Thursday, 3 September 2009

Word of the day; or, in which I talk a lot of nonsense

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

My word of the day is actually Oof, because this is the sound I am making every five minutes. I have a low level virus. Nothing as proper as swine flu, just the bog standard everything hurts bug. Both my nieces have had it; it is going round the compound. It consists of: pain all up and down the back, as if one has been kicked by a cross Shetland pony; eyes like boiled sweets; general sense of anomie; glands up like steel hawsers in the neck. I have a little grumble about it on Twitter, and the entire enchanting community rises up like one big mamma and sends me every possible remedy, from whisky to golden seal. I take seriously the suggestion from my friend Miss Whistle, who is herself surviving smoke inhalation from the California wildfires, to add some cayenne pepper to my ginger tea. 'If you can stand it,' she says, unwisely, not knowing that even when filthy ill my competitive spirit will not resist a challenge. So my second word of the day is Aaaahhhh, as I drink the spiciest tea I can bear. I cannot tell whether it is doing me any good, but it is so hot that it diverts the pain from my back to my tongue, giving an impression of relief.

Anyway, none of that is the point. I think there is a point, but my brain in fuzzy. Oh yes: I was wandering listessly around the interweb, because I can't concentrate enough to read a proper book, and my muscles ache too much to allow me to doze, and I must do something to distract myself, and I happened upon an article by the interesting academic Sarah Churchwell about how her students were having trouble with the English language. This kind of thing always makes me sad, and I try to pretend very hard that it is not true. It started me thinking about grammar and language and rules and what matters and what doesn't. Her initial complaint was that none of her students could tell her what a complete sentence was. The Greeks or Americans would be able to tell her in a heartbeat, apparently, but the clueless Britons just mutter 'subject, verb, object'. Oh dear, I thought, that is exactly what I would mutter, and I am a writer. I get all lyrical about the semi-colon. I went to a highly-regarded university in the days when you had to sit a separate exam to get in. Could it be true that all these years I have got it wrong? Yes, says Professor Churchwell, and she has the chops to tell me right from wrong: she teaches at East Anglia, she has been on Newsnight with Martin Amis, she is a serious academic. She says that a correct sentence is: subject, predicate, complete thought. Bugger. I am so fucked.

What is worrying about this is that not only have I been wrong about sentences for the last twenty-five years, but that I may also have been wrong in my central, endlessly repeated idea that you must know the rules of grammar in order to break them. When I thought of writing good English I thought of Picasso, and his blue period. I would wager that not that many people know a huge amount about the blue period, Pablo is so famous for his modernist, deconstructed, back to front paintings. When we think of Picasso we think of Guernica, or those great portraits of Dora Maar or the demoiselles of Avignon. (Memo to self: please try and retrain brain not to use editorial we. Memo back to self: much too ill to think of that now, go away.) The correct, almost classical blue period paintings do not shout Picasso. But my theory was: he had to do those to understand everything he could about perspective and how to use light and the way that oil lies on a canvas, and then, once he knew the serious rules about everything, he could bust out and go wild and put people's noses behind their knees if he wanted to. So my theory went that since I knew everything about grammar, I too could go crazy and create knees with noses behind them. I liked to think of writing like jazz: I wanted to improvise and riff about a bit and, you know, play with the form. (My friend the Man of Letters says a day is not a day unless you have played with the form.) I am not as playful as I would like to be, especially not in non-fiction, not as antic as the late great Stan Gebler Davies or the very much with us Caitlin Moran or the enduring Christopher Hitchens. But the idea was there. And now I discover I was working on a false premise because all the time I did not know what a bloody sentence was.

This, interestingly (or not) is still not the point. That was just a sideshow I was allowing myself because my head hurts. The point was, I got to the end of Professor Churchwell's interesting article and there was the word 'apraxia'. Look it up, she says, I had to. No, no, I thought, not me. I may not know grammar from a hole in the ground, but I know words. Words are my bread and butter, my daily oxygen, my swallows flying south for the winter. Apraxia clearly means something to do with suffocation. I know that. In the end, sheepishly, I looked it up. It means the inability to execute voluntary movement, due to some failure in the cortex. Double bugger and arse.

So I thought: all right, let's get a word of the day thing going on the blog, because even I can't know all the words, in their right order. Probably Martin Amis does not know all the words. Although Will Self clearly does. I'll find a nice little word of the day site and paste it in or something, I thought. An occasional series, I thought, I like those. And I went to the word of the day, which was just what I was looking for, and it said: Carom. Carom? I said. Come on. There is no way that is a word. Someone is having a laugh. They mean careen, surely. It's not even one of those technical terms with very limited use referring only to a particular moment in the moon's waxing or waning. It means, apparently: a glancing off, or, to strike and rebound. People do it in snooker all the time. I used to play snooker with handsome boys in louche pool halls at the wrong end of Westbourne Grove in the days when Westbourne Grove had a wrong end, and not one of them ever used the word carom. They did not say: 'Good lord, that ball is caroming about today.' I shall not tell you what they did say, for legal reasons. So now I don't know what to think. I suppose that Carom must be my word for the day, but I think that chagrin might be more appropriate. I think that snookered might fit the bill better. I think that I might have been better off if I had just stuck with oof and been done with it.


