Are you a computer? W/E MAY 23



I was walking down the main street the other day when someone commented on a lack of proof readers on papers these days. It might not have been a critical remark and he wasn’t referring to this newspaper.

I was a little surprised, because proof readers were never appointed as the people responsible for journalistic standards in newspapers. On small country papers the people were the editors, and for larger newspapers the people responsible for standards were sub-editors, sometimes called copy editors. Some papers, I have to admit, operated without sub-editors at all.

Proof readers would sometimes pick up clangers in the editorial side just by looking over somebody’s shoulders, but their main job under a system that rarely applies these days was to ensure that the printers set into type what the customer wanted.

I had a cleanup the other day (you should see my desk) and I found a two-page article I had written in December 1982 in a national staff magazine. The article was headed “subediting – have we developed bad habits?”

A key sentence of the article said: “The copy editor, whatever his title, is the person who has had placed in his care the health and welfare of the English language as it is understood by the millions of Australians whose reading habits extend to little more than the local newspaper.”

The company that I worked for had recently introduced computers. As one who remembered watching a compositor at the Quirindi Advocate setting small seven-point type by hand, I was worried that some of the checks and balances involved in computerisation were about to be thrown out the window. I expected a blast from head office, but the staff magazine in the following month had a message from the managing director, John Parker, saying he hoped everybody had read the article.

What is happening now is that in some newspaper companies reporters are writing their stories on computers, and having the stories published, without the checks and balances that protected their newspapers in years past. I concede that some reporters don’t need sub-editors, but a second pair of eyes always helps. I also concede that the cost squeeze is

hitting other industries besides newspapers.

I called to a newspaper office (not this one) and looked for the files of old papers. I was looking for a front page story about a month old. The office had no files and the friendly girl suggested I go to the museum. Eventually, after a search on her computer, the girl found what I was looking for and she found a copy of the paper in a back office.

Did you know that in the olden days a computer was the person who computed instead of the machine itself? My big dictionary says the word, in print, extends as far back as 1646 and the first definition is “one who computes; a person employed to make calculations in an observatory, in surveying etc”. (One of the first things I was taught as a journalist was never to use etc.)

In the April 2014 Ozwords published by Australian National University, Jutta Besold asked how indigenous people would say the word computer. At the end of three pages she decided the question was too broad and challenging.

These days we talk about the “computer operator” rather than the computer.

I would have my doubts if a person told me he or she was a computer.

Thomas J Watson is alleged to have said in 1943 that the world needed only five computers.

If he said it, he was wrong.;




Plenty of diamonds W/E MAY 9




If you have any connection with the Commonwealth Bank take care about using the word diamonds. It used to be a touchy subject within the bank – and possibly still is.

The word comes from adamant, which is still used as a substitute for unbreakable. It comes into English via Latin and old French diamante. The first use in writing that I found came in 1310, when it was spelt diamaunde.

I was in the Broome museum a few years ago and I came across an interesting story from Mervyn Prime about the bank and diamonds.

During wartime Captain Takeo Shibata from Japan invented long-range fuel tanks and decided to attack the airstrip at Broome to take out land-based military aircraft, which reconnaissance aircraft crew reported were on the airstrip.

But as the Zero aircraft – not bombers – arrived early in the March morning of 1942 they discovered many flying boats in RoebuckBay and decided to attack them instead. Figures vary, but at least 50 people, mostly Dutch, were killed on the flying boats, which were being refuelled on the way from Java to Perth. Some drowned and reports said some were attacked by sharks.

Several Japanese airmen killed at this time were then promoted a rank– but I understand no Broome people were killed in the raid. The Prime Minister, John Curtin, said rumours of a heavy loss of life by Broome people were “utterly untrue”. Another raid soon after took place on the airstrip and one person on the ground -- a Malay walking across the strip – was killed.

The attack leader, Zenziro Miyano, was killed in 1943 and was promoted two ranks – not a nice way to be promoted.

But back to the diamonds.

At Java, Captain Ivan Smirnoff was handed a small package, which was to be collected from him in Perth. I understand he did not know what was in the package.

He was told the Broome airstrip was “okay for the time being”, with no mention of the attack on RoebuckBay. His plane was shot down in CarnotBay, just north of Broome.

Smirnoff was flown to Perth where an official of the Commonwealth Bank asked him for the package. He didn’t have it -- and you can insert your own “reply” here.

Smirnoff was told the package contained diamonds valued at $600,000 – perhaps more than $40 million in today’s values, but don’t quote me on that.

A few days after Smirnoff’s plane was shot down Jack Palmer sailed his lugger into CarnotBay and saw the plane that had crashed. He found the package and, surprise, surprise, it contained some diamonds.

Palmer said later some of the diamonds had been lost in the sand, but other people who had been detained just happened to have diamonds in their possession. Aborigines in the area apparently threw diamonds away when told people were searching for them.

For the next few years diamonds, or the places where diamonds might have been hidden, were found. Hiding places included trees and holes in house walls.

A Chinese man appeared in court. His diamonds were confiscated and he was fined $20.

Diamonds recovered amounted to only about $42,000.

Incidentally, I said that Captain Shibata invented the long-range fuel tanks for the Zero aircraft. He survived the war and I have a photo of him as an old man at home with his wife.

In a letter after the war he said: “I never issued my instruction as to the target to be the town. Please accept my apologies if some stray bullets fell into the town.”;






It was only a dance W/E MAY 2



I was in an aircraft flying over the United States and I was sitting next to a blind man with a loud voice. During the customary pleasantries, I said I was headed for the east coast.

Again in a loud voice he asked: “Are you going to do some shagging over there?”

I had the feeling the entire aircraft fell silent as all the passengers awaited my answer.

When I alighted in Florida I asked what the blind man was talking about. I learnt that the east coast of the United States had a big shag festival each year.

For instance, the Mountain Shag Club of Asheville, North Carolina, aimed to bring people together for fellowship and entertainment, promote shagging and related activities (don’t get ahead of me here) and participate in charitable functions.

Without going into too many details, I can state that the shag is a dance that is very popular in the Carolina region of the United States.

I believe the Carolina shag is the official dance of South Carolina.

My big dictionary says it is characterised by the vigorous hopping from one foot to the other.

It just goes to show that different words mean different things, depending on what part of the world you happen to be in.

They even made a movie, called Shag, in 1989 starring Bridget Fonda.

Australians seem to have a few uses for the word shag. I looked up the Australian Dictionary of Insults and Vulgarities that a friend gave me for Christmas once, but I can’t mention any of the definitions for this clean family newspaper. The same could apply to some of the other “Australian” books in my possession. Australians love to put in books the most obnoxious definitions of words.

