Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

What is unusual about the word pulchritude. It means beauty, especially the beauty of a woman. Pulchritude is certainly not an attractive word. How about the word diminutive or unwritten. Diminutive is not a short word, and unwritten is a word that can obviously be written. What is distinctive about these words is that they are all words that have been described as ‘not being themselves’. What they appear to mean is different from what they actually mean, their  structure or appearance contrasts with their meaning, or they contradict themselves.

The term for such words is heterological, meaning something that does not describe itself, A study of such words is an esoteric one, of interest to language academics or lexicologists.

As this post is a little on the dry side (except perhaps for the bit about oxymorons etc at the end), I thought to lighten it up with a few cartoons on the subject of language and learning.

Words that do describe themselves are called homological or autological words such as finite, meaningful, numberless, pronounceable, readable, unhyphenated, thing, and visible. Good examples are grandiloquent meaning pompous or extravagant in a way intended to impress, and sesquipedalian meaning long-winded or characterized by long words. Such words are actually hard to find.

Are not almost all words heterological words? I suppose they are.

Misleading Words 

Apocryphal sounds as if it’s a story of great importance whereas it means a tale of dubious authenticity.

Belladonna may mean beautiful lady in Italian and sound like a stylish woman, but it’s the poisonous plant deadly nightshade.

Bemused might sound like amused, but it means puzzled or confused.

Benighted suggests someone who is honoured but it refers to someone who is ignorant or lacking in morals.

Bodkin ought to mean a little body but its a large needle without a point.

Bucolic surely means chocked up if not a severe illness, but it refers to an idyllic rural life or it suggests a pastoral way of life as with shepherds.

Crapulous sounds dirty but it’s excessive indulgence, intemperance.

Callipygian sounds as if describes a feature of an animal but it means well proportioned buttocks

Crepuscular refers not to a skin ailment but to creatures like bats or rabbits that are active in twilight, the period before dawn or after dusk

Decimate historically this was to kill one in every ten soldiers but nowadays it means destroying a large portion of something

Disinterested means to be impartial or unprejudiced, but it is often confused with uninterested, that is to be unconcerned or not bothered with something

Enervate is to be lacking in energy, though it sounds like the opposite, or even to annoy someone.

Enormity might be something to do with size or magnitude, but it’s actually about the seriousness or extent of something that’s bad or morally wrong.

Erstwhile means former not as often thought esteemed.

Fungible sounds like it describes a spongy fungus, but its a legal term describing goods or commodities that can be replaced by equivalent items.

Hiatus is not a commotion or a ruckus, but a pause in activity.

Inflammable suggest it can’t be set on fire, that it can’t be burnt, except that it means it can. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

Ironclad has nothing to do with somebody dressed in armour, but it describes arguments that are impossible to disprove or contradict.

Mawkish sounds as if it might be to do with mocking someone or something, but it means to be excessively sentimental

Mordant might suggest someone who is ponderous or broody but it actually means humour that is biting and incisive. It also refers to a substance used to fix dyes to cells and textiles, and to a musical notation.

Noisome is to have a very disagreeable smell. Nothing to do with being noisy,

Nonplussed sounds like it means not caring too much about things, but it means very surprised or confused.

Nugatory must be something to do with nougat but it means futile, trifling, or having no value.

Orrery might be an animals nest or lair but it’s a mechanical model of the solar system showing the relative positions and motions of the planets.

Phlegmatic refers to a person who is calm, composed, unemotional, not as it might seem someone who gets easily excited or is animated.

Plethora means an excess of something, not an ancient Greek musical instrument

Priceless sounds as if it could mean cheap or worthless though it means the opposite, very valuable.

Prodigal looks and feels like the word prodigy which means a talented individual who invites admiration, but in reality means recklessly wasteful.

Prosaic comes from the word prose and means commonplace, lacking in imagination, dull, even though the word sounds elegant or ornamental.

Pulchritude sounds like ineptness or even a pustule, or refers to a rather large person, but as mentioned above it’s a showy word for beauty.

Saturnine was said to be the temperament of someone born under the supposed astrological influence of Saturn, but it nowadays means gloomy or melancholic.

Scurrilous could describe how some small animals move, but it’s the making or spreading scandalous claims about someone in order to damage their reputation.

