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SATURDAY’S CHILD: Woty heck is this?


SATURDAY’S CHILD: Woty heck is this?

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OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, the great American jurist, is quoted by Leslie Dunkling, the author of the Guinness Book of Curious Words, as saying: “When I feel to read poetry I take down my Dictionary. The poetry of words is quite as beautiful as that of sentences.” Given that Mr Holmes was both poetic and accurate when he said: “Lawyers spend a great deal of their time shovelling smoke”, there is no question that he knew what he was talking about. As did Hamlet. When Polonius asked him: “What do you read, my Lord?”, Hamlet answered: “Words, words, words.” 

One can say that the answer is obvious. What else can you read? However, the scholars and interpreters find so much meaning in the triple repetition of the word “words” that even though Hamlet’s response is so short it occupies less than a line, they can even read between the lines of the line and write many words and paragraphs about Hamlet’s words. 

As Ken Russell and Philip Carter say in the Introduction to The Complete Guide to Word Games and Word Play, “People delight in playing with words – pulling words apart, reconstructing them in different guises, arranging them in clever patterns and finding hidden meaning in them.”

For example, one of the most addictive word games is what is called the “Alternative Dictionary”, the object of which is to find witty alternative definitions for words. “Wanton” – A Chinese weight. “Tartrate”– A hooker’s fee. “Diatribe” – a bad bunch. “Propagate”– keep the door ajar. (Which also leads to the question, “When is a door not a door?” When it is ajar.) “Gladiator” – how the cannibal felt about his mother-in-law. And “Abundance” – aerobics for pregnant women.  There are also “Feghoots” (an anagram of “the goofs”), a punning game described as a long “shaggy dog” story with a ridiculous punchline. According to The Complete Guide, the original feghoots were one-pagers in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and were about the adventures of one Ferdinand feghoot.

This is a feghoot: An awkward and poorly coordinated bumble bee became ill while gathering pollen but continued his work and infected all the flowers with his virus. The disease, of course, was called “the blight of the fumble bee”. 

Here’s one for the road: “The king caught the count stealing from the treasury. The count refused to tell the king where he had hidden the treasure. The king ordered him to be beheaded. The count at the last moment started to talk but the Executioner couldn’t stop his axe. That will teach the king ‘not to hatchet his counts before they are chicken’.”

Politicians not only indulge in, but are all diatribes as defined in the alternative dictionary. However, they have their uses and one of these is now a new word in the Oxford English and American Dictionary.

I grew up with Oxford and we used it even to write the Cambridge examinations. In elementary school, the Pocket Oxford, the oldest of the abridged dictionaries, was mandatory and sometimes, when in anger we hurled them at one another, it was an early example of the Caribbean propensity to throw words. This is why I follow the annual WOTY or Oxford’s Word Of The Year which last year was not even a word. As PC World said: “Oxford Dictionaries just selected its word of the year for 2015 and here it is: Yes, for the first time in history, the hallowed authority on the English language is selecting a pictograph, a.k.a. emoji (face with tears of joy) as its word of the year is a fascinating choice for Oxford Dictionaries = one that emphasises how important the emoji has become to modern language. The rise of text-centric communication apps such as Line, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger have made emojis a necessary solution for expressing emotion as clearly as possible. That’s a limitation that written text has never been able to overcome, especially with short bursts of communication made up of just a line or two.”

This year, 2016, the WOTY is “post-truth”. The Telegraph newspaper says: “Reflecting the political upheavals in both Britain and America, Oxford Dictionaries has announced a joint US-UK word of the year: ‘post-truth’. The word is an adjective, defined in the dictionary as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ . . . . While it has been around since 1992, when it was first used in relation to the Persian Gulf War, usage of ‘post-truth’ has increased by 2 000 per cent over the past year, according to the Oxford English corpus, which analyses 150 million spoken and written words from various sources each month.” According to Oxford: “It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase ‘post-truth politics’.” In other words, the media no longer have to post truth. This takes us back to what Oliver Wendell Holmes said about lawyers and the need to apply it to all the other professions which deal in words. What we do is shovel smoke. And peddle mirrors.

 Tony Deyal was last seen saying that the people who chose an emoji or “post-truth” as words of the year are WOTY of a post-humorous award for brazenry.