  1. oh sweetpea, I do hope you feel better soon LLGxx

    ps I pride myself on my range of vocab, & i didn't know the meaning of carom either

  2. Thanks to the divine Mrs Trefusis for sending me thisaway. Maybe carom is an American word (?) - at any rate we do a fair amount of caroming in the colonies. Especially after a cocktail or two. And just thought I'd say that as your sentences all have complete thoughts and perfectly lovely grammar, I'm anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused any pericombobulation.

  3. OED confirms 'carom' is chiefly a US figurative usage: B. v. intr. (transf. in quots.) To strike or glance and rebound. Also fig. Chiefly U.S. 1860 O. W. HOLMES Prof. Breakf.-t. 67 She glanced from every human contact, and ‘caromed’ from one relation to another. 1883 Harper's Mag. Mar. 494/2 A single stone was made to ‘carom’. 1911 MULFORD Bar-20 Days iv. 45 The table skidded through the door on one leg and carromed off the bar at a graceful angle. 1943 K. TENNANT Ride on Stranger (1968) xvii. 219 It was here that Mrs. Brewster made the mistake..of caroming off a telegraph post into the ditch. 1946 H. CROOME Faithless Mirror xviii. 192 The car lurched crazily..up the gully, caroming from side to side. 1952 B. WOLFE Limbo '90 xix. 284 The phrase caromed through his mind. 1967 Boston Globe 18 May 36/8 Rockets carom to the moon.

  4. LLG - Thank you so much for healing thoughts. Most relieved that I am not only one not to know of the caroming. But I am thinking I really must learn to get less competitive about vocabulary. xxx

    Sarah - oh,oh,there you are, visiting my blog, which today is all about you. Most shy-making. But fascinated to learn about the caroming after cocktails. I shall look across the Atlantic in a whole new light.

    I was pericombobulating in true Blackadder style after reading your piece, but you have now soothed my troubled mind. I actually think we should bring frasmotic into daily use. It sounds like a cross between frottage and spasmodic. How the horses will stare.

  5. Sarah - wow, you are GOOD. Now coming round to carom and wondering why it never bled over to this side of the pond. It is almost onomatopoeic.

  6. I love using the OED to pretend to be smart. Lack of familiarity with caroming now makes something clear: I wrote a review once in which I described something/one as caroming, or was it careening, around? And it got changed to careering. I think. Anyway, I was cross, although I can't now remember which direction it got changed in (syntax fail, don't care enough to fix, sorry). Isn't it funny that carom, career, and careen all mean roughly the same thing? As you say, almost onomatopoeic. What is frottage? Shall look up.

  7. Ooh like frottage. And nice to meet you, btw!

  8. Hope you feel better soon - never forget the power of a hot toddy, although I may be tempted to add a tad of whisky to a ginger and cayenne tea. I'm terribly impressed with the lucidity of the post though, considering your under-the-weather-ness.

    Jilly Cooper could have benefited from using 'carom'. All that cannoning off each other like billiard balls... she just needed them caroming.

    I've been getting terribly worried about grammar - this apostrophe malarkey is driving me slowly crazy - it seems it's ok to be simply wrong, but then my more 'with-it' friends assure me language moves on and I find myself thinking of myself as some crusty dinosaur barnacled to the rock of grammatic civilisation (which is a terribly mixture of metaphor and simile and I do apologise) - but the truth is, there surely have to be rules - how else - as you say - can they be broken?

  9. Sarah- so wish I could be high-minded and say I meant frottage in the Max Ernst artistic sense, but you know perfectly well I did not. Lovely to meet you too and welcome to my humble blog. Heaven to get new readers, especially such erudite ones.

    Jo - I do believe in the rules,even in my nonconformist heart, but mostly because, as I said, then you can play around with them. I love language moving and shifting. But any time clarity is lost, then we are all for the dark. So I think the apostrophe is important. xx

  10. Oh my love - do hope you feel better soon. Missed the nurses hour on Twitter but my suggestion that also works is to tie a scarf around your neck and have the ends covering your chest. I know that sounds completely insane but it has something to do with the heat. Don't take it off until you feel better - wear it to bed etc.
    Sadly missed a substantial amount of English classes as spent most of the time gazing out of windows. If only the schooling system at that stage knew how to treat "gifted" children.

  11. So Lovely - am taking yr brilliant suggestion. Luckily have one of those unbelievably delicate shawls that are made from the underbelly of goat, now sadly illegal because everyone started slaughtering the poor things instead of gathering the wool from the hedgerows in the traditional manner. Am wearing it now in my bed. Feel like one of those crusty old professors who never take their outergarments off under any circumstance.

    Jo - meant to say: lucidity was the kindest word. Especially as my head feels as if it has been simmered in pease pudding.

  12. I indend to buy your book. Today. I'm always interested in improving my grammer and vocab. I'm excited that I've found your blog!

  13. Dear Tania, there's a very popular board game in India called Carrom, (also sometimes spelt Carom). You flick counters that are rather like drafts pieces. My boyfriend bought one when we came back from holiday. It's massive over there, they play it in every bar and on the street.

    Great word.. I didn't know what it meant til I read your post. I've read your entire blog back catalogue now and love it xx


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