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Newsletter 780
31 Mar 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Sooth.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Sentence-initial and

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Ambulances and cliffs Ira Rimson pointed out that an even earlier reference exists to the idiom ambulance at the bottom of the cliff than the one from 1920 that I quoted; it appears to be the original from which all other references follow. It’s a poem with the title A Fence or an Ambulance, which appears online under various authors’ names (or none) and in a number of versions, but is now perhaps best known in the one sung by John Denver. The poem is by the English temperance activist Joseph Malins and dates from 1895. It’s recorded in his biography of 1932 but the earliest appearance that I’ve found is over his name in a US newspaper of December 1901. The poem is an allegory. A community debates whether to build a fence at the top of a cliff to prevent people falling or to provide an ambulance at the bottom to treat the injuries resulting from falls. This is the last verse in its 1901 appearance:

Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old, For the voice of true wisdom is calling: “To rescue the fallen is good, but ’tis best To prevent other people from falling.” Better close up the source of temptation and crime Than deliver from dungeon or galley; Better put a strong fence round the top of the cliff. Than an ambulance down in the valley!

2. Weird Words: Sooth

At my grammar school, more than 50 years ago, one teacher would look sternly at a boy who had produced some lame excuse for a task not done, clasp the lapels of his academic gown in both hands and query him thusly: “speakest thou sooth, boy?” He clearly fancied himself as a wit, though we mentally added a second t.

Sooth does indeed mean “truth”, an Old English word that can be traced back to the Sanskrit adjective satyas, true or real. It has not been in daily use for about four centuries, except in the fixed phrases by my sooth or my sooth, interjections now obsolete which emphasised that the speaker was telling the truth. Sooth was reintroduced in the nineteenth century as a literary archaism by writers such as Sir Walter Scott.

In sooth, there was that in her face and in her voice when she spoke which almost made Anne weep, through its strange sweetness and radiance.

A Lady of Quality, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1896. This work is exceptionally full of sooth — the author uses the word 20 times.

The best-known compounds of sooth are forsooth and soothsayer. The former literally means “in truth” or “truly” but for the past two centuries or so has been a humorous or derisive alternative to the disbelieving “Is that so?” or “Indeed?”

“Is one to have no privacy, Glossop?” I said coldly. “I instructed Jeeves to lock the door because I was about to disrobe.” “A likely story!” said Tuppy, and I’m not sure he didn’t add “Forsooth!”

Right Ho, Jeeves, by P G Wodehouse, 1934.

Soothsayer is much better known. This came into English early in the fourteenth century, with the meaning one might expect — a person who tells the truth. But within a century it had already been modified to mean somebody who only pretends to tell the truth, in particular one who claims to be able to foretell the future.

Futurology has rather fallen out of fashion since the spectacular failure of economists and other soothsayers to see the economic meltdown coming.

The Herald, 2 Mar. 2012.

3. Wordface

Winning with Poo! The result of the Diagram prize for the oddest book title of 2011 was announced on Friday: Cooking With Poo by Saiyuud Diwong. Horace Bent, the Bookseller’s legendary diarist and custodian of the prize, said: “Given that the three most voted-for works contain the words poo, sexer and penis in their titles, it appears this year’s competition will go down in history as a blue one.” Cooking with Poo is a 114-page cookbook. Saiyuud Diwong lives in Klong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok. Her nickname is Poo (Thai for “crab”). She runs the Helping Hands Thai Cookery School, a community self-help programme created in partnership with the Urban Neighbours of Hope charity.

4. Questions and Answers: Sentence-initial and

Q From Bob Maggs: Is it correct English to begin a sentence with and?

A Yes.

Though perhaps overly bald, that’s a fair statement of the view of grammarians and stylists.

Many of us, particularly if we are of mature years, will remember having had it drummed into us in school that we shouldn’t do this. The rule was often broadened to decry but, or, however, so, also and other connecting words.

