Letters to Newspapers

The Oxford English Dictionary 1904 quotes J. R. Robinson (50 Yrs. Fleet St. 236) as saying:

The passion for letter-writing to newspapers is recognised in Fleet Street as a distinct form of mental aberration.

1.Missing Links

To the Editor The Times

Sir, Your correspondent Mr Hugh David's enquiries (August 17th 1994) have brought forth some interesting evidence on the disappearance of the hyphen-and-lower-case-style for street names but as yet no reply to his query as to why this should have come about.

The element street alone – unlike all the many other terms for thoroughfare that enter into street names -- has developed in our spoken language into the rhythmic equivalent of a suffix, so that the linked spelling was highly appropriate for names containing it. As it has always been much commoner than any other such designation, the others were probably at one time so printed mainly in imitation of the predominant style. It would be very interesting to know if any printing house ever made a systematic distinction between the two types.

The reason for the abandonment of the suffix style is the convergence of general literacy and urbanisation. The former enabled everyone to read street signs and the latter provided them in vast numbers unpunctuated and exclusively in capital letters. The printers basically merely conformed to the models appearing "on every street corner"!

Yours etc

2. The spelling "alright"

To the Editor The Times

Sir, That GCSE examiners should apparently penalise students for using the spelling "alright" ("Spelling skills three times worse among GCSE students" Education Correspondent p.1, April 8th 1996) is an unfortunate hangover from the authoritarian, dilettante as opposed to the analytical, scientific approach to the study of English. "All right" in the sense of "perfectly satisfactory" or as an expression of assent, only appeared in the English language around the middle of the last century. It was quite natural that when people came to write it – and it has remained very much an informal colloquial expression naturally felt to be inappropriate in elevated or dignified styles – they should in many cases feel the desire to express visually its unity of meaning by distinguishing it from the mere sequence of its two component words as in e.g. "She got the answers all right".

The earliest occurrence of the spelling "alright" is given in the Oxford English Dictionary as 1893. It is noted without condemnation or objection as a "frequent spelling". No doubt many older persons at its first appearance found the expression disagreeably newfangled and at least theoretically avoided using it, as for instance later many have reacted to the exactly parallel "okay". People who had, whatever they felt about it, not seen it written "alright" would understandably be reluctant to write it as one word. If the spelling had actually been an extremely rare usage, however logically acceptable and harmonious with other customary spellings, it would still have been defensible to describe it as "wrong" in the sense of having no currency, so unsanctioned by usage.

However, there was little excuse for him when H. W. Fowler attacked the spelling in 1926 in his Modern English Usage in which he commented "should always be written separate" adding that "there are no such forms" as "alright" etc contradicting himself immediately by saying that they are "often seen". The uncritical exaggerated esteem in which Fowler was held for decades has no doubt been behind the present practice of examiners.

It is time they accepted the judgement of the best-informed lexicographers such as those of the OED and Webster which in 1961 acknowledged "alright" as "in reputable use". Indeed it is arguably the better choice. Perhaps an awkward ambiguity would have occurred if the more orthodox spelling had been used twenty years ago when The European newspaper carried the headline


Yours etc

3. BBC pronunciation

To the Editor The Times

Sir, Mr Cormac Rigby (21 July 1976) replies to PHS's taunt that the BBC newsreaders' gala rhyming with sailor sounds patronizing by insisting that "by common consent there is one particular exception" viz the Durham Miners' Gala. But surely the very fact that the BBC admits imposing upon its newsreaders a usage which they would not employ if left free to exercise their own preferences contra-indicates common consent.

Ninety-nine per cent of the BBC Pronunciation Unit's admirable work is to give guidance where it is felt to be needed. The few cases like gala e.g. Ascot (announcers are forbidden to make the second syllable cot), auld lang syne (forbidden the usual zyne), controversy (not allowed to stress it like commodity), homosexual ("homo" forbidden – "hommo" required) are unfortunate hangovers from those dictatorial days when Reith bullied them into saying "Glassgow". It would be as well if the unit were no longer required to operate such a policy.

Yours etc

4. Cross words

To the Editor The Times

Sir, Dr Charles Cruickshank's invitation to your readers (6 February 1984) to quote other examples of allegedly self-indulgent lexicographical writing from the OED has unsurprisingly brought forth few comments. Its authors were very serious scholars.

