Prose & Cons - by John MacDonald

 

"Prose & Cons began life in 1990 as a weekly column in The Mercury, the morning paper in Durban, South Africa. The pen-name Wordsworth is self-evident – you got your ‘word’s worth’ from the read. The column ran for about 10 years and pre-dated the internet, when not everyone had access to the full Oxford English Dictionary and other etymological reference books. Now, of course, anyone interested in the origins of words and phrases can find all they need to know with a few strokes of the keyboard. Many websites are dedicated to the theme and my thanks are due to Project Tesseract curator, Rohan Roberts, for bringing the Prose & Cons archives into the electronic era."  - John MacDonald

 

John is the host of Emirates Airline Festival of Literature Talking of Books (103.8 Dubai Eye Radio). He is a journalist, a raconteur, and a voracious reader of books on science, literature, philosophy, and art. It is no exaggeration to say, John is one of the most interesting personalities in Dubai. 

12 May 2015

WORDS and their origins tend to be like Russian dolls – no sooner have you got below the surface than another version appears. Even when you scratch an apparently routine word, it will almost invariably reveal a fascinating story.

 

For example, this column often refers to the “pedigree” of words and phrases – where they originated, what were their ancestors, and how they have changed in form and meaning. Yet pedigree itself has...

12 May 2015

OCCASIONALLY Wordsworth is accused of being esoteric – in the pejorative sense of preoccupation with irrelevant obscurities.

 

If so, this column has an ally in none other than Pythagoras, the man who coined the word philosopher, Greek for “lover of wisdom.”

 

Apart from his famous theorem, old Pythagoras had some other eccentricities as well. For example, he did not approve of his students being able to see him while he delivered...

12 May 2015

A cooking query this week, from a lady whose expertise in that department is so renowned that she needs a map to find her way to the kitchen. Once armed with the map, she gets out her Words-worth guidebook to terra incognita culinarius.

 

Ignore the big white box with the dials on it, says the guide-book. Go to the big white box which has a small door in the top section and a bigger door in the lower part. Open the big door and...

12 May 2015

Victorian euphemism seems strangely out of place in today's liberal society, where explicit language of the Anglo-Saxon kind is accepted without demur in the cinema, the theatre, and literature.

 

Public use of four-letter words may no longer provoke shock and outrage (Mrs Whitehouse excluded), but instead we have substituted a new style of euphemism which is far more deadly to the language than the Victorian preference for call...

12 May 2015

One man’s holy war is another’s campaign of terror – it all depends which side you’re on, and whose propaganda you believe. For when it comes to shaping perceptions, the war of words is a more subtle weapon than sword or canon. Thus, assassin and crusader prompt totally opposite mental images, although they are linguistic products of the same religious conflict.

 

Propaganda itself was originally an exclusively religious term, a...

12 May 2015

What could be more adorable than floppy ears, a silky coat, big soulful eyes, and a cold, wet nose? Yet the name of this lovable specimen literally means a surly cur – mean, submissive, subservient, and definitely not to be trusted.

 

No, it’s not an Angolan definition of Pik Botha (his ears aren’t floppy enough), the dog in question is none other than everyone’s favourite four-legged friend – the spaniel. The extent of the houn...

12 May 2015

If the master chef Escoffier were not dead already, the prospect of a bunny chow would probably have hastened his end. On the other hand, TV gourmet Keith Floyd would probably relish Durban’s famous gastronomic speciality.

 

It’s unlikely that many readers will be unfamiliar with this pioneer of fast-food delicacies, but just in case, it comprises half a loaf with the innards scooped out and replaced with atomic curry.

It’s the o...

12 May 2015

You can blame Maggie Thatcher for this column. She’s already taken the rap for everything from poll tax to the greenhouse effect, so one more burden won’t make much difference. Her visit to South Africa prompted a habitué of the Centre for Adult Education to pause from his researches into zymurgy (we’ll deal with that one later) to ask: “You newspaper types know about words- can you tell me why Conservatives are called Tories?...

12 May 2015

 One useful benefit of word-fowling is the ability to use impressive terminology to mask shortcomings in the practical department. Or to put it in another way, as politicians so often demonstrate, sounding knowledgeable is excellent cover for ignorance.

 

Thus when Prose & Cons went to sea last weekend a glossary of nautical terms was enough to convince the landlubbers on board that here was an old salt, wise in the ways of the...

12 May 2015

THE legendary thrift of the Scots and their careful husbanding of coinage has given “bawbee” a popularity much wider than north of the border. Few people in the English speaking world can be unfamiliar with expressions such as “minding the bawbees” but especially few are likely to know its precise meaning.

 

Scottish currency was roughly equivalent in value to that of England until the late 14th century when it began to deprecia...

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