Monday, 20 December 2010

Dick's hatband may be queer, but we'll never know quite why

One of my most wonderful memories of studying English at university was the day I booked an appointment in a quiet room of the library to have some private time with a copy of Dr Johnson's dictionary. It was elegant and oversized, with beautiful, marbled pages - turning each one felt like a ritual.

One thing's for certain, if I was in London anytime soon I would be making my way to the British Library, where his dictionary will be on display as part of the first ever exhibition to explore the English language - a free exhibition which looks at the influences on the language, and how it is still evolving today.

I love how language evolves – you won't find me complaining when my children come home telling me that the snow is 'well wicked'. Bizarre clusters of words which seem to make no sense are fascinating to me. I've lost count of the number of times that we have laughed at The Grandmother for the phrase 'as queer as Dick's hatband' – having never heard it anywhere else, I was convinced that my family had made it up. Not so. It stretches back centuries, and may even refer to Oliver Cromwell's son.

Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices opened at the British Library on November 12 and will be open until April 3. There's a quiz you can do online – I got 5/6 for the middle level, but this was a complete fluke. Have a go – but don't forget to tell me how you did.

In addition to the dictionary, artefacts such as the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf (again, the student memories! Though I don't honestly remember understanding a great deal of it) will be on show, along with Shakespeare's 'quartos', the King James Bible, lists of slang, children’s books, text messages and web pages.

You can even record your voice reading Mr Tickle and have it added to the British Library Audio Archive as a piece of the collection, which will provide a snapshot of voices in 2010 for future analysis in the decades to come.

It's a pity I can't get down there to add my bit of Yorkshire to proceedings. But if you get the chance – lucky you – give Dr Johnson's work a friendly wave from me. (If you're on Twitter, you can tweet about it using the hashtag #evolvingenglish)

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  1. I've never heard that about Dick's hatband. I wonder what colour it was.

    I am semi illiterate it seems - only 3/6. Whoops. That's what you get for talking to scientists all day. In my defence, I did get 6/6 on the easy round. I won't even mention the hard round.

  2. 6/6 for the easy round. 5/6 for the middlin, but that was only because the stupid thing insisted on thinking I had selected Bangladesh when I selected Australia- hmmph. I'm sure English is not an official language in Australia for the same reason it isn't in the UK.

  3. I'm with DC - only a 3 for me...

  4. I got 3/6 on the middle level and 6/6 on the egghead level, so that's nice and logical!

    The British Library is a favourite haunt of mine, and I picked up a leaflet for this exhibition last time I was there. I'll be heading over in January.

    I love how my children have such different accents to me - being brought up 25 years later and in a different part of the country.

  5. Ooh I did enjoy that. 6/6, 5/6, 3/6 with guesses a plenty!
    I read an article in The Sunday Times yesterday all about the 18th century insults and phrases, including Dick's hatband! There were some brilliant words including a twiddle-poop, fartleberries and grog-blossom.

  6. 4/6, 4/6 and 2/6. So not an English egghead. In fact I'm more into maths, so I know one should generally get 2/6 for random guessing. Perhaps we should all do the test again in a week and see if we can remember the correct answers!

  7. I'm on my way to meet you at the British Library. It sounds like paradise to me.

    Might get Lushy to join us too, don't you think? Do they serve lovley scones at the cafe? There IS a cafe, isn't there?

  8. 6/6 4/6 2/6.

    This exhibition sounds right up my alley actually and I am seriously thinking about buying the book! (only might leave it till the finances recover from the pre-Christmas splurge)

  9. Husband and I collaborated and we got 4/6 in the middling quiz but 5/6 in the egghead part. Odd (or more accurately, pure luck!)

  10. 3/6 here... on the easy one. In my defense, I live in Wisconsin :)

  11. It's not really evolving English - just a family quirk, but if something is expensive then as a Liverpudlian I shorten it to 'spenny. On meeting the old man he took it further and if something is pricey he'll say it's from Spennymoor.

    That sketch by Armstrong and Miller where the posh soldiers use yoof language is totally bad innit. Fo' sho'.

  12. Does being Canadian excuse my poor showing? I got 6/6 on the easy round but a pathetic 0/6 on middling. Despite the poor showing, I enjoy language and had fun explaining the joke behing the book title "Eat, Shoots, Leaves" to my daughter.

  13. Well, this goofy American got 4/6 on the easy, 4/6 on the middlin and...yes, 4/6 on the egghead. All thanks to liberal amounts of GUESSING.

    Enough about that; I want to hear your Yorkshire ASAP.

  14. 5/6 on the egghead! (I missed stitherum -- what is a stitherum? Not a cowshed --)

  15. In my childhood world, Dicks hatband wasn't queer it was 'awkward' and I was often likened to it by my father.


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