Two examples of arguably eccentric definition not from the OED are:

1.The sad little parenthesis after currant bun in the great Henry Cecil Wyld's Universal dictionary, "(with few or no currants)" and

2.The definition of it stands to reason, by the Fowler brothers, who boiled down the OED in 1911 to make the Concise Oxford Dictionary: "It is logically demonstrable (that)" or popularly, "I shall lose my temper if you deny (that)".

Alas, in 1976, this felicitous item was eliminated from the COD.

Yours sincerely…

5. How to pronounce it

To the Editor The Times

Sir, Your correspondent Dr Eustace Hope seems disquieted by his Shorter Oxford Dictionary and asks (6 September 1977) for advice about the word codicil. The best advice for him is not to take lexicographers too seriously and least of all when it comes to matters of pronunciation which are the most elusive for them to deal with.

New pronunciations are usually current for a generation or more before they make their way into most dictionaries. ConTROVersy was in educated use over 50 years ago: it first made the Concise Oxford Dictionary in 1976. So was forMIDable which is not there yet. Armada to rhyme with Ada was probably obsolete 50 years ago but was the only form offered by the COD until last year.

Dictionaries mainly used by foreigners are usually more up to date. At least the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English (1974) recommends its users to adopt the code vowel rather than the cod in codicil and also in codify. Whether rightly or wrongly who knows. Only one other dictionary has done so yet (the Oxford Concise Pronouncing Dictionary). The rash lexicographer responsible in both cases was

Yours truly…

6. An R in the mouth

To the Editor The Radio Times

Your correspondent R. R. Morris wrote to 'draw attention to the increasing use by the BBC of the intrusive R' (LETTERS 13-19 August 1977). As someone who has been at some pains to observe as systematically as possible for 14 years or more the habits of BBC announcers in this respect I can confirm such an impression.

However, I can only deplore his suggestion that this usage is in any way reprehensible. It has been a widespread feature of educated English for no doubt 200 years not to utter any sound corresponding to the R of the spelling which had become very weakly articulated before consonant-sounds and before pauses. This has had repercussions…

It is perfectly natural that for people for whom words like clear, fear, hear, near rhyme exactly with idea, Boadicea, trachea most of the time should make them rhyme all the time. To do this they match up the small group with few common words to the large group with many. This is now so universal among educated speakers in half of the English-speaking world that it is simply futile to object to it. Even those who object are usually 'guilty' of it unconsciously.

The very small group of words which one might have expected to be treated similarly by rhyming e.g. pawing with pouring has not generally been so treated. Words like sawing have not had this 'euphonic' R inserted into them by the majority of educated English people. Even so, it seems to be illogical and unnecessarily intolerant to object to the minority usage.

The objections are being misdirected. English spelling is like a badly fitting garment. We don't expect a tailor to suggest a surgical operation to improve the fit of a suit.

Yours etc…

7. Linguistic Sexism ES(H)chewed

To the Editor The Reporter of Leeds University

Sir, May one congratulate Dr David Bullimore of the Department of Medicine on his excellent response in December to the University's admirable call for vigilance against sexist language in commending to us the splendid little word ESH (for he/she, his/her etc).

However, may one say to those many who are no doubt enthusiastic to incorporate it at once into their daily spoken usage that, in certain kinds of expression eg 'esh had esh tongue in esh cheek', there is some possibility of its ambiguity being taken for improper double entendre (ie could also mean he's got his in her…, she's got her in his…!) and of course it will have to be pronounced with care not to obscure its vowel sound lest its negative sexism be mistaken for positive alcoholism.

Very sincerely…

Under the heading

8. Polite Pronunciation

some years ago the Radio Times published a very brief letter from a Dr  Barley of  Hove  saying

I'm tired of hearing Uranus pronounced 'urinous'.

The RT Letters Editor replied

The BBC Pronunciation Unit tells us that it has always recommended the latter. Though 'you-rain-us' might more closely resemble the 'classical' pronunciation, you-rin-us is the form commonly used in British scientific circles.

What I couldn't help wondering was whether  the sensitive  Dr B would really have been happier to have 'urinous ' replaced by 'your anus'!