Wednesday 24 May 2023

Grammar: Zeugma and Syllepsis

The Greeks had a word for it – they classified everything, including rhetoric and figures of speech.

The classic examples of syllepsis/zeugma are sentences like this:

She served the soup with a ladle and a scowl.
He left in a cab and high dudgeon.
He lived in hope and Crouch End.
She's raised the ceiling height and expectations.
(Homes under the Hammer)

Sometimes the writer or speaker moves from literal to metaphorical meaning, or vice versa:

You, sir, will die either on the gallows or from the pox!
That depends if I embrace your principles or your mistress!

This dialogue has been ascribed to many people from Disraeli and Gladstone to... Read all about it here.

Vigil for Missing Mom Steps up Pressure on Husband. Armed with anger, hope and candles, participants in a vigil for a former police officer's missing fourth wife left a pink placard reading "Where's our sister Stacy?" on the man's porch Saturday. (2007, CNN)

The air was thick with shrieks and fruit. (P.G. Wodehouse on an orange-throwing incident.)

She made no reply, up her mind, and a dash for the door. (Flanders and Swann)

They are sworn to secrecy and to protect the poor.

George III is predominantly remembered for losing the American colonies and his sanity. (Telegraph, 2013)

MissVietnam is my favourite to win Miss Universe 2015 tonight. She comes in peace — and a pink bikini! (William Lee Adams)

Those who confront him end up in the wrong, or Poland. (Nancy Banks Smith)

In 1868, at Walham Green, Edward Colbeck broke the world record for running 440 yards and the leg of a passing sheep. (Lee Jackson/LF)

Newsnight has learned the current clinical lead for the Tavistock’s Gender Identity Development Service – handed a key role in the new services – has questioned the need for change and the integrity of Dr Hilary Cass. (@hannahsbee, 2023)

More here, and links to the rest.

Monday 22 May 2023

Adjectives 17: Intoxicatingly Drab

An adjective can sum up a scene, a country, a world. You might call it Greeneland.

Intoxicatingly drab. (Matthew Sweet on British B movies)

Places with a breathtaking ordinariness. (imdb on a film made in LA in 1950)

Banal suburban ennui. (Lars Kretschmer on a shuttered Turkish shop)

I found this monstrous featureless building next to the rice paddies in South Korea interestingly bleak. (Daniel Blackburn)

Gray suits, gray filing cabinets, gray skies, gray food, gray childhoods, gray marriages. ( on John Le Carré)

Green Line bus stops. Factory sports fields lined with poplars. Boarding kennels, down-at-heel riding schools, damp bungalows in wizened orchards. I was so happy. Is it still unloved, that landscape? I loved it. (Alan Bennett, The Old Country)

Looking down across the grey roofs, until my eyes for some reason lit on one stony "back" out of the many, where the face of a middle-aged man was presented against a window pane ... I remembered saying to myself with astonishment, "That man is happy—completely happy." (Graham Greene)

Tina Brown vividly conjures "the fading walk-up flats in far-flung London postal codes of former courtiers and retainers": their tables crowded with "tasteful knickknacks," their stair carpets reeking of "downward mobility and pointless, genteel sacrifice." (NYT on Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers)

Luigi's Pin-Table business is delightfully dingy, filled out with slot machines and macabre looking games such as a laughing sailor or Konki The Clown: Fortune Teller. ( on Street of Shadows)

Throughout this novel, there is a certain nihilistic dreariness hanging over all the characters. Goodreads on Georges Simenon’s Lock No. 1)

I love England... The true England of nature. The trees, hedges, grass and lie of the land... But also the transitory England with its railways, towns and lighted streets. And above all, the lit pavements shimmering with rain. (Clement Attlee)

“This is the England of arterial and by-pass roads,” wrote JB Priestley in English Journey, “of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons.” (The Guardian article – about poltergeists – adds “roadhouse pubs and electricity pylons”.)

Outlandishly banal, numbingly tedious, completely devoid of stylistic flair; plodding, matter-of-fact prose; either a postmodern master or a talentless nobody. (Critics on Sylvia Smith’s Misadventures. She said she intended her books to be “hilariously funny”.)

I feel at home in airports and on trains and planes. I have plenty of time to read and "no choice" but to eat junk food. (@adamkotsko)

I really enjoy just existing in hotels. The long identical hallways. The soulless abstract art. The weird noises the air-conditioner makes. Strange city lights in the window. Six storeys off the ground. Strangers chatting in the hall. Nothing in the dresser. No past, but an infinite present. (All over Twitter.)

