Remember the war poets on Remembrance Day

Lest we forget.

The first World War produced remarkable poetry.  In earlier times, war poetry tended to valourise war.  Not so between 1914-1918.

The lacerating poetry of the First World War showed just how powerfully the truth can be told.  Wilfred Owen in particular, and his mentor Siegfried Sassoon, showed how poetry can strip away the protective layers of delusion which protect us from the truth of what we do.

Good poetry sees the world in ways which are invisible to most of us – until we read the poems.  By doing that, it can smuggle uncomfortable ideas into complacent minds.

Wilfred Owen died just a week before the Armistice. Only four of his poems had been published.  In 1937, Siegfried Sassoon persuaded a publisher to publish a book of Owen’s poetry.  Two years later the second World War started.  It was a predictable consequence of the Treaty of Versailles: the Treaty had impoverished Germany; the misery experienced in Germany made it possible for Hitler to take power in 1933; Hitler made himself popular by blaming all of Germany’s problems on the Jews and he poisoned the public attitude to Jews by vilifying them grotesquely.

Something similar is happening across the Western world today: Muslims are the target these days.  Muslims are being vilified by people who should know better.  One person emails me regularly with anti-Islamic rants.  In one email he contrasts the Christian teaching “Love thy neighbour” with his assertion that the Koran preaches violence and hatred.  Apparently he thinks that Muslims are not our “neighbour”, despite Christian teaching.

He has even urged that Australia should create concentration camps and put all Muslims in them; and he has suggested strafing refugees in their boats.  It is the thinking of a person who has forgotten.  He has forgotten not only the core teaching of the Christian religion which he appears to espouse.  He has forgotten where hatred and vilification lead to.

Lest we forget, as that person has forgotten.

Here are a couple of Wilfred Owen’s poems.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Anthem for Doomed Youth 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Coffee, croissants and crusades

12 September 1683 is the date on which the Ottoman siege of Vienna ended.

In 1683, Vienna was struggling to survive a siege by the Ottoman Turks.  A Pole named Kolscitzky, who was learned in Turkish, came to their rescue.  He escaped through enemy lines to reach the Duke of Lorraine, who hurried to relieve the city.  The Turks were repelled and Vienna was saved.  Kolscitzky became very popular and famous.  He persuaded a baker to produce a sweet bread roll in celebration of Vienna’s victory over the Turks.  It was shaped like the crescent on the Turkish flag.  We call them croissants because at some point the French took ownership of this Polish-Austrian idea.

Although croissant and crusade are similar words, they are not etymologically related, but there is a connection between them.  While croissade-crusade came from Latin crux (French croix),  croissant is French for crescent.

The crescent which the croissant imitates refers originally to the new moon as it grows towards the first quarter: the word comes from the Latin crescere to grow (from which we also get crescendo, and increase).  As a new moon grows it is a waxing crescent moon (a tautology); after the first quarter it is waxing gibbous (from the Latin for hump) and then full.  As the full moon declines, it is waning gibbous, then after the last quarter it is waning crescent (a contradiction in terms).

During his perilous journey, Kolscitzky had learned how to make coffee.  After the siege ended, he came by  a sack of coffee beans abandoned by the retreating Turks.  He was the only person in Vienna who knew what coffee beans were for.  He opened a café which quickly became famous for the drink and popular for its croissants.  He served the coffee with milk and honey, a precursor of the style now known as Vienna coffee.  Although the French stole the croissant, they had the good sense to leave Vienna coffee to the Viennese.


Peter Porter: a seminar


Peter Porter’s Creative Legacy
The National Library is proud to be the custodian of the personal archive of poet Peter Porter. From first drafts to page proofs, from notes to correspondence, the collection reveals the life of an Australian poet in London and is a treasure trove for research.
Join Porter’s family and friends for a day celebrating his legacy in all its diversity, and for a glimpse of the richness the archive offers.
For full program details, visit
Supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust
Friday 29 July, 9.30 am–5 pm
Theatre, $25 (includes collection viewing and light refreshments)
Book here or 02 6262 1111

National Library of Australia, Parkes Place, Canberra ACT 2600

An index to this blog (alphabetical order)

