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Grammarnoir 3: The wages of syntax, Part 4

GRAMMARNOIR 3: The wages of syntax Part 4:

The mother tongue

Professor Luce looked bewildered; I looked at the sharp piece of metal near my vitals; Amber moved next to Rebecca.

“All right, blossom,” I said, “what’s this little dumbshow all about?”

“We have had our eyes on you for some time, and this masquerahd with my sister was a means to get you into our hands. Indeed, you fell into them like a piece of overripe fruit.”

“ ‘MasquerAHD?’ How’d you make your voice do that? And who in Fowler’s name are ‘we’?”

“We, you cretinous twit, are the Queen’s English Society. Unable to stanch the flow of your barbarous locutions to our once-fair isle, we have determined to re-colonise America and restore the Mother Tongue.”

“Babe, that’s crazy talk.”

“To effectuate this, it becomes necessary to neutralise likely obstacles. While you and your pathetic ‘blogging’—execrable word—are fundamentally insignificant, you have nevertheless shown potential as an irritant. So the decision was taken to remove you.”

“You’re spelling all those –ize verbs with an s, aren’t you?”

“We shall see how long your feeble witticisms persist after a few months at our re-education camp at Tunbridge Wells.”

“I think not,” I said, plucking a pica pole from the professor’s desk and bringing it down, hard, on her wrist. The copy spike fell to the floor.

Then Amber, little Amber, grabbed her sister’s hand and twisted her arm behind her back.”

“ ’Ello, ’ello, ’ello, what’s all this now?” came a voice at the door. It was a bobby, damn my eyes, followed by a figure in a trench coat and battered fedora.

“Who the hell might you be?” I asked.

Taking a pipe from his mouth, Trench Coat said, “Fabian, of the Yard.”

“Scotland Yard, here?”

“Just so. We’ve had our eye on the Queen’s English Society for some time, and the younger Miss Wurd Smith here tipped us to her elder sister’s activities and the society’s machinations. Her Majesty’s government feel, particularly in light of the difficulties with America during Lord North’s ministry, that the society’s plans were ill-conceived. And so my colleague here, the one with the handcuffs, will be taking Miss Rebecca Wurd Smith into custody.”

“It’s a fair cop,” I said.

“Quite,” said Fabian of the Yard.


 The End


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:46 AM | | Comments (14)


For the resurrection of Fabian of the Yard you are blessed, Mr McIntyre.

Astonishingly, there was a real-life cop called Insp Fabian who used to appear at the end of the tv show. He always looked much less convincing than the actor.

Aw,shucks. Does this mean our hero doesn't get to be Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells?

Yet another year's entertainment nicely done!

Much as I applaud the ambition of QES to regularise/ize American language and governance, (and I suspect Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is almost certainly a member), I'm actually not sure where they stand on ise/ize, because in most cases either is permissable in the Queen's English.

S is more common in BrE, I think, but "Z where possible" is still OUP style (something to do with whether the root is Latin or French, I believe), and in my youth that was Times style, too (although, like much else about The Times in its pomp, this has since been dropped overboard).

By "Times" I mean The Times (of London) of course. Yes, I know there's another one. I wouldn't want anyone to be confused and think I meant The Times of India.

As a former Brit, I was taken aback to see 'masquerade' depicted as rhyming with (non-rhotic, of course) 'lard.' For me the last syllable has always rhymed with 'marmalade.' I consulted an ancient authority -- Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, W&R Chambers (Edinburgh) 1971, which I just happen to have close at hand -- and it agrees with me.

But perhaps they order things differently in Tunbridge Wells.

No, they pronounce it like lemonade in Tunbridge Wells, too. Poetic licence on the author's part, I think.

Prof. McI.,


Talk about holding a long-standing grudge. "Lord North's ministry", indeed.

You speaketh, kind sir, of the former 2nd Earl of Guilford, Frederick North, Esq., no doubt---the presiding Prime Minister of the U.K. during most of the period of that pesky American Revolutionary War, who also, interestingly, served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and for a short stint (April to December, 1783), Secretary of State for Home Affairs, all the while under the reign of the rapacious King George III. (And we thought Condi Rice was a tough arbiter of diplomacy. HA!)

Apparently, his Lordship never did get over that dumping of tons of Earl Grey (or was it Darjeeling) into Boston harbor. Those damn Yankees!

Picky, as a transplanted Canuck (to L.A. from Toronto and environs), I basically cut my teeth, so to speak, on the Queen's English, and found it, early on living in the U.S., rather a bit of a cultural adjustment to start dropping my "u"s from such common words as "flavour" and "colour", that in standard American prose were written as "flavor' and "color", sans the "u".

Frankly, it wasn't really that much of a huge sacrifice, although I sometimes have to check myself w/ certain words, and remind myself that 'when in the U.S, do as the U.S. does'. (Or was that Rome and the Romans? Oh well.)

Picky, I naturally assumed, in your post, that you were referring to your Times of London, and not my local paper, The L.A.Times (or the Times of India. HA!). The L.A. Times, IMHO, is a pretty fair-to-middling (on occasion, exceptional) daily, but clearly not the shining exemplar of all aspects of the proper Queen's English that your venerable publication represents, and holds almost sacrosanct.

Prof. McI., what, pray tell, is a "pica pole"? I'm guessing it's some sort of ruler-type instrument (in the same family as say the trusty proportion wheel), a tool of the newspaper trade specifically geared to measuring type sizes? Sounds like it could be
employed as a formidable surrogate weapon, of sorts, like the potentially lethal copy spike, which I imagine could impart considerable bodily harm, particularly, as you intimated in your tall tale, to one's vitals. Yikes!

