I'm sorry, did I hear you correctly?

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Yesterday morning I received a letter from Mr Topham of Herne Bay that started:

"This time I write via inkjet tinted with a hint of choler ... "

That is as far as I got with the letter. I stopped there, not because I was afraid to find out why he was writing to me cholerically, but because of the sudden realisation that although I have often seen the word "choler" written down I have never, as far as I know, heard it used in conversation. There are some good words in English for the process of losing your cool, such as temper, rage, ire, fury, wrath, irascibility, and one hears them all used from time to time, except perhaps "ire", but one never hears "choler". One sees it but one never hears it. Why not?

Well, because it is old-fashioned, of course. It belongs to a family of words like bile, gall, spleen, vapours, and so on, which are felt to belong to an outmoded part of medical history. "Choleric" is as out-of-date as the apoplectic 19th-century squire it conjures up, and words do go out of fashion quite quickly and irrevocably (you only have to think of other words that have become dated within living memory, such as "fab", "brill" and "socialism").

But the real reason you don't hear people using the word "choler", I am sure, is that it sounds too much like "collar". When two words mean quite different things and yet sound identical, the odds are that one of them will slowly take second place to the other. There really isn't much chance that you will seriously confuse "choler" and "collar", as they tend to be used in different contexts, yet, if I were to read out the beginning of Mr Topham's letter to an audience, when they heard the words "This time I write via inkjet tinted with a hint of choler", I do not think many listeners would straightaway recognise "choler" as "choler".

Other examples? Certainly. If you see the word "kohl" written down, you probably know that it means a kind of powder used to darken the eyelids. But have you recently heard it referred to in conversation? Almost certainly you haven't, and it is equally almost certainly because in conversation it sounds like "coal" which, by coincidence, is another powdery dark substance which you would hate to have used on your eyelids.

Incidentally, I looked up "kohl" in a dictionary just now, just to make sure, you know, and there I encountered several other adjacent words that we never use in conversation, unless we are playing Call My Bluff. For the first time in my life I have encountered "Koff", meaning a two-masted Dutch fishing vessel. "Koel", meaning a kind of Asian cuckoo. "Kob", meaning water-antelope, and "Koan", which apparently means a problem with no logical answer, used for meditation by Zen Buddhists. (That must include the old Zen problem, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Wasn't it comedian Shelley Berman who said, "I know that sound far too well"? )

Those words are unused partly because we talk so rarely about Dutch fishing boats, and Asian cuckoos, and water-antelope, but above all, surely, because the words would cause real confusion with "cough' and "coal" or "kohl", with "cob" and with "Cohen", a possible confusion that is enough to condemn many words to extinction. The word "dolour", again, is never used these days, even though its French cousin "douleur" is still thriving, and I think it must have something to do with the fact that it sounds just like "dollar". You see "discrete" written down but you hardly ever hear it spoken, and that must be because of confusion with "discreet".

The useful word for the worldwide Jewish community, "Jewry", is heard less and less, and this must be because it sounds like "jury".

Of all the seabirds I hear talked about, three of the least mentioned are skuas, terns and petrels. Is it a coincidence that they sound oddly and confusingly like skewers, turns and petrols?

(There is a great store-house of British humour depending on these misunderstandings, of course, whether involving accidental jokes such as "Gladly the cross-eyed bear" or deliberate misunderstandings along the lines of "Jamaica?" "No, she went of her own accord.")

Still, that's enough time spent on the first line of Mr Topham's letter. Now on to the second line. Well, some other time, perhaps.

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