Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

SOMEONE asked me a question at a party the other day, much as people tell my husband their symptoms in lieu of small talk. The someone in my case was Mr Kim Fletcher, formerly the editor of the Independent on Sunday and now Mr Conrad Black's helpmate in making money out of electronic media of communication.

His query was about the origin of the phrase early doors, meaning 'in good or prompt time'. I didn't know. We speculated that it was merely from being in a place like a shop or pub soon after the doors opened.

Since then I have been unable to find the phrase nailed down in print. Perhaps I have not looked in the right place. But it suddenly occurred to me today that it might have something to do with the word day, rather than the word door. Let me explain.

In her devoted biography of her husband Joseph Wright (1855-1930), the illiterate wool-sorter who became the first Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford, Elizabeth Wright remembers as a student being asked by Wright if she could think of a modern-day word related to the obsolete form of the word day ending in w - daw. 'Jackdaw?' she hazarded, absurdly. The word Wright was looking for was dawn.

So, I wondered if the phrase was, as it were, early daws, not early doors. …

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