But here is a word that goes way back to at least the year 1030, way before Australia entered the world scene.

Originally it meant rough matted hair or wool. Then it meant a tangled mass of undergrowth, followed by shag carpet.

I was looking for something by Shakespeare and eventually I found it. In Macbeth he mentioned shagge-ear’d, which apparently meant shag-haired.

It has always carried the connotation of rough.

The more off-colour meanings of shag (my big dictionary says coarse slang, origin unknown) developed in the 18th century. You only need to read here that it means to copulate with. In fact, that is the meaning that Gross gave in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Vulgar didn’t mean “rude words”, but rather the words that ordinary people spoke.

Shag these days carried many other meanings.

For instance, the word is commonly used for the English cormorant and many birds of Australia.

A person who says he is shagged is probably exhausted from hard work, or he doesn’t want to work any more.

A shag on a rock can mean something like “left high and dry” and the expression is said to be Australian.

Other words have developed from shag, but they generally mean rough or unkept.

A Trafalgar guide in England a few years ago kept pointing to “shaggy coos” as we passed some bovine animals standing contentedly in paddocks.

They just looked like cows to me.;





That shambolic shirt room W/E APR 25


In the country out past Deniliquin is a farmhouse that was once, and possibly still is, occupied by a group of young men.

They had a good system of storing their clothes.

No need for wardrobes and clothes hangers. No, they washed their shirts and then threw them onto the floor of a room. When they wanted a shirt they rummaged through the assortment on the floor, found a shirt they owned and wore it – often unironed.

My wife took me to see this room one day and said something like “that’s what our house would look like if…” I don’t remember the rest. I was thinking “what a great idea”.

It reminded me of a street that I walked along one day in, I think, York. The street was called The Shambles.

I don’t know why I thought of that.

Actually, storing the shirts in a room set aside for this purpose sounded to me like a good arrangement. It certainly did away with the need for wardrobes, and these men were not flushed with money.

I remember they had a poker machine in the house and they encouraged all visitors to try their hand at this machine. It was a good little earner.

Anyway, back to shambles.

I can’t remember how many shirt shops were in the street down which I walked in York, but I reckon the street many years ago would have had a lot of butcher shops – not as hygienic as those we now know, of course.

The word started out spelt many ways, often scamel (possibly from the Latin scamellum), meaning a table displaying goods, but quickly took the meaning of a meat market, where meat was displayed for sale. The first reference I could find was in the year 825 and the word was spelt scomul.

Sometimes shamble without the final S was used to refer to people who were bow-legged and ambled down the street with seemingly no purpose. I don’t know if this led to the word depicting the table on which meat was displayed.

Samuel Johnston in his 1755 dictionary said shambling was a “low, bad word” and referred to people moving awkwardly and irregularly. He spoke about a bloke with “ambling legs”.

From 1593 the word, usually by this time spelt shambles, meant a place of wholesale slaughter. My big dictionary tells of “a shambles of dead bodies”, but the word also was directed at animals, such as sheep, driven to the shambles to be killed.

How would you describe shambolic?

I keep thinking of that room near Deniliquin. Shambolic has been used in a few places, but it hasn’t caught on as much as shambles has.

My big dictionary mentions a 1967 use about “the standard image of shambolic newspaper offices”. I know exactly what is meant by that description. Remind me to tell you about some of them some day.

Linda and Roger Flavell in their Dictionary of Idioms allege shambles is a favourite word of politicians with nothing good to say about the other side. I haven’t heard the word used much in that sense.

By the way, some politicians have good legs, but don’t let me start on that.;

The threat about garters W/E APR 18


A person in my hearing said the other day something like “I’ll have his guts for garters”.

He wasn’t talking about me. At least, I don’t think he was. I haven’t heard any more from him, so I presume I’m safe.

I looked up my big dictionary and it said the expression “guts for garters” was “a hyperbolical threat”. This expression, in print, was found in 1582 when Robert Greene writing about the history of James 4 said “he makes garters of thy guttes, thou villain”. Then a few years later Ben Johnson said “I will garter my hose with your guttes”. They weren’t referring to the common old garden hose that we trip over, but to the types of stockings that men wore in those days.

The expression “guts for garters” occupied much of our language, from “he hoped to have the parson’s guts to garter his hose with” to “I’ll ‘ave yer guts for garters” used in Cornhill Magazine in March of 1933.

But what about garter?

It started me thinking about the word garter and why it finds its place in much of our everyday conversation.

It is described as a band worn around the leg, either above or below the knee, to keep the stocking from falling down. It had many variations in spelling, but described the bend of the knee in humans. The Welsh had a word gar that represented the ham or leg bone.

I like the story of Edward 111 about the year 1344.

Stop me if you’ve heard it. But the king about that year was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury and her garter fell to the floor. It was a bit like losing your knickers in front of everybody.
Well, the king leant over, picked up the garter and put it on his own leg making the comment “honi soit qui mal y pense”, which roughly translated means “shame on you for thinking badly of it”.

A short time later the good king instituted the Most Noble Order of the Garter, which has the colours of dark blue and gold and – wait for it – is worn below the left knee.

The Most Noble Order of the Garter is said to be the third most prestigious order in England, behind the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.

Foundation members were King Edward (well, you should have some perks of office) and 15 founder knights.

Maggie Thatcher and Winston Churchill were given it, along with the Emperor of Japan, Hirohito, the Queen Mum and a few Australians. I won’t mention them, because I am sure to miss a couple.

But if you happen to get the nod, I presume you will be expected to wear the garter where everyone can see it.

If it makes you look a bit of a dill, don’t blame me.

The word garter has many other uses. It led to the Knights of the Order of the Holy Ghost in France. But then you have other expressions, including a garter snake.

Then we had the bridal garter. In the old days things were not as civilised as they are now. In later years the groom took off the bride’s garter – as a substitute for an all-in exercise -- and now the bride throws the garter and hopes somebody else catches it.

The story’s a bit crude, but you can fill in the missing bits.;








They didn't want a gardener W/E APR 11

I saw an advertisement in a regional newspaper stating that the paper wanted an editor, but he wasn’t to be just any editor.

No. This person had to work with other managers in a “matrix leadership model”.

Most editors would have to look up their dictionaries to discover whether they qualified and whether they were, or could be, in a “matrix leadership model”.

The newspaper was not looking for a female animal used for breeding, or I presume it wasn’t. It wasn’t looking for a womb, either, or a body on which a fungus grows, a mould, a row of numbers or even some dentistry or television equipment.

I presume the person who inserted the advertisement was looking for someone with ideas that could be developed to the newspaper’s benefit.