Hmm..... so is the word "masquerade" commonly pronounced 'mask-er-aid', or as the scheming Rebecca voiced it, "masquerahd", which to this untrained ear comes off as rather effete, and a tad snooty?

I liked your clever "fair cop" bit toward the end, w/ it's obvious double entendre implications----"cop" being both short for the original Brit term for a policeman (a "copper"), as well as another noun, "cop", derived from the verb "to cop", meaning to nab, or seize. Very clever, Ollie. HA!

Prof. McI., thanks for the entertainment. I thoroughly enjoyed your latest noir-ish tale.


In retrospect, I see that I did not make explicit what I had taken for granted: Rebecca Wurd Smith is not British, but an American captivated by the QES, a quisling.

Re; pica pole: a printer's ruler, marked in picas and points.

Hmm.......... a dastardly "quisling", eh...... Prof. Mci.?

So you're intimating that Ms. Rebecca Wurd Smith, a closet American QES booster, a veritable Brit wannabe, perhaps has a strain of scheming Norwegian (Quisling) in her makeup. (I'm not talking vanishing cream.)

Thanks for the "pica pole" clarification. I guess i wasn't too far off. If this device is essentially flat, like a standard ruler, I'm curious why it would be called a "pole"-----a form that is usually cylindrical, or roundish in nature?

Now, on the other hand, "copy spike" is most aptly named, and in the wrong hands COULD very well serve as an effective offensive weapon, as for instance, when wielded by our devilish Ms. Wurd Smith.......... or perhaps a very large toothpick as a purely utilitarian device. (Now that's just plain silly.)


When Mr McIntyre and I were still illuminating manuscripts and peeving about this modern nonsense of movable type, we didn't have the concept of type sizes in points.

Instead type sizes had names. Nonpareil was approx 6pt, Minion 7pt, Brevier 8pt, Bourgeois 9pt, Long Primer 10pt, Small Pica 11pt, Pica 12pt.

That was for the DEPTH of type. The WIDTH of type was measured in ems - the square of the type size - or, more commonly, in units of pica or 12pt ems.

What Mr McI would call a pica pole and I would call a pica gauge or em rule was a ruler marked in 12pt ems to measure type width, and in a range of sizes such as 10pt, 9pt etc for measuring type depth. I have in my hand a splendid version from Monotype graded in inches, centimetres, and eight different type sizes.

I believe some of these children today use computers instead.

I was starting to think a pica pole was really just a pike. Thanks for that explanation, Picky. I will be pondering the concept of type depth for awhile...

As for marmalade/marmalahd, it seems to work both ways:


My, my,............ are you saying you and Prof. McI. in a much earlier incarnation were nose-to-the-parchment monkish scribes, creating those incredible, totally magnificent illuminated Biblical manuscripts w/ those giant initial 'caps' anchoring the page like scaled-down stained-glass windows of jewel-like color, and intricate flowing design?Brought to its absolute zenith in Ireland's storied national treasure, The Book of Kells.

(On a parenthetical note: I highly recommend viewing a wonderfully crafted 2-D animated feature film (yes, I actually said 2-D), that had limited U.S. national theatrical release late last year, titled, "The Secret of Kells". It was a major collective creative effort bringing together artists from ireland, France and Belgium contributing their talents. Although some might find the basic narrative, or story line a bit simplistic, the early Celtic-inspired graphic look of the film is a sheer delight to behold, and makes up for minor weaknesses in continuity and flow. The engaging character design is outstanding as well, w/ a very simple, shape-based style throughout. But i digress.)

Picky, couldn't miss your backhand dig at the great Johannes Gutenberg, the father of mechanical moveable type printing technology. He spoke well of you. HA!

Shifting gears...... as a huge Scrabble 'nut', I'm eternally grateful for both type measure terms "en" and "em'. Can't even count how many times these diminutive words have saved my butt in some hotly contested Scrabble round, or another.

Picky, I kind of favor your term pica "gauge", yet in in doing a quick Wiki search , seems like "pica pole ruler" appears to be a fairly standard label for this device in general print parlance.

Your last post's parting observation is duly noted. Computers, indeed, have entirely captured our younger generation, and talk of picas, points, ems and ens will one day , likely in our lifetimes, be relegated to the dust heap of history.

One could reasonably argue that the advent of computer technology and it's exponentially increasing impact in all manner of human communication, is just as momentously revolutionary as Herr Gutenberg's then ground-breaking invention of moveable type.

The late Canadian visionary scholar, Marshall McLuhan, wrote the thought-provoking tome (among many others), "The Gutenberg Galaxy", first published in 1962, ironically just as television technology was ramping up, yet still in its relative formative stage.

In this book McLuhan coined the catchy term "typographic man". I would argue that "typographic man" is still alive and well, but the world of pixels, algorithms, and mega-bytes has replaced the long-dominant technological terminology used in the diminishing conventional moveable type printing circles.

Today's "typographic man's" guiding mantra could well be, "Stop the presses.... i want to get off!"

Between the likes of the handheld, portable Kindles and Nooks, the hardcopy book as we've know it since the Middle Ages will most likely, one day, become obsolete. I personally rue that day, and hopefully won't be around to witness it. I'm an incorrigible 'bookaphile'. So sue me. HA!

But many in the print world, mere decades ago, boasted that 'hot metal' type technology would last. Those eternal optimists were dead (or more like, lead) wrong. HA!


Brilliant. Ta.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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