Our day-to-day chitchat is the dog's avocados

POSH - Language and Creativity

February 11, 2005

"Creativity is an all-pervasive feature of everyday language." This is the main theme of this book by Ronald Carter, professor of modern English language at Nottingham University. The traditional assumption in literary studies is that creativity is primarily a feature of written language, he points out, where it applies to the breaking or bending of "rules". This view, he rightly claims, is now outmoded.

Creativity is ubiquitous in day-to-day conversation, he shows repeatedly. Transcript after transcript of material is produced to back up this "revelation". The author's breathless wonderment reminds one of the joyous surprise of Monsieur Jourdain, the character in Moli re's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme , who discovers that all his life he has been speaking prose without knowing it. Accordingly, the book is strong on exemplification, but low on argumentation.

The opening chapters review a number of earlier studies of creativity, primarily from the field of psychology. Carter also emphasises, as have others, that speech and writing are on a continuum, that metaphor and language play are essential properties of language, and that it may be useful to view literary and creative uses of language along a cline. The use of repetition, punning and other types of "echoing" are also illustrated. Spoken creativity is shown to grow from interpersonal interaction and to be co-produced by those conversing.

The strength of this book is that Carter uses "real" evidence, transcriptions of conversations from the Cancode (Cambridge and Nottingham Corpus of Discourse in English) corpus, a 5-million-word computerised database that includes recordings from a variety of settings in the UK and Ireland.

This broad-ranging approach makes the book a useful consciousness-raising exercise for beginner students, who might not yet be aware of the full range of creative material available, though Carter spells out the dangers: by regarding creativity as a predominantly clinal phenomenon marked by intersecting social, psychological and linguistic continua, he notes: "We may be in danger of saying that creativity is everywhere and nowhere, that it is sufficiently emergent and diffuse as to be indefinable."

He suggests that some of these dangers can be overcome by looking at connections between creativity and social context, a helpful suggestion, though one only partially exploited in this volume.

POSH is the outcome of several years of word exploration by Michael Quinion, the writer and editor of an email newsletter and website. This light-hearted yet informative miscellany can be recommended for late-evening browsing. A plethora of fascinating information on the origin of everyday words and phrases is presented in alphabetical order. For example, the idea that "posh" derives from "port out, starboard home" is an old myth, though the phrase's origin is still unknown; the popular etymology "sparrowgrass" for "asparagus" is found as long ago as 1667 in Pepys' diary; to "call a spade a spade" is a mistranslation by the medieval scholar Erasmus of the Greek to "call a trough a trough".

The author misses the occasional point: he rightly notes that our word "avocado", Spanish for "lawyer", was a result of the Spaniards' inability to pronounce the American Indian word ahuacatl , but he fails to note that the original word meant "testicle" due to the fruit's shape. Quinion also points out that Americans refer to "aluminum" for what we (technically more correctly) call "aluminium", though he fails to indicate how the American version is pronounced.

Mostly, however, this user-friendly book can be regarded as the "bee's knees", the "cat's pyjamas" or the "kipper's knickers" - all, as he points out, nonsense catchphrases from the 1920s to describe something stylish or excellent.

Jean Aitchison is emeritus professor of language and communication, Oxford University.

POSH: Port Out, Starboard Home and Other Language Myths

Author - Michael Quinion
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 282
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 14 051534 8

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