Matrix comes from a Latin word that, if you go back far enough, means a pregnant animal or a female animal used for breeding.

The first use I could find came in 1526 when Bible translator William Tindale said: “Every man chylde that first openeth the matrix shall be called holy to the lorde”. I think he was saying that the first male child shall be given or devoted to the lord, but I could be wrong.

In 1615 Helkiah Crookes, trying to describe the human body, said “the partes of the female are the wombe and the rest which by a general name are called matrices”.

I found various uses of the word matrix but none described a potential newspaper editor to my satisfaction.

I checked some other dictionaries, apart from Oxford. The Collins people said, among other things, a matrix was “the environment in which a society develops and grows”. The Macquarie said matrix was “that which gives origin or form to a thing”. Readers Digest said “that in which something is created”. The New American Dictionary said a matrix was an environment in which something develops -- or “a mass of fine-grained rock”.

I think I should say here that I did not see the movie that was called The Matrix, but I gather that a lead character was trying to find someone to answer the question “what is the matrix?”

I saw another comment that “the earth is the matrix wherein seeds sprout”. Maybe the paper wanted a gardener.

I found a few teaching colleges that had matrix in the name.

Then someone said the part of the cutis beneath the body and root of the nail is called the matrix.

Did you know that a matrix is a copy of an original disc recording that is used to make other copies? It sounds illegal, by the way.

I found in typesetting a comment that said a matrix was “something in which something is cast or shaped”.

I have decided the newspaper wanted somebody with ideas, somebody who could encourage the staff to think outside the box – a commendable objective.

I did come across another word that has derived from matrix. This word is madrigal. Madrigal is described as a simple song, one that might have just sprung from a mother’s womb.

I don’t know why, but I always associated madrigal with an old comic strip called Mandrake the Magician.

Now, that I can understand.

Anybody who takes on the job of newspaper editor has to be regarded as a magician.;


What's your handicap? W/E APR 4

Many years ago I selected an outback shire president by sticking my hand in a hat and pulling out a piece of paper with a name on it. I think I was the only person in the room not connected with the council at the time.

I don’t know how legal it was, but everybody seemed satisfied.

Another outback shire council meeting usually had a dog sitting under the table. After a lengthy discussion on a particular subject somebody would say “I’ll move that way”. The newspaper I represented would usually run long reports containing just about every word spoken. Sometimes the shire clerk would ring me and we would compare notes so we would be clear on what “that way” meant.

I remember the day the council bought an electric typewriter. I think somebody might have thought it would type all the words by itself, but somebody still had to tap the keys. That was long before computers became commonplace.

Anyway, before I was sidetracked I started to write about that hand in the hat.

Somebody asked me last week about the word handicap. I think he was saying, ever so politely, that I wasn’t pulling my weight, but he might have been referring to the other fellow.

Modern dictionaries took a while to accept the word handicap.

The word, I believe, comes from those words hand in cap or hand i’ cap.

The earliest use that I could find was 1649, referring to a person extending his purse, and little at that stage to do with horse racing.

In the early days it resulted from a challenge, or an agreement by two people to exchange something.

A cap was produced. Okay, it could have been a bucket or even a cooking pot, but for the sake of the argument let’s say it was a cap, or we’ll all be confused.

Three hands went into the cap and then the umpire decreed what he considered to be a fair difference between the two objects. If the two agreed, they each had some money in their hand when they withdrew their hands. Then whatever exchange had been proposed took place. But if one was not satisfied with the arrangement he withdrew his hand and had no money, in which the umpire (he was a numpire, not an umpire) took all the money.

A description of such an arrangement was given by Piers Plowman in Newe Faire. The items were a gold watch and a horse.

Plowman, incidentally, said in his diary that he had never heard of such an arrangement before.

Handicapping soon proved satisfactory for horse racing. The parties called on a cap to be produced, the umpire set the weight advantage for the inferior horse, and if the parties agreed then the race was on. If they couldn’t agree, then the umpire walked away with a smile on his face.

Handicapping took off. It applied to all sorts of sports, from athletics to horse racing.

These days, the handicapper might have a smile, but the bookie usually has a bigger smile.

The punter has to go home and face the missus.;


Superstitions W/E MAR 28




Do you have friggatriskaidekaphobia? How about triskaidekaphobia? Well, surely you and paraskevidekatriaphobia have crossed paths once or twice.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the superstitions that seem to rule some people’s lives.

About the same time as the column was published I spent a weekend in a high-rise motel at the Gold Coast. I quickly realised that something was wrong. The hotel did not have a 13th floor. The lift was going from 12 to 14.

When the column was published, I received a letter from Karl Rieger, who commented that number 13 was the first number past 12. It was the lowest number divisible by four. Jesus had 12 apostles. Include Christ and you have 13 – and Christ was betrayed. The year had 12 months and the day was divided into 12 hours day and 12 hours night. This, of course, was all correct.

But I decided I would do my own research.

Let’s start with Friday the 13th.

Some people say Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Others refer to the Canterbury Tales, where Friday was considered a day of misfortune.

Julia Greenberg wrote in the International Business Times that Friday was an unlucky day to take a trip. I’ll have to cancel my next trip. Then she commented that Friday the 13th was a non-existent superstition before 1907. She mentions a book by Thomas W Lawson, in which a Wall Street panic occurs on Friday the 13th.

The North Carolina Stress Management Centre and Phobia Institute says from 17 to 21 million people suffer from a fear of Friday the 13th. That phobia is known as  friggatriskaidekaphobia. The word comes from Frigga, the Norse goddess for whom Friday is named, plus triskaidekaphobia. This centre also says the phobia is sometimes called paraskevidekatriaphobia, from the Greek Paraskevi for Friday, dekatreis for thirteen and phobia for fear.

They’re probably right. I wouldn’t know. I haven’t met many goddesses.

Incidentally, triskaidekaphobia means the fear of thirteen, but sometimes it puts three with ten to come up with 13.

Julia Greenberg says that in 1881 an organisation called The Thirteen Club was started in an attempt to improve the number's reputation. The 13 members walked under ladders and spilled salt at the first meeting in an attempt to dissuade any negative associations with the number.

But I suppose it died out eventually. It probably ran out of members.

She also mentions The Da Vinci Code.

Finally, Julia mentions some superstitions, such as:

  • A child born on Friday the 13th will be unlucky for life (I was born on Friday the 13th – now they tell me).

  • Do not start a trip on Friday or you will encounter misfortune (don’t most travellers?).

  • If you break a mirror on Friday the 13th, you will have seven years of bad luck (unless you can hide it from your wife).

  • If you cut your hair on Friday the 13th, someone in your family will die (she doesn’t say when).

