Those tricky questions answered at last

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The Independent Online
Every newspaper has to have an expert on the vagaries of language these days, and this column is proud to offer the services of Professor Wordsmith, who on his day - and when sober - is equal to the challenge of any enquiry about vocabulary or grammar. He is back again today to field the fiercest problem you can throw at him. All yours, Professor!

I have noticed that when people start reading a magazine these days, they first shake it automatically to get rid of all the inserts and free offers lingering in its pages. Has anyone coined a word for this activity? Professor Wordsmith writes: I don't think so. I may be wrong, of course.

I have noticed a new trend which seems so far not to have attracted a new name. For many years pubs and cafes have been in the habit of putting a blackboard outside with the dishes of the day chalked on it, or perhaps details of a forthcoming pub quiz night. The chalk often wears off or is removed by rain, and perhaps for this reason people have now taken to writing or even painting the message on the blackboard in coloured script which is designed to make it look as if it is actually chalked on. Nobody has ever mentioned this trend - a trend which I find rather regrettable, as I like the old chalked messages - presumably because they do not know the name for this process of painting in the style of chalking. Is there in fact such a word?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Not so far as I know.

You would think by now that pronunciation of words in modern English would be standardised, but I still come across words which can be pronounced in two different ways, both of which seem to be correct. For instance, you hear the word "macho" pronounced "match-o", which is obviously correct as it is a Spanish word and that is the Spanish way of saying it, but so many people say the incorrect "makko" that it is fast becoming an accepted alternative. Again, I have noticed that although I pronounce "clematis" with a stress on the first syllable, CLEMatis, many of my friends prefer to say clemATis, which you might write down as "clem-eight- is". Even well-known names seem to vary. I have heard Angus Deayton's name pronounced both as Deeton and as Dayton. But which is correct?

Professor Wordsmith writes: I am sorry. Who is Angus Deayton?

Every time the matter of devolution comes up, we hear a reference to the West Lothian question. But what is the West Lothian question? Professor Wordsmith writes: I have no idea. Unless the question is simply, "Where is West Lothian?"

Ah. So where IS West Lothian?

Professor Wordsmith writes: I am not entirely sure.

The West Lothian Question is always mentioned as if it applied to all forms of devolution. But surely there must be a specifically Welsh version of this. I mean, it must be demeaning for the Welsh to have to make do with the West Lothian Question. Do the Welsh not have a Question of their own?

Professor Wordsmith writes: I am sure they do. But what it is I have no idea.

I have recently noticed in several railway stations a poster urging businesses to advertise on station sites, and the poster uses this intriguing slogan: "A 7-minute dwell time at rail stations means more effective advertising ..."

Now, "dwell time" is a completely new expression to me. I can see roughly what it means. But does it mean that today's train passenger is known to wait an average of seven minutes for his train, OR that the average train waits for seven minutes when it arrives, before departing? And what, by the way, is the difference between a railway station and a rail station?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Your guess is as good as mine.

When it comes to naming the date before and after Christ's birth, there seems to be no consistency at all. We in Britain say AD (Anno Domini) for after and BC (Before Christ) for before - in other words, we use one Latin and one English expression. The Italians stick to Italian and say "ante Christo" and "dopo Christo", which abbreviates slightly unfortunately to AC/DC. The French do not have an abbreviation at all. Well, they write "av J-C" and "ap J-C", but this is only a written abbreviation, as when they say it they say "avant Jesus-Christ" in full. Only the Germans seem to be logical, as they stick to Latin for both, and say "Anno Domini" and "Ante Christum", though this latter again abbreviates slightly clumsily to "A Ch". Do you think Brussels will manage to sort out this minefield before the millennium, and that as well as a single currency we will join a single year-measure?

Professor Wordsmith writes: All things are possible.

Keep those questions for Professor Wordsmith rolling in!

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