God I just want to go to a hotel so badly. Just one night! I want to swim in a hotel pool and eat at their overpriced restaurant and then order a nightcap through room service. (@anne_theriault)

Arriving into English train stations makes me think of Eastern Europe in the 70s. (@CitizenNate)

Featureless suburban lounges, grimy city streets and cheerless hotel rooms. They depicted a Britain of amazing crumminess... a young woman and her pimp drinking mugs of milky tea around a Formica-topped kitchen table. (Matthew Sweet on 60s exploitation films in Shepperton Babylon. He adds the "anonymous actors" were filmed under a "flat, unflattering light".)

I don’t want to transcend the commonplace. I love the commonplace. (Philip Larkin)

More here, and links to the rest.

Inspirational Quotes about Relationships 104

You shouldn't seek for another person to supply all your needs – in fact, you'll be stronger on your own. Nobody talks about "spinsters" any more! Just live in the moment!

I just want a boyfriend. (Girl on Written in the Stars)

The tedious drudgery of being single. (Hannah Fry)

Agnes knew that having a man in her life would give her the respectability she craved. (Imagine, BBC2)

I used to pray that my children would do well at school, marry someone that's good for them and they would prosper. (@WildAtHeartAus)

When we got older and people started getting into relationships, that didn’t really happen for me. (Man with congenitally disfigured face)

Most westerners spend their youth chasing the future, their jobs, sex/romance and their kids. (@Sal_Robins)

[US Presidential candidate] Tim Scott is 57, never married, no children. Not to be harsh, but that's simply disqualifying. (@willchamberlain)

I've long thought that the problem is that the vast majority of people just want to get on with our lives and local goals like a family, nice place to live, hobbies etc, and not cause any trouble, and it's the bastards with the Big Ideas that mess it all up for us. (@IanBlandThatsMe)

When your husband dies “A woman loses caste for a long time and only regains it in very old age”. (Enid Bagnold, The Loved and Envied, 1936)

I never realised how important being pretty was. When I lived at home, my parents kept saying I was all right and I suppose I believed them. Then, when I went to Derby, all that was taken away. What you looked like was the only thing that mattered and I was ugly. You had to have a man... I am emotionally immature. Thanks to a middle-class upbringing. (So Much Blood, Simon Brett) 

Cougars may be capable of swimming to some 4,500 islands in the waters of Washington state, possibly allowing them to access new territory, food sources and mates. (@newscientist. Has anybody told the cougars there are 100 genders, or that the nuclear family is the cause of all the world’s evils, or that mammals are going to stop pairing off and instead experiment with alternative living arrangements? I tweeted this reply, and got an extremely offensive picture in response.)

Absolutely baffled how nice enough but utterly average boring no-hoper blokes end up with nice women. Do women just give up and settle after about 35? (@anon_opin)

She was cute, and she was able to project herself as a catch, which is very important to someone looking for a mate. (Aphrodite Jones)

How to be more attractive, from @mehrnoosh: Wear Red, Show Off Your Hips, Make Yourself Look Taller, Travel in Groups, Fill in Your Eyebrows, Put On Some Sunglasses, Walk With a Swagger, Stop Crossing Your Arms.

I don’t regret it, but I hadn’t realised the cost. I hadn’t realised how much it would cost to live alone... As for safety, it’s a basic human need I’m learning to live without... Officially divorced as of last summer, neither a wife nor somebody’s long-term partner, I’m a woman I no longer recognise. (An ex-wife in The Times Jan 2022)

[An unmarried woman] was named ‘a jolly good sort’, and was always ‘just outside’ the real life of her friends. (Hugh Walpole)

I think it's worth keeping in mind that one major reason it seems hard now to find a partner is that (in the West) we by and large don't arrange marriages any more. To that extent it's a byproduct of greater freedom and autonomy. (@McCaineNL)

Marriage, a home and a car – the ambition of all young Iranians, according to Christopher de Bellaigue in the Guardian.

When women are without partners, it is a personal failing. when men are without partners, it is a societal issue. (@dearestfem)

An inevitable part of being a catch is one’s physical appearance. (The Times, 2022)

Dating sucks for everyone, and the fact is that we just don’t see a lot of highly differentiated status pairings. Everyone mostly pairs off within their own social/attractiveness bands. This applies to dating as well as marriage. (@constans)

That homophobia remains rife among gay men is hardly surprising. They grow up in a society that teaches that settling down with a woman is the natural order of things. (Owen Jones, April 2014) 

People stopped asking me [when I was going to have children] about 5 years ago when my hair went totally white. It was surreal. Like a switch just flicked. (Alexandra Honigsberg)

Most people by my age have confronted those things. You know, they’ve got married, they’ve had kids. They’ve got pensions. I have always shied away from those things. But I realise that the way I’ve lived my life in my 20s just isn’t a sustainable model for the rest of my life. (Comedian Jon Richardson, aged 31)

Without Friends or Family, even Extraordinary Experiences are Disappointing. Happiness is inherently social, two studies find (Sci Am head)

Every single person I knew had children apart from my two childfree friends: I didn’t know anyone who didn’t get what they wanted. But I think they had this idea that I had this “other” group of friends I was hanging out with when I wasn’t with them – like I had this spare secret set of friends – I didn’t! They all went on to get new friends through their connections through their families and partners and children but I had just lost all my friends. (

Picture by Gordon Bruce.

