Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Dot Wordsworth

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Dot Wordsworth

Article excerpt

'What are you laughing at?' asked my husband in an accusing tone on Monday morning last week as he unloaded supermarket bottles from a carrier bag into the drinks cabinet near his armchair.

The answer was, to my surprise, Woman's Hour, on which Jane Garvey had entertainingly been discussing names - 'first names', mostly, which we used to call Christian names, just as we used to talk of Red Indians. No longer.

Jane Garvey doesn't, it transpired, much care for Jane, which is popularly associated with plain. The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation for Plain Jane is from Compton Mackenzie's novel Carnival (1912), in which the mother of little Jenny Raeburn defends her newborn daughter from pious great aunts, saying: 'She sha'n't be a Plain Jane and No Nonsense, with her hair screwed back like a broom, but she shall be Jenny, sweet and handsome, with lips made for kissing and eyes that will sparkle and shine like six o'clock of a summer morning.'

There were precedents for plain Janes. Jane Eyre saw herself in the mirror as: 'Portrait of a governess disconnected, poor, and plain.' Mr Rochester is of the same mind: 'You -- poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are -- I entreat to accept me as a husband. …

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