Jane and I are both off sick just now. The cold I was suffering this past week has slipped down into my chest, and I’ve spent most of this beautifully sunny Saturday wrapped up in bed asleep.
I woke late this afternoon to a telephone call from a child.
“Hello, is Mr Walls there?” said the young boy’s voice.
“No,” I replied honestly.
“Is Mrs Walls there?”
Hang on a minute, I’ve heard this before! If I say no, then the next question will be “Are there any Walls there?” to which I again reply no, and the killer punchline is delivered. So I decided to get in there early:
“Then how does the roof stay up?” I asked.
There was a stunned pause … and then a third, perfectly reasonable, question, “What?!”
“It’s a joke, right?” I croaked over the phone.
“No, I’m just looking for my mate!” and then the young voice hung up the phone.
A missed opportunity! I now wonder what would have happened if I’d gone along with the joke up until the penultimate line: “Are there any Walls there?” What would I have said?
- No, we live in a tent.
- We’ve got some ice creams in the freezer.
- We have the Reverend Simon Walls here, hang on a minute, I’ll just go and get him.
But now I’ll never know. Maybe in a parallel universe the conversation went a little differently.
We have a Forgotten English calendar on the mantlepiece in the living room. A couple of weeks ago the word of the day was
The noise a large pin makes in going through flesh. [From] storg, a large pin.
Who would have thought that you needed a word for that sound! Presumably somewhere that happened so much — large pins being driven into people’s flesh — that they required a new word to describe it.
“Hang on a minute, love, I’ll be right there. But first I just have to … erm, drive a large pin into Mr McKenzie’s flesh. And then into Mr Hamilton’s flesh. And then into the flesh of the entire Watson family. I do wish there was a word to describe it. It sounds so clumsy to say ‘drive a large pin into’, every time.”
Mr McKenzie pipes up. “What is your pin called?”
“What is your pin called. Perhaps you could call the action after that.”
“Oh, I’m not sure about that. I’m not really a fan of nouns being used as verbs.”
“You mean ‘verbal nouns’?”
“No, a common mistake. That term is applied to the infinite parts of the verb that act as a noun, which by some grammarians is used particularly of the infinite part in -ing that has no verbal force.”
“Ah, yes, the gerund,” said Mr McKenzie, realising his foolishness. “The infinite part of a verb with the same form as the present participle, in that it ends in -ing. If only I had paid more attention in my English classes.”
“That’s right. No, I’m referring to the use of such nouns as ‘Hoover’ and ‘text’ as though they were verbs.”
“But surely that is one of the beauties of the English language,” reasoned Mr McKenzie.
“You mean ‘zero-derivation’, sometimes referred to as ‘conversion’: changing the part of speech of a word without first changing its form?”
“I do,” said Mr McKenzie. “There is a very long tradition of this in English. Unlike other Romantic and European languages there are no formal markers to differentiate which words are nouns and which are verbs.”
“I do see your point, Mr McKenzie. I can, for example, ‘hand you a book’, or ‘table a motion’.”
“That’s right. Or you could ‘face up to your responsibilities’, or ‘book yourself into an hotel’,” offered Mr McKenzie.
“That’s a matter for another debate,” said Mr McKenzie.
“Indeed! And for another day. But first I must storg you!”
“Sorry?” said Mr McKenzie, looking confused.
“This pin, Mr McKenzie, is called a ‘storg’.”
“So it would become … ‘storging’.” said Mr McKenzie. “I like it.”
“So do I, Mr McKenzie, so do I. That’s why I do it for a living. Now just hold still while I stick this large pin into you…”
I love language.