You say "Phwoar!" and I say "Pshaw!"

'The noise of air-kissing, for instance, is commonly transcribed as "mwooah! mwooah!" '
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The Independent Online

I am pleased to welcome Dr Wordsmith back again to answer all your queries on the state of English today. One of our foremost experts on the evolving language, he spends most of his time in pubs up and down Britain observing the way we speak now. His findings are to be found in his new book, These Kind of Things (Zircon Press, £29.99), which would make an ideal Christmas present.

I am pleased to welcome Dr Wordsmith back again to answer all your queries on the state of English today. One of our foremost experts on the evolving language, he spends most of his time in pubs up and down Britain observing the way we speak now. His findings are to be found in his new book, These Kind of Things (Zircon Press, £29.99), which would make an ideal Christmas present.

All yours, Doc !

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I was in a bookshop the other day looking for Christmas presents, and I was struck by the vast quantity of books that have been written recently about the early days of science - not just Latitude, but the discoverers of dinosaurs, the man who invented the colour mauve, sundry mathematicians and all that sort of thing. There is obviously a sub-category of writing here, involving the biography of scientists, but there seems to be no word for it. Would you call it a sciography?

Dr Wordsmith writes: No, I certainly would not. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I also was in a bookshop the other day and was struck by the amount of books based on films and TV programmes. Many of them seem quite unnecessary, as they add little to the TV series and in some cases subtract from them. But what horrified me above all was that in some cases people are writing new books where the original exists already. The children's film Stuart Little is based on EB White's classic story of the same name. In my innocence, I thought they would reissue the EB White book to tie in with the film. Nothing of the sort - they have written a new and much inferior version! Is there a name for this sort of crass process?

Dr Wordsmith writes: There may well be, for all I know. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I have noticed recently that new noises are coming into the language. There is the noise, for instance, of air-kissing, when two people pretend to give each other a kiss on the cheek and make a noise instead, commonly transcribed as "mwooah! mwooah!" There is the quite different noise, popularised by Viz magazine, supposed to be made by lads when appreciating something sexy, or a double entendre, which you might call a snigger or snickering noise, transcribed as "phwooar!" or "fnar! fnar!". I wonder, is there a name given to a word that is the literal transcription of a spoken or uttered sound?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I wonder, too. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I haven't finished. This habit of writing down sounds we make is quite an old one - the Victorians often put sounds such as "tsk, tsk" and "ugh" in characters' mouths, and I seem to remember that occasionally they were made to say "pshaw!" Now, I don't believe that anyone ever actually said "tsk" or "pshaw", so I wondered if you had any way of finding out what noises they were really making.

Dr Wordsmith writes: It would be nice if there were, but I don't think there is.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I notice you say, "It would be nice if there were," which is very stylish with its subjunctive and everything. But don't you think it's a bit too stylish for these days? I saw an ad the other day, which started: "You live life like it was short," and I thought to myself: "Tsk, tsk! Ugh! Aaagh! That should be 'You live life as if it were short'!" But then I thought that perhaps I was being too pompous, and that the incorrect version may have more punch. It reminded me of the American beer company, years ago, that came up with the slogan: "We still brew good, like we used to could!" My question, really, is: When is incorrectness preferable to correctness?

Dr Wordsmith writes: It's a very good question. I only wish I knew the answer.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I can't help noticing that you haven't answered any of the questions you have been asked today.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Nor would you, if you knew that the Printer's Widow, my local pub, opened 15 minutes ago. First one there buys the round!

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

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