English as she is writ


This is an occasional blog which might well be subtitled ‘Pedantry and punctuation’. Getting on for twenty years ago I drew up a punctuation tutorial, based on my years of experience as an publisher and editor of magazines and books, which I delivered only once or twice to small groups of GCSE-level students. I’ll post it here in instalments. In between those posts I’ll write about whatever catches my eye or troubles my mind in the general areas of grammar, spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, and anything and everything else to do with written English.

As a taster of the kind of thing that causes me distress and rage, here are my thoughts on this word: brassic. And my thought is that, notwithstanding that UK television screens have been subjected to a series entitled Brassic, there is no such word. The word I think the programme makers were searching for is boracic. That is a word. It is the adjective derived from the noun borax. To quote from Wikipedia:

Borax is a salt (ionic compound), a hydrated or anhydrous borate of sodium, with the chemical formula Na2H20B4O17. It is a colourless crystalline solid that dissolves in water to make a basic solution. It is commonly available in powder or granular form and has many industrial and household uses, including as a pesticide, as a metal soldering flux, as a component of glassenamel, and pottery glazes, for tanning of skins and hides, for artificial aging of wood, as a preservative against wood fungus, and as a pharmaceutic alkalizer.

Borax was also once used as an antiseptic. A common dressing for wounds was boracic lint: muslin-like cloth soaked in borax. 

By now you might have guessed where this is heading. Yes, it’s rhyming slang. Boracic lint – skint. ‘Skint’ itself an old-fashioned spelling of skinned, used to mean penniless.

So there it is. No such word as brassic. It’s boracic. Older Londoners using the word still pronounce it with three syllables. But as I’ll expound in subsequent instalments, spelling is not a matter of transliterating pronunciation. The fact that ignorant people pronounce the word as ‘brassic’ doesn’t alter the fact that its spelling is ‘boracic’. 

You can expect more of this kind of thing.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.