    Kathy Pudden, writing in another overseas newspaper, suggests Eve gave Adam the “apple” on a Friday, conveniently overlooking that Friday hadn’t been thought of at that stage.  Neither had Granny Smith.

    I could go on and on, but I have to go outside and kick the bucket.;




Was wind gargantuan? W/E MAR 21



We had a windy day recently.

If asked for my opinion, I would have said the wind was strong.

But when I opened my morning newspaper, I was told to expect that the day would have “gargantuan” winds. The paper was not the one you are reading now.


At the end of the day I was told the wind velocity had reached 82kmh. I wondered what word they would have used to predict winds that reached more than 200kmh – even 300kmh. What word is stronger than gargantuan?

That word reminded me of some reporters on Sydney newspapers in days of old. Years ago reporters would make their reports, dare I say it, sensational in the hope their efforts would be published in the face of strong opposition from other reporters.

I suggested to a reporter from “another Sydney paper” once that he had “made up” much of his story. He said his paper wouldn’t have printed it if he had reported simply what happened.

Of course, that attitude doesn’t apply these days. That reporter later achieved the title of Australia’s journalist of the year (and I came second, so maybe my opinion was coloured a bit).

I looked through some of my books to find what they had to say about gargantuan.

One dictionary said gargantuan was “bigger than huge and enormous together”.

That was my understanding of the word.

But then the dictionary spoilt its own definition by describing a woman’s posterior as “gargantuan”. What a terrible thing to say! It could have said huge, or even massive, but gargantuan?

Another dictionary said words associated with gargantuan included awesome, massive, giant, gigantic, elephantine, epic, even humongous, a word that I suggest doesn’t belong in any first-class dictionary.

Another dictionary said “vast, colossal”.

The way I understand it, the word gargantuan came into the French from the Spanish garganta, meaning gullet.

The word became popular in the 1530s when French satirist Francois Rabelais wrote his Gargantua, referring to bloke who loved to eat and drink in proportions that you wouldn’t believe.

One story says he needed a comb 300 yards long to comb his hair. Okay, I don’t believe it either.

Shakespeare referred to this bloke in As You Like It when he said a word was too great for any normal-sized mouth and it needed Gargantua’s mouth.

The Merriam-Webster people said gargantuan was “gigantic, colossal, tremendous in size”.

Oxford said simply “enormous”.

In 1967 somebody even made a movie called War of the Gargantuas, but I don’t think you need rush out to the video store to get a copy.

Bill Archibald in his 1961 book The Bradley Case said Stephen Bradley’s defence team faced a gargantuan task after the kidnapping of Graeme Thorne. Bradley was later convicted.

But I hope the reporter on a country paper who said the 82kmh winds would be “gargantuan” gets a dictionary for Christmas – or at least a word from the sub-editor who let the word through in the first place.

The same newspaper only recently had a big heading that said a bus was “on it’s way”. Let us train our sub-editors, please, or at least those sub-editors who still have a job.


Incidentally, on another matter altogether, Doris Day fans might like to know she will be 91 on April 3 and a party will be held at the Cypress Inn, Carmel.;


Burlesque might have been a staff meeting W/E MAR 14




Don’t go crook on your husband if he tells you he went to a burlesque show.

He might have gone to a staff meeting where the boss did all the talking and the servants nodded their heads – either because they were agreeing with everything that was said, or they feared unemployment, or they were simply going to sleep.

The modern burlesque, where attractive and sometimes very unattractive women took off their clothes in public, only came into being about a hundred years ago.

Your husband might remember the old meaning of burlesque – and then, of course, he might not.

Years ago to burlesque simply meant to ridicule, or to mock. It came from the French, who took it from the Latin. Imagine somebody poking fun at Mrs Bucket of TV fame and you might get the original meaning of burlesque. And the thought of Mrs Bucket taking her clothes off would be, well…

You would probably find examples of burlesque in federal or state parliament often, when the government comes up with a serious proposal and the opposition ridicules the idea in the hope of getting a few laughs at the government’s expense.

The first example in my Collins dictionary says “a piece of writing which makes fun of a particular style by copying it in a humorous or exaggerated way”.

Burlesque was seen as a drollish imitation of what was intended to be serious – probably overly serious. You could say it was an attempt to bring people back to earth.

In 1684 a comment was made that a cap on a person’s head was made “very burlesque”. In 1714 some authors were described as “burlesque authors”. In 1814 a song was described as a burlesque elegy of a man losing his cow.

This grotesque ridiculing of something that was intended to be serious made its way into the United States about a hundred or more years ago, and we all know how the Americans can change things to suit themselves.

Over only a few years those attempts at ridiculing what was intended to be serious developed into variety shows and what we might call strippers. Strippers, of course, simply took their clothes off, but burlesque performers took the ridiculing of serious matters to new highs. In 1887 Marie Corelli wrote in the second volume of Marie “it’s only a burlesque, and is sure to be vulgar and noisy”.

In time, the meaning of burlesque changed. All the early meanings of the word, so far as you and I were concerned, were forgotten as people came to think of strippers and burlesque performers as being in the same profession. Of course, strippers at one stage tried to call themselves ecdysiasts, but that’s another story.

So, please don’t go crook on your husband if he says he went to a burlesque show. It might have been just a staff meeting.


On another subject altogether, I was mildly surprised at reports that a grocery store had banned a Roald Dahl book because it controlled the word slut.

Dahl, who died in 1990, was a children’s author. Although I have not read the book, here is another example of words changing their meaning in recent years.

Slut originally meant something like a woman who failed to clean the house properly.

Then she developed other habits that people frowned upon, but I suggest Dahl was entirely innocent, and fell victim to somebody who felt it was time to make mischief.

Read Banjo Paterson’s poem Morgan’s Dog and you will find the word used a couple of  times.;



Shakespeare the bowler W/E MAR 7

William Shakespeare played bowls.

I know, I know. It’s a bit difficult conjuring up the image of the bard sending down a few, occasionally with the wrong bias no doubt, and then ducking into the clubhouse for a quick ale before he hurried home to Anne.

But the history books all seem to say he was a bowler.

I don’t think he ever played pennants though.

I was asked the other day where the expression “there’s the rub” came from.

This is where Shakespeare comes in, because in Richard II, Act 3, Scene 4, he writes:

Queen: What sport shall we devise here in this garden,
To drive away the heavy thought of care?

First Lady: Madam, we'll play at bowls.

Queen: 'Twill make me think the world is full of rubs. And that my fortune runs against the bias.

