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What does poignant mean? – Update

Last week on Radio 4 I heard Evan Davies ask a guest: ‘And what’s the most poignant, edgiest question you’d like to put to them?’

I’ve completely forgotten the context, I’m afraid, but that doesn’t matter. The salient thing here is Davies’s use of the word poignant to mean pointed or to the point. We are living through a radical change in the meaning of the word. It no longer means, or doesn’t primarily mean ‘piercingly sad’, as for centuries it did. It now means something like appropriate, on-target, fitting or on point. I have blogged about this before, of course – see

That was five years ago. The onward creep of poignant continues, to the extent that Davies, clearly a well-educated man, can use it in the new sense on respectable Radio 4 with every expectation of being understood. I don’t think dictionaries record the new meaning yet (at least the online dictionary I’ve just googled doesn’t) but it cannot be long before they do.

In the meantime, I feel this is a word I can no longer use. If I employ it in the old sense I run the risk of being misunderstood. And I really don’t like the new sense.

Adieu, poignant.

Rubbish lyrics of Spiderman song

Who remembers the theme song to the old Spiderman cartoon? ‘Is he strong? Listen bud/ He’s got radioactive blood’.

When I was young I just took those words for granted, accepting without thought the implication that having radioactive blood would be a guarantee of physical strength. Thinking about it now, decades later, I’m really not convinced at all. My mental image of a person with radioactive blood would be an enfeebled patient in a hospital bed, hooked up to various drips and tended to by nurses in protective clothing, hovering on the brink of death.

And I used to think those were good lyrics.

‘Is he strong?’

‘Listen bud, he’s got radioactive blood!’

‘Wow, he must be really strong then.’

It’s fairly obvious at this distance that  they weren’t good at all. They were rubbish. Like so many other things I used to think were good in my youth.

The sad demise of which


I have just received a letter from my optician, which states: ‘It is very important for patients over 45 to have regular eye examinations, this allows us to not only check for sight problems but also acts as a general health check’. Very thoughtful of them. I must certainly make an appointment. But doesn’t that comma splice make you wince? (A comma splice, for those not familiar with the term, is when a comma is used as a linking device to splice together two clauses that are grammatically independent of each other.) Either the comma should be replaced by a full stop or semi-colon, or a linking word like as or because should go before this. Or replace this with which.

Thinking about the matter a little further, I think the underlying problem here is not the comma splice itself. That is in this case merely a symptom of the demise of which. People have stopped using it. They use this instead and think it does the same job. I am seeing which less and less often in the essays I mark; and my guess is that those who do still use it are of a similar age to me. For younger generations, which has come to sound fussy, prissy and old-fashioned. And this moves into the vacant space, gradually changing from a demonstrative to a relative pronoun.

According to me

There was a bit of a Twitter conversation going on today about somebody’s local bookshop not stocking PG Wodehouse novels because, the proprietor apparently said, nobody buys them. Lots of people expressed outrage, disbelief etc; and Berkeley Bookstore of Paris tweeted that Wodehouse novels disappear very swiftly from their shelves: ‘According to me, his books have wings!’

Berkeley Bookstore is an American concern. I don’t know whether the author of that tweet is French, or has simply lived so long in Paris that they are forgetting their English. But you can’t say ‘According to me’. In French the word is selon (selon moi, selon lui, selon eux etc as the case may be) which is usually translated into English as ‘according to’. That’s all right for him or her or them, but it doesn’t work in the first person. The English phrase according to implies some distance from, if not scepticism towards, the view being referred to. It means something like: ‘His view (which I don’t necessarily agree with) is…’ Obviously, one can hardly say ‘My view (which I don’t necessarily agree with) is…’ Well, you could, but it would suggest a somewhat conflicted personality.

A post to pore over

My good friend David Alterman has just asked if I know anything about the origin of the verb to pore over something. Yes, interesting. It is a highly specific word. There are only certain things one can pore over. You could pore over a document, a contract, a crossword, or a textbook. But you wouldn’t pore over a comic or a Jack Reacher novel. Poring over suggests very close examination of some very difficult text. It evokes an image of a bowed head, eyes only an inch or two away from the page.

I looked it up in my great big Compact Oxford English Dictionary, the one that has to be heaved up with two hands and read with a magnifying glass (it has to be pored over, in fact). There I learned that the word dates back to Middle English. It occurs in Chaucer, where it is spelt poure. But its origins are unclear. There are no recorded uses of it in Old English or Old French. It could be related to the Old English word pire, of which the modern word peer might be a descendant.

A bit of googling brought up one or two other possibilities: some say it is related to spy or spoor; and it’s possible that the word purblind, meaning nearly blind, was originally pore-blind, meaning nearly blind from poring over things.

It has nothing to do with the pores of one’s skin. And that’s all I have. Is that OK, Dave?

A potato in my sock

This morning I was pulling on my socks and I saw that one sock had a hole in the heel. “A potato,” I thought. “I’ve got a potato in my sock.’

Does anyone else ever still use this expression? I remember it from the late 60s/early 70s. My mum used to say it; but it wasn’t just confined to our family because I remember reading it in a Jennings book. I think the idea is that when you’re wearing a sock with a hole in it, the rounded patch of flesh that’s visible looks a bit like a potato.

I don’t think the youth of today would know the expression; but then, why should they? In days when socks used to be darned, perhaps it was a bit more useful. But now if you’ve got holes in your sock you just throw them away and buy another pair.


I have always thought that unacceptable was rather a prissy, pissy, weak little word. I imagine it being said in a bleating, high-pitched, querulous but ineffectual voice, probably by somebody with a lisp. And yet for some reason it has become increasingly popular. Anyway, Transport for London have started putting up some warning posters on the Underground saying: Violence against our staff is…

What do you think? Despicable? Contemptible? Repugnant? Morally abhorrent? It’s got to be something pretty strong, hasn’t it?

But no. Violence against TfL staff is unacceptable, apparently. The only effect of using this prissy, pissy, weak little word must be to make people think that violence isn’t quite as bad as they’d thought.