In the meantime, here is a wonderful article on the subject by Jeanette Winterson, the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (her only readable book, in my opinion, but that’s another story):
‘Communicating with the dead is risky, especially on constipated ground’
by Jeanette Winterson (The Times, June 2006)
My column on damp squids and holly reefs and other howling etymologies seems to have delighted Times readers enough to send in stacks of their own. In the way of things, I was also bereted by two readers, indeed made into something of an escaped goat, for being sufficiently unfamiliar with the English language to imagine there was such a thing as a damp squid.
Now that I am also the Big Brother household’s favourite read, I shall no doubt suffer the fate of a previous contestant who thought East Angular was a sovereign state somewhere near China.
This is the sort of thing to drive anyone stark raven mad, or indeed to turn this whole column into a bit of a wild elephant. The only thing for it will be to drive off in my hunchback car and get a bit of aquapuncture.
Food seems to offer rich pickings for howlers: a fast-food joint in Singapore calls itself ‘Sudden Food’, but if that has crept up on you too quickly, have pity on the lady still searching for the recipe for Ends Meat, as in ‘I don’t know how I am going to make ends meet’. For the ladies’ man, Damsel Jam seems too good to miss and, for those who want to eat modestly, there is always the microway.
Other readers have been astonished at menu recommendations for Acid spumante (I cannot comment for legal reasons), banana spit, and home-made shepherd’s bush. At a wedding buffet recently, guests were met with Sausage Rolls, followed by Profit Rolls, or elsewhere, Prophetic Rolls, the kind of food, I imagine, that warns you of exactly how ill you are going to be by bedtime.
On the other hand, prophetic rolls might be just the thing to use to strike a happy medium, though why, as our reader inquires, we should wish our psychic friends to be unhappy, or indeed strike them when they are not, remains unclear.
Communicating with the dead is obviously a risky business, especially as they might be buried in constipated ground or, as the Countess of Harewood kindly suggested, have too hastily signed over their Power of Eternity.
One husband told me that his wife likes to say: ‘'If my mother were alive now, she’d turn in her grave.’ I know that’s not quite a fake etymology, but I include it, along with ‘my words fell on stony ears’. This must be close to bear-faced cheek, which might be a relative of the moveable beast, as in ‘Easter is a moveable beast — it all depends on when the hens start laying’.
I feel very sorry for the child who nearly choked on his biblical cord, and for the gentleman who feels ‘out on a limbo’. I think we have all felt out on a limbo sometimes, perhaps especially the lady who ‘has a milestone round her neck’.
I was sent a delicious little book, entitled A Decapitated Coffee, Please. This is a truly bonkers collection of malapropisms and misnomers, lovingly brought together by Des MacHale, and published by a little Irish publisher in Cork called Mercier Press.
Anyone out there — and it seems like most of you — who revels in our linguistic glories should get hold of this book. It is the kind of thing to keep in the loo — which, incidently, to correct one of my readers, doesn’t come from regardez vous, as the night-pail was sloshed out of the window, but from gardez-l’eau, indeed as the posh French chambermaids emptied their posh French chamberpots. Needless to say, the non-French less posh were soon copying the idea and mispronouncing it as Gardy-Loo. It is a bit like our friend San Fairy Ann, who I am told, has a sister called Fairy Nuff.
Anyway, the little book is perfect for the loo, and will cheer you up on those gloomy days when you are feeling a bit down in the mouse, presumably the mouse-hole, which I see is really a mouse-all, because that’s where all the mice live.
A couple of my favourites from the book are: ‘You could have knocked me down with a fender.’ And: ‘Now that I have read a book about Swedish sex, I know where my volvo is.’
Mrs Winterson used to talk about an interfering madam she disliked as a ‘proper Cleopatra’. On further inquiry I discovered she had ‘a rod up her asp’.When I asked what this meant, Mrs Winterson replied: ‘She won’t let sleeping snakes lie.’
Language deserves respect. Anyone who mangles it ought to be slapped.
Update (27 August): A word of caution: if you’re one of those unfortunate people for whom words mean nothing and who couldn’t care less about them but who still insist on writing, be very careful. Using a spellchecker doesn’t help: it doesn’t have a brain and will choose any word that resembles the one you can’t spell and produce a sentence that doesn’t make any more sense than the one you wrote originally. It will be much funnier, though.