A Blunt Assessment
A Brief Account Of Australias Offshore Detention Regime
A Christmas Letter From Manus
A Classic Rant Against Peter Dutton
A Letter To Minister Dutton From A Refugee Advocate
A New Account Of The Ways We Manage To Mistreat Asylum Seekers. Read This And Blush
A Plea From Manus
A Proposed New Refugee Policy For Australia
Accomodation For Refugees
Ai Weiwei
An Alternative To Offshore Detention
An Angel Visits Malcolm Turnbull
And More Bad Goings On At Manus
Australias Offshore Torture Regime
Befriend A Child In Detention
Benaud Piano Trio Seeking Sponsor For Composition
Bigotry And Terrorism In More Than 140 Characters
Border Force
Border Force Cracking Down At Mita In Victoria
Calling Boat People Illegal Is A Lie
Cash For People Smugglers
Conditions In Immigration Detention Deteriorating
Corruption On Nauru Your Taxes At Work
Cruelty In Australias Offshore Detention Camps
Data Retention Legislation Act Now Before Its Too Late
Detainees In Manus Island Face Grim Prospects
Detention Australian Style
Detention Is Torture
Detention On Manus Illegal Supreme Court
Deterrents And Disincentives
Dutton On The Rampage
Fact Checking Pauline Hanson
Fare Go Report Rethinking Public Transport
From The Big Bang To The Present In 12 Months
Gillian Triggs, John Basikbasik, And Politicians Who Play God
Guards Conduct In Nauru Getting Worse
Haitch Or Aitch
Hal Wootten Lecture 2015 The Bludgeoning Of Chance
Islamophobia Rampant
Kate Durhams Speech At The Opening Of Home Here And Now
Keep The Arts Alive At Fortyfive
Let Them Stay
Lets Get Labor To Tell The Truth About Refugees
Letter From Manus
Letter From Manus
Letters To Nauru Now The Department Lies Again
Lnp Only Pretends To Be Compassionate
Magna Carta, 800 Years On
Manus Island: What Will It Take To Shock Us
Manus: An Emotional Rant
Manus: Bad And Getting Worse
Mistreatment Of Refugee Brought From Nauru For Treatment
Mohammad Albederee Update
More Bad News From Manus
More Bigotry From Sonya Kruger
More Horrors At Mita
More Misery Christmas On Christmas Island
More Mistreatment On Manus
Mourning And Weeping From Hell
Myki: Authorised Officers Behaving Badly
New Get Up Campaign To Get Dutton Out
News From Australias Gulags
News From Nauru
No Kindness For Mojgan
Norfolk Island
Not In My Name
Offshore By Madeline Gleeson
Rebranding The Nation
Refugees In Terror On Nauru
Refugees Write To Png Supreme Court
Remembering Refugees As Christmas Approaches
Schrödingers Refugees
Solitary Confinement In Manus Detention
Stopping The Boats Doesnt Stop The Deaths
Strip Searched In Lygon St
Strip Searches On Nauru
Supporting Human Rights Or What Is Left Of Them
Thailand Prosecutes Phuketwan Journalists
The Australian Border Force Act Labors Role
The Australian Border Force Act: Trying To Silence Health Workers
The Australian Now Quotes Twitter
The Border Force Hits Town: Operation Fortitude
The Drowning Argument
The Drowning Excuse
The Election
The Impact Of Cuts To Art Funding
Threatening Our Way Of Life
Tim Wintons Palm Sunday Plea: Start The Soul Searching Australia
Tom Ballard
Tom Ballard Writes About Refugee Stories
Tony Abbott Is A Bully Over Un Convention Against Torture
Turnbull Posing As Compassionate
Two New Projects Which Bear Witness To Mistreatment Of Asylum Seekers
Un Rapporteur Australias Treatment Of Asylum Seekers Breaches Torture Convention
Unrepresented Refugee Applicants
Update From Manus
What Manus Is Like
What Sort Of Country Are We
When People Bother To Ask Me Why I Support Refugees
Why Gag Doctors In Detention Centress What Are We Hiding
Why You Should Care
Wilson Security
Wind Farm Music Dedicated To Tony Abbott
Write To Federal Mps About Refugee Policy
Year 12 Student Taken From School And Put In Detention
Young Boy Held In Manus
Zaky Mallah, Steve Ciobo And Q & A

Haitch or Aitch?

There is an interesting discussion on the ABC about the correct way to pronounce the name of “H”,  the 8th letter of the English alphabet.  It is a long-running debate.  I recall that, as a child, I was told firmly that I should say ” aitch”  not “haitch”. The debate is much older than I am.

“I am told on good authority that in schools of a certain denomination, and in those schools only, it is pronounced invariably as haitch, an oddity I cannot explain” (Arnold Wall The Queen’s English, 1958).  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the pronunciation  aitch is hard to explain.  The pronunciation of the letter H is one of Australia’s great social shibboleths:  not just the way it is sounded as the first letter of a word, but more particularly the way the name of the letter itself is said.  Some people say haitch, others call it aitch.

Although the spirit of our times is generous, forgiving and tolerant, the choice between aitch and haitch can cause a good deal of anxiety and even hostility.  Generally speaking, haitch is used by those educated in that part of the Roman Catholic system which traces its origins to Ireland.  Aitch is preferred by the rest.  Some apostates deny their origins by abandoning haitch; but there is little traffic in the other direction.  When I was a child, I was forbidden to say haitch; friends who said haitch were appalled that I ate meat on Fridays.

