Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Language of the Election

In 1946, George Orwell wrote a fabulous essay about the state of written and spoken English called ‘Politics and the English Language’. In his essay, he made a link between bad prose and oppressive policy, and insincerity: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” He goes onto say that the insincerity of the writer perpetuates the decline of the language as people, particularly politicians, attempt to disguise their intentions behind euphemisms and convoluted phrasing. Orwell proposed  six rules to remedy awful written expression:

1.       Never use a ‘dead’ simile, metaphor or figure of speech that is already in use too much.
2.       Never use a long word when a short one will do.
3.       If possible, always cut out a word.
4.       Use the active voice rather than passive.
5.       Never use jargon, a scientific word or a foreign phrase if there is an English equivalent.
6.       Never manipulate or deceive the reader.

The UK has just had an election, and unless you were living under a rock in Mexico, I am sure most people know it. As a lexicon and lover of words, I was constantly monitoring the way in which politicians were using language. My conclusion: Orwell would be turning in his grave.

The election was void of any inspiring rhetoric that will be remembered. David Cameron got ‘pumped up’ (which will be remembered for comedy rather than any inspirational reasons) and Ed Miliband had his stone with its subjective and bland written expression. Crucially, nothing substantial, either in written or spoken form, will be remembered from the 2015 election, mainly because the language used was awful, repetitive and flat. It seems Britain no longer does passionate speeches of rhetorical excellence, remembered in years to come.

Despite being incredibly dull, the news was soaked with election rhetoric that never got off the ground. How many times did we hear the words ‘campaign’, ‘society’, ‘fairer’, ‘change’, ‘future’, ‘alternative’, ‘forward’, ‘better’, ‘aspiration’, ‘plan’, ‘austerity’, ‘hard-working’, ‘families’, ‘taxpayer’, ‘progressive’, ‘transparent’, and ‘opportunity’? Interestingly, Google and online dictionaries recorded a dramatic rise in the number of people researching what ‘austerity’ means.

How many times did we hear the phrase ‘hard-working families’, ‘long-term economic plan’, ‘tough decision’, ‘finish the job’, ‘lessons have been learned’, ‘not in touch with…’, ‘not showing up to the interview’ and, above all, the worst of the worst, ‘fix the roof when the sun was shining’?

Moreover, how many times did a politician introduce what they were going to say, with what I call ‘procrastination prefixing’? For example, starting with ‘now look’, ‘let me be clear’, ‘If you let me finish’, ‘let’s be clear’, and ‘I’ll get to that in a minute, but…’.

In summary, the 2015 election campaign was a debauchery of language. Ending with the words of Orwell, ‘If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.’

Eponym 7 - 'boycott'

Image result for Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott‘Boycott’ means to withdraw from a commitment in protest, whether commercial or social. The word comes from Ireland and Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, an unpopular Englishman working as a land agent in Ireland. In 1880, a campaign organized by the Irish Land League called for reform in the system of Landholding. Boycott refused to submit to the demands of the League, ordering anyone with rent arrears to be evicted – had had refused to give discounts to land owners/tenants despite being asked. 

Charles Parnell, the president of the Land League, asked everyone in the local community to refuse to have anything to do with Boycott in support of their own cause. Labourers refused to work for Boycott, innkeepers refused to serve him. 

Over time, the whole affair began to be a costly mistake for Boycott but an incredible success for its tenants because of the amount of passion it had evoked. Such was the success that the Land League called for all Irishmen to oppose similar landlords like Boycott. 

Within weeks of this, ‘boycott’ had entered the lexicon, meaning ‘refusal to cooperate’, adopted by newspapers across Europe and the world. At the time of his death in 1897, Boycott’s name had entered the English language, Boycott himself having fled back to England. 

[Courtesy of 'It's a Wonderful Word' by Albert Jack]

Eponym 6 - 'biro'

Image result for Laszlo Jozsef Biro‘Biro’ – the real inventor of the writing implement was Hungarian journalist Laszlo Jozsef Biro (1899-1985), not American cartoonist and comic book publisher Charles Biro (1911-72). 

Laszlo realsied how quickly ink dried on newspapers during the printing process and tried to create the same effect with his fountain pen. The ink was too fluid but it did give him the idea for a practical, quick-drying ink which he and chemist brother Georg patented in 1938.

[Courtesy of 'It's a Wonderful Word' by Albert Jack]

Eponym 5 - 'guillotine'

‘Guillotine’ – a machine that caused nearly 40,000 heads to roll, invented by a military surgeon Antione Louis (the machine was originally called the ‘louisette’) and later changed to be named after Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin who was ironically opposed to capital punishment but made famous by the French Revolution. 