Vomitorium contrary to what might seem obvious was the tunnel-like entrance in an amphitheatre or stadium.

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ForkInTheRoadI recall from a walk in Wensleydale a year or two ago, an unexpected fork in the path that my friend Patrick and I were taking down a hill called Addlebrough. There seemed to be two ways back to our starting point. For some reason the phrase ‘the path not taken’ came into my mind, and I briefly pondered that I might never find out what would have been different if we had taken the other path to the one that we decided to take. Patrick said that the phrase was ‘the road not taken’ and it was the title of well-known poem.

The Road Not Taken is a poem by the American poet Robert Frost in the preface to his collection of poems Mountain Interval which was published in 1916 when Europe was engulfed in the Great War. 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

robert frost, american poet, rural life, new england, pulitzer prize

Robert Lee Frost (26 March 1874 – 29 January 1963), the American poet, was born in San Francisco. His poems were often set in rural life in New England in the early 20th century. He was much honored during his lifetime, receiving four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry.

Frost spent the years 1912 to 1915 in England, and in 1913 he became a close friend of the then writer and literary critic Edward Thomas, after Thomas had reviewed one of the older poet’s collections. They took many walks together in the fields and woods around Frost’s cottage in the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire. In 1915, Frost returned to New Hampshire and he sent Thomas an advance copy of The Road Not Taken.

The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their walks. Thomas would often choose one fork in the road because he was convinced it would lead them to something, perhaps a patch of rare wild flowers or a particular bird’s nest. When the road failed to yield the hoped-for rarities, Thomas would rue his choice, convinced the other road would have doubtless led to something better.

Frost wrote to Thomas ‘no matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.’ Unfortunately Thomas took the poem more seriously (as had college audiences to whom Frost had read his poem), and more personally than Frost had intended.

So close was the friendship that had developed between them when Frost was in England, Thomas and Frost had planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming. But Thomas was a man plagued by indecision. He also suffered from chronic depression. He found it difficult to choose between a life with Frost and the pull of the fighting in France, even though he despised the jingoism and the hatred of Germans that the press was stoking.

But Thomas was also haunted by the feeling of fear and cowardice he had experienced six months earlier in a stand-off with a gamekeeper that he and Frost had encountered on one of their walks. He felt mocked by events and possibly even by the most important friend he had ever made, and he vowed that he would never again let himself be faced down. The Road Not Taken did not send Thomas to war, but it was the last and pivotal moment in a sequence of events that had brought him to an irreversible decision. He broke the news to Frost. ‘Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me.’

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apocalypse now, kurtz, willard, francis ford coppola, marlon brando, macguffin

There are only fleeting glimpses of Kurtz when Willard meets him face to face in the closing acts of the film, but the character of Kurtz drives the action of the film from the very beginning.

Well, it’s all to do with films, and here are two films that have MacGuffins in them.

In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent during the Vietnam War on a secret mission up the Nang river through war-torn jungle to assassinate the renegade and insane Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has set up camp in a remote abandoned Cambodian temple. And yet in the film, which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Kurtz does not appear until two and a half hours have passed, and then is on-screen for only 18 minutes, mainly delivering a rambling monologue.

The opening scenes of the 1997 film Titanic, directed by James Cameron, concerns a treasure hunter Brock Lovett searching the wreck of RMS Titanic for a necklace with a rare blue diamond, the Heart of the Ocean. Lovett’s team recover a safe from the wreck which contains a drawing of a young woman wearing only the necklace. The women in the drawing, Rose Dawson Calvert (played by Kate Winslet when young and Gloria Stuart when old), had survived the sinking and is located and brought aboard the survey ship. She then tells her story of the voyage. The diamond seems at first to play a crucial part in the plot, but the film is actually about a romance between two people, Rose and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) from different social classes set against the sinking of an ‘unsinkable’ ship.

titanic, heart of the ocean, blue diamond, billy zane, kate winslet, leonardo dicaprio. macguffin

Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) gives Rose (Kate Winslet) the blue diamond necklace as an engagement present. To keep Rose away from Dawson, Hockley has the diamond planted on Dawson, who is then arrested, but the diamond plays little or no further part as the Titanic has already collided with the iceberg.