It is not at all surprising the issue is so confused, since the pronunciation of h, when used as the initial letter of a word, has changed significantly over the past couple of millenia.

Although nothing much is certain in matters of language these days, the prevailing view, perhaps illigocally, supports the pronunciation aitch.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives it thus, and does not recognise haitch as an alternative.  I say this is illogical, because it might be expected that the name of a letter of the alphabet would give a clue about the sound normally associated with it.  In this matter, h, w and y stand isolated from the rest of the alphabet, although the names of c, e and g represent only the lesser part of the work done by those letters.

The issue is manifested in at least 3 ways: how is the name of the letter to be said; is the h sounded or not before a vowel; does a word beginning with h accept a or an as the indefinite article?

The sound represented by H was known in the Semitic, Greek and Latin alphabets.  In the Semitic it was a laryngeal or guttural aspirate, and remained so in the Greek and Latin.  It passed from the Latin into the Germanic languages as a simple aspirate, that is, the sounded breath.  It has been variously called  ha, ahha, ache, acca, and accha.  These earlier forms of the name explain the current form, and are clearly referrable to the sound represented.

In late Latin, and in early Italian and French, the aspirate gradually ceased to be sounded.  In Italian, the h was progressively dropped in the written form of words, so that it is now absent from words which, in the French, retain it without sounding it: eretico (hérétique); istorio (histoire); oribile (horrible); osteria (hôtel).

In Anglo-Saxon speech, h was always sounded, but since the Norman conquest, the English pronunciation of words with an initial h gradually adopted the French manner: the english language has always been something of a trollop, pursuing advantage where it can.  So for hundreds of years, the h was seen but not heard in “proper” speech, at least in words which derive from the romance languages.

If the initial h of a noun or adjective is not sounded, then the word naturally takes the indefinite article an.  At least from the 11th century then, it was natural to refer to an (h)istory, an (h)otel, an (h)our, an (h)onourable woman, an (h)umble person.  The ambivalence of usage survives in words like hostler/ostler.

However, from the 18th century on, English usage began once more to aspirate the initial h.  This coincides with the arrival of the Hanoverian monarchs, whose native language had always sounded the h.  Thus words which had come into English via French began to be said with aspirated h’s, although the change was gradual and patchy.  Published in 1828, Walker’s Dictionary says that h is always sounded except in heir, heiress, honest, honesty, honour, honourable, herb, herbage, hospital, hostler, hour, humble, humour, humorous, & humorsomeSince that time, those underlined have also changed, but in the USA herb is still said with a silent hAbominable was originally abhominable at least from Wyclif’s time, and was explained as deriving from ab homine.  It lost its h in pronunciation and then in spelling, and remained unaffected by shift in the wake of the Hanoverian kings.

One of the oddest anomalies of this process is habitué, which is an unassimilated French word but which is generally spoken with a sounded h.  By contrast, an (h)abitual liar is commonly said with a silent h, although it would be odd not to sound the h in habit.  Homage is likewise anomalous

As the shift back to aspirating the h was slow and illogical, it is not surprising that it provoked uncertainty in the choice of indefinite article.  The choice is made the more difficult by a dread of dropping an aitch, which in many circles is a shocking thing if done incorrectly.  The unhappy result is such usages as: an hotel, an historic occasion, an hypothesis, an heroic effort, an hysterical outburst, &c.  If the h is sounded, the result is silly and indefensible.

The rule is simple enough: a word which begins with a vowel sound takes an; a word which begins with a consonant sound takes a.  So, an honest person, an hour, an heir,  an unusual event &c.; a hypothetical case, a historic occasion (but colloquially an ‘istoric occasion), a useful suggestion, &c.  Before initials, the choice of article depends on the way the name of the letter is sounded: a UN resolution; an S-bend, an HB pencil, an X-rated film, an MP.  But if the collection of letters is a recognized acronym, then the choice of article depends on how the acronym is said: a UNICEF official, an UNCITRAL official; a NATO resolution, a SALT meeting, a HoJo restaurant.


Since the publication of my article about the word fuck, I have received many comments, mostly complimentary.  That article attracted far more comment than any other I have written, which shows where the market is!  Readers will remember that I identified subagitate as the only polite word in the English language which has as its primary meaning have sexual intercourse.

However, correction comes from the least expected quarter: Robin Brett QC drew to my attention to the OED entry for swive, which reads as follows:

swive, v. Obs. or arch.

  1. trans. To have sexual connexion with, copulate with (a female). …
  2. intr. To copulate…”

I had always believed, without checking it, that swive was a slang word.  In fact it is a sturdy Old English word, related to the Old High German sweib (meaning sweep or swing). But for the fact that (apparently) its primary meaning is not gender neutral, it deserves to be ranked alongside subagitate.