The words “there’s the rub” come in Macbeth when Shakespeare writes: “To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come…”

Okay, I know that just because a fellow wrote of terms that were used in bowls, that doesn’t make him a bowler, but some of the people who wrote about Shakespeare said he was a bowler. One even went so far as to say he played lawn bowls, not lanes (a reference, no doubt, to tenpin bowling).

Shakespeare, in my opinion, was suggesting that an obstacle, such as a fault in the green, sent the bowl in another direction (it happens to me all the time). It also appears in the history of golf, but I couldn’t find any reference to Bill ever playing golf.

Actually, Shakespeare made many other references to sport in his plays. I don’t have room for them all here, but they include archery, bear-baiting, billiards, blind man’s bluff, falconry, fencing, football, leapfrog (a letter writer to a newspaper I edited a long time ago said, with some indignation, that he had seen a man and a woman leapfrogging on a local beach, but he rang us later to say he had been mistaken), quoits, tennis and wrestling and a whole host of sports that seems to have died out over the years. He also referred to other practices in bowls.

Rub has several meanings and the word takes up a few pages of my big dictionary. In its early days it was spelt as rubbe. In the bowls sense the first use I could find came in 1586. In 1593 Shakespeare wrote about the world being full of rubs and his fortune running against the bias. In 1876 Encyclopedia Britannica wrote that a rub was “when a jack or bowl, in transitu (their term, not mine), comes in contact with any object on the green”.

Author Gregory Titelman in the book America’s Popular Sayings said rub meant something that hindered the movement of the ball in the game of bowls. He said the saying “there’s the rub” was first used by Shakespeare in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

I haven’t been able to ascertain whether Shakespeare won the weekly meat tray at his bowling club, but I’ll keep looking.;


Malevolent dictionary W/E FEB 28



In 1811 Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary described any dictionary (excluding his own) as “a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language”.

Over the past 20 years several people have asked me many questions about the words, in the English language. One in the past few weeks came from “Max” who said I have often remarked about “my big dictionary”.
“It must be huge”, he said.

My dictionary comprises 20 large volumes and when I bought it many years ago I think it was selling for about $5000. To be fair, my family bought it for my birthday and was given a discounted price, but it still cost a few thousand dollars.

Dictionaries as we now know them have been with us for at least 600 years. I have what is named “The First English Dictionary” dated 1604, by Robert Cawdrey. Cawdrey said his first edition was “a table alphabeticall, conteyning the true writing and understanding of hard words”.

So a dictionary didn’t set out to publish all the words in our language, just in Cawdrey’s case ”the hard words”. I am sure Bierce had a devil of a time with his 1811 dictionary.

The first “proper” dictionary was that put out by Samuel Johnson. He was a bit of a homourless man who regarded some of the greats of the English language as his neighbours and drinking partners who had just as many problems as he had.

I went to his house in Gough Square, just off Fleet Street, London, many years ago.

I knocked on the door of the little cottage with a cat on the front mat, but nobody answered. A week later I knocked on the door again and nobody answered. So I went to the four-storey building next door. An old man answered my knock and I explained that I wanted to look through Johnson’s house. “Sure, come on in”, he said. Johnson lived in the four-storey building, not the little cottage.

Johnson spoke many times of the superiority of the English and -- how should I say it because I have been castigated about this -- Johnson had little time for the Scots. He said on one occasion “the finest prospect a Scotchman ever sees is the high road that takes him to England”. He didn’t think much of the Irish either. “The Irish are fair people; they speak ill of everybody”. And his views of the French? “A Frenchman must always be talking. An Englishman talks only when he has something to say.”

His dictionary says of oats: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

My big dictionary says the word dictionary goes back to 1526 in writing, but no doubt people were speaking about the word dictionary before that.


These days we don’t worry about spelling, or even grammar. Our computer does much of it for us. It even puts a little green line under our mistakes.

My big dictionary was published by Oxford. The completion of this dictionary was a monumental task that took more than 50 years.

Dictionaries weren’t always compiled by fine, upstanding citizens. The Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo was compiled by Bad Bill, Hal the Rebel, Jojo and the Colonel, whose occupations included armed robber, terrorist and purse snatcher.

In case anybody thinks I have tried to belittle Samuel Johnson—he wasn’t such a bad bloke really.

One of his most trusted advisers was called Barber. or


Be careful what you say W/E FEB 21



Don’t try explaining to your wife why you were home late last night. She might offer you one word – “mansplain”.

I have never used that word during the past 12 months – in fact ever. I don’t know of anybody who has.

But this word was chosen by Macquarie Dictionary as its word of the year.

The committee that selected the word offered by way of explanation “they felt that it was a much-needed word and it was a clever coinage which captured neatly the concept of the patronising explanation offered only too frequently by some men to women”. (I don’t know how use of the word “that” by this dictionary committee added to the sentence.)

The word assumes the woman is ignorant of the subject matter and needs having things explained. Some people regard it as patronising.

The word seems to suggest the man knows more than the woman but, as we all know, most women feel they know more than the men.

I’m sure you have come across such a man – one who knows more than anybody else about any subject you care to mention and is not backward in explaining it all to you. Of course, you nod your head in all the right places, while thinking “this bloke hasn’t a clue”.

The word mansplain was selected by the New York Times as its word of the year in 2010 and added to the online Oxford in 2012.

Some commentators have complained that the word has been overused, but I don’t know where. I have never heard the word used anywhere, but then I have led a sheltered life. “Yes dear” is the way to stay out of trouble.

From what I can gather, the word came into vogue about 2008. In April of that year Rebecca Solnit published a blog with the heading“Men Explain Things to Me; Facts Didn't Get in Their Way”. She didn’t use the word mansplain, but explained the circumstances that led to her supposed criticism. The word appeared a month later on a social network called Live Journal.

It was just the word needed to describe various American politicians. I won’t suggest it should be used against some Australian politicians. You can make up your own mind about that.

Some say the word mansplain is sexist. There should be a word womansplain.

There is!

I don’t think its meaning is similar to mansplain . From what I can gather, womansplain means a woman is trying to explain why a man thinks as he does. You won’t hear much about womansplain, because some women have been known to complain about its use.

A few other words including “plain” have been suggested, but I don’t have room for them here.

But my advice to men is: Don’t tell women you know more than they do, or they might tell you a few things in reply.


By my calculations, this column is number 1000 but, as I said at the start of the year, I could be out by one or two.;




Knock, knock from Shakespeare W/E FEB 14



We have all used or fallen victim to knock knock jokes.

But did you know that William Shakespeare was one of the earlier users of knock knock?

If you had been paying attention at school, you would have known this.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare wrote: “knock, knock, who’s there?”

If you don’t believe me, it’s in act 2, scene 3.

In recent years the tasteless puns seemed to have taken the English language by storm.

