Friday, 14 November 2014

Rhetorical Advertising

Just a link today to this article that I wrote for the New York Times on the rhetoric of advertising slogans.

Be all you can be.
To be or not to be.
Et c.
Et c.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Collins Dictionary and Me

Collins English DictionaryThe 12th edition of the Collins English Dictionary is published today, and I'm terribly proud to say that I wrote the introduction. It's beautiful and sleek and black, and it's the largest single-volume English dictionary there is. It's got 50,000 new entries in this edition, something they've managed by clever expedient of making the paper thinner.

So now you can look up the word slumbersome (meaning sleepy), or dreamwhile (the duration of a dream), or eyesome (meaning beautiful), or twerk.

You can read a BBC article all about it by following this link. And as they've included the opening of the introduction, I think I shall as well:

There are few pastimes in life as pleasurable and profitable as reading the dictionary. The plot is, of course, rather weak, and the moral of the whole thing slightly elusive; but for my money there isn't another book that comes close to it. In any case, all other books are simply rearrangements of this one, and partial rearrangements at that.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Katy Perry, Shakespeare, and the Bible

Just a link today to this article that I wrote for the Huffington Post. It's about progressio and diacope and the Beatles and other such fun stuff. It is, of course, a further reminder that The Elements of Eloquence is now out in the U.S. of A.

Also, on Thursday I'm going to be in Oxford, at Blackwells on a panel discussing whether bookshops will exist one hundred years from now. Do come along if you're in Oxford.
Charles Dickens writing Tale of Two Cities

Friday, 10 October 2014

Eloquent Americans Elements of Eloquence is out in the USA. The greatest thing about the United States of America is that anybody can grow up to be president, so long as they can use chiasmus.

What is chiasmus, I hear you ask? Well, let's ask the presidents.

You stood up for America, now America must stand up for you.
         - Barack Obama (44th President) addressing U.S. veterans.

Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
         - George Bush the Younger (43rd President)

People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example that by the example of our power.
         - William Clinton (42nd President)

The difference between them and us is that we want to check government spending and they want to spend government checks.
         - Ronald Reagan (40th President)

America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.
          - Jimmy Carter (39th President)

And so on and so forth. Ask not what Your President can do for chiasmus, but what chiasmus can do for your President. Even if you're just a presidential hopeful, you need to have a chiasmus up your sleeve just to apply. Mitt Romney said "Freedom require religion, just as religion requires freedom." Hilary Clinton said "In the end, the true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it's whether the president delivers on the speeches." Sarah Palin opined that "In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change." And Mae West said "It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men."

That's what chiasmus is; and that sort of thing is what The Elements of Eloquence is all about. Chiasmus is one of the figures of rhetoric, and The Elements of Eloquence goes through the figures showing what they are, how they work, and how to write them.

I even kept American readers in mind whilst writing it. I was going to quote my namesake (but no relation) Bruce Forsyth saying "Nice to see you, to see you nice." But nobody beyond the Atlantic would have heard of that line.

So rush out and buy The Elements of Eloquence. Or, if you like, buy it from Barnes & Noble, Amazon or Indie Bound. It is your free right and your right freedom. Meanwhile, I shall wait for the election to the White House of Mr Billy Ocean.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Soak The Rich

The British news at the moment is full of talk of "soaking the rich". I forget which party is meant to be doing it, as I have no interest in parties not of the birthday variety. But the rich, it appears, are to be soaked sodden. This is rather odd when you think about it. Who are these soaking rich, and why are they so very, very moist?

The answer, it appears, is that they aren't wet at all. Soaking the rich goes back to 1935 when F.D. Roosevelt was accused of soaking the rich with his taxes. The OED has:

He thought he was being ‘clever’ when he tried to steal Huey Long's thunder by suddenly coming out with his ‘soak the rich’ tax message.

The Americans had been using the word soak to mean overcharge or extort money since at least 1895. But it has nothing to do with moisture. It's to do with hitting people.

Ever since 1699 people have been using the word sock to mean hit, beat, pummel, punch or bash. Often a mysterious it is inserted as in "sock it to him". The Americans, for some reason best known to the Americans, decided to start using soak for sock. So in 1892 they could say:

To-day's Washington Post ‘soaks’ it to the Southern Democrats in the House

And just as you can be hit for money, or stung for money, so you can be soaked, or socked, for money. So they're soaking [it to] the rich.

There's even a lovely Mark Twain line from 1883 where you can see the word just tipping over. In The Art of Inhumation a salesman says:

Why, just look at it. A rich man won’t have anything but your very best; and you can just pile it on, too—pile it on and sock it to him—he won’t ever holler.

And that, dear reader, proves that a chap can be soaked dry.

By taxing umbrellas

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

New Books and Snipes

Just to let everyone know, The Elements of Eloquence is out in paperback (at least in the UK), and The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the delights of not getting what you wanted is now available in all bookshops, not just independent ones, for only £1.99.

Anyway, there's a seabird called a snipe. It wades around and eats crustaceans, and of course it flies. It flies though in a very erratic way, changing direction all the time, and it's also rather well camouflaged. This makes it very hard to shoot.

I don't really know why you'd want to shoot a snipe, maybe they're delicious, never tried. The point is that it's only the very sharpest of sharp-shooters who can manage it. They are therefore called snipers.

I'd never seen the connection before.

I shall be giving a lunchtime talk (or talk with lunch included) at the Sevenoaks Literary Festival next Tuesday (the 23rd). Do come along if you can, but you'll need a ticket.

The Inky Fool searching for lunch
And I've just found an 1840 description of sniping in India. It's from a book called Scenes and Sports in Foreign Lands by Edward Napier
Now cast we a glance at what is allowed to be the best and one of the most exciting sports of the East—I mean, snipe shooting. In its effects it is also the most fatal to the British sportsman. A burning sun over head, whilst for hours immersed above the ankles in water, together with being exposed to the noxious marshy exhalations, have, alas! proved fatal to many, and have probably added more greatly to the numerous cases of fever, liver complaint, and dysentery, than anything else in the treacherous climate of India. Still with this hand-post of " high road to the other world" full in view, such are the attractions of this pursuit, that few who are fairly engaged in it can ever leave it off, until brought suddenly up by one of the above stumbling-blocks. It becomes a sort of infatuation. With his brandy-flask by his side, and his wellfilled bag, the sniper still wanders through his old haunts, the well-known Paddyfields, until at last brought down himself by the unerring aim of the grim Azrael —the angel of death.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Guardians, Wardens and Gages

The British newspaper industry is looking up
I'm giving a Guardian Masterclass on grammar tomorrow (I think there are still tickets available). And it reminded me of mortgages and wardens.

Back in the dear old Dark Ages when all was umbrous, the French used to borrow words from the Germans. Some of these words began with a W, which the French, being French, found hard to pronounce and changed them to a G.

But not all the French. The northern Frenchmen could say their Ws and so French would end up with two forms of the word, one beginning with G and the other with a W. And then we English would import both.

I don't know if you've ever wondered what the difference is between a guarantee and a warranty, but really there isn't one. It's the same word one via Southern French and one via the Northern.

Similarly, when medieval chaps wanted to challenge somebody they would throw down their gage as a challenge. This sense still survives in en-gage (for marriage is really a long duel) and mort-gage, which, as I explained in The Etymologicon is really a death-challenge. Or, to be more precise, a death-wager, because gage gave use wage and wager, which both involve putting down items of value.

And the third of these doubles is guard vs ward. Same words, pronounced differently. And the same thing goes for a warden and a guardian. Hence my long train of thought.

The Inky Fool delivering his lecture