Market Harborough? Dammit, it's just not English

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THE OTHER day I was next to a man on the train who was muttering to himself. Lots of people on trains mutter to themselves. Sometimes they're a bit lonely. Sometimes they're a bit odd. Sometimes they've just been dropped from the Tory Cabinet without warning and are feeling a bit sorry for themselves. But this man was muttering the same thing over and over again.

'Castle Howard. Castle Howard. Castle Howard.' A pause. Then: 'Howard Castle. Howard Castle. Howard Castle.' Another pause. 'Castle Howard. Castle Howard. Castle Howard . . .'

'Let me guess,' I said. 'You are staying for a while at Castle Howard. But you are desperately afraid of forgetting your address. Therefore you repeat it to yourself constantly.'

He had the grace to blush slightly. 'I'm sorry. I didn't realise I was saying it out loud.'

'Then why you were saying to yourself so frequently?'

'I work for the Home Office.' He paused.

'Is that all?' I said.

'No,' he said. 'I was wondering how to go on without sounding foolish. The fact of the matter is that I am on a committee looking at the proliferation of French expressions in English.'

'I thought that was all old hat now,' I said. 'Vieux jeu. Last week's news.'

'Well, not quite. The thing is that for a year or two we have been looking at something more basic and profound than just the words and expressions themselves.' He paused dramatically. 'We have been looking at the very structure of the English language itself, with a view to eradicating all French constructions from it.'

'Such as?'

'Castle Howard.'

'Castle Howard,' I said, 'was built by an Englishman, I believe. Vanbrugh. First house he ever designed. Not bad for a first go.'

'Not the building,' he said testily. 'The name. In English we don't normally put the adjective after the noun, do we? We don't say 'Ten bottles green hanging on a wall', or 'God save our Queen gracious', do we?'


'So why do we say Castle Howard? Or Market Rasen? Or Mount Pleasant? It's all Frenchified la-di-da stuff. It's going to have to go. From now on it will be Howard Castle and Rasen Market.'

I thought this over for a moment. The implications were staggering.

'And don't forget,' he said, 'that the French always put the accusative pronouns in front of the verb. They don't say, 'I see her'. They say, 'I her see'. Well, that's got to be stamped out.'

'I can't think of a single example in English where we do that,' I said.

'Want to bet?'

'Yes. A quid.'

'With this ring I thee wed'.

My mouth opened and closed. He had me there. I paid over a pound silently.

'Mark you,' he said, to make me feel better, 'that's the only example we have come up with so far. But in future, it's going to have to be 'With this ring I wed thee'.'

'So you don't mind keeping 'thee'?' I said sarcastically.

'Not at all. Good old Germanic word. Hold on. I've just thought of another. Church Stretton. That'll have to change. Stretton Church.

'What about Latin?'

''What about it?'

'Well, there was a time when pedants changed a lot of perfectly honest English names into Latin. Blandford Market into Blandford Forum. Weston-on-

Sea to Weston-super-Mare. That sort of thing. Hinton Parva and Magna. Will you do your ethnic cleansing on them as well?'

'Not my department, old boy,' he said. 'I'm just cleaning the French bits up. We're announcing all this some time next month at a big reception. Like to come?'

Never refuse an invitation, that's my motto. 'I'd love to.'

He slipped a piece of card over the table to me.

'There you are. Formal invite. But don't forget to RIYP.'

'I'm sorry?'

'You probably still say RSVP. That's all changing. No more 'Reply If It Pleases You'. 'Reply If You Please', that's the new official phrase. Ah, here's my station. Harborough Market.'

And he got out. I still can't make up my mind if it was all a leg pull at my expense. Or did I perhaps dream the whole thing?