Jack assured Jill he would remember her tomorrow. Then Jill said “knock knock”. Jack asked “who’s there?” Jill said: “See, you’ve forgotten me already”.

Here’s another: “Knock-knock. Who’s there? Dwayne. Dwayne who? Dwayne the bathtub, I’m dwowning.”

So, if knock, knock didn’t come from Shakespeare, where did it come from?

My big dictionary contains five pages of the word knock, with meanings such as knock on, knock to pieces, knock heads, knock under the table, knock about, knock about with, knock back, knock down, knock off, knock it off, knock on, knock over, knock up, knock on wood and heaps more.

There was even knock knok, spelt differently, meaning a bundle of heckled flax.

The dictionary had a mention of a knocking shop, but you don’t want to know about that.

There was a mention of knockabout, similar to a rouseabout in Australia (not the American roustabout), who was willing to try his hand at any type of work.

But the dictionary had little to say about knock knock. I had trouble finding it apart from a mention of “knock knock, in various senses”. One meaning of knock-knocks was “acoustic mines”.

Then I found in the dictionary what I was looking for. From 1974, it went like this: “Knock knock. Who’s there? Richard Milhous. Richard Milhous who? Oh, how quickly people forget.”

He was the American leader who was impeached. Didn’t you ever see All The President’s Men?

I believe the origins of the term might have been lost over the years.

Let’s go back a few hundred years when the knight knocked on the front door after slaying the dragon. The person on the other side almost certainly would have said: “who’s there?”

On August 19, 1936, the American entertainment magazine Variety, according to Michael Macrone, reported that the knock knock” craze was sweeping America.

Then, also according to Macrone, a radio performer called Wee Georgie Wood started a craze in the United Kingdom on November 14 in the same year with tasteless jokes. About this time the “knock knock craze took off throughout the world.

The idea was to tell the worst joke you could think of. The worse it was, the better the joke.

Shakespeare, in Macbeth, mentioned some of the events of the time. The gatekeeper presented as a gatekeeper of hell, mentioning such people as farmers and tailors.

And you thought Bill only wrote serious stuff.

Now, whenever someone says “who’s there” expect to see a tasteless pun.

Such as: “Toby, who? Toby or not Toby, that is the question.”;







Gotten goes way back W/E FEB 7



William Shakespeare, who lived in the 17th century, wrote in the Merry Wives of Windsor “he was gotten in drink”.

I was standing in a queue waiting for a cup of coffee recently when an attractive young woman sidled up to me. It doesn’t happen to me very often, so I listened to what she had to say.

She said she hated reading the word gotten in books.

At this moment her husband approached me also and reaffirmed that she hated the Americanism gotten.

“Why can’t they write got? She asked me.

Some people might be surprised to discover that gotten preceded got in the English language by a couple of hundred years. The earliest use I could find was 1340, but it is much older than that. Some say it was used in British English in the fourth century.

Pam Peters in the Australian English Style Guide says got is used, by Americans and some Australians, when obligation is being expressed, such as in “you’ve got to come”, but gotten is used in the matter of becoming, achieved or acquiring, such as “he had gotten angry”. Many people look to Pam Peters for guidance and she is closely associated with Macquarie Dictionary. I was once appointed a reader for the Oxford dictionary in Australia, but I did very little and I have probably been sacked by now.

So why do we associate gotten with the American version of our language?

Well, apparently gotten was entrenched in the English language when America was colonised by the British. The Americans continued to use the full version, gotten, but over the years the Brits and the Australians decided to cut to a shorter version, got.

I agree with Pam Peters when she says get/got is the staple of daily communications. She adds that get/got “should not be rooted out everywhere like a noxious weed”.

When we say “he hasn’t got a chance” why can’t we say “he hasn’t a chance”? When we say “you have got to come” why can’t we say “you have to come”?

Get is used these days by lazy people to mean so many things. We say get into bed; I got the job; I got a cold; I got dinner; when I get big; I got to Melbourne by four in the afternoon; I got dressed; when I get married; I’ll get him to do it; and so the list goes on.

Author the late Stephen Murray-Smith says gotten is a relic of Shakespearean English, but then adds “in Australian English it is certainly not archaic”.

Shakespeare, Bacon and Pope have been known to use gotten.

My opinion is that these days we will see gotten more in novels written by Americans, and I think this is why that woman approached me in the coffee queue. She has been reading too many American novels.

My big dictionary says gotten means obtained, acquired or gained, with the first use my big dictionary could find being in 1340. It adds that the word is “now rare, except in ill-gotten”. Some English people still say getten.

So, it seems that the experts aren’t of much help. They say it is rare, but people still use it.

And – blame the English, not the Americans.

Of course, I could suggest to that woman “get a life”.;








Are you a Greek? W/E JAN 31



Years ago, as a child, I caught a double deck government bus from Cardiff to Broadmeadow and then caught another double-deck bus to somewhere near Waratah to watch a Newcastle rugby side play the Barbarians. I don’t know why I did it, but I think I wanted to see why some rugby clubs were called Barbarians.

The question wasn’t answered at the time – but my memory tells me it was a good game.

If you have never been Greek, then the chances are you can call yourself a Barbarian. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary says a Barbarian, in a few pages of definitions, can be “one not a Greek”.

The reason? I’m getting to it.

I had a letter from a person of Greek descent only a couple of weeks back. He comes from Toowoomba and has a good old Greek nickname, “Jock”. You don’t want to know why.

So, what is a barbarian?

Years ago, the Greeks spoke in such an unusual way -- “it’s all Greek to me” -- that very few from other countries could understand what they were saying. An exemption seemed to be given to those who were Romans or educated Christians. So the Greeks called upon a word that meant the foreigners stammered. This word passed from Greek into Latin and eventually into English as barbarian.

I don’t think the Greeks implied that the foreigners were rude or savage, although my 1604 dictionary from Robert Cawdrey says a barbarian is “a rude person”. The Greeks simply could not understand what people from elsewhere were saying.

I know a few Scotsmen that I can’t understand, but I would never call them barbarians – not to their faces, anyway.

A barbarian, according to my big dictionary, was originally “one whose language and customs differ from the speaker’s” and then “one not a Greek”.

So, from being a stammerer, a barbarian became one who could not be understood and in time “a wild, uncivilised person” – my dictionary again.

The Roman poet Ovid could probably describe himself as a Barbarian. He once said he was “understood by no one”. I know the feeling.

When Shakespeare, in Othello, spoke of an “erring Barbarian” he was referring to a person who was a native of Barbary.

No doubt, those people from the Barbary Coast are very polite and help little old ladies cross the street – that sort of thing – even though those countries in North Africa changed their name a few years back.

