Balderdash & Piffle

Just caught Balderdash and Piffle on BBC2. Having seen the adverts I wasn’t sure if it would be a panel show, a documentary, or something else. It proved to be one of the BBC’s beloved part-information, part celebrity waffle shows, with a mildly irritating woman presenting it.

The programme barely scratched the surface of the material, and the presenter appeared strangely bemused by the OED’s insistence on actual printed evidence for when words were first used in a given context. (The OED people didn’t do a very good job of explaining, to be fair). But it’s still a subject which has an inherent appeal because language is something we use every day without stopping to wonder how recent – or ancient – is much that we take for granted. It’s really hard to go wrong with the subject matter.

I must confess I’m increasingly fascinated by language and etymology. It’s a topic I haven’t really studied (my English degree barely even covered semantics, let alone etymology), but I’m increasingly reading up on the subject at a ‘popular science’ level and finding it highly absorbing.

Last year I read (aka nicked off my wife) a book called Port Out, Starboard Home which explains the origins of phrases and, equally importantly, debunks the invented and erroneous explanations that have arisen over the years. For example, “Posh” is not an acronym for “Port Out, Starboard Home”. And “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” is apparently not derived from the brass plates used to stack up cannonballs; it is in fact literally referring to a brass monkey’s most treasured possessions, with early variants being “talk the tail off a brass monkey” and “hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey”. Sometimes phrases go right back to Latin, while other phrases can be traced to a specific modern date or person; or shown to have been used in print before the event which allegedly inspired it. I highly recommend the book (released in America as Ballyhoo, Buckaroo and Spuds), which is both accessible and convincingly authoritative on the subject and even goes so far as to debunk explanations trotted out by other similar books. If you’re interested there’s a related website, World Wide Words.

I’m also reading a fascinating book on the alphabet called Letter Perfect (formerly Language Visible; what is it with language books changing their names?) which among various bombshells made me realise that, in English, ‘J’ and ‘V’ weren’t officially recognised as letters in their own right until Webster’s American Dictionary in 1828. And prior to the late 19th Century the name of the letter ‘J’ was pronounced “Jye”, not “Jay”. (Why yes, I’m up to the chapter on ‘J’, why do you ask?) What’s especially fascinating is that the shapes, sounds and even sequence of many of our letters can be traced right back to the very first Semitic alphabet around 2000 BC. Whole civilisations have consciously appropriated the same system of letters, which has trickled its way down to us through the centuries. This may be elementary stuff to anyone who’s studied the subject, but it’s the kind of thing I just enjoy learning.

It has to be said, having waffled off the topic, that the BBC TV programme really did a very poor job of conveying these things – especially the ways language changes and the dizzying historical perspective – but at the same time programmes on the subject are few and far between and I’ll certainly be tuning in next week.

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