Ian Clayton: A fascination for words

The Singing Detective - for Ian Clayton column
The Singing Detective - for Ian Clayton column

I love that song One day like this by the band Elbow, I like to sing the chorus: “Throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year’d see me right.”

Our Eddie once said to me: “It’s a stupid name for a band though eh?” I told him that the name came from a line in the BBC series The Singing Detective after one of the characters describes the word elbow as “the most sensuous of all words.”

I’m not sure about that, but I do have favourite words of my own, do you? I like the word juice, especially the way northern people pronounce it, it’s a real mouthful of a word and sounds to me like a word that means what it says.

I also like the word slack, meaning a bit slow, my gran often used it, or sometimes she’d say its cousin, dilatory, when she really meant it. I think my favourite word though is bow, simply because it’s got so many meanings. It can be a knot, a weapon, something to play a violin with, you can add rain to it to make something very beautiful or when pronounced differently it can mean to take applause or the front of a ship. It’s also the surname of one of my favourite silent film actresses, the lovely Clara Bow. Now that’s what you call a versatile word and only three letters!

It’s an example of what grammarians call a homonym, these are words that can have the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings. They come as a group of words, first there’s the homographs these are words that are written the same but pronounced different, so lead and lead as in: “Will you lead us to the lead mine.” Or close and close, for example: “Close the door before you get too close.” Second come the homophones words that are pronounced the same but are written differently, like read and reed, as in: “She wanted to read all about a reed she had seen by the river bank.” Or bare and bear (make up your own sentence to go with those).

Then there are the true homonyms words that are written and pronounced the same way but have different meanings, like bat and bat: “He took up a cricket bat to swipe at the bat” or stalk and stalk is another. If you want to get really technical you could use a capotonym, that’s a word that is written the same way but takes on a different meaning when one of the words has a capital letter added to the front.

So, polish, to clean shoes, and Polish to come from Poland, or march and March, as in: “We’re going on a protest march at the beginning of March this year.” Now, let’s get really technical, there are some words we call polysemes that have the same spelling, pronunciation and a related meaning, for instance mouth can be the mouth of a person but also the mouth of a river and cycle can mean to go around on a bike or simply go around.

All of this came into my head the other day when my old mate Tony Lumb stopped me in Pontefract market place. He said: “You like words Ian, can you tell me a sentence that is right when you say it but wrong when you try to write it down?”

I had to admit he had me stumped, so he told me the answer :“The farmer sowed seed in his field, his wife sewed a button onto a shirt, they were both….now, what were they doing collectively “sewing” or “sowing?” I think the only way you could write that would be to put “they were sewing/sowing.” I do have a fascination for the written word, but my fascination with the spoken form gives me endless fun.

Shall we talk about synonyms now? A mate of mine told me he was going to the new year sales to purchase a sofa. I said that he was off to buy a settee. Both right of course, just a different way of saying the same thing and that’s what we call a synonym, which is also a word I’m very fond of, and that brings us back to where we came in.

The other week I wrote about the phrase clap cold. It seems that I caused a bit of a stir judging by the feedback. A man stopped me to tell me that in a local pub they’d had their iPhones out searching the internet to prove my theory wrong.

I’m not sure that I trust the internet too much. I prefer to use my old Oxford English dictionaries, I’ve got the 15-volume, 30,000 page version and books by learned etymologists like Dr David Crystal. My mate Jack Addison told me he thought it was a phrase from County Durham, another old friend, Irvin wrote to say that he thought the correct pronunciation should be “clapped cold”. Both these were supported by Lynne, a lady from my writers’ workshop who wrote to say in Washington Co. Durham, they use the phrase “clap cowld.” Clap in this sense to mean crouch or huddle like partridges do in the cold – “the covey is clapped, ye canna see them” – was the sentence she used to illustrate her point.

Lynne added that miners in the Durham coalfield who went down on their haunches would “clap down” with each other. I found, after a lot of searching that clap in this sense means to lie close together and according to the Oxford English it’s an old Scottish term. I’m still open to further interpretation.