Dr Joseph-Ignace was appointed as one of the ten Paris Deputies of the Asemblee Constantiante. During a capital punishment debate, he proposed that ‘the criminal should be decapitated and solely by means of a simple mechanism, a machine that beheads painlessly’. He wanted people who would suffer the guillotine to be killed in the most humane way possible. The louisette prototype was invented, later named the ‘guillotine’ after Dr Joseph-Ignace.

Later, he retired from politics and returned to medicine, becoming a founder of the Academy of Medicine in Paris. After being named after a contraption that killed people, Dr Joseph-Ignace became one of the most vocal supporters of Edward Jenner’s theory of vaccination which has saved millions of lives. He died in 1814 of natural causes and his family were so embarrassed to have the guillotine named after him that they asked the French government to change its name. They weren’t allowed, so the family changed theirs instead and have lived in peaceful obscurity ever since. 

[courtesy of 'It's a Wonderful Word' by Albert Jack]

Eponym 4 - 'Tod'

‘Tod’ as in ‘to be on your tod’ means to be alone with no help or assistance from anyone. The word derives from James Forman ‘Tod’ Sloan who was born in 1874 in Indiana. His mother died when he was young and he went to live with another family on the instruction of his dad. He was a solitary child who found work on the oil fields and later as a stable hand in St Louis, where he lived with the horses. When he was eleven, he moved to Kansas City and within ten years he had become a very successful jockey, winning half of all races he entered.

In 1901 he came to England, installed as the Prince of Wales’ senior jockey and as you can imagine, he was surrounded by money, people and fame. 

However, the British Jockey Club resented Sloan who had an extroverted personality, and they persuaded the prince not to renew his contract. He became resented by both sides of the Atlantic, and although he had enough money to convert a small bistro in Paris (now Harry’s New York Bar), financial hardships forced him back to America where he lived the remainder of his life alone, dying of cirrhosis in 1933. But, Sloan’s life has never been forgotten. George M. Cohan’s endearing song ‘The Yankee Doddle Boy’ is based on the life of Sloan in England. His popularity ensured he entered Cockney rhyming slang – to be ‘all on your tod’ means to be ‘alone like Tod Sloan’. Interestingly, Sloan’s 1915 autobiography is titled ‘Tod Sloan by Himself’.

[courtesy of 'It's a Wonderful Word' by Albert Jack]

Eponym 3 - Silhouette

‘Silhouette’ is a shadow profile, showing an outline of someone or something. Silhouettes became popular in the eighteenth century in France as a cheap way of creating portraits for those who could not afford the more lavish paintings. The word ‘silhouette’ derives from Etienne de Silhouette (1709-67), a French politician during the reign of Louis XV. Silhouette has specific responsibility to strengthen the country’s finances during The Seven Years’ War (1756-63). He taxed the rich which made him very unpopular with the wealthier sectors of French society. His austere reforms gave him a lasting association with all things cheap, with the term a la silhouette being applied to them, including the inexpensive portrait cutouts that were all the rage. The term as stuck ever since and lost its capital ‘S’ as it entered generic English.

[Courtesy of 'It's a Wonderful Word' by Albert Jack]

Eponym 2 - 'Maverick'


Image result for Samuel A. Maverick‘Maverick’ describes an innovative, independent-minded person. Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70) was a Texas cattle rancher who kept his cattle unbranded. This caused a stir as ranchers tended to brand their animals in fear rustlers stealing their livestock. Maverick believed branding animals was cruel but he also understood that he could claim any unbranded animal for his own – other ranchers would have to agree they were his. He had become so well known that, at the time of his death,  politicians who refused to affiliate themselves with a particular cause were known as ‘mavericks’.

[Courtesy of 'It's a Wonderful Word' by Albert Jack]

Eponym 1 - Mesmerise

Image result for Dr Franz Anton MesmerAn 'eponym' is a word that derives from a person's name.

‘Mesmerise’ – meaning to be in a trance-like state, whether chemically assisted or not, has been used since the early nineteenth century. The word comes from Dr Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a leading Austrian physician who caused some controversy when he used hypnotism as a treatment of illness. Mesmer believed ill health was caused by the disruption to the ebb and flow of magnetic fluid circulating around the body. He placed the patient into a trance and hovered a magnet over their body to cure the blockage in the hope of making the patient feel better. Not only did this mark the birth of hypnotism, but it also helped contribute to people trying to contact the paranormal.

[Courtest of 'It's a Wonderful Word' by Albert Jack] 

Splitting Infinitives - to split or not to split?

A maths teacher asked me recently whether the rules regarding split infinitives have become less strict. Undoubtedly, they have. 

To go back, a split infinitive happens when there's an adverb between ‘to’ and a verb. For example, ‘She used to secretly admire him’ and ‘You have to really watch him’. Whereas in general, rules have weakened and people have become more accepting of split infinitives, some still say they are grammatically incorrect and should be avoided. These people are likely to rewrite the above examples as ‘She used secretly to admire him’ and ‘You really have to watch him’.

