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A Miscellany of Very British Top Tens, from Politics to Pop
By John Rentoul
Elliott and Thompson LimitedCopyright © 2014 John Rentoul
All rights reserved.
UNDERRATED FAMILY FILMS
When I watched The Emperor's New Groove again after several years I could not believe what a great film it is. Fine plot, great characters, quick and clever dialogue, uses pre-computer-generated imagery (CGI) brilliantly – and yet it is almost forgotten.
1. The Emperor's New Groove, Disney, 2000. Incan emperor is turned into a llama and taught a lesson: majestic.
2. Basil The Great Mouse Detective, Disney, 1986. 'Big Ben fight scene, robot mouse Queen Victoria and a peg-legged bat. What's not to like?' It was the first film Mark Wallace saw.
3. Megamind, DreamWorks, 2010. Unoriginal? I thought it was great, and morally subtle.
4. Monster in Paris, English version released 2012. Surprisingly affecting dub of the French original.
5. Jumanji, 1995. Supernatural board game in which wild animals come to life? Sounds dire, but it was Tom Doran's childhood favourite.
6. Small Soldiers, DreamWorks, 1998. 'Toy Story with heavier firepower,' says Gaz W.
7. Robin Hood, Disney, 1973. Unfairly overlooked, overshadowed by predecessors The Jungle Book and Aristocats.
8. Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Disney, 2001. Another cartoon classic overshadowed by computer-generated imagery blockbusters to come.
9. Flushed Away, Aardman/DreamWorks, 2006. Terrible title; outstanding plot, characters and CGI.
10. Lion King II: Simba's Pride, Disney, 1998. Surprisingly high-quality, straight-to-video sequel.CHAPTER 2
PLURALS THAT HAVE BECOME SINGULAR
It is a little old-fashioned to use data, dice, graffiti, panini, media and politics as plural nouns these days, and I know only one person who treats news as a plural, but we are dimly aware that these words were not always as singular as they are now. However, Rich Greenhill, a virtuoso of language curios, came up with many other words that were once – unknown to me – plurals. Here are the best ...
1. Quince Middle English plural of Old French cooin, from Latin for apple of Cydonia, now Chania, Crete.
2. Stamina Latin plural of stamen, thread or essential element, before it was applied by analogy to flower parts.
3. Chintz Plural of chint, a stained or painted calico cloth imported from India, from Hindi chimt, spattering, stain.
4. Pox Plural of pock, as in pock-marked.
5. Truce Plural of true, Middle English, in the sense of belief, trust.
6. Invoice Plural of obsolete invoy, from French envoy, envoyer, to send.
7. Broccoli Italian, plural of broccolo, cabbage sprout, head, diminutive of brocco, shoot.
8. Dismal Originally a noun, for the two days in each month which were believed to be unlucky, from Anglo-Norman French dis mal, and medieval Latin dies mali, evil days.
9. Sweden Originally a plural of Swede, a Swedish person.
10. Bodice Originally bodies.
Greenhill also pointed out that MMR – measles, mumps and rubella – are all plurals:
11. Measles. Middle English maseles, probably from Middle Dutch masel, pustule. The spelling change was due to association with Middle English mesel, leprous, leprosy.
12. Mumps. Late 16th century: from obsolete mump, meaning grimace, have a miserable expression.
13. Rubella. Modern Latin neuter plural of rubellus, reddish.
Just to show off, he said – again, I had no idea – that the words primate and termite arose from mistaking the three-syllable Latin plurals primates and termites (the singulars being primas and termes) for two-syllable words. The Oxford Dictionary doesn't specifically support this, but it seems plausible.
14. Chess. Middle English: from Old French esches, plural of eschec, check, which in the sense of holding back or verifying comes from the game of chess. I did not know that.
17. Agenda. Latin: 'things to be done'.
19. WAG: stands for wives and girlfriends (mostly of famous footballers) but is often used as a singular, 'a WAG'.CHAPTER 3
This list arose after I praised the wonder of the footnotes in John Campbell's biography of Roy Jenkins, a fabulous old-fashioned book, with starred footnotes at the bottom of the page, plus numbered endnotes, including endnotes in footnotes.
