Mind your language

Alan Partridge on mental health

Lord Peter Wimsey said to the nurse: ‘Now about the old lady herself. I gather she was a little queer towards the end – a bit mental, I think you people call it?’ This is in Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers, from 1927. The 1920s were the heyday of mental, which occurred then about

Can a home really be forever?

Graham Norton’s latest novel ‘blends dark humour and emotional weight with ease’, says the Radio Times. That may well be, but it was the title that struck me: Forever Home. It seems to me a childish phrase, heard in the imagination in a high-pitched American accent, as perhaps in Boys Town (1938), which was Ronnie

Can politicians really pivot?

‘That’ll be the old pivot again,’ said Amol Rajan on Today last week. He was interviewing Pat McFadden, who is the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, since the Duchy needs its chancellor shadowed. Amol, as I think of him since he sounds so young (though he is 41 on election day), suggested that

Who came up with the analogy of carrying a Ming vase?

‘Evelyn Waugh,’ said my husband when I asked who came up with the analogy of carrying a Ming vase. He was, in a way, right, but wrong too. Every political commentator, it seems, has been talking of Sir Keir Starmer’s Ming vase strategy in approaching the election. In April 2021 Decca Aitkenhead was reminded of

How to decode adspeak

The National Galleries of Scotland is singular. In its public pronouncements its pronouns are it and its. Fair enough. Though it appears plural, I shall not misuse its chosen pronouns. Visitors must also learn a new language to visit its three galleries, for they are not now called galleries. They are called National, Portrait and

Being asked to ‘bear with’ is unbearable

‘Bear with me,’ said my husband on the phone and then let out a loud roar. It was intended to be the sound of the bear with him. There are no circumstances in which that would be amusing. It is bad enough when people say ‘Bear with me’ and then spend unfathomable minutes trying to

Are you ready for the ‘Genny Lex’?

‘It sounds like Polari to me,’ said my husband, who can remember Julian and Sandy (Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) on Round the Horne, 1965 to 1968. They used Polari, an assorted camp slang popular in the years when homosexual acts were still illegal. It was the phrase Genny Lex that my husband had heard,

The myth of the global majority

‘You make the cotton easy to pick, Mame,’ sang my husband with execrable delivery. ‘No,’ I said, ‘You can’t sing things like that now. In any case, I was talking of Bame, not Mame.’ The hit musical from 1966, starring Angela Lansbury, has only the most tangential relevance to the latest lurch in approved terminology

Can you ‘go gangbusters’? 

‘Is it anything to do with cockle-picking?’ asked my husband, confident he was on the right track. Naturally he wasn’t. We’d just heard that the economy, growing by 0.6 per cent, was ‘going gangbusters’. The nearest my husband could get was gangmasters, a word we had both learned in 2004, when at least 21 Chinese

Do sparks really fly?

‘Sparks,’ said my husband, after a short pause. I had asked him what one could spark. His answer was true but not all that helpful. I had come across a headline on the BBC News website that said: ‘Record hot March sparks “unchartered territory” fears.’ The inverted commas around unchartered territory were not meant as

Can MPs really defect? 

‘He did it years before William Donaldson did The Henry Root Letters,’ said my husband querulously, as though I had accused him on peak-time television of saying the opposite. The ‘he’ in question was Humphry Berkeley, who as a Cambridge undergraduate just after the second world war pursued an elaborate hoax by assuming the identity

Where does ‘stuff’ come from?

Pelham, the hero of the novel of the same name (which came out in 1828, the first year of The Spectator’s existence), visiting his old friend Glanville, is conducted by ‘the obsequious and bowing valet’ into a room where his host sits ‘opposite to a toilet of massive gold’. (Yes, words change meaning. This toilet

Amol Rajan is right to change his ways on ‘aitch’

My husband thought it brave and manly of the BBC’s Amol Rajan to resolve publicly to change his pronunciation of the letter-name aitch. He’d said haitch all his life, but declared in a blog: ‘Dear reader, I’m here to tell you: it’s aitch.’ This attracted wide attention. He also announced that biopic is pronounced bio-pic,

We ought to banish more words

Why do people say: ‘You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment’? Are they using it as they would a Shakespearean quotation such as: ‘The lady doth protest too much’? Or do they think that by speaking the line made famous by Ian Richardson in House of Cards, they generate wit anew so

When is a Lord not a Lord? 

The Financial Times seeks applicants for the Sir Samuel Brittan fellowship. Announcing this, the paper refers to him as Sir Samuel, which is correct. It also quotes its obituary of him where he is called simply Brittan. That is also correct for a dead man, as we might say Churchill, not Sir Winston. It would

Why does Elon Musk see legacies as leftovers?

‘Is this legacy beetroot?’ asked my husband, poking a yellowish slice on his plate in a restaurant. He meant heritage beetroot, a ludicrous enough phrase. But legacy has been extending the hedges round its semantic field, so his question may sound normal in a few years’ time. A report in the Telegraph the other day

The normalisation of ‘normalcy’

My husband devotes his decreasing hours of daytime wakefulness to looking at Twitter, as he still calls it. He shouted out, ‘Look at this’, just as I was putting the potatoes in the oven to roast. It was a post criticising the ENO for saying 2021 was ‘a year spent slowly returning to normalcy’. The

Are hyenas really relatable?

A new television wildlife series called Queens (the ruling kind, not the screaming kind) shows competition among hyenas that involves infanticide. ‘I want it to feel that you see yourself, your family and your friends in these stories, that they’re relatable,’ the writer of the series told the Daily Mail. Well, Veronica has reached adulthood

What are frameworks for?

A brand new ‘robust’ framework was being woven and nailed together, so the Prime Minister announced at the end of last week. It’s barely a year since he presented the UK with a similar kind of structure, which he called the Windsor Framework. I imagined it to resemble in some way a Windsor chair. In

Texting is a pain in the neck

‘Would you believe, looking down at your phone can put about 60lb of force on your neck,’ wrote Dr Miriam Stoppard in the Mirror. ‘Lift your phone up to eye level to avoid text neck.’ I didn’t quite understand about the 60lb, but my husband tells me there are other text ailments, notably text claw,