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“One of the most limpid and luminous letters is ‘L’. The suffix ‘-ita’ has a lot of Latin tenderness, and this I required too. Hence: Lolita.”

  • Vladimir Nabokov, 1973

“Ant and Dec sound fine to me, but Cheryl Cole is like nails down a chalkboard.”

  • Posting on BBC web discussion, 2013


The children’s literacy charity I Can allows you, for a small donation, to adopt an English word and keep it for a year. Last year I received a certificate confirming that ‘mellifluous’ belonged to me; this year I hope to get ‘buoyancy’ if no-one else has bagged it first. I like both these words because, unlike very many words in our language, their sound seems to match their meanings. Their sounds are rather difficult: mellifluous because it’s rarely heard, has several syllables and comes from Latin in which it meant ‘flowing with honey’. The spelling of buoyancy is odd – it comes from Dutch – and that might confuse someone meeting the word for the first time. It seems to look and to sound at the same time capacious and light, to both float and bounce simultaneously…

At Laurentian University in Canada researchers examined the links between proper names and hearer’s emotions: The ten most popular boys’ and girls’ names for most years of the 20th century were studied in terms of the emotional associations of their sounds and how easily they could be articulated. A set of historical and socioeconomic variables, namely war, depression, the advent of the birth control pill, inflation, and year seemed to correspond with the scores that members of the public gave for name length, ‘emotionality’, and ‘pronounceability’…

At a less elevated level UK national treasure Stephen Fry has told us that his favourite word is ‘moist’. He’s being arch and gently provocative as usual, but says that he just likes the sound of it. But the sounds that make up moist will have a very different effect on those fluent in multiethnic youth slang, in which it is currently one of the most powerful terms of disapproval on the street. I have said that I find the sound of the word ‘mellifluous’ pleasant, but friends have told me they hear in it prissiness and fussiness. My fondness for ‘buoyancy’, too has been a cause of bemusement for some…

Whether we are talking about ‘pure’ sounds that imitate the noises of nature like ‘plop’, ‘buzz’ and ‘hum,’ or the clusters of phonemes that form single words, or about longer more varied sequences of conversational noise, these acoustic disturbances are not just conveyors of information but can act as triggers provoking an emotional response in the hearer. How they do this depends on the associations they have for us and these may be intensely personal, may be social and cultural and may in many cases depend entirely on which language we are hearing and thinking in. Hearing the slang word ‘chillax’ for the first time (it seems that even the Prime Minister is now aware of it, if not entirely sure of when to use it) would probably have a different effect on a teenager, who might have recognised the blending of ‘chill out’ and ‘relax’, from a grandparent more likely to hear ‘chilly’ and ‘axe.’


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A small fragment from my jottings on the fascinating and under-examined subject of language sounds…more extracts will follow

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The traditional view of words and names is that, apart from those words that directly imitate natural noises, there is only an arbitrary link between sound and meaning. But a few psychologists and neuroscientists have claimed to find evidence that phonemes (the human speech sounds that constitute words) have an inherent, non-arbitrary emotional quality. Their data suggests that the effect on feelings of certain phoneme combinations (nonsense examples they worked with included bupaba, which was received positively and dugada which was negatively perceived) depends on a specific acoustic feature which can be measured, namely, the dynamic shifts within the phonemes’ frequency.

Socrates, too, according to Plato in the Cratylus Dialogue of 360 BCE, ascribed the origins and the correctness of names and words to a measurable relationship between their sounds and the things they represented, observing, for instance, that the tongue is most agitated and least at rest in the rolling of the letter ‘r’ (ρ or ϱ ‘rho’ in his native Greek) thus fitting it for evocations of violent movement or percussion. We can consider to what extent this rule might be applied to English, bearing in mind examples like ‘battered’, ‘beaten’, ‘bruised’, ‘banged’, but Hermogenes in any case then intervened and with a host of counterexamples demolished Socrates’ proposition, forcing the sage to admit that ‘my first notions [were] truly wild and ridiculous’. In 1690, the English philosopher Locke argued in An Essay on Human Understanding that if there were any connection between sounds and ideas, we would all be speaking the same language. Leibniz in New Essays on Human Understanding, published in 1765, responded with a point-by-point critique of Locke’s essay, admitting that there is clearly no perfect correspondence between words and things, but neither is the relationship completely arbitrary…

