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The Lexicographer who Loved Me

James Bond: language and lexicography

What’s your favourite James Bond film? That’s a question that gets bandied about a fair bit, especially on a Friday night in the pub, once the subject of children’s TV of yesteryear has been exhausted. The answer might well be informed by the first of the franchise you were lucky enough to see. For me, that was (I think) Live and Let Die, probably on some rainy autumnal Sunday afternoon. While it still ranks high on my list of favourite Bonds, it doesn’t hold pole position (that, if you are interested, belongs firmly to From Russia with Love). I could wax lyrical on that film for hours (and on why Connery has to be the best Bond). Another time, another blog.

Can a dictionary have a favourite book?

The impact of Fleming’s creation on world cinema is clear to all – a franchise doesn’t run successfully for 50 years otherwise, even given the difficult 1980s. And once the best film question has been posed and answered, inevitably the conversation will turn to favourite Bond actor, favourite Bond girl, favourite Bond theme, ad infinitum. A much more rarely asked question is what’s your favourite Bond novel. Between 1953 and 1966, Ian Fleming published 15 novels featuring James Bond, including two collections of short stories. Since then, there have been various Bond novels published by various other authors such as Kingsley Amis (under the pseudonym Robert Markham), Sebastian Faulks, and most recently, Jeffrey Deaver. Just what is Bond’s impact on the English language?

In terms of popularity – that is, the most quoted work – the Oxford English Dictionary would answer the question with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This novel is cited by the OED 27 times. There’s a certain kind of irony there, given that the film version tends to divide the critics and fans. Hot on its heels is The Man With The Golden Gun and then Thunderball. But what kind of words does the OED illustrate from these books? An examination shows that many of the words bolster the image of James Bond as a fast-living, far-travelling debonair bon viveur, who did his best for Queen and Country in between times.

A man comes. He travels quickly

The world inhabited by a superspy is an international one, and Bond is no exception. Many of the novels are set overseas, so it is unsurprising that many of the words quoted in OED reflect this, either by describing cultural phenomena or by having their roots in words from other languages or varieties of English. So we have Bond travelling by the S-Bahn in Berlin and eating Weisswurst in Munich; schussing in Switzerland; being described in Japan as a gaijin, as well as practising sitting in the lotus position, learning about nightingale floors (a wooden floor which warns of intruders by emitting a chirruping sound when walked over), and tucking into sukiyaki; handing over a fistful of rials to a taxi driver in Iran; musing on the attractiveness of the Seychellois, and learning about kling-klings, which is a Jamaican term for a grackle (the latter is unsurprising given that Fleming lived in Jamaica after the end of WWII in a house called Goldeneye). The books are also cited in the entries for Bahamian, Nassauvian (an inhabitant of Nassau), and Jamaican (in the sense of ‘a Jamaican cigar’).

What’s your poison?

We all know that the Bond on the screen enjoys a tipple or two, and the Bond of the written word is no exception. However, there is no mention of Bond in the entry for Martini. While undoubtedly he did enjoy them, perhaps they are not as ubiquitous in the books as in the film. Certainly, the famous ‘shaken not stirred’ does not appear in any of Fleming’s books. In Casino Royale, we first hear of Bond enjoying a blanc en blanc, (a still or sparkling French white wine made from white grapes only) and by time of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, some 10 years later, we learn that Bond orders ‘a bottle of the Taittinger Blanc de Blanc that he had made his traditional drink’; in the same book he is offered some Riquewihr, which is yet another type of white wine.

He’s even trying Negronis in For Your Eyes Only and stingers (a whisky and soda by any other name) in Thunderball. But it’s not just Bond who goes in for the exotic beverage – in the OED entry for crème de menthe, we read of his Thunderball enemy enjoying a frappé version of the drink, with the proverbial cherry on top. But it’s not all about the sophisticated and delicate drinks – Bond also manages to get to grips with shochu.

Stick or twist?

Lest a man spend all of his time drinking and become overhung (a quaint-sounding word for hungover used to describe Bond’s ally Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice), gambling is another option. Bond visits the Nassau Casino where chemin de fer is played and the cagnotte, money reserved from the stakes for the bank, ‘yields a modest five per cent’. He remarks that Drax in Moonraker, while playing bridge, arranges his cards in such a way as to make it difficult to kibitz.

On Her Majesty’s Service

Of course in between all the drinking and card-playing, Bond does manage to remember he has a salary to earn and a license to keep. As we might expect, there are also plenty of words that capture the dangerous world he is in. Currently, the first citation that OED has for ninja is from You Only Live Twice, although it sadly isn’t describing Bond himself. However he does have to jink to avoid injury from his enemies, and battle both Smersh and Union Corse (a Corsican criminal organization), all with the help of his trusty Walther PPK gun. And since even highly-trained spies who can withhold more punishment than us mere mortals need relaxation sometimes, Bond is also happy to indulge in some TLC in the form of an effleurage.

Back to the mundane

What strikes me as interesting is that, although the Bond books were not read for particular kinds of vocabulary, many of the words quoted in the OED give an evocative picture of exactly those types of words that we have come to associate with the Bond on the screen. Should we be in danger of getting too carried away with exotica, Bond also appears in the entries for styptic pencil and scissors and stones, a variation of rock paper scissors. It’s refreshing to know that even spies cut themselves shaving and have to settle disputes in childish ways.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.