1. 'It [is] wearisome to add "except the Italians" to every generalisation. Henceforth it may be assumed.' A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918.
2. 'Strengthened, I should have thought spoiled, by whisky.' Roy Jenkins, in Gladstone, on Queen Victoria's preference for claret.
3. 'Trees didn't burst into flame ... A better simile would be "not like molten gold".' A footnote to: 'Sunlight poured like molten gold across the ... landscape.' Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic.
4. '...his trousers were creased at the sides not front and back.' A.J.P. Taylor on King George V, in English History 1914–45.
5. 'Despite Orwell's expressed wishes, the ... Uniform Edition includes three semi-colons.' A footnote to: 'Coming Up for Air hasn't got a semi-colon in it.' Peter Davison, editor, George Orwell: A Life in Letters.
6. '"You're fired" were the exact words as I remember them.' A footnote to: 'My first job ended when the editor said something to me that made it impossible to go on working for him.' Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22.
7. 'This is the only reference in the canon to Holmes's eyebrows.' Leslie S. Klinger, editor, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.
8. 'It is one of the mysteries of existence that what is called red tape is in fact pink.' Profs George Gretton and Kenneth Reid, on a quirk of title deeds, in Conveyancing (2nd Edition).
9. 'Haemophilia is, like the enlargement of the prostate, an exclusively male disorder. But not in this work.' Samuel Beckett, Watt.
10. 'They discovered a problem ... with the [website]: investorsexchange.com' A footnote to: 'The Investors Exchange, which wound up being shortened to IEX.' Michael Lewis, Flash Boys.CHAPTER 4
This one was Nick Thornsby's idea. As Mrs Malaprop says in Sheridan's play The Rivals, 'If I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs.'
1. 'She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.' Mrs Malaprop.
2. 'It's great to be back on terra cotta.' John Prescott after a stormy flight, 1999.
3. 'I am a person who recognises the fallacy of humans.' George W. Bush to Oprah Winfrey.
4. 'The world is your lobster, my son.' Arthur Daley, Minder.
5. 'I'm as happy as a sandbag.' A friend of Alistair Gray's. 'She has an unconscious gift. She also said something was "a bit of a damp squid".'
6. 'Cow-towing to the Americans.'Daily Telegraph report of criticism of New Labour by Ian Davidson, Labour MP. Did this involve pulling cattle behind a boat?
7. 'He eludes confidence.' William Bratton, Los Angeles police chief, of Barack Obama's second inaugural speech, 2009.
8. 'It's not rocket fuel.' Henry McLeish, former Scottish First Minister, to John Swinney, SNP leader.
9. 'If I don't want to serve someone, that is my provocative.' Landlord to Lloyd Bracey, who worked in a pub as a student.
10. 'Chocolate peripherals' Hugh Kellett's great aunt's dessert order.
11. Deferring payments would 'only be playing smokes and daggers'. Bertie Ahern, former Irish prime minister. A top ten of malapropisms by Ahern alone could have been compiled, including 'hindsight is 50/50 vision' and the not-yet-authenticated 'upsetting the apple tart'.
12. 'When I find the allegator concerned.' American general rejecting damaging anonymous claims. Allegedly.
13. 'I've got a head like a sore bear.'
14. 'It's not the sanity of picket lines that bothers me, it's the sanity of human life.' John Prescott, 2002.
15. 'I'll see you at the Duke of Windsor at 6 o'clock, then.' 'Right, we'll sympathise watches.' Two men exiting a pub after what may well have been a long drinking session, overheard by Roger Stevenson.
16. 'Councillor, come up here and rest your papers on the rectum.' Chairman of Stevenage district council, according to former councillor Peter Metcalfe.
17. 'He's as honest as the day is blue.'CHAPTER 5
SIGNS WITH DOUBLE MEANINGS
Mike Graham said, 'I refuse to go in here,' when he posted a picture of a door in New York with the sign, 'Refuse Room'. As Tom Freeman pointed out, 'That was the policy of the Bethlehem innkeeper.' Here are ten more signs with unintended messages.