…In 2013 scientists carrying out an analysis of popular names given to 15 million babies found that male names were much more likely to contain broad and ‘larger’ sounding vowels that were emphasised and sounded more masculine when spoken. On the other hand, the majority of female names sound ‘smaller’, allegedly projecting a more feminine, dainty impression of the person. The study’s co-author, Dr Benjamin Pitcher of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, said: ‘The origins of names may vary but this study suggests that there is an association between the size of the sounds in first names and the sex they are associated with.’ According to Dr Pitcher and his team, the names which sound larger and prove popular with parents who have boys, or sound smaller and are given to girls are linked to the calls of wild animals. They claim that mammals, including humans, associate deeper, booming vocal sounds with larger individuals, but higher-pitched sounds are usually from smaller individuals. It has to be said that reports of this study were not universally applauded when they appeared in the UK tabloids online. Comments ranged from ‘…being paid to state the bleeding obvious’ to ‘utter nonsense – and the male names they quote all sound girly to me.’

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Only four years ago I was introducing a new demographic to readers of British Airways’ BUSINESS LIFE magazine…

“We’ve seen the rise of babyboomers and yuppies, then of the former slackers known as Generation X. This newest generational label (aka Generation Y or the Echo Boomers) refers to youngsters born between 1981 and 1999. Their coming of age has spawned a slew of articles in both specialist journals and popular media. Commentators detail how they differ from predecessors in their collective attitudes, and describe how to manage them in the workplace. What’s provable is that millennials are the most ethnically diverse, digitally aware and empowered group yet to emerge. On their other characteristics, though, opinions differ sharply. In the UK some employers have castigated them as workshy, semiliterate, needy and narcissistic while US behavioural ‘experts’ laud their ability to multitask, their skill in balancing work and leisure, their respect for elders and leaders and their trust in institutions and allegiance to teams.”

Here, in the Independent, Mollie Goodfellow and I continue this year’s exploration of millennials’ language

While (by kind permission of Marketing Week magazine) Mark Ritson offers a business perspective


I’ve had an argument with my 17 year-old son who says that some millennials – he cites comments sections, blogs and discussions online – are not the empowered, enlightened consumers of marketing myth, but among the worst racists, misogynists and homophobes. The problem is that millennial as a label covers a huge demographic which strictly speaking should include LadBible devotees, gamergate fascists and anti-immigrationists as well as fashionistas, the gender-fluid and Vloggers.

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If we can realistically generalise about them it goes without saying (but it’s constantly repeated) that their generation is the first whose experience of life has been so profoundly influenced by electronic media and messages and the accelerated globalised interactions that come with them. For a babyboomer like me the difference is that they have unfettered access to information and also the means to explore and express the widest range of views – but they also sometimes display an unquestioning consumerist instinct, ruthless competitiveness (taking in the shaming culture and vindictive peer-pressure mentioned previously) and hyperindividualism bordering on narcissism. Oh, and – another generalisation – I forgot millennials’ awful tendency to gush/use hyperbole (totes devs/I’m dying/can’t evn… etc).

Here are some further thoughts on millennials and language, in a piece by Zoe Henry for (…and more will follow)




 Tony Thorne’s collection of cultural keywords, The 100 Words That Make The English, was published by Abacus in 2011


At the very moment of writing I’ve glanced at the Daily Telegraph newspaper (I buy it for the Court Circular) and noticed one of those ongoing debates on the letters page, triggered this time by a reader’s claim that social class can be judged by the texture of the marmalade on the breakfast table, thick-cut being favoured by patricians, medium, aptly, by Middle England and thin, less aptly, by the lumpen masses. The mainly good-humoured reactions include observations by ‘deviant’ lovers of (inevitably thin-cut) lemon marmalade, of thick-cut spread on fried eggs, an assertion that ‘the best people have honey’, and a slight digression by a Mr Mansfield of Chelmsford: ‘Sir – Is it also true that crumpets are consumed by the working class and muffins by the middle class, while ownership of a toasting fork is deemed upper class?’ which begs a number of questions. The eponymous crumpet is discussed in this book, so no more of that here. The traditional English griddle-cake muffin (probably from Muffe, 18th century Low German for a small cake) is now a rarity, and I don’t think the spongey American-style fruit or chocolate flavoured cupcakes of the same name (which gave us the slang ‘muffin-top’ for a bulging midriff) are what the correspondent had in mind. The only toasting forks I have seen recently have been used for cooking marshmallows over campfires – another American custom – but perhaps I’m moving in the wrong circles. And the other members of what a lexicologist would term a ‘lexical set’, the teacake and the scone – where do they stand?

