Philip Hensher: Wrestling with the outer limits of language

Language is interesting not just when it is exotic and static, but when it is in the process of development
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The Independent Online

Collins, the publishers of dictionaries, have been concerned about the presence in their publications of words of excessive obscurity. They produced a list of words which they proposed to cull from the next edition of their largest dictionary, and inquired whether anybody still used them.

The case for their preservation rested in the hands of the users of the language. I've always had a considerable suspicion of people who say that they "love words". What they usually mean is that they love long, elaborate or abstruse words, and will generally go on to claim that their favourite word, by which they mean "a word I never use" is "serendipity". (It's always serendipity, for some reason).

So, looking at this list of proposed culls, one's immediate response is that they ought to be in a large dictionary so that they don't have to stay in anyone's active vocabulary. Some of them were clearly invented by Latinists with little to do, and needn't trouble us for long – "muliebrity" for "femaleness", "oppugnant" for "combative", "caliginosity" for "dimness", "griseous" for "streaked with grey" and "exuviate" for "to shed".

"Vaticinate" hovers on the outer limits of many people's passive vocabulary, I would say, as one of those words that crop up in Johnson.

"Niddering" and "skirr" – cowardly and the noise of birds' wings – have a distinct Northern, perhaps Scots flavour to me. "Fubsy" – a glorious word for "short and fat" – one might expect to originate in the West Country.

The outer limits of language are always entertaining, but I don't suppose that many of us will be in any hurry to incorporate words so perfectly redundant in meaning into our active or passive vocabularies. (Technical vocabulary is a different matter and it is odd that Collins floated "apodeictic" as a candidate for abolition when any philosopher could have told them what a common term it is in their discipline).

In fact, language is strange even at its most ordinary, and interesting not just when it is exotic and static, but when it is in the process of development. Ten years ago "Whatever" came into the language as an expletive among young people – I don't see what else you could call it.

On Saturday, I heard the chaplain of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, use it in exactly that way in the course of a wedding sermon. But who would have thought "whatever" could ever come to occupy that part of speech 20 years ago?

Real language obsessives are not going to waste time bringing the word "muliebrity" into conversation, but wondering, for instance, why there is an "h" in the words whale, what, or when. The other day I discovered that the word "orange" has two entirely different etymologies; one from Arabic leading to the name of the fruit, the other from Latin leading to the colour. I don't quite know what use this information is, but I find that sort of thing a million times more exciting than some piece of orotund Latinity, used exactly three times in the 1770s.

Dictionaries probably ought to preserve some of these curiosities, in the remote possibility that any reader comes across "fatidical" and can't work out what it means. But they are not just explainers of elaborate meaning, but unpackers of history and etymology. Dictionaries explain the distinctions within words, how words have changed, and where they come from, not just "what they mean".

Dictionaries are at their best when they explain the structure of "what", the history of "they", the meaning of "mean".

The boy who dreamed of being ... a critic

A repulsive juvenile called David Fishman has taken the food world of New York by storm. He is the world's first child-prodigy food critic. The outpourings of the 12-year-old, perched on a banquette in some of the world's most expensive restaurants, turn the stomach with their posturing knowingness. "Down from heaven came the crab. It was enclosed in the zucchini flower, doused with black truffle sauce, topped with shaved truffles." And may I get a glass of Prosecco with that? Sod off, sonny. Here's your Sprite and a straw. I can't imagine why, of all things, a child prodigy would want to be a critical prodigy.

But I can see that many 12-year-olds would be pretty good at it. If I ran a food magazine, I would love to employ an average pubescent to go "My days! That's minging, man!" at The Fat Duck, or even at any restaurant which served green vegetables, or Things Touching Each Other On The Plate. Alas, the boy Fishman's comments are hideously judicious, and worryingly well-informed about foam, jus and ganache. I would hate to think what New York's kitchens do to his food before they send it out.

Let's face it. I love Angela Merkel

In the old days, one used to listen to Italians explaining that the reason they were so keen on the EU was that they would rather be ruled by Brussels than Rome. This seemed incomprehensible. No one, surely, could wish to be ruled by foreigners.

I'm not so sure any more. In the last week, the Czech president of the EU has rightly pointed out that Anglo-Saxon spending programmes are "the way to Hell". The Germans leaked documents exposing the real cost of the proposed Brown-led measures, and Angela Merkel said, absolutely bluntly, that "I will not let anyone tell me that I must spend more money". Let's face it. I absolutely love Angela Merkel, and have done ever since a Berlin friend told me that her husband sometimes calls up the police, as a private citizen, to complain about the noise from central Berlin rock concerts. She detests getting groped by strangers, however eminent. She is facing a very difficult situation with great calmness and intelligence, unlike some people one could mention. Is it too late to ask her whether she might be prepared to come and run our country in her spare hours?