Author Archives: Louise

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (May 22)


TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky. Stories about language usage in the news this past month include unexpected Latin translations; an inappropriate exclamation mark; a famous fictional advertising exec showing off his grammatical prowess; a grammatically correct bank robber; football fans ranked by spelling and grammar ability; a punctuation-free doctoral dissertation; and a very expensive web site name.

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Far From the Madding Crowd was Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel (written in 1874), but it was his first literary success, and it has been adapted into two notable movies — starring Julie Christie and Carey Mulligan respectively as the farmer heroine Bathsheba Everdene who is being courted by three men in England’s rustic Wessex. But as well as giving us what some people think of as one of the greatest love stories in English literature, Hardy’s novel has left a slightly more esoteric legacy, with its title living on in our language and keeping an otherwise extinct word alive. “Far from the madding crowd” still crops up in colloquial, promotional and sometimes literary prose as a poetic expression that means — when describing a place — “secluded and removed from public notice”, as the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges with a hat-tip to Hardy’s novel. 

Hardy took his evocative title from Thomas Gray’s poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, written in 1751 as a meditation on death and remembrance. “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, Their sober wishes never learned to stray.”

The adjective madding is the present participle of the now obsolete verb mad, “to make insane, to become insane” (i.e. “she is madding”, “they are madding”), which was the forerunner of our modern verb “to madden”. Now more or less obsolete itself, except when it’s used in the Hardy-inspired phrase, madding is defined as “becoming mad [in the British-English rather than Am-Eng sense of mad], acting madly, or frenzied” (OED).

Its literary lineage is fine: Gray’s words echo those from a sonnet by the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden in about 1614: ”Farre from the madding Worldling’s hoarse discords”; Drummond might have read  Edmund Spenser’s “But now from me hys madding mind is starte/ And woes the Widdows daughter of the glenne” (1579). Madding also appears later in John Milton’s most famous work, Paradise Lost, published in 1667”the madding wheels / Of brazen chariots raged.”  (vi. 210)

In a book called The Poetical Works of Thomas Gray, published in 1903, its editor John Bradshaw argues that “‘maddening’ would be the more correct formation; but Gray’s use of madding has given it currency, and ”Far from the Madding Crowd” has been adopted as the title of a novel [Hardy’s].” Duncan C. Tovey, writing about Gray’s poetry in 1922, cites his use of madding in another of his poems, Agrippina: “the madding ear of rage.” However, Tovey suggests that the meaning might well have shifted slightly in the 17th century, arguing that “It may be questioned whether either Drummond or Gray used the word exactly in the sense of ‘maddening.’ It seems with them to mean ‘frenzied’.” And that’s indeed how we understand the madding crowd from which we often seek to travel far to this day.


“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”
— from Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

“Thus ever grave and undisturbed reflection
Pours its cool dictates in the madding ear
Of rage, and thinks to quench the fire it feels not.”
— from Agrippina by Thomas Gray

“What sweet delight a quiet life affords,
And what it is to be of bondage free,
Far from the madding worldling’s hoarse discords,
Sweet flowery place, I first did learn of thee:”
— from a sonnet by William Drummond ‘of Hawthornden’
“arms on armour clashing brayed
Horrible discord, and the madding wheels
Of brazen chariots raged.”
— from Paradise Lost by John Milton


Don Draper is a grammar nerd … “Be still, our writerly hearts”


“If you’re a grammar nerd, no doubt your heart grew three sizes when you learned that Stannis Baratheon [from Game of Thrones] and Don Draper [from Mad Men] have something more than awkward relationships with their daughters in common. That’s right, these two emotionally unavailable men are also grammar pedants. Be still, our writerly hearts.” So wrote Vanity Fair‘s Joanna Robinson shortly after the airing of Mad Men‘s penultimate episode a few evenings ago, and oh how right she was — about our hearts growing three sizes.

And thanks to Vanity Fair, we can now watch that breathtaking moment over and over and over again, without tiring of the memory of Don’s linguistic prowess. (Except: shouldn’t it be any more — two words — rather than one? Perhaps that’s for a separate discussion …)




Why do Brits pronounce lieutenant “leftenant”?


Back in 2013, on The Guardian‘s Notes and Queries page, a man called Jeff Rushton from London asked this very good question:

Why exactly do the British say lieutenant as ‘leftenant’? 

Armchair linguists on both sides of the Atlantic offered up various answers and suggestions: here’s a selection for your interest and entertainment … Continue reading

Charlotte Windsor



The Duchess of Cambridge has given birth to a baby girl, and her name is Charlotte. HRH Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. Charlotte Elizabeth Diana Windsor is fourth in line to the throne after her grandfather Prince Charles, her father, Prince William, and her brother, Prince George.

The name Charlotte is of French origin, meaning “free man”, and is the female form of the male name Charles. There are nice family connections for the Windsor family, with Charlotte being the middle name of her aunt, Pippa, and one of the princess’s grandfathers being called Charles (the Prince of Wales). Continue reading

I say Derby, you say Darby …

iroquoisIroquois was the first American-bred thoroughbred racehorse to win the Epsom Derby

It’s Derby Day in the U.S. and all the hats were out in Kentucky. The Brits will dust off their own fascinators for their big day in June when the country’s fastest colts and fillies run the one-mile four-furlong ten-yard race on the Epsom Downs in the world’s original and most famous Derby. But what’s the biggest difference between the Derby Stakes and the Kentucky Derby — apart from the names of the speedy nags running for the roses on either side of the Atlantic? That will be in the way the names of the famous races themselves are pronounced: as in DERBY here in the States and DARBY over in Blighty. Why do the Brits do that? Continue reading

That lusty month of May

“The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds.  For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.”
—  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

Vanessa Redgrave sings “The Lusty Month of May” in Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot

Last, past or latest?


“The past 12 months have seen the passing of the last WWI combat veteran, one of golf’s greatest players and the man who introduced the iPhone to the world,” wrote the BBC in 2011.

Hmm … Is this all about the Oxford comma? (With its lone comma, that sentence sounds as though Steve Jobs could have been a golf champion and the last surviving veteran of the first world war …) No, that’s for another time and place; this is about past and last — two adjectives that are very similar to look at and are sometimes synonymous, but are often actually lifetimes apart.

Recency and finality are what it’s all about here, and the fact that last can describe either state is what sometimes causes confusion and ambiguity.  Continue reading

Refugees with the wrong name


“Mediterranean migrants: Deadly capsize ‘captain’ in court” — BBC

“The grim job that haunts Italy’s migrant patrols” — CNN

“A Magnet For African Migrants, Italy Seeks A New Approach” – NPR

“What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?” — The Independent

“After rescue, a long, agonizing wait for migrants in Italy” — Yahoo News

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a migrant is “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.” A refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.”

Are the thousands of desperate people who are fleeing a chaotic and dangerous war-torn Libya and risking their lives to cross perilous waters in overcrowded dinghies to escape their homeland really “migrants”? Are they not “refugees“?