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Grammar: Empty Signifiers


What is honour? A word. What is in that word ‘honour’? What is that ‘honour’? Air. (Falstaff, Henry IV Part One, William Shakespeare)

There are words that are never defined. No evidence is ever produced for the existence of the Things they refer to, yet these are talked about confidently as if they were real. Philosopher John Locke called them “insignificant terms”, and to the French they are “empty signifiers” (signifiants vides). (Some of these Things may have a doubtful semi-existence. You can reify something easily by calling it “the something”. But you haven’t actually summoned it into existence. But what do you call it when you don’t merely reify the abstract concept – nature, progress, but ascribe intentionality to it? Personalisation?)

We didn’t do it, it was:

civilisation (“Civilisation flourished in the Indus Valley.”)
complexes, compulsions
demons, destiny, drives
evolution, fate

historical inevitability, history (“the wrong side of history”)
impulse, inhibition, inspiration, instinct
karma, Nature, neuroses

progress, providence
repression, sublimation
temper, temptation (from the Devil)

the dark side, the passions, the subconscious
the Zeitgeist, urges


anger management: Your problem is behaviour you need to stop, not an emotion you need to control. In fact, it’s our problem and you need to stop it now.

benign neglect:
No neglect is benign. And it usually means “middle-class neglect”.

cancel culture

caste: Yes, caste systems exist, but people are not really inferior or superior.


dyslexia: Many teachers define an inability to read as “NBT” – “never been taught”.

empowerment, liberation: Popular in the 80s, but they were seen as internal feelings. People have to give you power and freedom.

family values: Never defined, but probably means “no single mothers being a burden on the taxpayer”.


functioning alcoholic: You only think you’re functioning. You only think nobody notices.

human nature

inalienable rights: Those who give you rights can take them away.

low pain threshold

modernity: Assumes we progress just because time passes. 

My Big Break

nation: Convenient fiction that allows “us” to rule without too much trouble.


permissive society: It always seemed to be happening somewhere else. It also assumes that society ought to be repressive. It further assumes that people shouldn’t – or even can’t – do what they like without permission from somebody.

primitivism: a state to which human beings will regress given half a chance (Given the ease with which humans default to racism, sexism and victim-blaming, perhaps this is not such an empty concept.)

progress: an impersonal force, an inevitable improvement (But it’s also talked of as if it had plans for us.)

rights: See the UN Declaration on Human Rights.

romance: You can always dismiss a phenomenon by calling it “unromantic”, such as... driverless cars? 


sanctity: They said equal partnerships would destroy the sanctity of marriage. How’s it doing?


sense of community, sense of Britishness, pride: Things the Powers That Be want us to have because they will stop us rioting and emigrating to Australia, or something. Or perhaps they’ll just make us vote Conservative.

standard English, French etc: Invented in the 19th century as collections of states became “nations”. (Governments suppressed minority languages.)

the Age of Aquarius
the last taboo: As if soon there would be none.
the meaning of life: Do you mean “purpose”?

the multiculturalism experiment: Seems to mean “translating leaflets into Turkish”. The alternative is NOT translating the leaflets, so monoglot Turks will be forced to learn English. But meanwhile they can’t understand the leaflets. And you’ve just scrapped the English classes.

the new celibacy: Much-touted in the 80s by a couple who’d been influenced by a guru and wanted to sell their book.

the new man: In the late 60s, this fabulous creature was going to take on half the housework and childcare.

the new millennium: It turned out to be just like the last one, and we stopped talking about it.

the next chapter (in my life): As if would just come along. You usually have to write chapters.

the nuclear umbrella
the paperless office

the subconscious: When I was young, we were told we should give our subconscious the right programming, and it would then cause us to do and say the right thing, while sending messages to other people’s subconscious minds, which would communicate with our subconscious… Meanwhile, what DO you say after you say hello?

the will, willpower

trickle-down economics: See “Bilbao Effect”.


Victorian values: Never defined, but probably “hard work and thrift” were meant, not “workhouses and disenfranchisement”.

Zeitgeist: In the early 20th century, quite sensible people thought that, for instance, nations had a “geist” or spirit. The Zeitgeist is the spirit of the age. Makes Gustav Jung’s “collective unconscious” sound a tad less off-beam. 

And what do people mean when they say “It doesn’t define me”?

More about grammar here, and links to the rest.

From my book Boo & Hooray: Dysphemisms and Euphemisms