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Seven Things You May Not Know About Punctuation

In this special guest post, Caroline Taggart offers some little-known facts about punctuation marks, to mark the publication of her new book, The Accidental Apostrophe: … And Other Misadventures in Punctuation

Did you know

1. The Victorians were crazy about hyphens?

Jane Austen’s nephew Edward Austen Leigh, composing a biography of his aunt in the 1860s, had occasion to mention the joys of spring in the country, including early primroses, anemones and the first bird’s-nest. That hyphen makes it absolutely clear that he means the first nest (of the season) belonging to a bird, rather than a nest belonging to the first bird. A bit over-precise by today’s standards, you might think.

2. Charles Dickens could work six semi-colons into a single sentence?

It’s right at the beginning of Great Expectations, and it’s a masterpiece: Read the rest of this entry

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Five Great Words for Specific Days of the Year

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities by Paul Anthony Jones

I love books of language trivia, and learning new words is always a pleasure. One of the finest Twitter accounts to offer a ‘word of the day’ is @HaggardHawks, run by Paul Anthony Jones, author of several fascinating books on language and a real logognost (one who knows words – actually, I just Googled to see if that word exists and apparently it doesn’t, but it should: we have the word ‘bibliognost’ for one who knows books). His new book, The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words, is a treasure-trove of rare words – arranged so that each page considers a different word and explores its connection to a day of the year. Here are five of my favourites – though there were many more I could have chosen.

Quaaltagh (1 January). The first person you meet on New Year’s Day. This word found its way into English from Manx, the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, and is pronounced ‘quoll-tukh’. The word originally Read the rest of this entry

Reverend Spooner, Father of the Spoonerism

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into the life of the man immortalised by the spoonerism

Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was a physically striking man. An albino with pink skin and white hair, he became affectionately known as the Child by students at New College, the Oxford college of which Spooner became warden in 1903. (His wife Frances became known as the Madonna, hence their inevitable collective nickname of Madonna and Child.) By all accounts, Spooner was a kindly man who insisted, in the face of indignant opposition, that the college’s war memorial should list the names of the German dead alongside the college members who had given their lives in the Great War.

But this has all been lost from the popular consciousness – if it ever resided there – and Spooner’s name and legacy have firmly centred on the ‘spoonerism’ – a word attested from The Globe magazine in London from 1900, and defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘an accidental transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words’. Interestingly, though, the OED’s next citation for the word ‘spoonerism’, from a Notes and Queries article of 1923, suggests that Spooner may have given his name to a word-game that was much older than him: Read the rest of this entry