What both these films have in common is that a character, Kurtz, and an object, the diamond, seem to be of critical importance to the film’s plot, but the main action of the film doesn’t depend on them. Coppola envisioned Apocalypse Now as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world. Kurtz could just as well have been an enemy commander. In Titanic, the diamond could have been a diary or a photograph. Kurtz and the diamond are just catalysts, plot devices to drive the action forward, to get the characters moving, and they are called MacGuffins.

It’s mostly irrelevant what the MacGuffin actually is. It may be an object, a place, or a person. Or it may take more abstract forms such as money, survival, power, love, or some unexplained force. The MacGuffin device is especially common in thrillers. It is usually the focus of the film at the beginning, and thereafter declines in importance.

The term MacGuffin was originally popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, and his first recorded usage was in a lecture that he gave at Columbia University on 30 March 1939.

We have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.

For Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is the engine that sets the story in motion; it serves as a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur.

39 steps, thirty-nine steps, richard hannay, robert donat, mr memory, macguffin

In the theatre, Hannay asks Mr Memory ‘what are the Thirty-Nine Steps?’. Mr Memory compulsively answers that it is a secret organisation of spies but is shot before he can finish. Backstage, the dying Mr Memory recites the details of the aircraft engine he has memorised, the MacGuffin, and says before he dies ‘It was the biggest job I ever tackled …. I’m glad it’s off my mind.’

In The 39 Steps (1935), the MacGuffin is the coveted design for a silent aircraft engine stored in the mind of a vaudeville performer named ‘Mr Memory’ but for the cinema audience the real action is in the hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), being chased up and down the country by police and villains alike. In Psycho (1960), it is the $40,000 stolen by Marion Crane from an estate agent, though the plot actually centres on the unnerving behaviour of Norman Bates, the proprietor of the Bates Motel. Crane becomes a MacGuffin herself as she is killed less than halfway through the film. In The Lady Vanishes (1938), it is a coded message contained in a tune performed by a folk singer overheard by a guest, Miss Froy, whilst staying at a remote eastern European inn. It is one of the most abstract of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. The audience however are more interested in the quest of a young English tourist, Iris Henderson, in trying to find Miss Froy, who has mysteriously disappeared on the train that is taking them both back to England.

Hitchcock may have got the idea of the MacGuffin from a brief story told by his friend screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who delighted in wordplay and puzzles, and who at one time earned his living by making up jokes for Tommy Trinder who was a popular comedian at the time.

Two men were travelling on a train from London to Scotland. An odd shaped package sat on the luggage rack above their seat.

‘What have you there?’ asked one of the men.
‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin,’ replied his companion.
‘What’s a MacGuffin?’
‘It’s a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’
‘But there aren’t any lions in the Scottish Highlands!’
‘Well, then, I guess that’s no MacGuffin!’

Earlier versions place the action in the Adirondack Mountains in the USA, rather than Scotland, which is obviously a better location given the choice of name.

In an interview with director François Truffaut in 1967, Hitchcock explained the idea in more detail.

The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.

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It’s a dog’s breakfast. It’s a dog’s dinner. What lovely phrases. Figures of speech that I think are a delight to use, provided of course that you’re not involved. So where do they come from and what do they mean?

Animals figure prominently in many expressions. A kettle of fish, the cat’s whiskers, pearls before swine, the cat that got the cream, a fly in the ointment, the bee’s knees, a pig in a poke, a nest of vipers. Dog expressions for some reason are particularly numerous: gone to the dogs, why keep a dog and bark yourself, in the doghouse, it’s a dog’s life, a shaggy dog story, the tail wagging the dog, every dog has its day.

‘It’s a dog’s breakfast’ means a complete mess – something or someone that ​looks ​extremely ​untidy. Or a muddle, a shambles or a botch – something that is very ​badly done – as in ‘we’ve made a real dog’s breakfast of it’. There’s a few other phrases that mean much the same: a pig’s ear, a hodgepodge, a mare’s nest.

It’s a 20th century phrase that was first cited in the 1937 edition of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English as ‘a mess: low Glasgow (1934)’.

dog's breakfast cartoon, waiterThe reference to a dog and breakfast suggests that the phrase had something to do with a cooking calamity: a half-cooked omelette, watery porridge, burnt sausages. Couple this with the notion that a dog will eat anything – though dog lovers would not be amused at this idea – and you have the phrase. But nowadays, whatever its origins, this figure of speech covers much more: a badly planned party or meeting, instructions that are incomprehensible, a do-it-yourself disaster.

