Solitary words that live on baleful tenterhooks, alack

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The Independent Online
Q: You are here to tell us about the work of the Single Word Protection Society?

A: That's right.

Q: Would you like to?

A: I'm sorry?

Q: Would you like to tell us something about the work of the Single Word Protection Society?

A: Certainly. Our aim is to stand up for those words in the English language that have been relegated to a single-use function and to plead for their reintegration into society.

Q: I see. Could you give us an example?

A: Of course. Take the word "dulcet", for example.

Q: But surely "dulcet" is quite a normal word? It's commonly used, is it not?

A: Is it? Can you give me an example of its being used?

Q: Well, people sometimes do say, in a sort of mock-heroic way, "It's a long time since I heard your dulcet tones ..."

A: And that's it.

Q: Pardon?

A: That's it. That is the only time "dulcet" is used. In conjunction with "tones". No one uses the word "dulcet" without "tones". No one says, "I heard your dulcet voice" or "Now hear the dulcet singing of the BBC Chorus". It's a single-use word. But why not extend it? After all, "dulcet" is just another word for sweet and gentle, isn't it? You could easily look at someone in a dulcet manner or lay your head on someone's dulcet lap.

Q: And you want us to use "dulcet" more often?

A: Not just "dulcet". There are hundreds of words that are condemned to a solitary existence, words which could do a perfectly good job if given the chance.

Q: Could you give us another example?

A: I'll give you a couple. Unwed. Unsung.

Q: Let me think, now. Unwed mothers? Unsung heroes?

A: Very good. Mothers are the only people who are unwed. Never fathers. Never spinsters. Nor is anyone save a hero unsung. There are no unsung martyrs and no unsung villains.

Q: I suppose you are right.

A: There are no unsung mothers, and no unwed heroes.

Q: Aren't there?

A: Well, there are, but they are never called such. We are too lazy to do it. Our way with language is so predictable that all these single words are caught in a cliche trap. We are condemning these words to a dull, repetitive existence. In many cases we are in danger of forgetting what the word really means.

Q: Which word?

A: Bated.

Q: Bated?

A: Bated breath. With bated breath. What does it mean?

Q: Umm, I suppose it means on tenterhooks.

A: What are or were tenterhooks?

Q: Aye, there's the nub.

A: Any idea what a nub really was?

Q: Oh, get on with it and stop showing off.

A: Bated breath is just a shorter version of "abated breath". So we aren't too worried about that one - the word "abate" can look after itself. But there are many words that we are worried about: sackcloth, grist, parlance, shrift, rakish, fell ...

Q: Stop! Explain.

A: Sackcloth can only be used with "ashes", though "ashes" can be used without "sackcloth". This is extremely discriminatory against sackcloth. And grist can only be for the mill. Parlance can only be common. Shrift can only be short. The only thing that can be rakish is an angle. There is only one thing that can be fell ...

Q: I presume you mean designs?

A: Oh. I wasn't actually thinking of designs. Can designs be fell?

Q: I think so. "He had fell designs on her honour ..."

A: You're right. I was thinking of "at one fell swoop". The word is not so threatened as I believed. It has two usages.

Q: Carry on.

A: We are also quite worried about "baleful", as you can only give people baleful looks and nothing else baleful.

Q: As a matter of interest, what is "bale"?

A: Terror.

Q: Thank you.

A: We are worried, too, about "alack", which can only be used with "alas" as in "alas and alack", although "alas" can go out by itself. We are worried about "invidious", as only comparisons can be invidious, although invidious is a perfectly good word meaning "arousing resentment". We are worried about brackish ...

Q: What worries you about "brackish"? That it's only used to describe water?

A: That, and also the fact that its meaning of slightly salty is being forgotten.

Q: And if we send lots of money to the Single Word Protection Society, it will definitely help to boost your work?

A: Yes.

Q: And do you in fact think you will get lots of money?

A: Some hope.

Q: What kind of hope?

A: Forlorn.

Q: I agree, alack.

A: Thank you.