There is no real justification for their objection, which is based on comparisons with the structure of Latin. People have been splitting infinitives for centuries in order to avoid clumsy sounding alternatives, as seen in the example above.


Split infinitives also change the meaning of a sentence. ‘You have to really watch him’ (it’s important he’s watched) is different to ‘You really have to watch him’ (you have to watch him very closely). 


A Brief History of some Punctuation Marks

We use most of them every day, but where do our punctuation marks come from? Here is a brief history of the main marks. The rules of each punctuation mark has remained unchanged.

Apostrophe – introduced into English in the 1500s after copying French practice. In France, Geoffroy Tory used the apostrophe for the first time in 1529. After 486 years, it remains one of the more difficult and often misused punctuation marks.

Colon – originates from about 1600. John Mason in a 1748 essay proclaimed “A comma stops the voice while we may privately tell one, a semi-colon two; a colon three: and a full stop four.”

Comma – a descendent of the forward slash (/). The origins of the comma can be traced right back to the third century BC. Today’s version of the comma was first used by Italian humanist, publisher and printer Aldus Manutius (1449-1515).

Semi-colon  dates back to 1494 and Manutius. Ben Jonson was the first English writer to use the semi-colon as it is used today. 521 years later, some still struggle with this one. 

Question mark – Latin scholars would place ‘questio’ at the end of a sentence that required thought from the reader. As putting ‘questio’ at the end of sentences used up space, over time it was shortened to ‘qu’. Later, a symbol was used to mark a question: a lowercase ‘q’ on top of an ‘o’. Over time, the symbol has changed to what we know it as today.

Exclamation mark – has a backstory very similar to the question mark. A lowercase ‘l’ above an ‘o’ was the first symbol because ‘io’ is Latin for ‘exclamation of joy’. Similarly, it has changed to what we know it as today.

Ampersand (&) – goes back to the first century AD and was taught to children as the 27th letter of the alphabet in the 1800s.

Octothorpe (#) – another name for the hashtag and dates back to the 1300s. Who would have thought it would take 700 years for Twitter to give the octothorpe such a fantastic Renaissance? 




Happy idioms

Image result for happy‘Happy’ itself derives from the Old Norse word ‘happ’ meaning luck and chance which eventually broadened to mean pleased and joyous.  But what about common idioms that use ‘happy’?

‘Happy as a clam’ – there are two ideas as to where this phrase comes from. Firstly, when clams are partially open people have said that they resemble a smile. However, chances are the phrase comes from the second idea: that it’s a shortening of the sayings ‘happy as a clam at high water’ and ‘happy as a clam in mud’ which were both used by the mid-1800s.

‘Happy hour’ is a designated time set by drinking establishments. Yet ‘happy’ started to be linked to alcohol and drinking in the 1600s. The idiom has nautical origins. In the American Navy, the happy hour was a time aboard vessels when the crew were able to relax and enjoy recreational and entertainment activities. It since spread to bars, pubs and clubs on land across the globe. The phrase ‘a happy ship’ is still in use and derives from the same idea.

‘Happy as Larry’ – who was Larry? Etymologists believe there are two plausible theories both of which are linked to Australia. The first refers to the undefeated middleweight Australian boxer Larry Foley who is known as the father of Australian boxing. He lived between 1849 – 1917 and retired at 32 and collected £1000 (a lot of money in those days) for his final fight (making him very happy indeed). The second theory links to a British dialect word ‘larry’ which meant a state of excitement or happiness. It was used enough to feature in some of the novels by Thomas Hardy. Etymologists also believe ‘larry’ is linked to ‘larrikin’ which is a boisterous, often badly behaved youth, mainly young men. So it’s also plausible ‘happy as Larry’ was inspired by that sense of being carefree and without constraint. I stressed that ‘larry’ came from Britain but the word travelled over to Australia when convicts were sent there in the eighteenth century.

‘Happy as a sand boy’ – originates from when men would dig sand from pits on Hampstead Heath and sell it to taverns to soak up alcohol. So ‘happy’ here probably links to the frivolity from being in contact with spilt alcohol.

‘Happy go lucky’ – meaning cheerful and unconcerned.


‘Happy camper’ – has links to soldiers. Today it means a person who is content and satisfied. The word ‘camper’ originally referred to a soldier in the 1600s. It has become more generic over the centuries and by the mid-1800s meant someone who camps recreationally and for fun. The phrase ‘happy camper’ emerged after the American Scouts started to use the slogan ‘every scout [is] a happy camper’ in the 1930s. For some unknown reason, usage of the phrase skyrocketed in the 1980s.