Three days ago broadcaster Edward Stourton (sometime presenter of the Today programme, usually characterised as ‘Old Etonian’, ‘posh’ or ‘toff’ or a combination thereof) confirmed persistent rumours that the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the nation’s favourite grannie, habitually referred to our fellow EU members as ‘Huns, wops and dagos’. Today he has had to apologise for referring to her as ‘a ghastly old bigot’ (borrowed from French in the 16th century, bigot was, perhaps appropriately here, a rude nickname for the hegemonic Normans: it is also, of course, the word that helped bring down Gordon Brown). Although it’s now November, I’ve noticed that a nearby pub has been flying the flag of England, the red and white cross of St George, something that makes me slightly uneasy. It either means that I’ve missed some crucial international footballing fixture or else that the pub has become a haven for what sociologists have started to call ‘nativists’, in other words English ultra-patriots, in many cases, not to mince words, ghastly bigots. Freely associating brings back memories of Euro 2004 when, before England’s game against France in Portugal, 30 million of these flags were sold, ‘to be’ according to our jingoistic press, ‘set fluttering from every shade and model of car, driven by English men and women of every age, religion, culture and class’. The red and white banner is still regularly to be seen on the back of Vauxhall cars or flying above churches on St George’s Day, and there’s another connection: I remember comedian Russell Brand, (a very different sort of national treasure, before being disgraced for lewd behaviour on air, then resurrected as a Hollywood star), apologising earlier this year for being absent from the country on St George’s Day which he was celebrating in the USA. He did graciously confide that he was proud to be English, ‘But we can’t go around, draped in the flag, dressed as Pearly Kings and Queens, belting out Vera Lynn songs.’ As if expecting the perennial argy-bargy (a 19th-century reduplication of Scottish dialect ‘argle’, argue) over defining Englishness to kick in he added, ‘We know what it is to be English.’

It’s these seemingly trivial cultural flurries that THE 100 WORDS delights in. Crumpets, the Hun, flag-waving and Pearly Kings are tokens that we reach for when we reassert our membership of, to use the very latest jargon, a ‘community of circumstance’ calling itself for convenience ‘the English’. Senior royals (in everyday vernacular the upstart ‘royals’ supplanted ‘the royal family’ in the mid-1990s and has since appeared 33000 times in the Daily Mirror alone), and virtuosos of smut (from Middle English ‘smitte’ and ‘smot’, meaning ‘stain’ and related to ‘smudge’) in the Max Wall tradition are among the ‘beacons of iconicity’ (an abomination perpetrated by publicists for the 2012 Olympics…or was it ‘icons of beaconicity’?), folklore figures that seem to symbolise the conflicted national character.

Since the mid-1990s, arguments about what it means to be ‘British’ or ‘English’ have intensified, prompted both by ‘top-down’ political edicts on devolution and citizenship and by ‘bottom-up’ agitations from a disoriented public. In writing about Englishness and the English cultural analysts refer to abstracts such as the well-known ‘deference’, ‘reticence’, ‘scepticism’ and ‘deferred gratification’ (all in their estimations gone or endangered) and the less predictable, hence more interesting, ‘narcissism, ‘self-importance’ and ‘imaginary’ (as noun, not adjective, by which they mean something like ‘collective fantasy’). They pontificate about shifts in attitude using labels like ‘hedonism’, ‘consumerism’ or (a nice recent example) ‘pathological individualism’, to suggest that we have abandoned one set of behaviours for a radically different one. Occasionally they neologise in an attempt to get at an elusive truth, as with anthropologist Kate Fox’s ‘dis-ease’; collective anxiety stemming from a lack of social skills and fear of intimacy, or ‘cognitive polyphasia’, MORI opinion pollster Ben Page’s term for the condition of holding multiple contradictory beliefs at the same time. Lifestyle journalists, like Decca Aitkenhead writing in 1997, love to generalise in a more conversational style: ‘They wear clothes they are painfully unsure about, dance uneasily to music they don’t know and tell each other bad jokes they heard on Radio 1…’