Free yourself of any concern. All the style guides that I have on my shelves are firm in their belief that it’s perfectly good English. The prohibition is equated with the ones about not ending a sentence with a preposition or not splitting infinitives. All are regarded as unthinking perpetuations of false ideas that take no account of the way in which we actually use the language.

Even writers on style who are usually considered to be curmudgeonly mark it as a non-error. Others dismiss it as “outmoded convention” or “rank superstition”. The first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 1926 has no mention of the matter, either because it wasn’t then an issue or because the author thought it not worth mentioning. (Later editions have included it, but only to dismiss it.) When the brothers Fowler wrote The King’s English in 1906, they mentioned the initial and, but only to stress that it shouldn’t be followed by a comma. It’s hard to find any grammarian, of however traditional a stripe, having at any time gone on record to disparage the use of sentence-initial ands. The only one I know was in 1868, who said “it is not scholarly” to do so, a view reflected in current academic prose, which uses it significantly less than other forms of writing.

But there’s often a rider to the effect that, like any grammatical construction, it shouldn’t be overdone. A succession of sentences starting in and reads like a child’s description of what they did on their holidays: “We got in the car. And we drove a long way. And then we arrived at this big hotel. And ...”. Some writers, otherwise puzzled about where the proscription originated, have suggested this may have been where it came from, as a way to encourage children to write in longer and more complex sentences.

Grammarians and stylists often point out that the history of starting sentences with conjunctions in English can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times. The King James Bible of 1611, that monument to splendid English prose, is chock-a-block with them.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Genesis, King James Bible, 1611. In the first chapter alone, 33 sentences begin with “and”; 11 more occur after colons. The whole KJB has 12,863 instances.

The translators kept the narrative structure of the original, an age-old way of telling a story, long predating English, which to us is as unsophisticated as a child’s first attempt. But innumerable writers have used an initial and, albeit in more moderation.

At the end of three yards I shall repeat them — for fear of your forgetting them. At the end of four, I shall say goodbye. And at the end of five, I shall go!

Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, 1865.

This was the first he had let us know he knew a lot more about something than we thought he knew. And it had happened years ago.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, 1960.

Of course you were far too young to remember. But who says? If love travels at the speed of light then it could have other powers just on the edge of the possible. And things create impressions on babies.

London Fields, by Martin Amis, 1989.

I’d go further than just to say it’s allowable and argue it can be a stylish way of introducing a follow-on thought or the development of a narrative; it’s given emphasis through being separated from what precedes it by a full stop.

“Come in,” cried Miss Squeers faintly. And in walked Nicholas.

Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens, 1865.

So yes it is. But use it consciously, in awareness of your intended readership, and certainly not to excess.

5. Sic!

• The old ones are still the best. In a quote from the Queen’s speech to the joint houses of Parliament that appeared in the Independent on 20 March Paula Maier found this: “The work of millions in the professional and voluntary services, whose efforts were for the pubic good, would also be recognised this year.”

• Anthony Baker, John Neilson and Barry Joy all sent this sentence from the Sydney Morning Herald of 26 March: “A critical incident investigation was underway last night after a man was killed by a police officer for the second time in a week”.

• Weather forecasters’ phraseology is sometimes charming, sometimes incongruous. The forecast on BBC Radio 4 at lunchtime last Tuesday confirmed that Britain’s unseasonal heat wave was continuing: “The whole of the country has wall-to-wall sunshine”.

• Chip Clark pointed me to the New York Times’ After Deadline section, in which errors of grammar and style in the paper are discussed. One was from the issue of 17 March: “This year, Mr. Adelson has given at least $10 million, along with his wife, to support Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign”. It has been corrected online.

• Robert Waterhouse found this in the March issue of What’s Out, the Addis Ababa events guide: “A spacious paint house for rent located in the upscale Bisrate Gebriel neighborhood; Balcony on every side; A 360 degree paranoiac view of Addis.” [Paint house is Ethiopian English for penthouse.]

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