20 January, 2006


Many denizens of our grand green glebe claim that they 'love words'. Be distrustful, gentle readers. If you should encounter one such denizen, ask yourself first, preferably before genial acquaintance, Is he the type to purchase popular etymologicons? Scan his bookshelves for works by Ivor Brown, Ernest Weekley, Gyles Brandreth, John Buchanan-Brown, Jeffrey Kacirk, etc. Should that be impossible, ask him his favourite word. If it is a pseudo-classical nonce-word like 'absquatulate' or 'ostrobogulous', a useless colonialism like 'zarf', a quainte archaism like 'scandaroon', or, worst of all, some medical or quasi-medical jargon-word for a sex-funny, like 'osphyalgia' or 'paraphimosis'—if any of these, then hang your head in disappointment, please.

Too often, I fear, self-confessed logophiles (an ugly epithet itself) adore the obscure and fanciful particles of our language, at the expense of more workaday members. True, there is a definite value to the 'borborygmus', the 'acnestis', the 'serab' and 'breloque', just as we admire the Taj Mahal, Westminster Cathedral, the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Chrysler Building. But the man with a refined taste in architecture takes pleasure also in what he calls the 'vernacular', whether the stately facades of Georgian London, or the mock-classical colonial styles of San Francisco. Let us, too, enjoy more conventional words. My favourite, for instance, or at least one of my favourites, is 'slovenly'. Listen to that! Dare you not enjoy its inescapable music, its suggestion of slumber, of slim sloth and lovenly lovening? Of young women like my wife, eyes half-closed, all bedraggled and somnolent, but radiant with ineffable grandeur. . . it cannot be uttered quickly. The word defies authority: dissident children produce a 'slovenly handwriting'. And so the word is nothing less than a gesture of intimacy, two pupils fixed directly upon you, a bouquet of tresses caring not for opinion, a genteel and gentle slowness, an erotism undimmed by mere beauty. . . an assent.

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