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.


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. 

To know all is to understand all … sort of

David Crystal's lovely book

David Crystal’s lovely book


One of my Christmas presents this year was a splendid book about the history of English spelling. Browsing through it I found a chapter on the differences between the way we say and spell things over here and the way it’s done in the USA. The book is about spelling, rather than usage. So while I don’t think I’ll ever be happy about ‘different than’ as opposed to ‘different to’ or ‘different from’, this wonderful book does throw light on why we write ‘humour’ and they write ‘humor’. Why the American’s plow their fields, while our ‘ploughman homeward plods ….’

The book is stuffed with fascinating and little known facts. Did you know that, initially, the American way of spelling many common words was a deliberate, political act? I had thought it had just happened, that the different spelling had just evolved. Not so. It’s all Webster’s fault. Yes, that Websterthe one of the dictionary. The one in the Johnny Mercer song.

Noah Webster, he of the dictionary, was a schoolteacher in Connecticut in the late eighteenth century. He wasn’t too happy with the teaching materials of the time; he didn’t feel they reflected the ethos of what he called the ‘new nation’. So he did something about it.  In 1783, the year the American War of Independence ended, he published a textbook called The American Spelling Book. The date of publication was, therefore, significant and tied in with his views on the ‘new nation’.

Here comes the political bit. Six years after he’d produced his spelling book, Webster published a dissertation promoting an American standard of English. Asserting that it was a matter of honour  ‘as an independent nation … to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.’ He went on to advocate that spelling reform play a major role in this aspiration. He saw the difference between English spelling and American as ‘an object of vast political consequence.’

It didn’t all happen at once. And thankfully some of it never happened at all. At one time Webster preferred nebor to neighbour, hiz for his, ruf for rough and even bed to bead, a change that might have led to all manner of hilarious mix-ups and misunderstandings.  As to the changes that did take place, there was, inevitably, a fierce reaction over on our side of the pond. One Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, fulminated “at the process of deterioration which our Queen’s English has undergone at the hands of the Americans.” He wasn’t the only one. And there are plenty more Henry Alford’s around today.

There’s so much in this book – material for a plethora of blog posts. I’ll certainly return to it in the future. In the meantime I do urge everyone to go out and buy Spell it Out’. It’s a treasure trove of fascination. David Crystal writes with humour and clarity. He makes what many might think of as a dry, esoteric subject totally accessible. Some feat.  It’s well researched and erudite, certainly: it’s also a very good read. It’s a ‘dip into’ book – though I warn you, once you’ve dipped you may find yourself indulging in a long and pleasurable wallow.

(Don’t forget to go to his website and discover many more lexicographic delights)