Philip Hensher: The dictionary can’t have the last word


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Fans of that great movie classic, Mean Girls, will remember Gretchen’s tragically unsuccessful efforts to introduce a new word to the English language.

Her choice, in Tina Fey’s brilliant screenplay, alights on “fetch”, to which she gives the meaning of “cool” or “elegant” or something of that sort, as in “Oh my God, your hair is totally fetch”. Her posse puts up with it for some time, until their leader, Regina, snaps. “Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen! It’s not going to happen!” “Happen,” meaning “attain popularity”, is, of course, rather a more successful recent shift in meaning. Regina knew what Gretchen did not; that it takes more than one person to create a word.

It has been revealed that the compilers of The Oxford English Dictionary keep a room in their offices devoted to as yet unsuccessful words; words created and nominated, but which, in the dictionary’s view have not yet attained the level of use and exchange required for inclusion in the standard corpus of English-language words. I like to think of this room as dusty, filled with giant grey filing cabinets, and staffed by a Miss Blenkinsop and a Mr Fazackerly, each in a cardigan, each with their own mug.

Unearthed by a student graphic designer, Luke Ngakane, the archive contains millions of words which have not caught on. Apparently, members of the public very frequently write to the dictionary saying that they have coined a word. Could it be included in the next edition?

Some of the words Mr Ngakane came across are clearly contrivances of this sort: “nonversation”, for verbal burbling, “optotoxical” is a jocular way of saying “a look that could kill”. Some, however, are lovely pieces of fantasy which might well catch on.

“Furgle”, meaning to search fruitlessly in a pocket for a small object, and “wibble”, referring to the tremor of the lower lip before crying, seem perfectly appropriate for their proposed use.

The OED sets its barrier for inclusion quite high, and others of Mr Ngakane’s finds are pretty close to regular use. “Freegan”, meaning urban scavenger, and “locavore”, for person eating exclusively local produce, probably fail to pass the self-consciousness test, as they are rarely used without an accompanying definition. Other words, like “earworm” for an infuriatingly catchy tune, directly translated from the German Ohrwurm, have in fact been included in less scrupulous lexicons than the OED.

The classic of contrived words is Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s The Meaning of Liff, which attaches new meanings to place names, with disconcertingly accurate results. My favourite is “Shoeburyness: The vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else's bottom.” But what is the word for that feeling? The contrived word and the word that has never caught on are witnesses to the fact that the world of things is full of events and emotions which we struggle to put a name to, and probably always will.

Find me an oasis away from the buskers

A busker, Dean Langley, set up shop outside the Anchor pub in Hastings, and started to play “Wonderwall” by Oasis. He then played “American Pie” by Don Maclean. Then he played Wonderwall again. Then American Pie, then Wonderwall. After two hours, the landlord of the pub approached Mr Langley and pleaded with him either to stop playing, or to learn a third song. Mr Langley then became abusive, and was arrested.

Is there anyone who can read this without feeling passionate sympathy with the pub landlord? When General Noriega took refuge in the Holy See’s embassy in Panama in 1989, the American army bombarded him with non-stop repetition of terrible old rock records. It has been reported that a torture technique in Guantanamo Bay involved playing Barney the purple dinosaur’s song “I Love You And You Love Me” for more than 24 hours without a break. Truly, the repetition of even the most innocuous song eventually becomes laden with horror.

Curiously, in 2009 a pair of buskers in Moseley, Birmingham, were given an Asbo when it became apparent that they, too, only knew two songs. Even more curiously, one of those songs was also “Wonderwall”. What is it about this moany dirge that exerts such a pull on buskers?

Babar is the worst kind of elephant to protect

There is to be a movie of Babar, the well-known French tale of elephants. Good luck to them. If there is any children’s book which calls out for censorship and even repression on the grounds of political correctness, it may be this one. People

rightly complain about the repulsive racial stereotypes in Tintin In The Congo, but in my view The Story Of Babar is even more awful.

After his mother is shot, Babar makes his way to the big city, where he is taught how to behave and wear a green suit by the “Old Lady”. He is begged to return to be king of the elephants, and transforms the lives of the savages by the kindliness of the Old Lady.

Sucking up to this thinly disguised allegorical representation of colonial France is a major motif in Babar. Babar himself is the most frightful prig and goody-goody. Tintin’s deplorable adventures in the Congo at least have the slight mitigation of a joyous, circus energy. But Babar really does think that elephants, for which read Africans, would be much better off if they all put on green suits, and, still worse, would probably be grateful when the Old Lady asked for nothing more than a few tusks in exchange.

Babar has softened and been made suitable for small children over the years, but the original Story Of Babar is as much an allegory of the rape of Africa as Heart Of Darkness. If film-makers want to make a movie out of an elephant’s adventures in civilisation, could I direct them instead to JP Martin’s excellent Uncle series of novels for children? Uncle, a millionaire elephant in a large, purple dressing gown, has a deadly enemy called Beaver Hateman and is a much more appealing figure than an awful teacher’s pet like Babar.

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