Archive for Language

Circles Good, Rings Bad

Why are circles wholesome and what makes rings nefarious? If you refer to your family circle as your family ring, then your family name might be Kray or Corleone. I presume that members of a Reading Ring will concentrate on works in the Index Expurgatorius. And I really don’t think I want to know you if you’re a member of a Knitting Ring. But it sounds quite cosy having the boss of a drugs circle over to dinner. I’d do it, but I don’t move in those social ri- sorry – circles. I’d openly introduce a circler instead of, sneakily, a ringer into my sports team. The Circle of Fire sounds quite relaxed, rather communal. I suppose it might be, at its scariest, a setting for tribal initiation rites, but certainly nothing volcanic.

Circling isn’t always good of course. It’s not good to be circling the drain.

But ringing it would be so much worse.

Parallel Words

Continuing the theme of nominal accidentology – the study of names which could have been otherwise, and the ensuing differences in derivatives, I want to consider the alternative universe wherein our feet are as useful at manipulation – or podipulation – as our hands. It’s based on a series of tweets emitted back in February, while our esteemed PM worked abroad as a salesman for the arms industry. That moment is passed, so we need not be so personal.

Possible changes in the English language which might have ensued, were our feet as useful as our hands:

  • We’d be able to stand legs akimbo
  • We’d have legs dealers
  • Legs dealers could be entertained with a toe buffet
  • Our politicians could flog sidelegs on trades missions
  • CND would stand for the more general Campaign for Nuclear Dismemberment
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play might have been entitled Legs and the Man
  • Abilene would famously have required surrender, on entry, of all footguns
  • Our Air Forces, Navies and Armies would be companioned with Leggies
  • We’d have a Salvation Leggy
  • There’d be a quip about someone looking “eggless enough
  • There’d be no need for the Black Knight fight scene in Jabberwocky

Whose Pyjamas?

One of your grandfathers” is one of two specific males (yes, I know it could actually refer to only one, but let’s avoid that bit of scandal).

One of your great aunts” is one of the sisters of one of your four grandparents.

Your great aunt” could, informally, still mean one of the (possibly numerous) great aunts you may have, but it could also tell someone that three of your parent’s parents have no sisters and that the remaining one has only one. I believe that you’d not typically infer that, though. Not in the culture I’m in, anyway.

One of your grandfathers’ sisters” (note the position of the apostrophe) is the same as one of the sisters of one of those two males. Each grandfather may have exactly one sister and we’d still be able to say this.

One of your grandfather’s sisters” (note the position of the apostrophe) is still one of your great aunts but we may now plausibly infer that one of your grandfathers had more than one sister, and that – if the other grandfather had only one sister – the great aunt in question is one of those rather than the single sister of that other grandfather. But you’re pushing things a bit there.

But in these last two we’ve already missed a possibility. It’s caused by the “One of” bit. It might actually not select a sister at all, as we have assumed here, but a grandfather. It completely alters the meaning. It’s the difference between “one of (his (either grandfather)’s or (this grandfather)’s) sisters” – which refers to one female – and “his (i.e. one of my grandfathers) sisters” – which refers to a whole slew of them.

Without further clarification, it’s not possible to tell which is meant. I’m reasonably sure that the default, natural, interpretation is the single female one. But even there it’s probably more to do with usage than syntax. In typical discourse of that nature you’re simply more likely to be referring to a specific individual.

Were you to continue the sentence and say “One of my grandfathers sisters have formed a choir” (I’ve omitted the grandfatherly apostrophe – it doesn’t elucidate and you can’t hear it anyway) it sounds wrong. You might eventually work it out and realise it does both make sense and is accurate – precisely and concisely informative even – but I suspect you might be a tad annoyed at the speaker for having made you do all that work. In practice you’d be expected to say just “My grandfather’s sisters have formed a choir” and leave open the question (or even relevance) of which grandfather you mean. Or indeed of which sisters – since you still can’t hear the apostrophe, that choir may include all sisters of both grandfathers, but that would be an unlikely intended meaning – again mostly by dint of context rather than syntax.