There is a similar phrase ‘a dog’s dinner’ which many online references say means the same as ‘a dog’s breakfast’; that it is used interchangeably to mean a mess or a muddle.

But the full phrase is ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’, or ‘done up like a dog’s dinner’, meaning to wear ridiculously smart or extravagant clothes, clothes which are inappropriate for the occasion: ‘My mum really embarrasses me, she always dresses like a dog’s dinner, even when we’re just going to the shops!’. It’s a fairly negative way to describe someone, and it would be more polite to say someone was ‘overdressed’.

It is also used to express surprise what someone dresses in an unexpected way. If you were a man used to wearing a morning suit or white tie in the evenings you might not think twice about what you looked like. But if you usually wore more casual clothes: jeans, open neck shirts, trainers, then putting on a business suit and tie – even if it was necessary for an interview or a formal occasion – might draw comments from family or friends that you were ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’.

dog's grand dinner party, dame dingles series, mcloughlinIt’s not clear how two similar phrases have completely different meanings, at least when ‘dressed up like’ is added to ‘a dog’s dinner’. How is being dressed up likened to a dog’s dinner? It is said to refer to the stiff collars that were the height of male fashion in the 1890s and which actually looked very like dog collars. But where does the dinner come in?

Others say that in Medieval England the finest shoes were made of dog skin, and that if you were invited to a castle for a feast you would dress in your finest, and for shoes, you would ‘put on the dog’, meaning shoes made of dog skin. In the full Oxford English Dictionary, ‘to put on the dog’ was ‘to assume pretentious airs’, but did this become ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’?

dog's dinner party, harrison weir, routledge

This picture from The Dog’s Dinner Party by the renowned Victorian children’s illustrator Harrison Weir, shows Mr Foxhound presiding over dinner. © harrisonweir.com

In the 19th century, a number of children’s books came out on the theme of a dog’s dinner party. In America in 1869 there was the The Dog’s Grand Dinner Party with illustrated verse. In Britain a year later, The Dog’s Dinner Party was a story in My Mother’s Picture Book with lavish illustrations that gave the dogs apparent human traits and personalities. In Cock Robin’s Picture Book published in 1873, an illustration of a dog’s dinner party has the caption:

At last the day of the grand dinner-party arrived, and the guests all assembled, in good spirits, with keen appetites for the feast. Never had so many sleek, well-dressed dogs met together before, and the variety of their coats and countenances was very striking.

Is it possible that these stories somehow gave rise to the phrase?

But back to ‘it’s a dog’s breakfast’. I wonder why its origin is said to be ‘low Glasgow’ in 1934? Do any Glaswegians know?

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Do you lie on the sofa or on the settee? Do you eat pudding or a dessert? Do you wear spectacles or glasses? What does it matter? Well at one time, in post war Britain, that is after 1945, your use or choice of words was said to be an indicator of the social class to which you belonged. A lot of nonsense or a matter for serious debate? Or just lighthearted fun? It all started in 1954 when an article titled Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English by British linguist Alan Ross, Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University, appeared in a learned but obscure Finnish academic journal.

Ross’ article covered differences in word usage, pronunciation, and in writing style, but it was his thoughts on the differences in vocabulary that received the most attention. He coined the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ to refer to the differences in English language usage between social classes. ‘U’ indicated upper class, and ‘non-U’, not upper class, though it focused on the aspiring middle classes. Ross considered that the middle classes preferred to use fancy or fashionable words, even neologisms (meaning a newly coined word) and often euphemisms, in their attempts to make themselves sound more refined. The speech of the working classes was not dealt with, as in many instances Ross considered they often stuck to the same plain and traditional words that the upper classes used, since being conscious of their status they had no need to make themselves sound more refined. Ross added that ‘it is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished since they are neither cleaner, richer, nor better-educated than anybody else’.

nancy mitford, mitford sisters, bright young people, pursuit of love, u and non-u

Nancy Mitford (1904-1973) was one of the ‘bright young people’ on the London social scene in the inter-war years, and is best remembered for her novels about upper-class life in England and France, and for her sharp and often provocative wit.

