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A maddening announcement

On Sunday I went to Norwich, a journey that involved three trains, one underground and two overground. In the course of this journey I heard that grating, infuriating, barely-grammatical announcement ‘If you see something that doesn’t look right, please tell a member of staff. We’ll sort it. See it, say it, sorted’ no fewer than fourteen times. Yes, fourteen. FOURTEEN! What the hell is going on? The slogan is everywhere, on all rail networks, blaring out of loudspeakers at every station. And plastered all over posters too. It’s driving me to a frenzy of irritation. I last blogged about this a year ago – see

– and since then it has got worse, not better. I try to share my irritation by making exasperated, sympathy-seeking faces at other commuters when I hear it but they rarely respond. Perhaps they don’t find it as maddenng as I do.

But I am warning whoever is responsible for this fatuous announcement. No one responds well to being nagged. If I do see something that doesn’t look right, there’s no way I’m going to tell a member of staff about it. I’ll keep it to myself.


The daffodils are out! And here is a poem to celebrate that pleasant fact.


Blimey! Behold those big-nosed beauties,

bright and brash as a blare of bugles,

a blast, a blaze, a blitz of ochre,

blinding, brilliant, animate egg-yolks,

bursting free from green baize blazers,

banging their heads like mosh-pit crazers,

billions and billions, all over Britain,

bragging, boasting, top-of-the-billing,

bold as brass or gold doubloons,

yellow-and-orange-and-cream-faced loons,

out on a demo, marching, singing,

nodding and jiving and shaking and swinging,

brazen as strumpets, yellow as crumpets,

blasting and blowing their own bright trumpets.

Philip Pullman and the Oxford comma

I see that Philip Pullman has tweeted that the new Brexit commemorative 50p coin is ‘illiterate’ because its slogan ‘Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations’ lacks an Oxford comma. So it sounds, or could sound, as if we want prosperity with all nations as well as friendship with them. But that’s not quite the sense that was intended. We want prosperity, just on its own – and also friendship with all nations. A comma after prosperity would make it clear that the with refers back only as far as friendship. Of course a difficulty here is that with can and should refer back to peace. The whole thing is rather clumsily phrased.

The idea of the Oxford comma – or so I always thought – was to avoid ambiguity in lists where the last two terms linked by and could be interpreted either as a single item or two separate ones. Example: The subjects I teach for the Open University are Creative Writing, Children’s Literature, and Philosophy. The Oxford comma is useful there because otherwise readers might think there was a single subject called ‘Children’s Literature and Philosophy’.

But I don’t think there is any such risk of ambiguity in the case of the Brexit coin slogan. It’s not ambiguous, just slightly clumsy. But it would still be clumsy with an Oxord comma. Probably the best solution would have been to change the order of the terms: ‘Prosperity, peace and friendship with all nations’. Then the final two terms both work before with and no extra comma is needed.

But why make such a fuss about the punctuation anyway? Pullman just didn’t want Brexit and therefore disapproves of the coin. Well, I didn’t want Brexit either. But we’re stuck with it now and taking a stand on Oxford commas won’t change anything.

The Roaring Twenties

So, we are about to enter a new decade. The 20s. I know there are pedants who say that the decade does not really begin until the end of 2020 (because there was no Year 0) but I’m not of their number. It may only be 2019 completed years since the (putative) birth of Christ but we will be saying and writing 2020 and that is what counts.

Anyway it has got me thinking about the 1920s – a decade which I vicariously lived through for a week when we were filming Further Back in Time for Dinner. I remember thinking at the time what a transformational decade it was: by the end of the 1920s most middle-class homes had radio sets and electric light, the roads were full of cars, and aeroplanes were a common sight in the sky. People were listening to jazz, drinking cocktails, dancing in nightclubs. Modernity arrived in the course of a decade. It was nicknamed ‘The Roaring Twenties’ because of its wildness, speed, noise and energy. I don’t know where the term came from or who coined it; but I note that there was already a phrase ‘the Roaring Forties’, which referred not to a decade but to the fortieth degree of latitude in the southern hemisphere, where there are many storms and hurricanes. So it may have been an adaptation of that.

I wonder if we will see similarly profound social change in the 2020s. My prediction is that we will. But will the 2020s have its own nickname? We shall see.


So, Donald Trump is to be impeached; or at least the proceedings have started. Impeached. Until very recently I had not that heard that word for decades. I first came across it when studying the English Civil War for A-level in 1979; for Charles I, of course, was impeached by Parliament. But what is the origin of this strange word, which has nothing to do with peaches?