The generic word eventually lost its capital B. A female barbarian became known as a barbarianese. I don’t think Jane Fonda in the movie Barbarella was a barbarian. From memory, she certainly didn’t help little old ladies cross the street, although people thought enough of the movie to plan a remake.

The Barbarian rugby players were, and still are, those who were able to play with their enemies in social, top-level rugby without the pressure of having to win. They also had to have a good record for sportsmanship.

The Collins Dictionary says a barbarian, among other things, shows no respect for literature.

Prominent author Peter Fitzsimons, who once said he was the only Wallaby ever to have been sent from the field – unfairly, of course – was a Barbarian.

Fitzsimons said one of the books I wrote, My Word, was “wonderful, insightful and fascinating”, but he had probably experienced a heavy night when he said that.

I suppose if someone calls you a barbarian, you could always ask if he is Greek.;



Just remember the good times W/E JAN 24


Who was that lady I saw you with last night?

That was no lady; that was my wife.

Okay, you’ve heard that one.

But if you’re trying to forget that fling you had with that person down the street you had better go easy on Auld Lang Syne.

Perhaps you can simply hum the tune while others are singing it with gusto.

Of all the questions I have received about words during the past 12 months Auld Lang Syne was among the leaders.

Everybody sings it but few understand what it means.

It was not a composition of Robert Burns, although Burns had a hand in it.

I was reading an article from Scotland recently where somebody wanted to create a world record by having many people sing Auld Lang Syne. The article said it was Robert Burns’ most famous poem.
He had a hand in the modern song, but a 17th century poem that has long been forgotten read:

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never thought upon,
The flames of love extinguished,
And freely past and gone.
Is thy kind heart now grown so cold
In that loving breast of thine,
That thou canst never once reflect
On old-long-syne?”

As the years wore on people seemed to put their own interpretation on the words.

The three words of the song should not be looked at independently.

Auld is an old Scottish way of saying old.

My big dictionary says lang means long (a word which takes up eight pages of my big dictionary, so excuse me if I have missed a few meanings).

One of the many meanings of syne is “before now” or ago.

Burns in 1796 wrote “lang syne” in an entirely different context. Several other authors wrote of syne in an entirely different context, such as “he was here a minute syne”.

But you shouldn’t read the words of Auld Lang Syne independently.

Take it to mean something like “let us all be friends, for the sake of old times”.

The story that has come to us through the ages is that Robert Burns wrote down a much older Scottish song, put his own words to some of it, and then sent it off to a person collecting old Scottish songs. Burns said the song Auld Lang Syne had never been in print, “nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man”.

Auld Lang Syne is often sung to mark the end of one year or at the departure of old friends.

Some say Guy Lombardo is credited with reviving it in 1929.

So far as I can tell, the song that we now know comprises six verses.

The first verse is:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.

The chorus is:

For days of long ago, my dear,
for days of long ago,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for days of long ago.

The final verse is:

And there’s a hand my trusty friend,

And give us a hand o’ thine,
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

Some versions have different words, and older poems since discovered tell a different story altogether.

You could suggest it means something like “forget you saw me with a blonde the other night”.

But if you have a clear conscience just enjoy the song the way it was meant to be sung.;





Don't forget family W/E JAN 17


On Christmas Day my wife and I drove several hours to a country town to visit a distant relative who, because of a physical condition, had spent most of her adult life in a nursing home. She had earlier sent a card saying the previous Christmas Day had been very lonely for her because, although she had close relatives just down the street, not one had visited her on Christmas Day.

“I hope this year I will see one of my family on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day”, she said.

Several years ago a late-morning visit to the cemetery in this same country town showed that many family groups had not forgotten those no longer with them. A couple, possibly honouring a promise made, sat on the grass near one headstone having a beer in the company of a friend or relative who had died during the year.

A moving sight, however, admittedly several years ago, was that at one of the most recent graves to be established in the cemetery. The grave site was still loose dirt. A teenage boy sat in the dirt, his eyes fixed on the mound covered with flowers. A man and a woman stood behind him, oblivious to the dust borne across the open paddock by the hot summer wind.

In the 30 minutes in which I was in their presence not a word was spoken, except for three from the man: “What a waste”. His quiet momentary sobbing was accompanied by a supporting hand from the boy and the woman. The grave was occupied by a 17-year-old boy shot dead by an intruder as he had studied for the Higher School Certificate only a few weeks earlier.

No doubt scenes like that were repeated around the country on Christmas Day, but most of us tend to overlook the fragility of life and to take for granted the good things we have.

On Christmas Day, 2014, I thought of that distant relative in her bed at the nursing home hoping that at least someone would visit her on Christmas Day.

Family is a precious possession. To most of us family means mum and dad and a couple of kids, along with probably grandparents and perhaps a few uncles and aunts and in-laws who visit us occasionally.

The earliest use in print of family that I could find came in 1425. It could refer to descendants from a common ancestor, or servants, or a collection of people or animals living together.

It derives from the Latin familia. English borrowed the word around the turn of the 15th century.

A related word is familiarity.

A commonly heard expression, with some relevance to Christmas, is “the family that prays together stays together”. The Oxford Library of Proverbs says the saying was invented by Al Scalpone, a professional commercial-writer, and was used as the slogan of the Roman Catholic Family Rosary Crusade by Father Patrick Peyton, with its first use on March 6, 1947, during the radio program Family Theatre of the Air.

Christmas means many things to different people, but I think of that woman, not that old, in the nursing home spending all her life in bed and hoping that at least one of her siblings would visit her.

Incidentally, I wrote a few years ago about an old woman who spent her adult life visiting her daughter in the same nursing home. The daughter died recently. Her mother now lives in that nursing home.;




Now it's easier to say you're a billionaire W/E JAN 11



This is the 20th year of this weekly column, now published in various newspapers around Australia and New Zealand.

By my calculations  I have published 1000 columns, but journalists are notoriously bad at maths so I might be out by a week or two.

I have been asked several times about the first column.

I remember the first column clearly, for two reasons.

One reason was that it touched on how much represented a billion.

The second reason was that in the previous week I had found myself standing in front of some very senior Japanese at the RSL club, and facing some RSL members, while the Ode was being played. It was a bit like that comment in FawleyTowers “don’t mention the war”.

As we approached the RSL club, the leader of these Japanese had asked me “how much is a billion”. I never ascertained why he had asked the question.

My answer was that the definition of a billion depended on which country he was in. I said at the time that a billion was a million million in England and a thousand million in the USA.

Australians were coming around to the American definition of billion.

