“Unctuous and insincere toadying”

Not my words, but those of Bill Bryson who, before he became the world-famous travel writer, was the much-revered (in sub-editing circles, at least) author of the Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words. I have the original 1984 edition, others are available.

As has been widely reported this week, the UK’s International Development Secretary has resigned/been sacked from her position after certain difficulties arose with her failure to tell her colleagues what she did on her holiday in Israel. She spent an awkward hour or so in No 10 before issuing the letter seen above.

What has not been widely reported this week is the language howler in her resignation letter. Ms Patel offered the Prime Minister her ‘fulsome apology’, presumably under the impression that this is a beefed-up version of a ‘full apology’. However, as the estimable Mr Bryson says, the sense that is usually accorded the word ‘fulsome’ – of being copious or lavish or unstinting is almost the opposite of the word’s actual meaning. ‘Fulsome,’ he writes:

is related to foul and means odious and overfull, offensively insincere. ‘Fulsome praise’, properly used, isn’t a lavish tribute; it is unctuous and insincere toadying.

There was a time when civil servants (who presumably drafted Ms Patel’s letter) were given Ernest Gower’s Plain Words to help them to learn how better to express themselves. Someone slipped up here.

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Lost for Words

A month or so ago Michael Quinion, the founder and writer of the wonderful World Wide Words website, sent out a message to the 50,000+ subscribers to his free newsletter that he was suspending publication his newsletter, citing ‘personal circumstances’. It would seem that I was not the only person who took this as meaning that he was facing serious illness.
Happily, this wasn’t actually the case, as Quinion has reported this week. Although he has had a foot operation it was, in his words, ‘hardly life-threatening’, and he has come through it with a leg in plaster and instructions not to put any weight on it for a fortnight. He continues:

This has almost nothing to do with my decision to cease writing World Wide Words. Truth be told, after 930 issues I was becoming written out. Every week that passed made writing more of a chore and less of a pleasure. About a year ago, closure of the freelance reading programme of the Oxford English Dictionary, to which I had contributed since 1992, meant that I had lost a key stimulus for investigating and writing about new words and — more recently — access to the online OED. Cuts to local authority library services have very recently severed access to a key British Library newspaper database.
I began to think that somebody was trying to tell me it was time to stop.

The good news is that the WorldWideWords website will stay online, and will certainly be a resource for many years to come. Where else would one go to find out whether or not someone’s definition of a well known phrase or saying is actually codswallop? (Nothing to do with Hiram Codd, the 19th century purveyor of soft drinks, apparently.)
Those of us who toil in the back reaches of the interwebnet should salute Michael Quinion and thank him for the twenty years of wisdom and wit he has regularly dispatched to so many people. Good luck in the future. The project he is now taking on – the conservation, documentation and move of a recently closed local railway history museum – is surely in the safest of hands.

Adrian Frutiger: Obituary for the Guardian

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Obituary for Adrian Frutiger, published in the Guardian, 5 October 2015.

Frutiger attributed some of his skills to the genes he inherited from his ancestors among the farming communities of the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, where there is a craft tradition of making paper cutouts and silhouettes. After days spent tending livestock or cutting hay, men and women in the region would show remarkable dexterity, using scissors to cut pieces of thin black paper into depictions of scenes from their daily lives. Many of Frutiger’s designs were constructed using large paper proofs that he would then trim with scissors and a knife, shaving a millimetre here and there until he had reached the result he wanted. The letters in all his work show this attention to detail and are always open and clear, allowing the message they convey to be understood without impediment. “Type is the clothing a word wears, so it must be subordinate to the content,” he said.
Read more.

Hermann Zapf: Obituary for the Guardian

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Obituary for Hermann Zapf, published in the Guardian, 1 July 2015.

In 1963 Hermann Zapf walked into an American design school, snapped a piece of chalk in half and, with its side edge, drew a perfect lowercase g on the blackboard. He went on to give an inspired lecture on the different angles that a calligrapher uses when holding a pen, and how strokes differ between calligraphy and typography – all illustrated, not with slides, but with impeccably executed chalk drawings.
Read more.