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On Christmas Eve 1940, The Times presented readers with its usual seasonal set of general knowledge questions. One question asked for a definition and derivation of the word godwottery. This was a bit cheeky on the part of the compilers, as the word had appeared in print for the first time only in 1936 and must have been unknown to most readers.

Three days later it offered the definition “Contemptuous term for a type of sentimental writing.” As Evelyn Waugh’s foreign editor in Scoop would have said, “Up to a point, Lord Copper”. One sense of the word does indeed refer to language, but to the employment of deliberately archaic vocabulary. That sense was used — possibly for the first time — by the successful British author Norah Lofts in her book Out of This Nettle of 1938 (published in the US under the title Colin Lowrie). In an author’s note she said, “I have written this so-called historical novel in so-called modern language”, hoping that her readers “will appreciate this lack of ‘God-wottery’.”

However, the two earliest examples that I know of are connected not with literature but with gardening. This is one:

There is no need to descend to Godwottery, or even to know the difference between an aquilegia and an antirrhinum, in order to be enthralled by the ingenious and lovely shape, colour and texture — to say nothing of scent — which surround you.

Try Anything Twice, by Jan Struther, 1938.

Godwottery for gardeners means an exaggeratedly elaborate creation that jumbles together incompatible styles and materials with kitsch decorations. In August 1969, the Guardian described such a garden: “Cotswold stone retaining walls; vaguely Spanish wrought iron gates; ‘crazy’ paving, nowadays often coloured yellow, green, and pink; plainly irregular ponds, now usually of pale blue fibreglass, fed by streams of impossible source; gnomes, fairies, and animals, usually plastic.”

This meaning comes by linguistic legerdemain from a short poem, My Garden, written by the Manxman Thomas Brown in 1876 while he was a schoolmaster at Clifton College in Bristol. We remember now, if at all, only its first line, “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot.” Thereby Brown was himself perpetrating godwottery by making use of an archaic verb.

The verb is wit, to know, one of the more irregular verbs in the language: wot is the present tense and wist the past. So God wot means “God knows”. The only survival of the verb is the formal to wit, meaning “that is to say”, introducing an explanation of something that has gone before.

Both senses of godwottery survive, both with and without a hyphen, though it was never much used and has largely fallen out of favour. Its constituency divides neatly in two, with writers on gardening using one of the related senses and literary critics the other.

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Page created 09 Jun 2012