Chaucer used it in The Miller’s Tale, The Reeve’s Tale and also in The Manciple’s Tale:

For all your watching, bleared is your bright eye
By one of small repute, as well is known,
Not worth, when I compare it with your own,
The value of a gnat, as I may thrive.
For on your bed your wife I saw him swive.”

Chaucer’s use of the word may not be enough to ensure its respectability.  Later in The Manciple’s Tale, the episode above is referred to again:

Masters, by this example, I do pray
You will beware and heed what I shall say:
Never tell any man, through all your life,
How that another man has humped his wife;
He’ll hate you mortally, and that’s certain.

On balance, it may still be advisable to prefer subagitate in genteel company, where clarity of meaning is traditionally subordinated to elegance.  But swive is justifiable on historical grounds, and hump will not cause too many problems, as long as you sound the h.

Apples, and a small reflection on Alan Turing

There is an astonishing number of proverbs and aphorisms which use apples as their key ingredient. A small selection of the best known would include:

  • Don’t upset the apple cart.
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
  • One bad apple spoils the bunch.
  • Adam ate the apple, and our teeth still ache.
  • An apple never falls far from the tree.
  • Don’t upset the apple cart.
  • As sure as God made little apples.
  • She’s the apple of my eye
  • Apples ain’t apples.

It is hard to know why it is that apples have insinuated themselves so far into our language.

A Biblical connection is the likely explanation. It is commonly thought that, consigned to the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve misbehaved by eating an apple from The Tree of Knowledge.

However that may be, the Bible offers no support at all for the idea that the Tree of Knowledge was an apple tree. The King James version of the Bible has only a few references to apples. They are mostly the metaphorical “apple of the eye”. So, taking them in the order of their appearance, we find:


10 He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.


Psalm 17

8 Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings,


Chapter 7

  1. Keep my commandments, and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye.

Chapter 25

  1. A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

Incidentally, apple of the eye is a reference to the pupil through which the dark retina is seen. It was once thought that the pupil was a solid, globular body.

So, Deuteronomy contains the first reference to an apple, and even then it was a reference to the pupil of the eye. The story of the Creation and the Fall appears in Genesis. Here is part of Genesis Chapter 3:

2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

No mention of apples. And that is not surprising: apples are generally found in temperate climates. The books of the Old Testament were written in much warmer places, and they were written in Hebrew and Aramaic so there is scope for adjustments in translation. One view is that the Tree of Knowledge was a reference to the pomegranate tree. OED2 says apple is:

“…part of the name of a large number of fruits; as apple Punic, obs. name of the pomegranate; apple of Sodom, or Dead Sea Fruit, described by Josephus as of fair appearance externally, but dissolving, when grasped, into smoke and ashes; a ‘traveller’s tale’ supposed by some to refer to the fruit of Solanum Sodomeum (allied to the tomato), by others to the Calotropis procera

So an apple Punic is a pomegranate. Punic is a reference to Phoenecia (Carthage). The name for the Phoenecians comes from the Greek Phoinikes (‘purple people’) because of Tyrian Purple – a fabulously expensive dye for which they were famous. Incidentally, the word pomegranate (the fruit of the tree Punica Granatum) literally means apple with many seeds, so it is quite plausible that the pomegranate was the fruit originally understood as coming from the Tree of Knowledge. The pomegranate is native to Carthage.

Still, the apple now refers to a fairly specific kind of fruit and, despite its many varieties, is not readily confused with a pomegranate.

Apples were originally sold by the costermonger (originally meaning apple seller). We don’t have too many –mongers left in Australia, but the London barrow-man, who sells fruit and vegetables, still calls himself a costermonger, but the man who supplies apples (and nothing else) to the market does not. It is likely that costermonger derives from costerd, which means apple. Costerd and custard both mean apple: the so-called custard-apple is a pleonasm.

* * * *

A popular film in cinemas recently is The Imitation Game. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. If Fortune has any sense of generosity, it will fix the name of Alan Turing in the minds of millions of people who might not otherwise have heard of him.

Alan Turing was born in 1912. He was a brilliant but erratic student. He was educated at King’s College, Cambridge and at Princeton. During the Second World War he was one of the leading figures at Bletchley Park where the Germans’ Enigma Code was ultimately cracked. At Bletchley Park, Turing created the theoretical design of a programmable computing machine. As The Imitation Game illustrates, the Bletchley Park team had to use electro-mechanical devices, at a time when the most sophisticated electronic device available was the vacuum tube valve (transistors were not invented until the late 1950s; the integrated circuit was not devised until 1973).

There is a story that Turing was asked how many discrete states a computing machine would need to have. The prevailing wisdom suggested it would need 16 states. Turing thought about it overnight and came back with the answer: 2. That insight lies at the heart of the binary logic of all modern computers, which recognise just two states: one and zero; on and off.

