“That very beautiful medium, the English Language”

When I was a teenager, two of my favourite writers were Max Beerbohm and Lytton Strachey. 

Lytton StracheyPut aside their subject matter for a moment. What thrilled me about these two was the structure, the cadence, the musicality of their prose.

I’ve been rediscovering them both. Today I re-read Beerbohm’s 1943 Rede Lecture on Lytton Strachey. It’s a slender, purple pamphlet my grandfather gave me (or which I liberated from his shelves).

It’s twenty years since I read it, so every word was fresh. Take a read:

The English language, being part Latin, part Saxon, is, in my rough insular opinion, an even finer medium than the French one. Latin is, one might say, its bony structure, Saxon its flesh and blood.”

Then: …read more

Is your business communicating in ‘bafflegab’?

In 1952, Milton A. Smith, assistant general counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce was presented with a plaque for coining a punchy new word.

He first used it in the Chambers’ Washington Report, criticising the Office of Price Stabilization for the bureaucratic language it used in a price order.

Milton had spent many frustrating hours trying to explain the order to his colleague, and eventually decided the maddening blend of “incomprehensibility, ambiguity, verbosity and complexity” needed a new word to describe it.

So he created one: …read more

The ‘only known joke about collective nouns’

I was listening to radio last night, and laughed my head clean off when I heard this joke – billed as ‘the only known joke about collective nouns’.

I hunted it down and pinched it off the Time website for your pleasure:

Four dons were walking down an Oxford street one evening. All were philologists and members of the English department. They were discussing group nouns: a covey of quail, a pride of lions, an exaltation of larks.

As they talked, they passed four ladies of the evening. The dons did not exactly ignore the hussies—in a literary way, that is. One of them asked: “How would you describe a group like that?”

Suggested the first: “A jam of tarts?” The second: “A flourish of strumpets?” The third: “An essay of Trollope’s?” Then the dean of the dons, the eldest and most scholarly of them all, closed the discussion: “I wish that you gentlemen would consider ‘An anthology of pros.’ “