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. 

11 May 2015


Round Robin was used constantly during the recent World Cup cricket series to describe the preliminary matches when each team played the other seven in the tournament.


The phrase conjures visions of a plump and plumaged redbreast from a Christmas card, perched on a snowdrift with a sprig of holly in its beak.


How on earth can this British winter avian be connected with the epitome of summer sports in the Antipodes?


Quite simp...

11 May 2015

The genteel ladies of Durban’s Berea are traditionally considered to be more concerned with bridge and cake sales than with criminality. But Mrs F Macpherson Brown has written to Wordsworth expressing a scholarly interest in the derivation of “black-guard” and “blackmail”.


That such things should be unknown on the Berea is a comforting reminder that lawlessness has not yet become all-pervasive.


For the record, the much-maligne...

11 May 2015

 WHAT do apron, umpire, and orange have   in common? There's a clue in naartjie and it's all to do with migration. And if that sounds more Irish than English don't get as mad as a hatter or use nick-names for these expressions also belong to the same emigrant family.


   The onwardly mobile character is the initial 'n' which has joined the indefinite article in the case of apron, umpire, and orange, but has moved the...

11 May 2015

SOUTH Africa is no stranger to scandal in high places, and the Inkathagate controversy is just the latest episode in a long-running saga.


But although we might appear to be cornering the market in scandal, we certainly did not invent it – at least in the etymological sense.


 The word itself has quite an honour-able history dating back to ancient Greece, developing its modern sense through the influence of Old French and t...

8 May 2015


PICK up any South African newspaper and it’s a fair bet that you’ll come across the word “cadre” as a term for a supporter of the ANC.


Its usage appears to embrace a wide range of meaning, from a loose synonym for any ANC sympathiser to the plural “cadres” as a specific term for militant activities, especially members of Mkhonto we Sizwe.


Seldom (if ever) is cadre applied to those of other political persuasion – whether milit...

8 May 2015


Way back in the middle ages (sometime in the 60s), when Julie Andrews still kept her clothes on in movies and was the epitome of all things pure and innocent, she sang a saccharine song about female deer, drops of golden sun, a long way to run, and so on to nausea-inducing insanity.


If memory serves, the movie was called The Sound Of Music, and the point of the song was to give sense to the apparently meaningless symbols of t...

6 May 2015

Perhaps the last outpost is not the safest place for expressing anti-monarchist sentiments, but a reader’s query prompts an opportunity too good to miss. At the risk of a backlash from the league of Empire Loyalists, this column holds no brief for the one-time Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family, the erstwhile Battenburgers, the kilted Greek and their noisome brood.


Wordsworth is thus only too happy to oblige Mrs. Brits of Durban North,...

4 May 2015

STAR WARS and boerewors have more than just ET in common, either in the sense of science fiction or bellicose Afrikanerdom.


Strange as it may seem, the words was and wors are derived from the same source – the Old High German or Frankish ‘werra’ meaning confusion, discord, or strife.


The sense of confusion or ‘mixing up’ is evident in sausage making (the German ‘wurst’ is from the same root), while the strife meaning gives us...

3 May 2015


AMERICANS call it an eraser, and if an English-speaking visitor should innocently ask for a rubber, the response could well be shocked embarrassment.


In contemporary American usage, a rubber is a condom – and if that’s not enough confusion, the material we call India rubber actually comes from Brazil.


It all began when a scientist called Joseph Priestley who discovered around 1770 that a small chunk of latex imported from Bra...

1 May 2015

VANITY is a fickle mistress, especially for those unfortunates in her thrall. High fashion becomes the height of absurdity quicker than you can lace a whalebone corset.


Women no longer go crazy for fake beauty spots (at least, not those of my acquaintance) but the legacy from that particular bit of facial eccentricity is a word that has all but lost its origins and now means simply foolishness.


That word is “cockamamie”, one o...

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