As he wrestled with a means of encoding logical propositions in a machine, Turing recalled having read the work of George Boole (1815-1864), an English mathematician and logician. Boole had become mildly famous for a book in which he described a means of reducing logical propositions to a form of algebra. It was well-regarded in his lifetime and was soon forgotten after his death. But Turing remembered it, and used it to create the basic logic steps which lie at the heart of all computing: and, or, nand (not-and) & nor (not-or). Boole’s contribution to the area passes almost unnoticed every day, but the next time a search panel offers you a Boolean search, you will know it is a reminder of George Boole, courtesy of Alan Turing.

The received wisdom is that Turing’s work at Bletchley Park was crucial to Britain winning the war.

But Turing was gay. He had never recovered emotionally from his attachment to Christopher Morcom, a school friend he met at Sherborne, who had died in 1930. In 1952, Turing was convicted of a homosexual offence. He was not able to call in aid his extraordinary work at Bletchley Park: it was a State secret. He was offered a choice: prison, or chemical castration. He chose chemical castration, but soon regretted it. In June 1954 he committed suicide by taking cyanide. Cyanide has a very bitter taste. When his body was found, there was an apple on the bedside table. He had taken a bite out of it, apparently to dispel the taste of the cyanide.

It is widely thought that the logo of the Apple Computer is a reference to the Tree of Knowledge. That would be a fair assumption and a reasonable connection to draw. But there is an alternative which I prefer. It is thought that the Apple logo – an apple with a bite out of it – is a silent nod to Alan Turing.

I hope it is true: nothing could be more appropriate.


In Innocents Abroad (1869) Mark Twain wrote:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wistful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.

And in The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) Oscar Wilde wrote:

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky.

Wistful is an evocative word which means ‘Expectantly or yearningly eager; mournfully expectant or longing.’ This is the current sense, and the sense both authors intended. It originally meant closely attentive, and there is still a trace of that meaning in its current sense: it could have been the principal sense intended in the quote from Mark Twain. It is thought to come from wistly, meaning intently, but was influenced by wishful, which plausibly accounts for its currently accepted meaning.

Wistful conveys its subtle meaning well, as this poignant passage from The Phoenix by DH Lawrence shows:

“The very first copy of The White Peacock that was ever sent out, I put into my mother’s hands when she was dying. She looked at the outside, and then at the title-page, and then at me, with darkening eyes. And though she loved me so much, I think she doubted whether it could be much of a book, since no one more important than I had written it. Somewhere, in the helpless privacies of her being, she had wistful respect for me. But for me in the face of the world, not much.”

Wistful is one of almost 1400 words which end with the suffix –ful. The word so formed may be a noun (cupful, handful, mouthful, roomful etc) and generally signifies a quantity of something. Alternatively the word created may be an adjective signifying full of … or characterised by… the thing to which the suffix is added. So, cheerful, doubtful, faithful and hopeful all suggest that the subject is filled with cheer, doubt, faith or hope. Lawful, restful, sinful and youthful suggest that the subject is characterised by or associated with law, rest, sin or youth. (Incidentally, the spelling with a single l at the end of each word is accepted by the OED).

The suffix –ful has a counterpart suffix: –less. Almost half of the words ending with –ful have corresponding words ending with –less. Not surprisingly, –less generally signifies lacking. So careless, flavourless and purposeless denote lack of care, flavour and purpose.

Although many –ful words have corresponding –less words, they do not necessarily have opposite meanings, although they may do. So, the following pairs are familiar opposites: careful-careless; colourful-colourless; fearful-fearless; graceful-graceless; harmful-harmless;  meaningful-meaningless; powerful-powerless; shameful-shameless; tactful-tactless; thoughtful-thoughtless.

On the other hand, the following pairs are recognisable and in common use, but they are by no means opposites: armful-armless; eyeful-eyeless; gutful-gutless; handful-handless; helpful-helpless; roomful-roomless; skinful-skinless.

Many –ful words which survive in regular use have –less equivalents which are now obsolete. Why one should survive and the other not is one of the many mysteries of our language. We use awful frequently. Its equivalent awless, meaning ‘without dread, fearless’, has not been used since the late 19th century.

Bashful has a perfectly useful twin: bashless – meaning ‘unabashed, shameless, unblushing’ – but it has not been used since Elizabethan times.

It is not difficult to see why boastless, fanciless, grateless, mistrustless, regretless, resentless and successless have faded away, because they are difficult to say and probably not useful (but not altogether useless), while their counterparts boastful, fanciful, grateful, mistrustful, regretful, resentful and successful continue to flourish.

And wistful also has its opposite: wistless, but it has not been seen in print since 1814. That was in Cary’s translation of Dante’s Paradise:

“One, moiling, lay tangled in net of sensual delight;
And one to wistless indolence resigned”.

