Cecil Hunt ( 1902 – 54) was a journalist, editor, novelist and anthologist best known throughout the English-speaking world for his compendiums of schoolboy ‘ howlers’. His first collection appeared in 1928 and proved to be a best-seller. At various times afterwards he produced other anthologies of howlers as well as guides to journalism, which he had studied at King’s College, London, and creative writing, books on the origins of words and a collection of unintentionally funny letters. He also wrote novels under two pseudonyms ( Robert Payne and John Devon). Interestingly, Hunt was President of the London Writers’ Circle and was instrumental in establishing Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. He died at just 51, but ironically his wife lived to be 107.
Hunt always denied the charge that he concocted many of the howlers that made him famous, explaining that there was no need to cheat, as ‘the genuine supply is ample ‘.
We must take him at his word, though reading some of the following examples from Science and Nature, taken from the second (1957) edition of My Favourite Howlers, it is sometimes easier to believe that they are product of a witty and inventive man rather than a ignorant schoolboy.
Science and Nature
The Solar System is a way of teaching singing
An herbaceous border is one who boards all the week and goes home on Saturdays and Sundays
Iron filings are always attracted by a magnate
An aorta is a man who makes very long speeches. Continue reading
When some BBC journalists don’t know the difference between reticent and reluctant, and use the word enormity to mean an enormous event, popular grammarians, such as Liz Truss or Ernest Gowers, who was her equivalent in the 1950s, are needed more than ever. That’s if these pisspoor journalists can be bothered to read their books.
Sir Ernest Gowers was a senior civil servant whose best-selling popular grammar Plain Words (1948), was devised to help his fellow civil servants write clear and correct English. In 1951, admitting that its format could be improved, Gowers brought out ABC of Plain Words.Nearly 70 years on this guide can still be used alongside other more recent grammars, such as Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Most of the advice proferred by Gowers still applies, but some might raise a few eyebrows among the journalists of today. Here are a few words and their definitions that might provoke discussion today.
Deadline.This is a word known to all hacks, but Gowers chooses to define deadline conventionally as ‘ a line drawn round a military prison beyond which a prisoner may be shot down’. I don’t know which dictionary Mr Gowers was using, but the Chambers dictionary we use here at Jot HQ gives two definitions besides this one—1) ‘ the time that newspapers, books etc going to press’ 2) ‘a fixed time or date terminating something’. Gowers doesn’t even mention what ninety percent of people nowadays (and probably in 1951 too) would recognise as the most common definition of deadline.
Decimate.Gowers is right about the word decimate, however. He defines it as meaning to reduce by one tenth, not to one tenth. No writer today should get away with saying that troops were decimated, mainly because no-one would possibly know that soldiers in a battle could be reduced by exactly one tenth !
Dilemma.This is another word of precise meaning. It does not mean that someone has a number of difficult courses of action. He or she has exactly two. Continue reading
Found in an obscure short-lived journal The Trifle of September 1912 (edited by Ernest Hicks Oliver, a writer on yachting and history.) Oliver quotes the writer and lawyer Sir Edward Abbott Parry ('Judge Parry') the speaker at the annual ladies' night debate of the Hardwicke Society. It is amusing to see someone declaring reading dead over 100 years ago- in fact in the view of the diehard Parry since 1870 - when the Elementary Education Act set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 13 in England and Wales.
There were many objections at the time to the concept of universal education, primarily it was felt by some that it would make the poor 'think' and become dissatisfied with their lives, it might even encourage them to revolt. Parry's objections are more on aesthetic and elitist lines...He was a fairly prolific dramatist and writer for children. At the time of this speech he was writing Katawampus - A Musical Play for Children of All Ages and Katawampus: its Treatment and Cure:
The demand for good literature ended about 1870, when the Education Act came in and literature went out. Since that date every citizen has been taught to read, but not to know what to do with his reading. Any rubbish for which he has a taste is constantly supplied to him, he is exercising enormous influence on the so called literature of today. Men's ideas are formed today, not by their fathers and mothers in their homes, but by codes shot from education departments, and carried out by half educated people. Good taste in books and literature is born in the home, and it is impossible to get it in schools. Today the demand for literature is really in the hands of the feeble-minded, who are in the great majority, and rule the market. One piece of evidence as to that feeble-mindedness is to be found in problem plays and problem novels. There is nothing in literature more degrading than the vogue for such plays and novels. People are not assisted by them in understanding any great problems, they are only enabled to swagger around as those who know a little more than their neighbours.