John O’London on good English

Taken from Is it Good English ? by John O’London (1924)

 Jot 101 Is it Good English cover

Words whose meanings have changed over the years

1) Evince

John O’ London complained in 1924 that the word ‘evince’ should be avoided. Since then your Jotter has seen it used several times, but usually not by journalists or by others whose job it is to  write lucidly. Here is Mr O’ London’s case for rejecting it out of hand:

‘A word which careful editors are constantly striking out of accepted manuscripts is ‘ evince. ‘It is used unbecomingly in all such phrases as “ he evinced a great desire “ or “ his passion for study was evinced by his fine library.”. To evince means, in its primary but now obsolete sense, to subdue or conquer, and is so used by Milton: “ Error by his own arms is best evinced.” Its proper meaning, now, is to prove, to make manifest, to show in a clear manner. It is too strong a word for either of the above phrases. A man may” have”, “ show”, or “ reveal” a desire ; his passion for study may be “ indicated “ or “ betoken “ by his library. Good writers have little use for the verb “ evince.”

1)  Phenomenal

A word that has all but turned somersault. It is now widely used —but never by good writers—in the sense of unusual or wonderful, and we even meet with the phrase ‘ almost phenomenal ‘. A phenomenon is not a wonderful event or spectacle, but simply an event, spectacle, or observed process, as in the sentence ( Huxley’s): ‘ Continue reading

A Victorian Dictionary of Blunders c 1888

Blunders dictionary 001

This is a useful pocket guide to some extent, but is frequently supercilious and downright patronising. Often the compiler treats the reader as if they were a halfwit, especially in the matter of pronunciation.’ Reindeer is pronounced rain-deer ‘ it advises. ‘ Salver is pronounced sal-ver, not sar-ver’, apparently. Then it warns readers not to confuse one word with another with a similar spelling. Thus ‘ corpse ‘ should not be confused with corps. Nor should anyone write continential ( which doesn’t exist as a word ) when they mean  continental ? Has anyone ever done that ?


The corrected pronunciation of some words is questionable, to say the least. We are told that with ‘ abdomen’ , the emphasis should be on the second syllable, not the first . With ‘ mediocre ‘the first syllable should feature a short ‘e’. Today, there is no agreement on these two examples. In other instances the suggested pronunciation is bonkers. The word ‘retch ‘ according to this book, should be pronounced ‘ reach’. ‘Rabies has three syllables ‘we are informed, and should be pronounced rar bee ez. Sheer madness! Even if the word has a foreign derivation, by 1888 its place in the English language should have been assured. Disappointingly, it has nothing to say about the vexed question of whether ‘poor ‘ should be pronounced poo-er, as some grammarians insisted, or ‘pore’. Ghost-writer M. R. James famously derided those who favoured the latter pronunciation in his story ‘The Mezzotint ‘. But doubtless the Provost of Eton was a bit of a snob.  Nor does the Dictionary suggest how ‘economics ‘ or ‘controversy ‘ should be pronounced. It ought to come down heavily on two of the worst solecisms of our own time, ‘less’ for ‘fewer’ and ‘reticent’ for reluctant, but it doesn’t. However, it is good to see that in 1888, 34 years before the BBC was founded, and many years before newspapers had a role in forming   popular opinion, we are told that the plural of ‘medium’ is ‘media’. It is also interesting to note that back in 1888 common speech was as plagued as it is today with the ubiquitous ‘ you know ‘. ‘All these “ you knows “ would be better left out ‘ advises our author. Quite.


Disappointingly, and indeed, rather predictably, the booklet perpetuates the grammatical correctness of the gendered pronoun, as in the correction to ‘I do not think anyone to blame for taking care of their health’. ‘Their’ should be ‘his’, it advises, rather chauvinistically.  Today, you don’t have to be a feminist to prefer the use of the gender-free ‘their‘ in this case.


All in all, A Dictionary of Daily Blunders contains almost as many blunders masquerading as truths as it does corrections to perceived blunders. No wonder the author, who also compiled A Handy Book of Synonyms,wanted to remain anonymous.


James Platt—-Felixstowe’s genius linguist


Platt OED picDiscovered in an album of cuttings is this obituary of James Platt ( 1859 – 1910), one of the most distinguished philologists of his day.

‘English philology has suffered a heavy loss by the death of Mr James Platt, jun. at the age of 49 at his residence at Felixstowe.

Probably no living philologist could vie with Mr Platt for variety of knowledge. He had a thorough knowledge of all European languages, and a fair acquaintance with every known language, ancient or modern and a special taste for those which were out of the way, such as, for instance, those spoken on the American Continent, from Patagonian to Eskimo, and on the latter language he wrote a brilliant for the ‘Athenaeum’ a few years ago. He possessed a phenomenal memory and an astonishing range of reading. During recent years he had translated many beautiful Eastern poems which had not previously been rendered in English verse…’

The obituarist also refers to Platt’s valuable contributions to Notes and Queries and most notably his participation in James Murray’s Oxford English Dictionary project, where he identified ‘ strange alien words ‘.Unfortunately, Platt never lived to see Murray’s great dictionary published, and after an illness of two years he died at the age of 49, leaving a widow and a little girl named Irene. On her own death in 1990 it was discovered that Irene had bequeathed £250,000 to the University of East Anglia to establish the Platt Centre for ‘the study and teaching of modern foreign languages.’




The 25 most beautiful words

A press cutting from an American newspaper from 1911  found in an old lexicon. It reads:

A contest to decide the twenty-five most beautiful words in the English language, conducted by the West Fifty-seventh street Branch of the Y. M. C. A., this week was won by John Shea, a lawyer, of 416 Broadway. The prize was a flexible leather standard student's dictionary. Twenty-one of the twenty-five words submitted by Mr. Shea were accepted. "The words accepted are melody, splendor, adoration, eloquence, virtue, innocence, modesty, faith, joy, honor, radiance, nobility, sympathy, heaven, love, divine, hope, harmony, happiness, purity and liberty. Three of the words rejected were grace, justice and truth. 

This story seems to have been syndicated as another paper of the time explains that 'grace' and 'justice' were stricken out because of the harshness of the 'g' in grace and the 'j' in  justice and the word truth was eliminated because of its metallic sound.100 years later in a less religion centred world it would be a different list - love and happiness, heaven, hope and liberty might still make it…(also truth and justice might be allowed back.) However melody, splendor, adoration, eloquence, virtue, innocence, modesty, faith, honor, radiance, nobility, sympathy,divine,  harmony and purity might not..