Sunday, July 26, 2015

Words, don't you love them? Tricia McGill.

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Words have always fascinated me. Probably a good thing as I am a writer. But it’s the peculiarities that are the best part. I have a friend who often calls me and says, “I found a good word today.” He will then expect me to look up that word and find out its meaning. This likely stems from him having young grandkids. But it gets me searching anyway. One was ‘obsequies’ I had no idea this was a word for funeral rites. Some might know this one, but I didn’t, ‘strobilus’ (cone of a conifer).

I don’t know if anybody else does this; but I often watch the lips of a newsreader or an actor and am amazed at the way we can understand what someone is saying by sounds emerging from their mouths. It’s especially amusing to me when they have a certain funny way of pronouncing some words or their mouth twists in an odd way. Probably a stupid habit, but one that gives me a moment’s enjoyment. This is the odd thing about us humans—the way we can understand a fellow human by the words they say. That’s providing they are speaking in a language we understand. I was lucky, as I had a lot of older siblings as well as my parents to teach me the fundamentals.

Another thing I often ponder over is the difference between English speaking countries in our spelling of words. So, who was the first American who decided it was okay to leave the u out of colour, endeavour, and humour, etc. or decided it was a good idea to add a z in words like realise to replace the s, or spell metre as meter? I’m not knocking it, but just wondering how it began. Who first called the boot of a car the trunk, and who decided that pants were not undergarments but trousers? And here’s a funny one, we called an eraser a rubber at school, but guess what the Americans call a rubber? Americans go on vacation but I go on holiday.

When I arrived in Australia and went to my first job here as a pattern cutter in a clothing factory someone asked me to pass the Durex. Well, that floored me as she meant the Sellotape, and we knew Durex as something totally different back in London where we came from.

My friend was telling me how she met an obvious newcomer to our country while at the Post Office. This lady was having trouble filling out a form. She wanted to put an n on the end of Australia and my friend had to explain to her that, no, only when you become an Australian citizen do you put that n there. I always have the greatest sympathy for migrants, and am glad I was taught English from the moment I could speak. Imagine how strange our language must be to newcomers. We often hear people criticise them and say, “They should learn our language before they are allowed in.” But just take a wander through the dictionary and you are aware what a treacherous path it is. Just think of a word like rain or reign or rein for a start. Then take a simple word like kind. It has more than one meaning; I just bought a new kind of chair or that man was so kind to me when I needed help. I will never ridicule someone who endeavours to find their way around the English language.

Because I was born and bred in North London I have a totally different vocabulary to someone we consider as posh; you know them, they speak like a member of the royal family. My mother was a great one for sayings. Half the time I doubt she knew what they meant and it wasn’t until I was old enough to visit the library and start my passion for books that I learned what some of them meant. One of her favourites was, “Look at you, you’re as black as Newgate’s knocker,” when I came in a bit grubby from playing. I found out that Newgate Jail was a vile place in London where no self-respecting soul wanted to go through that black door with the iron knocker on it. There are other meanings for this saying but that is the one she meant. Another of her best was, “They are as different as chalk from cheese.” That one is self-explanatory. My brothers, who were a lot older than me, used Cockney slang. Their favourites; Apples and Pears (Stairs) Butcher’s Hook (Look) Trouble and Strife (Wife) and Use your loaf (Bread, meaning Head) Even my husband, also the youngest in his family, used most of those.

Then, when we arrived in Australia, we had to learn new words, such as ‘cobber’ meaning mate or friend, crook meaning sick or poorly, etc. A lot of these ‘Strine’ words have faded from fashion and are rarely used these days, which is a shame. We also found that Aussies had a nickname for everyone, more so than us English, and had a unique way of shortening every word. I guess you’ve heard of ‘budgie smugglers’ a term used for those skimpy figure hugging swimmers, or bathers as some call them. We were heading off to Queensland and so were going ‘troppo’ because it’s classed as the tropics. If you are going way out into the bush you are going ‘back of Bourke’. Have you seen the movie 'They're a Weird Mob'? It's a story about a young Italian, Nino, who arrived here and was asked at the pub to 'Shout' his workmates a beer. He had no idea that they meant it was his turn to buy a round of drinks and wondered just why he was asked to shout when he thought that impolite.

Another good friend of mine loved creating his own limericks and would recite one at the drop of a hat, so to finish up I’d like to quote a couple of my favourite limericks for no other reason than I like them. I’ve picked out the cleaner ones, as there is no doubt some limericks can be crude. These are taken from a quaint little book called The Lure of The Limerick-an uninhibited history (W. S. Baring-Gould).

“A lisping young lady named Beth

Was saved from a fate worse than death

Seven times in a row,

Which unsettled her so,

That she quit saying ‘No’ and said ‘Yeath.” (Cosmo Monkhouse)

“There was a young lady of Twickenham

Whose shoes were too tight to walk quick in ‘em,

She came back from a walk

Looking whiter than chalk

And took ‘em both off and was sick in ‘em.” (Oliver Herford)

Note: There are a number of red lines beneath words in this post. As you can guess, the dictionary wasn't happy with how I spelt some of the words. (Apologies, I am an Aussie after all) 
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