Though a few loaded keywords like ‘class’ and ‘decency’ are shared with the commentariat, attempts by ‘ordinary’ members of the public to define Englishness usually have a very different flavour. A trawl of postings and interviews throws up: ‘Englishness: the Queen, fairness, tolerance, strawberries & cream, support the underdog’ (– Anon): ‘this is england and curry is not an english tradition i am just preparing sunday lunch roast beef with all trimmings i have been to church singing beautiful english hymns this is england at its best’ (- Val S. Oxon, in the original spelling), and ‘I know I need foreign help to keep farming and Ukip will put an end to those workers coming here, but Englishness is a delicate tree and I think, if we need to pollard a few branches to protect the rest, it is worth it.’ (- Gary Andrews, Cotswold farmer and UK Independence Party supporter). ‘We don’t know who we are: we’re not British, we’re not Scottish or Welsh: we’re partly the powerful nation of yore and partly dispossessed’ laments an English football fan without a nation state to cling to, adding ‘it’s an extraordinary position to be in’. Despite the agonising by pundits and proles it seems that the quest for the essence of Englishness is futile. It’s like a question to which no adequate answer can be given, but that doesn’t mean that we will stop asking, even when the question is fatuous (17th century, from Latin fatuus, ‘gaping’). A recent poll of young Asians required them to quantify how British they felt ‘as a percentage’, without any attention being paid to what ‘Asian’, ‘British’, ‘young’ or ‘felt’ might mean, let alone whether one’s feeling of allegiance or belonging to something so hard to define might vary from day to day.

It’s absurd to look for Englishness in ethnicity, in DNA, as Daniel Defoe pointed out as along ago as 1703. Recollecting the ebb and flow of invaders and mercenaries pre-1066 he quipped, ‘From this amphibious ill-born mob began/
That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman…/In eager rapes and furious lust begot/ Betwixt a painted Briton and a Scot…/ From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came/ With neither name nor nation, speech nor fame.’ At different times in the same verse satire Defoe both anticipated the celebrating of diversity: ‘…the multitudes of foreign nations who have taken sanctuary here have been the greatest additions to the wealth and strength of the nation,’ and adopted the voice of the anti-immigration xenophobe:We have been Europe’s sink, the jakes [toilet] where she/ Voids all her offal outcast progeny.’

We could simply dismiss all the verbiage and the bluster (15th century from Low German blüsteren, ‘to storm’), as two recent commentators have done, ‘…to truly belong in a country and be committed to it only requires that you respect the rule of law and see the government and its civic institutions as the legitimate instruments for making and implementing those laws.’ (philosopher Julian Baggini), ‘Give me a nation of people who pay their taxes, honour democracy and treat each other with respect and I couldn’t care less how British they ‘feel’’. (journalist Dave Hill).

At a more rarefied level proponents of cultural theory, which is largely based on ideas from linguistics, have an agenda. They want to clear away our preconceptions and demonstrate that a ‘liberal’ world-view based on ideas of nationhood, the ‘grand narratives’ of heritage and history and the autonomous individual are illusory. They prefer to say that culture and identity are symbolic representations formed of, or in, ‘discourse’ – that is language in its widest sense. Culture is an interplay of different discourses: public discourse, the language of government and officialdom; media discourses, the language of show business, broadcasting, the press (including ‘journalese’ – the short sharp headline words, the clichés and stylistic quirks favoured by journalists) and advertising; private discourse, the language of ordinary people in everyday situations – difficult to access but identifiable in readers’ letters to newspapers, published diaries, Internet chat-rooms and txt msgs. In a ‘technologised’ society based on ‘hyperconnectivity’ it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate these varieties or styles, as the audience – the public – borrows from the media who themselves have borrowed from the street or the club, and everyone becomes complicit in the national conversation, shot through as it is by the jargon of fashion, music, therapy and business. Although their attempts to deconstruct the idea of national identity are attempts to destabilise, devalue, ultimately to discredit it, the cultural theorists are right about one thing. If we are looking for Englishness, it is in language that we will find it.