So used, it seems perfectly apt. In 1795 Southey wrote, in Joan of Arc,

“I held it, and, wistless what I did,
half from the sheath drew the well-temper’d blade”.

In both, the sense is of carelessness or inattention, and so appears to be the counterpart of the earlier meaning of wist. Incidentally, wist is itself a backformation from wistly (‘attentively, intently’). Nevertheless, wistful has survived, but Iand wistless has not. It is the more surprising because wistlessness is common. Think: driver with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a mobile phone, talking or texting as he drives through an intersection. Think: shop assistant slowly finishing a personal call as the queue of irritated customers lengthens… Wistless is a good word and a useful one.

Similar in sound and sense, but opposite in fortunes, is listless: ‘Characterized by unwillingness to move, act, or make any exertion; marked by languid indifference as to what goes on’. Its counterpart clearly has a useful place, but listful does not survive. It means ‘attentive or willing to listen’.

While useful words like wistless and listful exist but are not used, other examples of the form exist which, to be brutally frank, are just a waste of space. How many people need words like fiftyless (‘not 50 years old’), frounceless (‘without a frounce’), lichless (‘without a dead body’), or – and this is fair dinkum – Rolls-Royceless (‘devoid of Rolls-Royces’)?

And from the –ful side of the ledger, who needs: batful (‘fertile in pasture’), behoveful (‘necessary’), blindful (‘blind’) or breithful (‘violent, wrathful’).

In the wonderful wasteful ways of English, these many words have been conjured into being and, for want of use or beauty they have faded away. They disappear because they are fizenless (‘wanting substance, strength’), or because trying to remember them is beswinkful (‘toilsome’).

[A version of this essay also appears in my book about words: Wordwatching (Scribe, 2004, 2006]


A BIT ABOUT WORDS-Cutting Through

In an earlier essay I drew attention to several strange gaps in the Oxford English Dictionary. And I do mean the 20 volume work, with over 600,000 entries. Strange that there could be any gaps in it. But one of the gaps is philtrum. It is the vertical groove from the nose to the upper lip. It is part of the natural topology of shaving, or applying lipstick. Philtrum does not appear as a headword in the OED or in Johnson. However you will find it in Nathaniel Bailey’s English Dictionary (1742) and in the 2nd edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language. Other American dictionaries recognise it.
It does however appear in the OED, but only indirectly. In the entry for dysmorphic, a quotation is given from the 1997 Journal of Medical Genetics “Her face appeared mildly dysmorphic with a large forehead, short philtrum, and bushy eyebrows.” Clearly a reference to the thing we are discussing.
But it gets another look in. The entry for philtre includes a passing reference to philtrum, although it does not make much sense. Philtre is defined as “A potion or drug (rarely, a charm of other kind) supposed to be capable of exciting sexual love”, with supporting quotations from 1587 to 1858. But a second meaning is given, supported by two quotations:

“1653 R. Sanders Physiogn. 278 A mole on the philtrum or hollow of the upper lip, under the nostrils.”
“1706 Phillips, Philter or Philtrum.‥ Among some Anatomists, it is taken for the Hollow that divides the upper Lip.”

This meaning is said to be obsolete, but that can’t be right because Bailey recognises it, and it has been used increasingly since the early 1900s in reference to the facial feature, not in reference to love potions.
But more than this striking gap in the OED’s coverage is the quotation from Phillips. How odd to rely on anatomists for reference to the philtrum: the philtrum can be seen plainly on the face without any further examination; but anatomists see things by cutting them.
Anatomy means cutting up, dissection. Its root is Greek tom meaning cut. An atom is something which cannot be cut into smaller parts (that’s what people thought at any rate when the atom was named). The OED puts it well. It defines atom this way: “A hypothetical body, so infinitely small as to be incapable of further division; and thus held to be one of the ultimate particles of matter, by the concourse of which, according to Leucippus and Democritus, the universe was formed.” It was used this way from the 15th century, well before the inner complexities of the atom had been discovered. (JJ Thompson discovered the electron as a component of the atom in 1897; Rutherford found the proton in about 1909, and the neutron was not discovered until 1932, by James Chadwick). Since then, these apparently fundamental, indivisible components of the supposedly indivisible atom have themselves been found to be a fantastic mix of other bits and pieces: quarks, hadrons, gluons, bosons and so-ons.
So the atom is not an atom at all, strictly, but the name has stuck. The root is found in many places:

Anatomy: literally, cutting through.
colostomy: cutting an artificial opening into the colon through the abdominal wall.
dichotomy: division of a whole into two parts.
lobotomy: incision into (especially) the frontal lobe of the brain, in the treatment of mental illness.