Well. It comes from the idea of trapping someone by the foot (Latin pes, pedis). It’s related to the French word empêcher (to prevent) and the English word impediment.

The word impeach also gives us the rather lovely adjective unimpeachable, meaning being beyond reproach. I don’t think that epithet will ever be applied to Trump.

Glory shown around

I went to church on Christmas Day, because there is little I like better than belting out carols at the top of my voice. When it came to the reading, there was an innovation: instead of having someone from the congregation read aloud from the lectern, they showed an animated version of the nativity story in Luke on a big screen. An American voice intoned the story over the comings and goings of a cartoon Mary and Joseph, donkeys, shepherds, etc. Well, that’s OK, I don’t have a problem with that. But when it came to the appearance of the angels, the voicec said: ‘And glory shown round about them.’ That’s what he said. Shown.

The reason, of course, is that in American English, the mutated form of the past of shine is no longer used. They say shined, not shone. So for the narrator, this form must have looked like a bit of archaic King James English; and not having ever heard it, he pronounced it, not unreasonably from his point of view, to rhyme with bone. In this instance, American English is more modern than  British English in preferring the regularised form, since irregular verb forms tend to drop out of use over time. (However, the reverse applies when it comes to the past of dive. They say dove, we say dived.)

Here endeth the lesson.

Fifty ways to leave your lover?

Just been listening to Paul Simon’s song ‘Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover’. I do like the song, but I thought once again – and I know lots of other people have made this point – that he doesn’t supply anything like fifty ways. Only five or six. And some of the ways aren’t even ways, really. ‘Make a new plan, Stan’. That’s not very helpful, is it?

Here are some additional suggestions: ‘Tell her you’re gay, Ray.’ (Or, if the man being advised is gay: ‘Tell him you’re straight, mate.’)

‘Pretend to be ill, Bill.’

‘Get sentenced to jail, Dale.’

‘Get her to chuck you, Hugh.’

‘Fake your own death, Seth.’

‘Go to bed with her sister, mister.’

That’s still only about twelve ways, including Simon’s rather vague policies, though. Any other ideas?

More thoughts on Christmas carols

Christmas carols are on my mind just now as my choir, the Rose and Crown Singers, are gearing up for our annual carol concert in the Rose and Crown pub this Sunday. It struck me that we don’t actually understand many of the Christmas carol lyrics we sing, but we don’t even notice that we don’t understand them because the words are so familiar. Take, for example, ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen.’ It doesn’t mean (as I used to think) ‘Please God, let the merry gentlemen have a rest this Christmas’. Rest here means ‘keep’, and there should be a comma after ‘merry’. In other words, ‘May God allow you to carry on being merry, gents.’

Or ‘Away in a manger’. Hang on, away? What does that mean? I can only surmise it is short for ‘Far away’, but that wouldn’t have scanned.

As for ‘And i-oh i-oh i-oh’ (in ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’), well, your guess is as good as mine. Does it mean anything at all? Or is it just a piece of nonsense doggerel?

He stole himself

Here’s Matthew Syed in today’s Times: ‘When Sir Alex Ferguson won a record ninth Premier League trophy in 2007, he allowed himself a few minutes of celebration, but then stole himself for the next challenge.’

Say what? He stole himself? How did that get in there? What does it mean? How could he have stolen himself?

It means, of course, that he steeled himself. Now, the past tense of the homonym steal is indeed stole. But the past tense of steel is not. It’s a regular past tense ending in -ed. A bizarre confusion by whoever made this mistake – and it might not have been Syed, of course, but a hyper-correcting sub.


I was reading in today’s Observer the report of Anthony Joshua’s clever points victory over Andy Ruiz. According to the headline his triumph was ‘tainted’ by his ‘crass words’ before the fight, when he said that (in response to losing the first fight against Ruiz six months ago) for the re-match he had to work out a way to ‘decapitate him’. Apparently human rights groups have condemned his words.

The words storm and teacup come irresisitbly to mind. When Joshua said he planned to decapitate his opponent it was a metaphor. He obviously wasn’t really planning to go into the ring with a chainsaw. OK, it is a violent metaphor – but boxing is a violent sport. In fact the build-up to this particular fight was relatively civilisied and free from trash-talking. Joshua and Ruiz clearly respect one another. But even if they didn’t, so what? Boxers are allowed to utter threats before fights; that’s all part of the ritual. Really, I think the Observer, and those human rights groups, ought to find something a bit more meaningful to condemn.