And so in getting to grips with Englishness THE 100 WORDS focuses on language, more specifically on individual words, though larger ‘lexical units’ such as slogans and catchphrases are mentioned in passing. Words, even the brusquest ones, are not one-dimensional things, but complex bundles of meanings and associations. The relatively uncomplicated word ‘stallion’, for instance, has within it two essential semantic components, combining the base ideas ‘horse’ and ‘male’. But any close-up analysis would have to consider the word’s additional connotations of ‘virile’, ‘strong’, ‘spirited’. Stallion, used figuratively rather than as a neutral description, with its suggestion of impressive dominance, might be contrasted with ‘mare’, a word that in the combination ‘brood-mare’ emphasises a passive, one-dimensional, purely procreative function, and in English working-class slang has always been derogatory, denoting a drab, wearisome female…taking us from semantics to gender controversies in a couple of steps. Words are unstable, too, in the sense that they may have meant different things at different times, or may be interpreted in different ways according to their user and her/his audience. In offering definitions, comments on typical usage and etymologies, dictionary-makers have to affect a cheerful omniscience, but know that they cannot finally be objective. Words are part of the psychic furniture of tens of millions of individuals, for each one of whom any individual word may have quite unique resonances. The language teacher’s two reductionist benchmarks for determining acceptable usage; ‘intelligibility’ (can it be understood?) and ‘appropriacy’ (is it suitable for its context?) don’t fully take account of the fact that ‘lexemes’ (words, phrases and longer formulations) may also encode values and allegiances, determine behaviour, trigger emotions, and these ‘affective’ aspects are precisely what this book deals in.

It’s artificial, too, to do what dictionary format demands and treat words in isolation, as, in practice in their real-world settings of speech and writing, they are found alongside ‘co-text’, the language that surrounds them. Single instances or sequences of language operate within a mosaic or web known as ‘intertextuality’, the whole interpenetrating influence of prior expressions, forms of expression, rules for expressing. Anyone scripting a sitcom or soap set in wartime, for instance, is likely to draw upon pre-existing stock characters and situations, verbal and visual allusions to other genres such as newsreels, documentaries and ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure books, to quote, to paraphrase or to parody famous speeches, to repeat jokes, proverbs and received opinions. Linguists also see words as part of ‘semantic fields’, the cluster of terms in any given language that are closest to them in meaning, so focusing, for example, on yob should entail a sideways glance at the equally well-established ‘hooligan’, ‘lout’, and ‘layabout’, together with the more recent ‘ASBO’ and ‘hoodie’. In the same way looking at ‘collocations’, the way certain words are routinely combined in a particular language can lead us into intriguing complexities. To ‘lay down one’s life’ (eg ‘for one’s country’) looks like a natural formulation to us, but French uses instead the verb ‘sacrifice’, evoking an image of personal heroism, rather than ‘lay down’, once perhaps referring to prostrating oneself on an altar or block, but now suggesting surrender of weapons, making the pun ‘to lay down one’s wife for one’s country’ (supposedly demanded of aristocratic English husbands by the heir to the throne) even more taxing to translate. Too few of us have a command of any other linguistic system, let alone an ability to shift in and out of different ways of encoding our experiences – what linguists call ‘code-switching’ or ‘crossing’ between languages or dialects. So translation is another way of defamiliarising or ‘de-centring’ a concept in order to try and objectify it – how do the French express the ideas we encode by way of the word gentle for instance? Despite the fact that we took the word from them centuries ago, there is now no single term in French that does justice to the nuances our word has acquired. Matching our keywords with their equivalents or lack thereof in other languages can enable us to highlight, compare and contrast cultural attitudes and peculiarities. Linguists have shown that clusters of words which describe the most essential social relationships, such as the synonyms for ‘friend’; chum, ‘pal’, or ‘mate’ in English, don’t have precise equivalents in other languages and even convey different senses when used by English speakers outside the UK. Some ethnolinguists and semanticists – notably the Polish-Australian Anna Wierzbicka – have grappled with culture-specific concepts and the supposedly ‘untranslatable’ keywords (Russian pošlost’ which covers a spectrum of meaning from ‘shameful’, through ‘commonplace’ to naff; the many native Australian words for sand, not one of which equates to the English word, etc.) that embody them in attempts to explain the inner workings and inner life of a people to outsiders. THE 100 WORDS adopts this approach with English and Englishness, largely for the benefit of ‘natives’ this time, but not by way of a technical or academic study. The book is designed for the ‘general reader’ – the broadminded and curious explorer willing to fight their way through a hotchpotch of references and allusions, a smattering of quotations, a series of collisions between scholarly inquiry and wilful frivolity. Although entries are in alphabetical order, this is not a traditional reference book; it is biased, opinionated and selective.