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Confessions of a pedant

We all know what a taxi is

There are two big problems about working for a dictionary. The first is that everyone assumes you know the meaning of every word, which is setting the bar rather high. There are about 600,000 words and senses in the OED. Any one of them could crop up at any time and it does seem a bit unreasonable to me, if not to my daughter, that I should be expected to hold them all in my head.

So when we were at Birmingham Airport recently and we saw a sign, along with those to the taxis, departures gates, and bus stops, to wudu, I was the natural person to ask.

Don’t you want to know about taxi, I said. Fascinating word, understood the world over, every bit as much as the way a picture of two little people, one with and one without a skirt, means lavatories. Everyone thinks taxi is a word in their language; actually it comes from French, taximètre, although there was an earlier German word, Taxameter, of course both ultimately come from the Latin taxa, which means tax.

Yes, but wudu?

Fortunately with Oxford Dictionaries Online you’re never more than a few clicks from an etymology. Ah, now this is interesting, I say, wudu is the washing that Muslims do to prepare for prayer, comes from the Arabic for purity. It’s an action, a mass noun. Muslims talk about doing or performing wudu, whereas the sign is using it as a count noun, to mean the place where wudu is performed. Strictly speaking they should say wudu facilities.

Yeah, yeah. What’s that word I learnt for what you are?

Cool?

No, pidantic.

Ah, yes, I think you mean pedantic. From the Italian pedante, teacher.

Exactly.

That is the other problem about working at a dictionary. You do tend to become a bit pedantic.

My name is Robert and I am a pedant

Just outside the wudu there’s another sign over a boarded up shopfront. ‘Opening soon, your new American Express Currency Exchange Bureau!’ In the meantime another one of our bureau de change is located next door.’ I register the singular bureau being used for the plural (which would be bureaux, or, if we take it that bureau de change is now thoroughly English, the plural could be bureau de changes, like cul-de-sacs). Ever sensitive to the atmosphere that is developing, I keep these thoughts to myself.

Pedants are the sort of people who distinguish flaunt and flout, who insist you can have only one protagonist in a play, or who hear that something’s been decimated and say: ‘well that’s not too bad then, only losing 10%’.

Even pedants have a sense of humour

Of course language works perfectly well amongst unpedantic people, but the world would be poorer without pedantry. A lot of jokes play on pedantic interpretations of words: ‘I’ve just been on the holiday of a lifetime—won’t be doing that again.’

Or the one about the Border collie.

Farmer: Did you round up the sheep?

Border collie: Yes.

Farmer: So how many were there?

Border collie: Forty.

Farmer: But there were only thirty-eight this morning.

Border collie: You told me to round them up.

I’d rather be a pedant than have nits

Pedants are derided as nit-pickers, but who likes nits? Are they a good thing? Anyone who thinks nit-picking is a waste of time has never sat with a nit comb and a child driven mad with itching. Are we supposed to ignore the nits and carry on regardless? Rather than the delicate and compassionate action of nitpicking is a shovel being proposed? Small arms fire? An all-out nuclear strike? Any of these would solve the nit problem for sure, and be a lot less fiddly. But picking them out is the only solution which is better than the problem.

As we drive away from the airport I spot a service station. ‘I’m just going to get some petrol.’

‘You mean diesel.’

And she’s right, I do. Strictly speaking. In spite of the fact that I’m aware of the distinction between petrol and diesel, and aware of the expensive consequences of muddling the two, it still feels wrong to me to say, ‘I’m going to get some diesel.’ We’ve all got our limits and this would be a pedantry too far.

The car full with fuel, we get to the boring bit of the motorway.

Are there any biscuits left?

Just one. Shall we split it?

All right. But I’m having the biggest half.

If it truly is a half there won’t be a…

I catch her eye.

It’s time to stop.