Category Archives: Wonderful Words

Excellence


Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

English revels in the bad, sad, seamy side of life – any slang thesaurus, for example, will provide far more words for misery and failure than for happiness and success. Which means synonyms for ‘excellence’, as in the title of the SfEP’s newsletter Editorial Excellence, should be particularly cherished.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides a number of historical superlatives well worth resurrecting. We’ve sadly lost, for example, ‘lollapalooza’, a gem from the US for anything outstanding in its field. It sits alongside the equally expressive ‘humdinger’, another US term for something so good it positively zings.

Something may be such hot stuff it’s ‘mustard’, a 19th-century term of approbation implying piquancy and zest, best known in the expression ‘cut the mustard’ (‘cut’ here works in the same way as ‘she cuts a fine figure’).

Close up of yellow mustard flowers, with a yellow field of mustard flowers behindA person of brilliant attainments, meanwhile, might be a ‘diamond’ – a glittering example in their field. Or they may be ‘peachy’, a simple play on something sweet and juicy. Their brilliance might even have once led to the epithet ‘carbuncle’, rarely associated with positivity these days but originally described as a precious stone (rather than a swelling) of blazing, fiery red.

More obviously wonderful is a ‘corker’ – something so fizzy it pops – and a ‘ripsnorter’ – anything remarkable in terms of size, vigour or appearance. Alternatively, you might describe something first-rate as a ‘spanker’, ‘tip-topper’, ‘phoenicle’ (a little phoenix), ‘bobby-dazzler’, ‘beaut’, ‘pippin’, ‘bosker’ or ‘killer-diller’. Or possibly a ‘screamer’, too, once another name for the exclamation mark. All of which are ‘bonzer’, a classic Australian adjective that’s an alteration of ‘bonanza’ and comes ultimately from the Spanish for ‘fair weather’.

Finally, let’s not forget the fanciful phrases we’ve come to love for any acme of excellence or pinnacle of success. Joining the ‘bee’s knees’, back in the 1920s, were the ‘kipper’s knickers’, the ‘caterpillar’s kimono’, and the ‘elephant’s adenoids’. These, of course, were born out of our love of fanciful word play, but there is another favourite in the list that once enjoyed a very different life before joining the lexicon of distinction. ‘The dog’s bollocks’ was first recorded among printers, who used it to refer to the typographical colon-dash :-, thanks to its shape.

Excellence: something to strive for, if not always easy to achieve. At least we’ll have plenty of ways to describe it once we get there.

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.

 

 

Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Briefs


Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

All editors rely on a good ‘brief’, a word that has come a long way since it first crossed into English from French in the Middle Ages. An editor’s brief today is a short summary of what is required for a particular job.

‘Short’ is key here, for ‘brief’ is rooted ultimately in the Latin word brevis, for ‘short’. A breve, for the Romans, was a short summary of an official document, and, by extension, an official note or dispatch, the classical equivalent perhaps of a message by telegram. From then on, whether we’re talking underpants, the musical note ‘breve’, or the process of abbreviation, ‘shortness’ and ‘brief’ have gone together.

Different kinds of underwear hanging on a washing line

In the course of this lifetime, and before landing firmly on the editorial desk, ‘brief’ came to embrace a whole host of meanings. They included a royal mandate or a letter from the Pope on matters of discipline (less ample and solemn than a bull), and a letter of credentials given to mendicant friars. This is to say nothing of its cameo stints as a pawnbroker’s ticket, a cabbie’s licence, and a policeman’s warrant card.

In law, a brief can mean two things: the summary of the facts of a case, or the lawyer conducting that case. When it comes to humour of course, it can also mean a third. Barristers once traditionally carried a bag of green cloth in which to ‘carry their briefs’. Today’s members of the Bar are a little tired of the inevitable joke, though one slang dictionary from the 18th century does note that ‘These gentlement carry their clients’ deeds in a green bag; and, it is said, when they have no deeds to carry, frequently fill them with an old pair of breeches … to give themselves the appearance of business’.

Knickers and pawnbrokers, cabbies and criminals: for the most prosaic of words, ‘briefs’ have had a surprisingly adventurous ride.

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.

