Friday, 4 July 2014

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates. With a True Tale by way of illustration.


Kwoh-tid-ee-uhn: Adjective: everyday; ordinary; commonplace; daily, something recurring daily; usual or customary.

From the Latin, quot or quotus, meaning how many or which in order or number, plus dies, as in day. Related forms: quotidianly, adverb; quotidianness, noun.

Words with the same quot or quotus root include quota, of course, originally from quota pars, meaning how big a share; then quorum, the number of members of an organization required to transact business legally, or else a particularly chosen group; quorate, a meeting of that select number or group; quotient, one for the mathematicians out there, from the how many times sense of the root, defined as the result of division, or the number of times one quantity is contained in another (involving your numerator – that’s the number above the line in a fraction – and your denominator – the one under the line and the number of parts the unit has been divided into – and all that stuff that we ordinary unmaths folk have long since confined to oblivion); quondam, a rare and obsolete adjective meaning at a previous time or formerly; and, rather surprisingly perhaps, quote and quotation, which one might suspect were rooted in quo, or who, but which actually derive from the fourteenth century Latin, quotare, meaning to mark with chapter numbers or references, developing later into to give as a reference or to cite as an authority, and then, by the 1670s, into to copy out the exact words, whilst the commercial sense of giving a quote (a price) goes back to the original root of how many, unless that quote is from a builder, in which case the accepted sense becomes more akin to that of to ascribe deliberate falsehood to or, more specifically, to whistling through the teeth whilst shaking the head ruefully, prior to suggesting a negligible figure that will eventually prove to be infinitely smaller than the one that will later appear on the finalised bill.

The word unquote is an especial coinage of e e cummings, who first used it in a letter of 1935, though sadly, however, Quorn, the wellknown meatfree product manufactured by Rank Hovis McDougall, does not share its root with quotidian but comes instead, not from the mushrooms of apocryphal legend, but from filamentous fungus, or more precisely the mould (Yum!), Fusarium venenatum, a microfungus generally known by the more common (and slightly more alluring) name of mycoprotein.

Meanwhile, on the dies (day) side of the root, we have diurnal, of course, the opposite of nocturnal and meaning of the day or daily; from which we also get diurnalist, a kind of Latinised version of journalist, though hack is still more than adequate in most instances; then diurnation, or continuance during the day; and diuturnity and diuturnal, meaning of long duration or lastingness, or, as in the case of bats (and politicians), sleeping or dormant by day. Then there are: meridian, midday, noon (by way of medi, middle); so also antemeridian (ante, before, thus before noon); circadian, physiological activity that occurs approximately every twenty-four hours (circa, about); dial (originally an instrument for telling the time, as in sundial); diary, obviously; and dismal, from dies mali, evil days or unlucky ones.

Now, we know what you’re thinking: that most of those words listed above, particularly perishers like quondam and diurnalist, are pretty much nigh on useless as a rule and hardly what you might call (dare we say it) “quotable” in a (here we go again) “quotidian” situation, now are they? Well, stick with it for a moment because, after all, quotidian is a rather elegant and comely term to employ, though it may be a fair point to suggest that, for a word that means everyday or ordinary, it sounds anything but that. It just happens to be one of those hapless and misfortune members of the lexicon that, through inusitation and desuetude (how’s that for hubristic braggadocio, eh?), has become somewhat invalidated and misunderstood, rather after the fashion of pulchritude, which, as we all know, means physical beauty or loveliness (we suspect that whichever ancient Roman version of Dr Johnson first coined that one didn’t win many prizes for aptitude), though nowadays, were one to actually pass comment upon the pulchritudinous proclivity of any young lady at all, the most likely outcome would be that of the sporting of the warm glow of palmprint applied in swift opprobrium to the contumelious cheekflesh of the pontificator. But, in the end, it’s more than just OK to use words like quotidian; it is almost a duty and obligation, to keep the language extant and vibrant. Think of it this way: if you choose to use quotidian, then you will never be put to the trouble of donning a large hat (the ten gallon variety is perhaps best for this) emblazoned with the legend, “I’m a Great Big Show Off,” now will you?

Time now to see quotidian in action and flexing its muscles with this week’s True Tale.

As one just happens to be of an ardent, proud and unrelenting Northern extraction, what we find infuriatingly, exasperatingly galling is the way in which a lazy and unimaginative media, television in particular, inevitably tends to use the stereotypical northern bloke as motif, metaphor, or simply as some crude form of shorthand, to stand for a person supposedly of excruciating thickness, gullibility or naiveté. For our overseas followers, we should, perhaps, explain that by Northern we mean from the North of England, meaning pretty much anywhere north of the Trent, an area of outstanding natural beauty with its own culture and dialects, though generally portrayed as infested with dark satanic mills, cloth caps and clogs, whippets o’er the pit top (head of the mine shaft) lashed by perpetual rain, and populated by a people whose limited vocabulary runs only to phrases such as: “Hey up!” (hello), “Now, then, lad!” (hello), and “I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!” (I find the outcome of this situation most perplexing). Of course, it’s nothing like that at all but, alas, every now and then one of our number will eventually let the side down, as we shall see.

South of the Thames, on the side of Camberwell Green, stands a little shop bearing the legend of “Alberto,” (know you of it?) and it is to here that we have sojourned for many and many a year now, whenever the need has arisen for some refurbishment in the old coiffure department. On one particular occasion, as we sat there witnessing this miraculous transformation taking place in the quicksilver before us, we could not help but become aware of the conversation taking shape at the very next chair, between the eponymous Alberto and what could only be, from his tone and phraseology, a Northern bloke of the most stereotypical sort. Alberto may not look exactly Italian but, the very moment he speaks, lyrical, canorous, indomitably cheerful and spiritlifting, he could never be anything other. The subject under discussion is that hoariest of all old chestnuts: holidays.

‘We’re off on a bit of an ‘oliday in a couple o’ days,’ says the northern sort, as his hair is being reduced to stubble on his scalp beneath an electrical buzz. ‘Weren’t my idea, like. It were the missus’s. Not fer a week exactly, and not fer a weekend neither. Summat in between, if y’teck me meaning.’

‘Ah, holidays, is it?’ says Alberto. ‘Anywhere nice?’

‘Funny enough, Alberto, we’re going your way on: Rome.’

‘Ah, Roma!’ enthuses Alberto, clasping his hands and a salty gleam of nostalgia coming damp to his eye. ‘She’s a bee-yootiful city!’

‘Aye, well, mebbee,’ responds the northerner, somewhat doubtfully. ‘But, once you’ve seen the Vatican, what else is there?’

Fair point. After the Vatican there’s only the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Basilica of San Giovanni, the views from Il Vittoriano, the Circus Maximus, the Domus Aurea, the Forum, catacombs, castles, piazzas, theatres, museums, monuments and some of the finest painting and sculpture anywhere in the world, and that’s about it really. All a bit long in the tooth, mind, and hardly in mint condition. Undaunted by this setback, Alberto makes another attempt to kindle some kind of interest in his beloved capital.

‘Ah, but the food!’ he says, spreading his arms wide in appeal. ‘You lika the Italian food? Surely?’

‘Well,’ comes the reply, ‘I don’t mind pizza.’

Give up there, Alberto, lad. You’re fighting a losing battle. But, in the end, it is our friend himself who finds, from somewhere, a happy thought of passing inspiration.

You know Rome, dun’t you, Alberto?’ he says. ‘D’y’reckon there’s anywhere to get a decent plate of egg and chips there?’


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