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Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle gives us a taste of the interesting trivia to be found in his new book…

I spent a lot of time looking into treacle earlier this year. Not literally. But, as it were, literarily. You see, there’s more to treacle than meets the eye. (If treacle ever does meet your eye, I recommend washing it out immediately.) Take Treacle Mines. They don’t exist. At least, not really. But in fiction, they do. It all began at St Frideswide’s Well in Binsey, Oxfordshire, a small village immortalised by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem ‘Binsey Poplars’. One notable visitor to this well was Charles Dodgson, who worked nearby at Oxford University. One of his companions was probably a girl named Alice Liddell, of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You see, Charles Dodgson was also Lewis Carroll. (Alice’s nurse, the wonderfully named Miss Prickett, came from Binsey.)

To locals, St Frideswide’s Well was known as Binsey treacle mine, from the original meaning of ‘treacle’ denoting any curative fluid or medicine. The word ‘mine’ was a sort of joke, conveying the idea that treacle could be ‘mined’ like gold or lead or coal. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the Dormouse Read the rest of this entry

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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

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