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. 

17 Apr 2015

Since this column appears on a Monday it seems appropriate to look at why we call it that - and not Workday or Spleenday.


For once, we don't have to thank the Romans. Unlike the months, the days of the week are all of Teutonic origin (with one exception), even if they are translations of the Roman names.


Monday is simply the day of the moon - from the Old English "monan daeg". It is echoed in the Afrikaans Maandag, and even th...

16 Apr 2015

 A perfectly ordinary word with an equally obvious meaning can undergo a dramatic (even embarrassing) change of personality when it crosses international boundaries. Perhaps the most obvious example is the famous tale of the English businessman in America who asked a secretary is she could lend him a rubber – unaware that in Stateside parlance he was asking for a condom when he really wanted an eraser.


In a similar vein, an Au...

6 Apr 2015


The hacks and hackettes of the newspaper business are generally a cheerful and lively bunch, very prone to convivial gatherings as the sun goes down – or sometimes even earlier. At one time there was a handy three-letter word which aptly described such jollifications and the attendant company.


To use it now would invite, at best, misunderstanding. At worst, a hostile and aggressive response. A queer turn of events, indeed.



2 Apr 2015

 The British general election campaign threw up a word which provoked much head-scratching and dictionary-hunting in this little corner of South Africa.


It appeared in the Guardian Weekly in a front- page assessment of the state of the parties.

The sentence read: "When John Major called the election, against such a psephologically discouraging background, the world assumed he must have had shots in his locker".



2 Apr 2015

Instead of the puerile taunts and insults which usually typify political debate, dictionaries and derivations are playing a big part in the “phoney war” leading up to Britain’s general election.

The dispute arises from an advertisement produced by the ruling Conservative Party, designed to frighten voters away from the labour opposition. A UK version of “rooigevaar”


The ad features a giant pair of red boxing gloves inscribed wi...

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