Wednesday 19 September 2012

On Fifty Shades of Grey, or is it Gray?

The correspondents corresponded with vitality yesterday. A 5-minute interview with Jim Naughtie on the Today programme on Radio 4 about my new book, Spell It Out: the Singular Story of English Spelling, led later in the day to an extraordinary outpouring, almost confessional at times, from listeners about their problems with spelling. And this started at 7.20 in the morning. Whoever would have thought it?

As the day wore on, the pace increased. Lunchtime saw another interview, 10 minutes (I was told) on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2. It became nearly half an hour, as the volume of texts, emails, and phone calls caused the editors to keep the item going. Only the 1 o’clock news stopped it.

And then BBC News Online, wanting a comment about the new abbreviation Ebacc (for English baccalaureate). I do deal with the spelling of abbreviations in the book, though this one is too new to get a mention. The reporter wanted to know what I thought about the reaction that the abbreviation sounds like a disease. I’m not surprised. New abbreviations inevitably echo their ancestors. For ‘e’, there are three chief echoes: e-coli, e-mail, and e-numbers. The first is fairly negative; the second fairly positive; and the third (for Europe) mixed. But as bac is already an abbreviation for bacillus, that’s the one most likely to come to mind. The association won’t last for long. Familiarity with abbreviations soon breeds content, and in a few months time, I predict, the medical associations will have been forgotten.

But, back to Spell it Out, which during the day crept up the Amazon charts. By the evening it was Number 4 in the best-selling list, ahead of Fifty Shades of Grey and its friends, and just behind Gordon Ramsay. Maybe I should have called the book Fifty Shades of Grey, or is it Gray?: the Singular Story of English Spelling.

Spelling competing with cooking and sex. I say again, whoever would have thought it?

Monday 17 September 2012

On tickling ivories

A Northern Irish correspondent writes to say that he had recently been to the USA to visit a friend from his home country, and heard him use the phrase tickle the ivories [i.e. informally play the piano]; my correspondent had only ever heard tinkle the ivories. They found both on the Internet but no explanation of why there is a difference. Is there a British / American factor here, for instance?

The origins of the phrase lie in the verb tinkle, which developed a transitive and causative use quite early: ‘to make something tinkle’. OED has some excellent examples from the 16th and early 17th centuries of instruments tickling: ‘Many drums were beaten and basons tinckled about them’, for example. And then in 1817 we find this lovely specimen from a familiar name: ‘She was very fond of tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet’. Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey.

At around the same time, the piano keys were beginning to be called ivory. John Keats is the first citation in the OED: ‘She plays the Music without one sensation but the feel of the ivory at her fingers’. A plural usage probably came soon after, but the first OED citation is not until 1918, ‘the black and white ivories’.

Meanwhile, a transitive use of tickle was also developing – at more or less the same time as tinkle - meaning ‘to touch an instrument lightly, especially one with strings. Thomas Nashe is the first recorded user here: ‘to tickle a citterne’ in 1589. The usage continues - strings are tickled, a guitar is tickled - until we get to the early 20th century, when we find ‘tickling the typewriter keys’ (1926) and then (1930) ‘tickle the ivories’. The Times in 1962 has an interesting comment: ‘Ivory-tickling’ has become an outmoded and faintly derogatory description of piano-playing.’

So, tinkling came first, and tickling later. But there’s no suggestion of any transatlantic difference in the citations. On the contrary, both usages have solid histories in the UK, and I suspect the tickle one has had a great deal of usage in Cockney speech. My feeling is that this is no more than a parallel development where the phonaesthetic similarity – just a little bit of nasality before the /k/ - has made the two verbs seem interchangeable. But tickle the ivories is about three times as common as tinkle the ivories. Probably the ‘faintly derogatory’ sense of tickle has made it a less palatable expression over time.