The dough-faced ploughman

Ploughman1The English language is simply marvellous. On second thoughts, perhaps ‘simply’ is not the most apposite word. Our language is anything but simple. It’s rich, fascinating, intricate and often infuriating. There are rules, sort of. Although as often as not they are there to be broken. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that you absolutely have to know the rules before you are allowed to break them. Indeed, what’s the fun in breaking things if you don’t know you’re breaking them in the first place?

Browsing through a bunch of websites, all devoted to the vagaries of English grammar and spelling, I was startled to discover that, according to the BBC, a new word is created every 98 minutes. Some people who are good at maths conclude that this is 40,000 every decade. Goodness. Since the average person knows between 35,000 and 75,000 words, if you live a normal life span you haven’t a cat’s chance in hell of keeping up (sorry, cats! It’s just an expression). Even so, it behoves us to use as many words as we can and in as much variety. And if that means inventing, then go ahead and invent. It all adds to the abundance.

There’s an excellent precedent in Shakespeare. Although he didn’t invent half the words he used, as some claim, he did invent an awful lot. Assassinate, besmirch, impartial, worthless, grovel, mimic, noiseless, bump – just a few of those he created. So for the purist who goes all humpy when words like frack, phablet, geek chic, blondies and death stare appear within the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary – just remember. Shakespeare did it first. Or indeed he probably didn’t because scribes were probably inventing new words and scandalising the establishment from the time the alphabet was invented.

There are many sites with fabulous lists of assorted facts and trivia pertaining to English, both spoken and written. It’s there that you’ll discover that W is the only letter in the alphabet that has not one but three syllables. That there are no words that rhyme with orange, purple, silver or month. You can stretch things a bit if you like and contrive some great rhymes, but they won’t be exact enough for the exacting. ‘Go!’ is the shortest complete sentence in the English language.

The most difficult sentence, or more accurately the toughest tongue-twister in the English language is said to be “the sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick“. As for that dough-faced ploughman. There are nine different ways to pronounce the letter combination “ough”. All nine can be found in the following sentence. A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed. How’s that for rich, fascinating and intriguing. Not to mention infuriating.

Of Bangers and Big Bottoms

Big Bertha

Have you ever wondered why we call bits of bullet and shell shrapnel? Or when and why sausages became known as bangers? And who was Big Bertha and what on earth had she to do with Tommy Atkins? The answers to all these questions lie in the First World War. So many of the words and phrases we use today had their origins there. Some are disputed, of course. If in doubt refer to that fountain of knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Major Shrapnel invented the shell, although his name these days is applied to the horrible, fatal fragments of a shell rather than the shell itself. Big Bertha was the large bore mortar gun that did so much damage to the men in the trenches. It was made at the Krupp works and said by some to be named after Mme Krupp von Bohlen, owner of that industrial empire. I have no idea how big her bottom was but I doubt she would have been flattered by the name.

Tommy Atkins refers to the common British soldier. Sometimes shortened to just Tommy it became popular in the First World War but its use dates from much further back. The actual origin is debatable. A letter from Jamaica in 1743 referring to a mutiny among the troops says “except for those from N. America ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly”. However the popular belief is that it was chosen by the Duke of Wellington, inspired by the bravery of a soldier, Private Thomas Atkins, during the Flanders Campaign in 1794.

As to bangers. Due to severe food shortages during the war there was little meat to spare for sausage making. Instead, the manufacturers packed the casings with scraps – bits of vegetables – and with water. When they were cooked over open fires, especially on shovels in the trenches, the water caused them to hiss and burst and pop. Hence bangers. The popular bangers and mash also acquired a new name in the war – Zeppelins in a cloud. However, this is one name that didn’t stick.

Blighty did though, for a long time. It comes from the Urdu word vilayati, which means foreigner. When the British ruled India it was applied to an English, British or European and was bastardised into the word blighty. It’s popularity increased in the First World War. It was slang for a period of leave back home. In time it simply came to mean England as immortalised in the song Take me back to dear old Blighty.

Next time you take or look at a snapshot remind yourself that in the war it meant quite literally to aim quickly and shoot with your rifle. Or when you drop into someone’s office for a chat, think of how different it would have been in the trenches. Chat was another name for a louse. Since it took some time to pick the vermin off their clothes and skin, the soldiers talked or, in their own words, chatted, while they did so. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, chatting for talking goes back to1440. And lice have been called chats since 1690.

Bonkingbullshit, joystick, muck about, ace, camouflage – these are all in use today but they are populalry thought to have their origins in the First World War. So if you are feeling washed out, or downright lousy and thoroughly fed up with the bumf your boss piles onto your desk and don’t feel you are getting a fair whack, thank your lucky stars that you are living in 2014 and not 1914. Compared to what those soldiers had to endure, you really are onto a cushy number.


SrslyThe Oxford English Dictionary has been an invaluable source of pleasure and learning since it was first published in 1884. Now that it’s on the web it’s there, whenever you want it. You can of course subscribe but much of it is free. Constantly revised and researched by an army of editors and experts in England and the USA, the online version is updated no less than four times a year.

It’s fascinating how a new or updated word will have one person smiling and another snarling. Why, for instance does the new addition srsly make me grin, whereas merch for merchandise has me reaching for a gun to shoot someone? Or myself. I mean OMG, do we have to reduce everything to text speak? Dear OED what were you thinking of! My loathing of such monstrous non-words is only partially offset by my joy in discovering that OMG, far from being an invention of today’s youf, has its origins in the early nineteen hundreds. OMG indeed.

It came as a surprise to discover that fewer than 100 new entries date from 2000. The youngest word in the OED was crowdsourcing until it was supplanted by copernicium, an artificially produced radioactive element. Hashtag is pretty new; it’s only been in since 2007. On the other hand bezzie – best, favourite and now a short form of best mate or best friend – goes back to the mid nineteenth century.

So here, with no apology whatsoever, are some I love and some I hate and some that are just a little weird. The interpretations below are entirely mine, not those of the OED. Oh and BTW I never claimed I would be consistent.

I love

  • Flexitarian – I didn’t know I was a flexitarian although I have a varied diet.
  • Snacky – feeling snacky? Go and eat something snacky. Or just some nuts!
  • Time Suck – cats on the Internet.
  • Srsly – I just like this one. I think we’re back to cats on the Internet again.
  • Blondies – white chocolate brownies.
  • Death stare – We’re good at this in my family.
  • Fabrosaur – A type of dinosaur. Made of fabric?

I hate

  • Bikeable – an environment suitable for cyclists. Why not say suitable for riding bikes?
  • Guac – would saying guacamole strain your brain too much?
  • Boyf – OMG OED!!!
  • Deets – Ditto
  • Citational – I hate it when nouns are turned into adjectives.
  • Babymoon – probably used by people who have ‘baby on board’ in their cars.
  • Apols – Good God, nooooo. See OMG above.
  • Bouncebackability – what the @%$&£ is wrong with resilience?
  • Blamestorming – there’s original. And there’s silly.

And then there’s just weird

  • Food baby – fat tummy, as in looking pregnant but really just being fat.
  • Ship – relationship in fan fiction. Really, really strange.
  • Slash – as in actor/dancer. So not taking the piss then.
  • Jorts – short jeans or jean shorts. Yuck.
  • Fauxhawk – not a bird of prey. They’d have more sense.
  • Meatspace – reality check! What planet are you on?
  • Derp – The new ‘Duh!?
  • Screenager – too clever by half.

 What have you found that has you smiling or that sets your teeth on edge? Put your comments below – I’d love to hear what you think.