In his article, Ross used the semi-autobiographical novel The Pursuit of Love published in 1945 by the English novelist, biographer and journalist Nancy Mitford, to exemplify upper-class speech patterns. Nancy Mitford was the eldest of the renowned Mitford sisters. There were six sisters, daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles, and they have been caricatured by the journalist Ben Macintyre, as ‘Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess, and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur’.

Mitford picked up on Ross’ reference to her novel and incorporated the U and Non-U thesis into an article she was writing, The English Aristocracy, for the magazine Encounter. Her argument was that the more elegant euphemism used for any word was usually the non-upper class thing to say, or, in Mitford’s words, simply ‘non-U’. Thus it was very non-U to say ‘dentures’; ‘false teeth’ would do. ‘Ill’ was non-U; ‘sick’ was U. The non-U person ‘resides at his home’; the U person ‘lives in his house’, and so on. Nowadays, the distinction between U words and non-U seems antiquated. Were U words really plainer or ‘better’, or did the upper classes simply need to use them so as to distinguish themselves from everyone else?

U Non-U
Lunch Dinner (midday meal)
Dinner Evening Meal
Vegetables Greens
Pudding Sweet or dessert
Ice Ice cream
Jam Preserve
(no equivalent, there would be separate containers eg. salt-cellar) Cruet
(Table) Napkin Serviette (unless you are literally in France)
Sofa Settee or couch
Drawing-room or Sitting-room Lounge or front room
Chimneypiece Mantelpiece
Lavatory or loo Toilet or WC (unless you are in Italy, where ‘toiletta’ is U)
Looking-glass Mirror
Mad Mental
Decent Civil (behaviour)
(no equivalent) Rude (indecent)
(no equivalent, except possibly ‘civilised’) Cultivated or cultured (people)
Sick Ill
Die Pass on
Graveyard Cemetery
Rich Wealthy
Smart Posh
False teeth Dentures
Dinner jacket Dress suit
Knave Jack (cards)
Scent Perfume
Spectacles Glasses
Writing-paper Note-paper
Wireless Radio
Bike or bicycle Cycle
Riding Horse-riding
Master or Mistress (also prefixed eg. maths-mistress) Teacher (children also say ‘Teacher says …’)
England (Britain) Britain

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school dinners, fulham, central kitchsnslondon county council

In my primary school in Fulham, London, unappetising potatoes and vegetables were served from heavy insulated metal containers brought from central kitchens run by London County Council.

Prior to 1954, when I was at primary school, food was still rationed following the Second World War which meant that butter, milk, eggs, meat, cheese and sugar was in short supply. School dinners were memorable only for being pretty dreadful. After that things began to improve. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it is the school puddings that I remember the most. At my boy’s secondary school in west London, I particularly liked the chocolate pudding and chocolate sauce, though I don’t think that much chocolate was used as both the pudding and the sauce were pale in colour. I would stay back on the ‘extra helpings’ table at the end of the school dining room for seconds, or even thirds. Another favourite was baked jam roll, iced sponge cake with hundreds and thousands on top, bread and butter pudding, and treacle sponge pudding, all served with custard. I didn’t like the semolina with rose hip syrup so much, or the pink blancmange – it was always pink – or the rice pudding which always had a thick skin on it. Even if you asked to have it without the skin, the kitchen staff would often say that you couldn’t.

Most of the kitchen staff were fairly cheerful as far as I can recall, in contrast to most of the teachers. All the food was cooked on the premises in the kitchen, though I don’t think that in all the five years I was at the school, I ever ventured into the kitchen. It just wasn’t done. I don’t recall that many boys were fat. There were lots of carbohydrates and fat in the puddings, what nutritionists would call stodge, but then you didn’t have snacks. And we drank water, not squash. The water was supplied in metal jugs, and I think we drank from plastic cups.

At home, it was shepherd’s pie, corned beef hash, macaroni cheese, or spam fritters for tea, At the weekend it could be a Fray Bentos tinned steak and kidney pie, smoked haddock, a lamb or pork chop from the local butchers, or boiled or sliced ham from David Greig, a chain of grocery shops, who were rivals to Sainsburys. I can’t recall what we had for Sunday lunch but we did sometimes have a small chicken. Rice, noodles and pasta (apart from the macaroni, and tinned spaghetti) were simply not part of the British diet, and spices and herbs were used rarely. The only take-away was fish and chips. I think we ate quite well compared to many.