And in surgery, countless other –ectomies in which things are cut out. Most familiar is the appendicectomy: cutting out the appendix or, as the OED magnificently has it “Excision of the vermiform appendix of the cæcum” (Note that it is a syllable longer than appendectomy, which is an Americanism not favoured by the Australian medical profession). The familiar CAT scan is Computer Aided Tomography: that is, ‘cutting’ the body by taking computer-processed X-rays to produce tomographic images or ‘slices’ of particular parts of the body.
Similarly, from the same root we have:

epitome: an abridgment of a work, extraction of its principal features.
microtome: in medicine, an instrument for cutting extremely thin sections for microscopic work.
tome: a volume of a (written) work. The original idea was that the whole work was cut into several tomes. And just in case you need it, a hecatontome is a collection of a hundred tomes. Oddly, a monotome is a work comprising a single volume. Although the word has been around since the 19th century, it is rarely used, perhaps because it makes no sense. If it is a tome, it should be a slice of a larger work.

Until I began researching this essay I had not been terribly excited about the absence of philtrum from the OED, but I have become quite worked up about it. On any view it is passing strange that the word which describes a visible thing common to all 7 billion people on earth, which is neither embarrassing nor indecent, should be denied its place in the Oxford sun. Its absence is, as Mark Antony said “the most unkindest cut of all”. (He was not talking about circumcision).
The unkindness is magnified when you have regard to the number of utterly useless words which bask complacently in the OED. For example, words which have the hecato– prefix to describe a hundred utterly pointless things. Hecatologue: a code of a hundred rules; hecatomb: on offering of a hundred oxen (terribly useful these days); hecatomped: an area one hundred feet square; hecatonstylon: a building having one hundred pylons; hecatontarchy: government by a hundred rulers; and hecatophyllous: having leaves consisting each of a hundred leaflets.
And let’s not oblive (= forget) those other space-wasting words which have the prefix sesqui-to signify one and a half of something. How often have you had to resist the temptation to use sesquialter: Proportionate to another object as 1½ is to 1; or sesquiduple to express the meaning ‘two and a half’; or sesquipedal: a foot and a half long (44.1 cm); or sesquiplane: a biplane having one wing of surface area not more than half that of the other; but I suppose we will have to keep sesquiplicate if only because its definition is so wonderfully obscure: “Bearing or involving the ratio of the square roots of the cubes of the terms of a certain ratio”. (Actually, the definition of syzygy when used as an expression in mathematics is better: “A group of rational integral functions so related that, on their being severally multiplied by other rational integral functions, the sum of the products vanishes identically; also, the relation between such functions”).
Philtrum has to go into the OED. If space is a problem, I think there is a case to be argued for dumping some of these words, but if removing any of them to make way for philtrum seems like too great a sacrifice, we might just ditch heptaglottologie, that is, a treatise concerning seven languages.

[A version of this essay also appears in my book about words: Wordwatching (Scribe, 2004, 2006]