1. This door is alarmed But the sign doesn't say what is bothering it.
2. Disabled toilet Whenever Andrew Denny sees it, he thinks, 'Well, why doesn't someone fix it, then?'
3. 'Women' Sign on ladies' loo, with alarming quotation marks.
4. Dogs must be carried On London Underground escalators: an obscure grammatical trap, suggesting that no one without a dog in their arms or in a bag is permitted.
5. We don't fly in our chickens. They're 100% British In unidentified supermarket.
6. Eggs buzz at gate Seen outside a farmhouse in Hadlow Down, East Sussex.
7. Slow Children Playing Faster children, of course, can get out of the way in time.
8. Children: Please Drive Slowly Boy and girl racers alert.
9. Train drivers must not be disturbed At London Bridge station.
10. If this lift is found to be out of order please use an alternative lift Manchester Piccadilly station. The second meaning being, 'Get lost.'
There were many good entries, so here are the next ten:
11. Humped zebra crossing. Worth waiting for this camel hybrid.
12. To avoid suffocation keep away from children. They use up all the oxygen.
13. Self Storage. 'Who wants to do this?' asked Jenifer Jeffery.
14. Heavy plant crossing. Look out for triffids.
15. Quiet birds have ears. Sign outside a hide at the London Wetland Centre bird reserve.
16. No Parking Cars Will Be Clamped. On the walls of the car park next to Bristol Museum.
17. Agent has no money. 'At each kiosk service window in our regional subway, Bay Area Rapid Transit.' Fred Walker, who thought this may be an invitation to charity.
18. Fire Fighting Lift. 'Sign above a lift in my office. The idea of the lift fighting the fire has tickled me ever since I noticed it,' says Peter Shearman.
19. Baggage trolleys must not be taken onto the platform for safety reasons. Heathrow Terminal 4 (Piccadilly Line), and at Gatwick Airport (National Rail). Taking them onto the platform for other reasons is, of course, fine.
20. Post No Bills. 'I always thought the sign was a request to postmen meaning the rest of the post could be delivered, but not the bills.' Simon Cox.CHAPTER 6
SURPRISINGLY UNRELATED PAIRS OF WORDS
My favourite list in the whole book. I did not believe that there were as many as ten examples of surprisingly unrelated words, thinking 'female/male' and 'island/isle' quite enough excitement for one language. Many thanks to Rich Greenhill, whose numbers four to seven proved me wrong.
1. Female, not related to male Female is from the Latin femella, a diminutive of femina, a woman; while male is from the Old French masle, from the Latin masculus.
2. Island, isle Old English iegland, ieg, from a base meaning watery, according to the Oxford Dictionary. The 's' came by association with isle, from the Latin insula via Old French.
3. Outrage, rage From Old French ou(l)trage, based on Latin ultra, beyond.
4. Uproar, roar Middle Dutch oproer, from op, meaning up, and roer, meaning confusion.
5. Bridegroom, groom Old English brydguma, from bryd, bride, and guma, man. The change in the second syllable influenced by groom.
6. Pickaxe, axe Middle English pikoys, from Old French picois, related to pike. The change in the ending was influenced by axe.
7. Gingerbread, bread Gingerbread originally meant preserved ginger used to make the biscuit, from Old French gingembrat, from medieval Latin gingibratum, from gingiber, ginger.
8. Belfry, bell Belfry was originally a watchtower, from French berfrei, but because it had bells, it acquired an 'l'.
9. Muskrat, musk The animal does produce a musky smell, but the word is actually from Algonquin for 'red'.
10. Crayfish, fish From Old French crevice, related to German Krebs, crab. The ending altered by association with fish in about the 16th century.
And one more:
11. 'Jubilee' and 'jubilation' come from different sources. The first comes via Latin from the Hebrew yoome, which means trumpet blast, with which the year of emancipation and restoration in Judaism is proclaimed every fifty years. The second comes from Latin jubilat-, 'called out', used by Christian writers to mean 'shouted for joy', from jubilare.CHAPTER 7
FIRST SENTENCES OF NOVELS
Jonny Geller, the boss of the literary agency Curtis Brown, said, 'This is the saddest story I have ever heard,' from The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, is 'perhaps my favourite opening sentence in fiction.' Here are ten more I like.