 

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

Probsolutely the most useful linguistic collaborations

Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

The word collaboration is from the Latin for ‘working together’. It may be overused as a word, but its results can be remarkable. A well-known story tells how, when John F Kennedy toured NASA in the mid-1960s, he came across a man mopping the floor. ‘What does your job entail?’ the President asked. The reply came: ‘I’m helping put a man on the Moon.’ The exchange between the two men beautifully illustrates the value of a shared objective.

Collaboration can happen linguistically too – notably when words come together and create something new. ‘Brunch’ is a famous example, alongside ‘motel’ and ‘modem’. ‘Blends’ like these are a form of word-play that we have been indulging in for centuries: revellers in the 1800s were already talking about alcoholidays, while nobodaddy was the term du jour for someone who had dramatically fallen from grace. In the 20th century, smog (smoke + fog), ginormous (gigantic + enormous) and piccalilli (pickle + chilli) continued the vogue. One of the best was surely pifflicated – a useful descriptor for the act of ‘being drunk and talking piffle’.

It was Lewis Carroll who gave us the word ‘portmanteau’ for such creations, based on the image of words that are ‘packed together’ like two halves of a suitcase. He himself gave us some of the best – chortle, for example (chuckle + snort), as well as slithy (slimy + lithe) and mimsy (miserable + flimsy).

Today, blending is still the most popular mechanism for creating a new word. Some of the results may be fly-by-nights, but they raise a smile nonetheless. We all know about bromances and labradoodles, but how about anticipointment, the disappointment that comes from something eagerly anticipated? A snaccident, meanwhile, is the inadvertent consumption of an entire packet of biscuits when you meant to have just the one.

Others look set to stay the course – hangry was a recent addition to Oxford’s dictionaries, defined as ‘bad-tempered or irritable as the result of hunger’. Devon’s moodle, meanwhile, meaning to ‘dawdle aimlessly’, is a euphonious blend of ‘mooch’ and ‘noodle’. But if I had to choose a personal favourite from this century, it would be probsolutely: the pithy and highly useful articulation of a ‘definite maybe’.

Hard-working, innovative, useful and fun – linguistic collaborations may not put a man on the Moon, but they can offer some very useful pointers for successful teamwork (no probsolutely about it.)

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.

The strange (and slightly tipsy) history of ‘training’

Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

The word ‘train’ has led a complicated life, one that has taken in tractors, cloaks, grapevines and royal processions. It all began, like so much else in English, with the Romans, whose Latin trahere meant to ‘pull’ or ‘draw’. The past participle of the same verb was tractus, which hides behind both the ‘pulling’ vehicles that are tractors and the tracts of land they cover, as well as contracts (which draw together arrangements), and extracts (in which something is ‘drawn out’). In sartorial matters, that same, highly versatile Latin word also gave us ‘train’: the trailing part of a skirt, gown or cloak that was dragged across the ground as the wearer moved. From this sense of something being pulled along came the idea of a series or procession of things – a royal retinue perhaps, or a locomotive and the cars coupled to it, or even a figurative train of thought.

It takes some leap of the imagination to go from this sense of ‘dragging’ to the modern training we experience today (even if, on occasions, time can seem to slow down a little). There is a link, however – in the 14th century, to ‘train’ a vine was to draw it out and manipulate it into a desired form – we talk of ‘training’ our roses to this day. This idea of ‘shaping’ something eventually gave rise to our modern business use of training, which aims to mould our minds and equip us for a particular task.

Good training, of course, may require a mentor – a word we inherited from the ancient Greeks, for whom Mentor was an adviser to the young Telemachus in Homer’s epic Odyssey. An effective mentor will always monitor progress, but monitoring wasn’t always so benevolent – it comes from the Latin monere, to ‘warn’, and its siblings include ‘admonish’ and ‘monster’.

All of which might lead you to seek cover in a ‘symposium’, a formal discussion or conference. Or at least, to seek out its earliest incarnation, for in ancient Greece symposia were convivial discussions held after a banquet, and involved copious amounts of wine. Which explains why the word ‘symposium’ is from the Greek sumposion, ‘drinking party’. Now, if we’re looking for ideas, that kind of training might be an even bigger pull.

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.