In the 1960s frozen food arrived and it was seen as a great innovation. Smedley’s fish fingers and Birds Eye peas, though I can’t remember frozen chips. For dessert it was often Del Monte or Libby’s tinned fruit with Carnation evaporated milk. Bird’s instant whip in five flavours was an improvement on jelly, and Walls neapolitan ice cream brick with its three flavours, chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla – sometimes replaced by a pale green pistachio – was a real treat. But my Nan would come to our house regularly and she would make proper puddings. The highlight for me was coming home to see a basin, in a pan of steaming water, covered by a piece of linen held on with string. That usually meant we were having spotted dick, with custard of course. Alternatively the pastry in the steaming saucepan was a sausage shape rolled up in linen and tied at each end. Spotted Dick was made from a flat sheet of suet pastry dough sprinkled with currants and raisins. If the pastry had been spread with jam, rather than with added dried fruit, then that would have been jam roly-poly (known in the 19th century as rowley-powley), and also called ‘dead man’s arm’ because some families apparently steamed it in an old shirt sleeve. I must have had roly-poly as a pudding at home, whether baked or steamed, but I can’t remember it. But why spotted dick?

spotted dick, custard, pudding

Spotted Dick once cooked, could, unintentionally or not, be quite dry and spongy, or stodgy and chewy. Some people like their custard thin and watery, others thick and creamy, but hopefully without any lumps or skin.

The pudding was first described in an 1849 cookbook The Modern Housewife or Ménagère by a socially progressive French chef Alexis Benoist Soyer, who became a celebrated cook in Victorian England. The book included a recipe for ‘Plum Bolster, or Spotted Dick-Rolle’ made from paste (pastry) and raisins, ‘tie in a cloth and boil for an hour’. Suet puddings had became popular by the 17th century thanks to the invention of the pudding cloth. The Pall Mall Gazette reported in 1892 that ‘the Kilburn Sisters … daily satisfied hundreds of dockers with soup and Spotted Dick’. ‘Spotted’ is a clear reference to the dried fruit that ‘spot’ the pudding. Though ‘dick’ was widely used as a term for pudding in the 19th century, its source is more obscure. It could be a corruption of the word pudding, evolving through puddink, then puddick, then finally dick.

In 2009, Flintshire County Council reversed a decision by its catering staff to change the name of the pudding on school menus to ‘Spotted Richard’ following a complaint from a person about the use of ‘Spotted Dick’, which has long been a source of amusement and double entendres. It is difficult to believe that this is a true story, but here is the report on the BBC website.

The joy associated with a steam pudding goes back a long way. In 1843, Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, wrote:

Hallo. A great deal of steam. The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding.

What was your favourite pudding at school?

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mind the gap, district line platform, victoria station, london underground

A ‘mind the gap’ tile mosaic on a District line platform at Victoria Underground station in London

‘Please mind the gap between the train and the platform’ is a recorded announcement familiar to travellers on the London Underground. The ‘tube’ is the oldest underground railway in the world and when it was built in the 19th century the tunnels often followed the line of the streets above so as to avoid the costs of obtaining permission from owners to tunnel under their properties. The result was that on the oldest deep-level or ‘tube’ lines, the Bakerloo, Central, Northern, and Piccadilly, the tracks in the tunnels inevitably curve quite a bit, which means that when a train comes to rest at a platform that is on a curve, there is a gap between the carriage and the platform. The gap can either be in the middle of a carriage where the platform is on the ‘outside’ of the curve, or at each end of a carriage where the platform is on the ‘inside’ of a curve. There were likely other reasons for the winding tracks underground such as pipes, sewers, and deep foundations that would have been too costly for the construction companies, who were privately-financed, to divert or reconstruct.

