INSULT A man's wife, cast aspersions upon his dog or even call into question his sexual prowess and there is more chance of emerging unscathed than if you have presumed to correct his command of our language. It is a paradox that, in an age when educational standards are plummeting, there should be more than a residual delight in the means by which to articulate thought.
Only the other day, in these pages, Andreas Whittam Smith inveighed cogently against that bogus phrase "world class", which is tacked on to some trumpery scheme or other as a means to justify it - just as "centre of excellence" is invariably dragooned into service by arts administrators.
Hannibal Lecter and Harry Potter slug it out with Delia Smith's leftovers in the battle to sell the most books, but among their most sedulous readers are compilers of dictionaries and other reference books. These are the rock upon which many a publisher stands. Such a foundation offers some security, while waving the flag for those titles that are caught on the wind of publicity only to flutter rapidly earthwards.
We cannot repine. Anybody who writes on words runs the risk of becoming a curmudgeon, of spluttering awake in a club armchair and lamenting that the whole bally show has not been the same since the death of Kipling. To enjoy language you have to revel in it all, just as any real pleasure in music means that you are always alert to something different - where would Mahler have been without folk song?
In writing the daily Words column in this newspaper, I soon found that the knack is to go with the flow - and, indeed, as I write that, questions cross the mind about "knack" and also "bally" (watch that space). It is not simply a matter of looking up some fusty books, or even of consciously keeping the ears and eyes open. I may appear to be reading a book on the bus but am really listening to the seat behind, which is so often an Alan Bennett play in miniature. It is a curious fact that something noted down duly links up with something else, so it is not unusual to write about, say, Thackeray and Elvis Presley in the same sentence.
All of which has to find a flowing place in the daily ration of 765 characters. This may appear to be ad hoc but is, of necessity, something of the way in which the compilers of dictionaries have to work.
Big Brother in Seattle could yet monitor …