1. 'There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.' C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
2. 'Marley was dead: to begin with.' Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Also contains the finest use of a colon in literature.
3. 'The scent, smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.' Ian Fleming, Casino Royale.
4. 'There were four of us.' Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat.
5. 'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.' Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. I do like the inversion of the first part of the sentence, which makes it seem as if the strange weather were more important than the Rosenbergs' execution, followed by the deadpan twist of the second part.
6. 'All this happened, more or less.' Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.
7. 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.' George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
8. 'It was the day my grandmother exploded.' Iain Banks, The Crow Road.
9. 'Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing.' Martin Amis, The Information.
10. 'It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.' Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines. A cliché in the opening phrase brilliantly subverted by the shock of a city pursuing a small town.
This was a popular list – although the 140-character limit winnowed entries somewhat. Even so, I received many representations on behalf of books that people thought should have been in the list.
Lots of people thought Anthony Burgess ought to have been in it. You know, the silly one about the archbishop and the catamite. No.
There were also many nominations for the sonorous but meaningless first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. Worst of sentences, certainly.
Janan Ganesh tried to sneak this past me: 'The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.' V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River. Definitely not. Even if it meant anything, it has a semi-colon in it. Inexcusable.
Others had more promising suggestions. Owen Bennett liked this, saying it 'sets up inverted emotions': 'People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.' Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero. Yes, it has something. Not sure about the inverted emotions, but it is a good first sentence that makes you think and want to read the next.
Daniel Hannan said he was 'shocked – shocked – not to see': 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I know what he means. I share his admiration for Tolkien, although in my case it is mixed with two things. One is the reaction identified by Terry Pratchett: 'Put in one lousy dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.' The other is that it is, when it comes to it, a children's book.
Excerpted from Listellany by John Rentoul. Copyright © 2014 John Rentoul. Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
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Table of Contents
ContentsTop ten reasons to read this book (or 'The Introduction'),
1. Underrated family films,
2. Plurals that have become singular,
5. Signs with double meanings,
6. Surprisingly unrelated pairs of words,
7. First sentences of novels,
8. Last sentences of novels,
9. Words that used to mean the opposite,
10. Words with opposite meanings,
11. Fictional villains,
12. Upbeat songs that tell a sad story,
13. Genuine shop names,
14. Mixed metaphors,
15. Lost positives,
16. Tautologous abbreviations,
17. Examples of journalese,
18. Most interesting politicians,
21. Translated tautologies,
22. Songs that mean the opposite of what most people think,
23. Unexpected etymologies,
24. Most English remarks of all time,
25. Misused fables,
27. Words used only with one other word,
28. English Monarchs 1066–1707,
29. Unisex names of MPs,
30. Ways of defeating the Daleks,
32. Most beautiful British railway journeys,
33. New clichés that should be banned,
34. Phrases that ought to be off the menu,
35. Words that ought to be used more often,
36. Party conference speeches,
37. Great bands with terrible names,
38. Films panned as turkeys that are actually quite good,
39. Political myths,
40. Original titles of novels,
41. Douglas Adams quotations,
42. Questions to which the answer is no,
43. Transpositions of sounds in words,
44. Words that lost or gained an 'N',
45. Stupid car names,
46. Unsung villains,
47. Laws of life,
48. Political heckles,
49. Best British place names,
50. Most overrated 1960s bands,
51. Best prime ministers we never had,
52. Visual clichés,
53. Useful words for which there is no English equivalent,
54. Politicians not known by their first name 91,
55. Books people buy but don't read,
56. American footballers' names,
58. Worst Beatles songs,
59. Surnames that have died out,
60. Everyday lies,
61. Recurring news stories,
62. Yiddish words,
63. Elegant variations,
64. Great unremarked changes of our lifetime,
Top ten lists that didn't make it,
Top ten people to whom I am grateful (otherwise known as 'The,
Contributions and nominations,