This wasn’t so much of a problem when the tunnels were first built as train carriages were much shorter, so the gaps weren’t so great. But as trains were modernised and the carriages made longer to increase their capacity, the gap between the train and the platform was quite a hazard in many stations. Although drivers and station attendants had been warning passengers of the gap since at least the early 1920s, this was proving increasingly impractical, and in 1968 London Underground started introducing recorded announcements to warn passengers to ‘mind the gap’.

oswald laurence, actor, rada, three men in a boat, mind the gap, london underground

Oswald Laurence joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1938 at the age of 17. The dashing actor appeared in a number of minor roles in films including Three Men In A Boat, a 1956 comedy starring Laurence Harvey, Jimmy Edwards, and a young Kenneth Williams playing a bit-part, as well as appearances in the TV series The Saint, starring Roger Moore.

One of the early announcers was Oswald Laurence whose clear compelling voice was heard by millions of people at many stations on the Northern Line. In the early 2000s however, the minimalist message to ‘mind the gap’ was deemed an insufficient warning. What was the gap? Where was it? Whilst there are no records of anyone misunderstanding what the announcement was referring to, only of people not taking notice of it, or being in a state of intoxication such that they were incapable of acting on it. Nevertheless the announcement was re-recorded and the location of the gap clearly identified: ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’.

Mr Laurence, who as an actor had made the recording in the 1970s, died in 2001 at the age of 80, and his place in history might have been forgotten. Except that when his announcement at Embankment Station, the last station to play the recording, was replaced in November 2012 by a new one, his widow, Dr Margaret McCollum, wrote to London Underground. Dr McCollum asked if they had a recording of the announcement that her husband had made some forty years before, and explained that she would go to the station if she was travelling that way, to hear her husband’s voice. ‘Knowing that I could go and listen to his voice was simply wonderful. It was a great comfort. I would go and sit on the platform, and sometimes miss a couple of trains just so I could hear it’. Here is a video of an interview by the BBC with Dr McCollum.

margaret mccollum, oswald laurence, mind the gap, london underground

Dr Margaret McCollum met Oswald Laurence in 1992 when she went on guided tour holiday with Mr Laurence as tour guide. She heard ‘the most gorgeous voice’ behind her and the pair were instantly attracted.

Somewhat unexpectedly, given that London Underground has a lot on its plate, carrying over four million passengers every day and rising, tracked down the recording, and not only did they send Dr McCollum a copy of the recording on a CD, they also decided to reinstate his announcement at Embankment station. So now if you stand on the northbound platform of the Northern Line at the station, where MIND THE GAP is painted at intervals on the platforms edge, it is an eerie experience hearing Mr Laurence remind people in his precise authoritative voice, not once but three times, as trains rush into the platform and come to a rest, to ‘mind the gap’. You can hear him here.

There are two other locations where ‘mind the gap’ warnings are most notably played: the Central line platforms at Bank, where there can be a 1-foot (30cm) gap, and the Bakerloo line platforms at Piccadilly Circus.

the queen, baker street station, 150th anniversary, london underground, mind the gap

The Queen inspected a new train at Baker Street station during the 150th anniversary of the London Underground in March 2013. Baker Street is one of the oldest and ornate stations on the Underground. Here the Queen alights carefully from a carriage, though the gap at this particular platform is not that wide.

The ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’ warning is also used where there is a difference in height between the platform and the floor of the train carriage. This occurs where a platform is used by both deep-level ‘tube’ trains and larger ‘sub-surface’ trains, and in these situations the height of the platform is a compromise between the different floor heights of the train carriages (a difference of 8 inches). That’s why you will hear the warning at a number of stations in west London, which although having straight platforms, serve both the larger District line trains and the deep-level Piccadilly line trains.

If you are really interested, you can read a lot more about London Underground platform gaps on Mike Horne’s website here. Amongst many fascinating facts, Mike Horne has identified that the largest gap between the train and the platform at any of London’s deep-level ‘tube’ stations is at the west end of the eastbound platform of the Central Line at Bank station, a scary 375mm or 14.76 inches!

Going back to Oswald Laurence, in February this year, a short film Mind the Gap was shown at the London Short Film Festival which tells Dr McCollum’s story. The poignant film was written, directed and produced by Luke Flanagan with Eileen Nicholas played the lead role, and you can see it here. The main location for the tube shots was Barbican station which is in the open, and as the tracks are straight at the station, there is no gap, and hence no announcement is needed, but filming in the deep-level tube stations such as at Embankment would have proved difficult.

And here is the voice of Oswald Laurence again.

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