The question is, is there a language where these ambiguities are removed by syntax alone? Note that I’m not talking about vocabulary and syntax helping out. For instance – and in (very) particular – in Latin we may distinguish a maternal great aunt (matertera magna) from a paternal one (amita magna) but any disambiguation therewith provided is simply an accident of vocabulary. What I mean is, is there a language anywhere (anywhen, even) which forces you – by syntax alone – to be specific so that there’s no doubt that the speaker means “the sister of one of your grandfathers” and not “the sisters of one of your grandfathers” or “one of the sisters of your grandfather” or “one of the sisters of your grandfathers” by synthetic possessive/genitive syntactic marking rather than by lengthy analytic expression?

And would it extend to the disambiguation of the rather large number of possibilities intended by something such as “one of your grandfather’s sisters’ cat’s pyjamas”, where the ‘one-of’ may select (one of) grandfather, sister, cat, or pyjama?


Most English (this is not the Amish usage you are looking for) aware entities know what the Y and the A mean when they begin a word. Most of the blogaware might guess what a B might stand for. Blogular quiddity will probably narrow down the possibilities for the second A and you’d probably just guess the N word (good grief, not that N word, where do you think we are, 60s Mississippi?) from the blogospherical context. Although familiarity with the premise behind Seinfeld might help.

Pay attention much?

Never having seen any but the occasional episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – which always struck me as quite decent entertainment – I’d never thought of it as a source of linguistic novelty. Seems I was very wrong. Usually good to find that out.

Also finding out that the magazine Verbatim, to which I was subscribed, last century under the editorship of the late Laurence Urdang, is still around, having been revived both in print and online.


The Ode Less Travelled has been out for a while now, six years in fact since its first publication. Nobody needs another review – have a look at the amazon ones. I got the paperback in 2009.

They say “constraint sets you free” (well, I do, anyway). With no limit to the available stream of syllables and sentences which your language flings at you, you’re transfixed like the proverbial duck in headlights. You’re quite unable to begin creating exactly because the possibilities are endless. (It is a duck, isn’t it?)

Anyway – regardless of how you feel about poetry – if you just like playing with words then the strictures and structures imposed by the iambic pentameter allow you to get moving. Don’t think of this as ‘other people’s poems

I think it may be possible to put
A word or comment in a tiny box
And simultaneously to hide a foot
Some twenty times in freshly rolled up socks

Once you’ve committed that kind of crime, preferably several times just to prove you can repeat the experiment reliably (but I won’t bore you here with any further chalked outlines) you can cast the chains and go mental:

Gracefully noiseless lessness trampolined in the rushes, the rivers, the baskets of fruit flies, the soporific drosophila outrageously topping the melanine toffee. Can it be about to be that we shall fling our rapidly responsible troops of solidity at the swings and rotund abbots of ministerial wedges? Did the flagrant oil of rabbit fry them dry? Did it?

Then you paint it. This can be fun. But maybe you don’t want to do it out loud.


As a long time advocate of the synthetic comparative and superlative (yer actual –er and –est suffixes) and deprecator of the analytic more and most, I prefer to say cloudier rather than more cloudy on those occasions where it’s relevant (and preferably true). To me, the latter sounds clunky and silly. And naturally I take it further by proposing the abolition of all such moronity and mostification. Thus we go with beautifuler instead of more beautiful. This should work with all adjectives.

But what about adjectival phrases? Whilst recently walking from A to B, I found myself considering going via two possible routes (it so happened that I wished to visit C on the way). One route had C more ‘on the way’ than the other. So was that route on the wayer than the other? Was there, in fact, an on the wayest route? If I said that out loud would folk think me merely mad, or would they know what I meant?

In a department store, the whereabouts of the escalator temporarily eluded me, so I had to seek the telltale signs of large diagonal lumps of building from ceiling to floor. I needed an escalatery area – one escalaterier than where I currently was.

You’ll note that, in that preceding little story, the spelling escalatory (which means something else) would not have done