Summer holidays open the way to all sorts of pastimes. Scrabble is a favourite family game, and it now infests the internet in the form of a game called Words with Friends. It is a seductive little app for the iPad, which looks like Scrabble, but has its bonus squares arranged differently, presumably for patent or copyright reasons.
Having been lured into the torments of both games, I was powerfully reminded of two things. First, Scrabble has nothing to do with an interest in words, any more than Sudoku is about mathematics. Scrabble it is all about tactics and point-scoring; same for Words with Friends.
The second thing is that English has an astounding array of obscure words. Most people with an interest in language know this, but we are rarely reminded of the fact so forcefully as when pitted against a Scrabble opponent whose only objective is to guess their way through every possible permutation of their letters.
Scrabble was invented in 1938 by an American architect, Alfred Butts. Ten years later James Brunot bought the rights to the game in exchange for a royalty on every copy sold. Butts (or his estate) must have done well out of it: about 150 million copies of the game have been sold, and versions of it exist in 29 different languages.
Since the key objective of Scrabble is to get the best score from even the most unpromising letters, the dedicated player naturally resorts to some very odd words. For a person who enjoys words, the only pleasure in this is to discover for the first time some of the weirdest fauna in the jungle of English.
Collins Scrabble Dictionary is the instrument by which this dubious activity is put to the test. It presents itself as authoritative, and conscientiously displays the trademark TM symbol every time it uses the word ScrabbleTM. It contains every word said to be a legitimate Scrabble word, and gives very brief definitions.
So, amorance is defined as the “condition of being in love”. OED 2 does not recognise the word. Neither does Webster’s 3rd edition. The 3rd edition of Webster is the most interesting, but was highly controversial when it was published in 1961 because it moved from prescriptive to descriptive. Earlier editions had declared what words mean; the 3rd edition instead acknowledged the meaning attributed to words by actual people, nodding to the essentially democratic nature of language. From the 3rd edition, Webster accepted that words mean what we agree them to mean.
Apparently the Collins people have taken this process one stage further, to the point of acknowledging words which no one uses, no one recognises and which neither the Oxford nor the Webster has come across. Words however which are a useful expedient for Scrabble fanatics.
Camisa is defined as “a smock”, which actually makes sense (cf French chemise) and is recognised by Webster 3rd, but OED 2 again stands aloof: the nearest hit in OED 2 is camisado, which it defines as “A night attack; originally one in which the attacking party wore shirts over their armour as a means of mutual recognition”, which is obviously connected to camisa, and is quite useful to know, because the added do means an extra three points.
Daud is shown in Collins and also in OED 2 and Webster 3rd. But Collins defines it as “a lump or chunk of something”, whereas OED 2 and Webster 3rd both define it as a dialectical variant of dad. As a father, I was troubled by the thought that I might be described as a lump or chunk. But both OED 2 and Webster 3rd tell you that the dad which can also be rendered as daud is a verb, and means “to shake with knocking or beating”. Neither of my preferred dictionaries acknowledges daud as a noun.
Ervil is defined as “a type of vetch”. Vetch is defined as “a climbing plant with a beanlike fruit used as fodder”. OED2 does not recognise ervil, although its entry for vetch agrees with the Collins. And for devotees of Scrabble, vetchy is also legitimate: “Composed of, abounding in, vetches”.
Whoever uses jeelie, or maungy? Certainly not the compilers of OED 2 or Webster. And who recalls mackle (a blur in printing)? Who knew that an omov is a system of “one person, one vote” (I suppose it was originally the sexist “one man, one vote”)? Only in desperation is it necessary to know that oot is Scottish dialectical for out – not the preposition out, but the obsolete form of ought/aught. And even if you knew that, it is astonishing to learn that the Collins permits an apparent plural: oots. That is odd because it is not a noun, and not even the verb ought with some idiomatic conjugation. It is a misspelling of ort, which is a variant of ord, which is an obsolete word meaning either “beginning”, or “the pointy end of something”. Sadly, the Collins does not take us on this ramble through obsolete Scottish arcana: oots cross-refers to oot, which cross-refers to out, which it defines as “denoting movement or distance away from”: the standard preposition. Now it is true that the Collins confines itself to one volume, so it is necessarily Spartan in its explanations. But its (indirect) definition of oots is not only confusing, it is plainly wrong: I never before met a preposition which took a plural.
Frug is a word I was blissfully innocent of, and likewise fugle. I probably should have known frug: it is a dance which had a brief appearance in the 1960s, but dancing was not really my thing. To fugle is to act the part of the fugleman: “A soldier especially expert and well drilled, formerly placed in front of a regiment or company as an example or model to the others in their exercises”. Clearly useful words, at least for a person playing Scrabble. Nearby, the Collins has fugly. OED 2 recognises this also, and helpfully explains that it was originally Australian military slang and means, as most of us know, “a very ugly person”. The Collins agrees, but editorializes: “offensive word for very ugly”. Webster 3rd adopts a frosty silence: it does not recognise fugly at all.
Collins makes arch observations about some words, noting several words as “taboo words” but nevertheless allowing them to be played. In this regard, its standards look a little old-fashioned (in contrast to its racy willingness to allow all manner of doubtful words into play). While it defines arsehole (and asshole), bugger and bloody without comment or criticism, it baulks at shit as “taboo”, and likewise a few other easily predictable words. This delicacy extends to forfex, which it defines modestly as “a pair of pincers, esp the terminal appendages of an earwig”. OED 2 is a little less oblique: “A pair of anal organs, which open or shut transversely, and cross each other”. While both the entomological and etymological enlightenment is interesting, for a Scrabble player it is a terrific word because F is worth 4 points and X is worth 8 points.
And this is the problem with Scrabble: it is all too easy to lose interest in what the words mean and become concerned principally with their value. A player interested in words will strive to recognise available words in the tiles on their rack, and feel pleased to discover outside (8) or aunties (7) or suited (7) in their jumble of letters. How disappointing then that short words like zax (19 – variant of sax: a tool for cutting slates) or coxy (16 – variant of cocksy: self-important, saucy) or zoa (12 – plural of zoon: an organism scientifically regarded as a complete animal) or oyez (16; at least we all know that one) are worth much more than the cleverly selected words. And when the skilled player manages to place high value letters on a double- or triple- letter square, the difference is magnified.
I plan to avoid the lure of Scrabble this Summer. I no longer want to spend idle time being seduced into a frenzy of debasing the language by trying to maximise the score. Too soon, and not surprisingly, the score for each word becomes the object of the game.
Scrabble is not a game for people keen on words: it is a game for people keen on winning. That is probably why so many lawyers love it. But don’t play it with the 20 volume Oxford at your elbow: it is far too limited.

[A version of this essay also appears in my book about words: Wordwatching (Scribe, 2004, 2006]