Monday, 23 April 2012

Wherefore art thou Quentin?

When I first aired my theory about the reasons for the popularity of 'JB' as initials for action heroes, a friend pointed out that not everyone with those initials is heroic, his prime example being Jim Bowen.

In real life, people often lack the nominal suitability of fictional characters - the real James Bond, after all, was an ornithologist.  Stephen Fry once pointed out that if Noel Edmunds were a fictional character (and there's a pleasant thought), no author would have given him that first name.  A few years ago, I'd have said the same about Quentin Tarantino but, as time has gone by, the tension between the two elements has come to seem more and more appropriate for his odd combination of badassery and nerdishness.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the list of people whose names suit them perfectly includes a few cultural icons.  Orson Welles, with its suggestions of 'awesome' and 'swell', is ideal for a man whose genius was constantly brought down by grandiosity, in several senses of the word.  Similarly, it's fitting that Brian Eno, the music business' presiding intellectual, should have a name that combines an anagram of 'brain' with a surname that sounds like a technical device, or medicine.  The fact that his middle names are Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle is just a bonus - Eno, like Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, sometimes seems like a person whose exuberant nature was determined at the font.

My two favourite examples of real people with well-chosen names are less illustrious.  Nicholas Parsons, with its surfeit of syllables, is the ideal name for a generous, slightly befuddled quizmaster, not least because of its suggestion of minor clergy losing their underwear, like an image from an unusually frank Whitehall farce.

By contrast (and it's a demonstration of how much difference an abbreviation can make) Nick Bateman, villain of the first series of Big Brother, seemed predestined for that role by both his first name, evocative of both Machiavelli and the Devil, and a surname that suggested one who lays a trap, as well as American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, itself a hint of his eponymic ancestor, Norman Bates.

Margot Asquith said of Lord Kitchener that, if not a great man, he was a great poster.  Bateman was a C-list celebrity with an A-list name.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

One of the many reasons why I never learnt to drive.

Woman, overheard on the train out of Waterloo, evening of 12/4/12:

"She works on the ticket desk at Alton Towers. Now, you get in free if your child's disabled, and lots of people come along saying their child is deaf. So, every ticket seller at Alton Towers has a brick on their desk, and if someone comes along and says their child is deaf, you're supposed to take the brick and drop it on the floor, and if the child flinches, you say 'I'm sorry...'."

Friday, 6 April 2012

Take Care of the Sense and the Sounds Will Take Care of Themselves (Or Not)

Okay, it's time to start dealing with the really important issues:

Why does the announcement at London Underground stations say 'The lift on the left shall (rather than 'will' ) be the next lift' and why does it sound weird?

I've always been interested in phonics, the way in which the meaning of a word is affected by its sound. I've written before now on the subject of why so many action heroes have the initials JB - James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer. I reckon it's because of the sound of the consonants - the J promises adventure, as in jump, jaunt, journey and the parachutist's cry of 'Geronimo!', while the plosive B is comforting, suggesting a happy ending.

By contrast, heroes with the initials JC tend (despite the religious connotation) to be more morally ambiguous, the harsh C sound denying reassurance - Jack Carter, Jerry Cornelius, John Constantine. (If you wanted to get really clever, you could argue that the two best actors to play James Bond brought something of that harshness through the C sounds in their own surnames.)

Back to that 'shall'. Standard usage guides are fairly clear on this; the rule is that, when using the future tense, 'shall' denotes simple futurity, 'will' is for intention, determination and, in its other sense, will. To this extent the underground announcement is by-the-book.

However, a little thought demonstrates that everyday usage is exactly the other way round, and has been for many years. 'I will get up early tomorrow' is a statement of fact; 'I shall... ' is a resolution. General Douglas MacArthur's 'I shall return!' sounds ludicrous as 'I will...' It works the same way with negatives - recalcitrant toddlers shout 'Shan't!' rather than 'Won't!'.

Why did the two words change places? Again, I think it's in the consonants. W is weak, watery, and wimpish - one of the reasons why a German accent still seems sinister to English ears is its lack of that sounds - 'Ve heff vays...'. Sh, by contrast, is effortful - you have to shove, shift, or schlep it, and it can be a bit shitty. 'Shall' took over from 'will' to indicate determination simply because the word sounds more like what it describes.

That's why the underground announcement sounds odd - it sounds like it's making a resolution rather than simply promising a lift. The etymology says that 'shall' is correct, but phonetics guarantees, in this context, the triumph of the 'will'.