Aussie Life

Language

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

No sooner had the words ‘blue murder’ appeared on the cover of this august journal than a Speccie reader was in touch asking me to explain the source of this odd expression (why should murder have a colour?). It often comes in the form of an outcry –– ‘they cried blue murder’ –– and is a kind of complaint that can be used in almost any situation. It’s common in Australia (and anywhere British English is used) but uncommon in America, where they are inclined to say ‘bloody murder’ in similar situations. The suggestion the Oxford English Dictionary makes is that (in a roundabout way) this is a kind of softened blasphemy. It started off as a French expression ‘morbleu’ –– which, they call a ‘chiefly humorous expression’ –– often put into the mouth of a comic French character in an English story as an expression of annoyance or surprise. (I haven’t checked, but I suspect Agatha Christie had Poirot use this expression more than once – the classic comic Frenchman, sorry, French-speaking Belgian, in English literature.) In turn, ‘morbleu’ comes from Molière who used it as an altered (softened) version of ‘mort de Dieu’ (literally ‘death of God!’) to avoid blasphemy. This French expression ‘morbleu’ was then given a comic English transliteration as ‘blue murder’—and used as a cry of terror or alarm; a great commotion or disturbance; a noisy and vehement protest or outcry.

Two words that are very easily confused (or misused)—even by the smartest among us—are ‘incredible’ and ‘incredulous’. A reader of The Speccie has drawn our attention to Joe Hildebrand writing in the Daily Telegraph saying (quote): ‘As incredulous as it may have been…’ Our correspondent even made the astonishing claim that he has heard the beloved editor of this august journal make the same slip (Ed: Surely not!). What is intended in these usages is ‘incredible’ not ‘incredulous’. We say, ‘It may seem incredible that…’ where ‘incredible’ means: ‘Not credible: cannot be believed; beyond belief’.While ‘incredulous’ means ‘sceptical’—so it is events that are incredible (almost beyond belief) and it is the commentators on those events who are incredulous (or sceptical).

I have written before about punctuation—and how punctuation is dying in this age of the flying thumbs of kids texting on their phones. But I come back to it because demographer Bernard Salt has written about his love of punctuation in his column in the Weekend Australian. He says that punctuation rounds up words and gathers them where they ought to be. Bernard, while extolling a range of punctuation marks, has reservations about the overuse of that little mark—the comma. He says having a plethora of commas ‘suggest a writer who does not trust their readers’ ability to safely navigate a sentence’. I’m not sure I entirely agree. Many is the time when I’ve had to read a sentence twice to grasp the point the writer was making—because it lacked the necessary commas to break words into the right groupings. The founding editor of the New Yorker Harold Ross was famous for going through copy and adding more commas. The more commas, he seemed to think, the clearer it would be. He did it so often that James Thurber famously remarked that at the New Yorker they were living ‘in the age of the comma man’. And then there’s the famous ‘Oxford comma’. At Oxford, if nowhere else, the style guide requires a comma to be inserted in a list—even before the last entry, the one introduced by ‘and’. For instance, I might say that great users of commas were ‘Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and P.G. Wodehouse’. The famous ‘Oxford comma’ is the one between ‘Thackeray’ and the ‘and’ that follows. I like it. In fact, I like commas—they parcel up words and put them in the right pigeon holes. Be kind to commas. They are your friends.

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Contact Kel at ozwords.com.au

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