Month: November 2010

Tolstoy’s bedtime story

Rosamund Bartlett Tolstoy biographyI was in Oxford on Friday to interview Rosamund Bartlett about her recent Tolstoy biography, which coincides with the great man’s death a century ago on 20 November 1910.

The interview will appear shortly on the Blackwell Online website, but in the meantime, here is Rosamund reading a short extract from the book itself, in which Tolstoy as a boy listens to his grandmother’s blind storyteller recount a bedtime story…

Click here for the reading.

45. Bloody borderlands

Amexica coverAmexica is the name journalist Ed Vulliamy has coined for the 2,000-mile-long borderland between the US and Mexico. It’s a land that has fascinated him for the past thirty years – “repelled and compelled”, as he puts it in the interview. “Charismatic,complex, irresistible” is how he describes it in his new book, Amexica, which he discusses with me in this podcast.

The US-Mexican border is the busiest such crossing in the world – a million people use it every day. And some of them are engaged in the trafficking – of people, arms, drugs, and dirty money- which gives this land its often brutally violent character.

In the interview we talk about that violence, where it comes from, the ways in which it mirrors developments in the global economy and – perhaps most worryingly – the fact that “children are growing up along the border with this as their world”.


Exploring word histories

Elizabeth KnowlesElizabeth Knowles is a historical lexicographer, which means that she researches the histories of words – how did they come to mean what they mean today and what journeys have they taken to arrive at these meanings?

Elizabeth firmly believes that “there is no such thing as a dull word” and to prove it has written How to Read a Word in which she reveals some techniques you can use in order to undertake fascinating journeys of your own in the history of our language.

Knowles How to Read a Word coverWhat follows are extracts from an interview in which she talks to George Miller about some of the words she discusses in the book – and we put her to the test by asking her without any forewarning how to go about researching two unusual terms.

Just click on the links below to listen to the extracts. And if these whet your appetite, a longer interview about the book can be heard by clicking here.

Elizabeth Knowles

Kate Moss famously once said: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Here Elizabeth talks about tracing the connotations of the word “skinny” and its journey from a largely negative to a sometimes positive term for “thin”.

Elizabeth Knowles

Some dictionaries contain “ghost words”. Click here to hear Elizabeth explain what this intriguing category of words is.

Elizabeth Knowles

How did the word “strategery” enter the lexicon, and what are its chances of surviving and becoming accepted as a “real” word? Elizabeth discusses this here.

Elizabeth Knowles

We now decided to put Elizabeth’s strategies (or should that be “strategeries”?) for exploring words’ histories to the test and asked her about two interesting terms which are not covered in the book.

She had no preparation for these questions, so what would she make of the challenge of tackling first the term “best boy” as found on film credits? Click here to find out.

Our final challenge was the unusual term “font wrangler” found in among the credits in a book on typography. Where does she suggest the word sleuth should start in trying to get to the origin of this term? Click here to listen to her answer.

The fine art of political phrase-making

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Antony Jay’s Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations – entitled Lend Me Your Ears – is now in its fourth edition.

To mark its publication, I went to interview Antony – perhaps best known as the co-author of the “Yes, Minister” series – at his home in Somerset. You can hear the whole interview by clicking here; or you can listen to highlights by clicking on the links below.

  • My first question was: what makes a quotation a political quotation? Click here.
  • Politics is a field more prone than most to misquotation. Antony Jay discusses a notorious quote attributed to James Callaghan, which he never in fact said. Click here to find out what it was.
  • What are the challenges of pinning down who said what in the modern world of 24-hour news, blogs and soundbites? Click here.
  • Was there such a thing as a Golden Age of political phrase-making? Click here to hear Antony Jay’s view.
  • Who are some of Tony’s personal favourites among the many thousands of writers and politicians in the book? Click here to find out.
  • Finally I asked Tony about the origins of the phrase “Yes, Minister”. Click here to discover which politician first recorded it.