...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Well spotted! Do you have a question?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, No.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Then buzz off, clever clogs. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Sorry, yes I do have a question. The English language obviously has a faiblesse for...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Faiblesse! Do you mean "weakness"?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Then for heaven's sake say so!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, The English language obviously has a weakness for partnership expressions, and indeed for partnerships such as Marks & Spencer, Marshall & Snelgrove, Mappin & Webb, Fortnum & Mason, Russell & Bromley...

Dr Wordsmith writes: Get on with it!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, These are all old firms. There seem to be no new partnerships. Indeed, there seem to be no new firms named after people at all. Either they have trendy dot.com names or one-word titles such as Next, Gap or Cargo. Goodbye Dollond & Aitchison, hello Specsavers. Even when there is an obvious partnership, such as Rice and Lloyd Webber, it's not called "Lloyd Webber and Rice".

Dr Wordsmith writes: What about Bang & Olufsen?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, That's the exception that proves the rule.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Experience has taught me that when people start saying, "That's the exception that proves the rule", it's time to abandon the conversation. I see by my watch that they are now open. In five minutes' time I shall be standing at the bar of the nearest pub to this godforsaken place, the Printer's Widow, and any reader who wishes to buy me a pint will be in luck.

Dr Wordsmith will be back soon. Keep those questions rolling in!

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