For 50 years, the approach to Christmas meant the arrival of a slender booklet of verse, letters and unclassifiable snippets collected by John Julius Norwich. Johnny Grimond pays homage to this popular tradition
In 2018, just before he died, John Julius Norwich, man of arts and letters, put the year’s Christmas Cracker together as usual. It was published posthumously and, to widespread delight and surprise, an unfinished draft was found that rounded off the series in 2019 as the 50th Christmas Cracker. Now the supply has stopped.
It will take someone braver and better than me to attempt a revival. The miscellany that follows is not meant to take the place of a Christmas Cracker, but just to catch in some small way its spirit.
First, therefore, an extract from a letter written by a would-be screenwriter, Robert Pirosh, in 1934, which was included in the 2015 Christmas Cracker:
‘I like words. I like fat, buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory… I like suave V-words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, sullen words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.’
Pirosh sent his letter to any bigwig in Hollywood who might give him a job. One did, at MGM.
I like words, too. I like -enty words such as corpulent, virulent, truculent, pungent, plangent, astringent. I also like scumbled, lukewarm, fungible, beetling.
I like bafflegab (long-winded imprecision), slubberdegullion (slovenly person) and crinkum-crankum (fussily over-decorated objects).
I like houyhnhnm, though I can’t pronounce it. (It is meant to convey the neigh of a horse in Gulliver’s Travels.) I like ullage, which ought to mean the gunk at the bottom of a bottle of wine, but actually means the amount by which the bottle’s contents are missing. I could add smilet, Shakespeare’s word for a little smile, and chatterbox, lullaby, lickspittle, macaroon. And did you know that a nobbler is a thimble-rigger’s confederate?
As a child, Churchill thought Madame Tussaud’s was Madame Two Swords.
Correspondence in the Times in June 2020 established that the longest non-technical word in English was not floccinaucinihilipilifiation (‘the estimation of something as valueless’), but pneumonoultramicroscopicsilico-volcanoconiosis, a lung disease better known as silicosis.
An inspired modern invention is FOMO. This term for ‘fear of missing out’ has been around since 2004, when Patrick McGinnis, a student at the Harvard Business School, put his finger on this common infirmity.
But the word moved from finger to lip – everyone’s lips – only during last spring’s lockdown, when fortunate people realised their unexpected peace of mind was a result of the absence of FOMO: no parties for anyone meant no anxiety.
McGinnis’s other coinage, FOBO, describes the paralysing ‘fear of better options’. It is less popular, perhaps because in a pandemic few people have any options, good or bad.
Black students at the University of Southern California’s business school protested last August about a professor’s choice of words in a lecture on public speaking. Pointing out that repeated filler words like ‘um’ and ‘er’ interrupt the speaker’s message, the professor mentioned similar words in other languages. Mandarin-speakers, for instance, often say nèige, nèige, nèige (a word meaning ‘that’). The students accused their professor of racism and harming their mental health since the word sounded ‘exactly like nigga’.
Lastly, I offer a collective noun. Have you noticed that professors are everywhere? Official statistics put their number in the UK at 20,550 in 2016-17, though that was ‘probably an undercount’. By several million, I’d say.
Together, I rate them a ‘profusion’.