Fowler's Modern English Usage, the 1994 edition, says of billion, trillion and quadrillion: "It should be remembered that these words do not mean in American (which follows the French) use what they mean in British English. For us they

mean the second, third, fourth, power of a million. A billion is a million millions, a trillion a million million millions... For Americans they mean a thousand multiplied by itself twice, three times, four times, so a billion is a thousand thousand thousands or a thousand millions, a trillion is a thousand thousand thousand thousands or a

million millions."

In 1991 (probably just after the Japanese visitor asked me the question) I compared notes with style authority Alan Peterson, who started writing an excellent column for the Sydney Morning Herald on the meaning of words in 1979. I was one of six finalists in a competition to replace Peterson when he retired from the Sydney Morning Herald, but the role went elsewhere.

In a letter of reply to my query, he agreed the word was confusing, “because the change in its meaning from a million million to a thousand million is not quite complete”.

Peterson, who died in 2011, said Britain had persisted with the million million definition of a billion for a long time, but by the 70s most of the British and Australian press had gone over to the thousand million standard.

“In written information they gave exact numbers in figures, so there was no confusion.

“The Herald explained its change of policy at least twice, but that does not stop the occasional reader writing to tell us we get it all wrong,” he said in his letter.

Stephen Murray-Smith said in his Australian usage book Right Words that the old British standard “should now be regarded as obsolete and only of historical interest”.

Not many people seem to remember the good old word milliard, going back to at least the 18th century, that once meant a thousand million.

My Australian Government Style Manual said clearly “avoid the term billion” because of the different meanings.

It all seems to mean that becoming a billionaire in Australia is now a thousand times easier.

And if you want to impress your friends, saying you are a billionaire sounds much better than saying you are a milliardaire.;                                              





12 days before or after W/E JAN 3


I saw a top-rating Australian television show just before Christmas that featured the twelve days of Christmas, or at least the first few days.

During a severe snowstorm during which everyone was trapped except two policemen (it was a poor script) three murders took place, the first of a man preparing the Christmas tree.

After the murderer was discovered, the survivors had a big party – no thought of informing the dead people’s relatives or even the undertakers. I had the distinct impression they were celebrating Christmas.

The show gave the impression that the twelve days of Christmas were before the big event, but the twelve days of Christmas come after Christmas.

Last year on December 13, my wife and I received an envelope (“Postage paid Australia”) advising us of a “12 days of cruisemas” deal. The deal would start on December 13, 2013, and would last for 12 days. Note we received this letter on December 13, so obviously we would have to rush to catch the boat in time.

I was interested in the note that, according to the envelope, the “12 days of cruisemas” would start on December 13.

If this was intended to refer, however vaguely, to the song, they should know that the 12 days of Christmas did not refer to the period before Christmas; they were the period after Christmas.

From what I have been told, and I wasn’t around at the time, the festival which refers to the 12 days of Christmas goes back to the fourth century. It was a time when all wars and fighting would end. The 12 days would start at Christmas and end with the feast of the Epiphany, January 6.

The Christmas carol Twelve Days of Christmas was published in 1780. It was published under the title The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball.

It refers to the 12 days starting on Boxing Day and ending the day before Epiphany. Please don’t ask me about the Epiphany. Ask somebody who knows about such things.

The song could best be described as a cumulative song, where people who confused the verses were expected to pay a forfeit.

Suggestions that it was a song to help Catholics learn their faith during a difficult time for Catholics in England have been dispelled. Many suggestions were put forward on the meaning of the verses and if I listed all the meanings I would go on till the cows came home.

Some Christians have put a meaning on every line, from the partridge in a pear tree (Jesus Christ) to 12 drummers drumming (the apostles). Somehow, I can’t see early Christians referring to Jesus Christ as a bird in a tree, even one that doesn’t fly very well. Others have disputed this interpretation. Shakespeare alluded to the 12 days in his Twelfth Night.

Various versions of the song are available, depending on what country you happen to be in. For instance, if you had to sing it would you sing four coloured birds, or curley birds, or corley birds, canary birds or colly (black) birds, or even calling birds.

But I always think of someone remembering a few days after Christmas that he had better buy something for his “true love”. I can understand the stumble as he tried to explain his lateness and his commitment to the relationship.;


Thanks for your argument W/E DEC 27




We’re probably all guilty of having begged the question at some time or other, especially when trying to win an argument against a formidable opponent. Most of us probably don't even realise we've done it.

A person who is probably now dead drew this to my attention about 20 years ago. I moved a book on my desk and there was his comment. I thought I had better mention it, in case he is not dead.

More and more people use the expression to beg the question when they mean something else, perhaps raise the question or even evade answering it. This caused my good friend no end of anguish. "Can't you put people right on this?" he asked.

The expression has been used since at least the time of Aristotle, so considering the changes that have been made to meanings of so many other words and phrases we could be a little surprised at the extent to which it has retained its original meaning.

"Begging the question" is arguing a point on a false premise, not "evading the question", even though some dictionaries are starting to include this new interpretation.

John Kane, of the school of politics and public policy at Griffith University (he might be dead too, for all I know) drew attention a couple of years ago to a report in The Australian which included: "The downgrading of the NSW governor's role ... begs the question: what will happen to our other state governors under a republic?" To him this was not "begging the question". It was simply raising a question.

An example of something "begging the question" would be: From the Fowler book "foxhunting is not cruel, since the fox enjoys the fun". This argument is based on a thought that can be disputed.

The expression comes from the Latin petitio principii, meaning "begging the principle". Brewer's  Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says the expression was first used by Aristotle, so obviously it is very old. Aristotle is dead, by the way.

Some dictionaries are now including the meanings of raising or avoiding the question, following the principle, criticised sometimes in these columns, that if enough people make the same mistake enough times that mistake might as well go in the dictionaries. Eventually it will not be a mistake. The Reader's Digest Word Finder includes the definition of "evade, avoid, dodge, shirk, shun, escape, avert, eschew, parry, fend off, sidestgep, steer clear of, shrug off, duck".

Frank Devine in The Australian Magazine quoted John Kane as saying the Australian misuse of "begging the question" seemed to be irreversible.

The word beg, incidentally, seems to owe its origin to Lambert Begue, who in The Netherlands in the 12th century founded the Beguine Sisterhood, a lay Roman Catholic Order. Followers depended on alms for a living, leading to the expression begging for a living.

As for question, Lewis Thomas in his book Et Cetera Et Cetera says that before 1200 a question was "a philosophical or theological problem, nothing more or less". He added that the Latin quaestionem and old French question referred to a legal investigation.

Incidentally, a few weeks ago I said somebody would list shirtfront of their word of the year. Oxford University Press has just announced shirtfront as its word of the year.;