Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

I GOT so excited about toothcombs last week that at one point I said the opposite of what I meant. I meant to say that the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says, under tooth, 'toothcomb = finetooth comb'. So more or less everyone's right and that's enough about that.

Meanwhile, two more hares are running. The first is iteration, as in Laa-Laa and Tinky-Winky of Teletubbies. Mr B.A. Jackson of Brockenhurst writes to say that he thinks Teletubbies would do well in Kenya where Swahili is widely spoken, a language, he says, rich in this kind of word-formation. Examples include: pikipiki (motorbike), takatak (rubbish), furufuru (confusion), pilipili (pepper), goigoi (lazy), pachapacha (exactly the same) and mazigazi (a mirage).

The other hare is funny names. The personal names that we have run through so far have, and let us keep it that way, been subtly intriguing rather than obscenely grotesque.

Now I have run across a rich vein of funny book titles from the 17th-century debate on Quaker claims to work miracles, in which my husband has taken a sudden interest for obscure reasons. William Prynne, for example, published in 1645 a book of which the short title was A Fresh Discovery of some Prodigious Wandring - Blazing - Stars & Firebrands, Stiling themselves New-Lights. …

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