Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.


[114] It’s only words, and words are all I have

I make no apologies for putting in a sort of epilogue about language after all my other blogs. I am intrigued with our Language, its origins, its rich variations and the way it changes. It is not going to be easy to give a feel of how language was different fifty or more years ago. Many of the changes have been very gradual. This is a very personal view of some of those changes.

But first, I will go back a bit.

The Bible

As you know, some of my fond memories of the Church and religion in my early days are associated with the archaic and stylistic language of the Bible and the hymns and prayers we used to use. It’s not just the use of ‘Thou’ and ‘Thee’ with word endings like ‘sayest’ and ‘doeth.’

One of my favourite examples comes just before the Magnificat, when Mary was visited by an angel. (It was an unusual greeting. The angel didn’t say, “Hi, Mary,” he said, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”)

For her response, Luke didn’t say, “Mary was surprised,” or “She was like: What the …” He said,

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying,

and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

[Luke 1:29 Authorized Version, about 1600]

Here are some modern equivalents.

  • She was greatly agitated at his words, and wondered what such a greeting meant [Weymouth Bible (1903)]
  • But she was deeply troubled by what he said and wondered what this greeting might mean. [New English Bible (1970)]
  • Mary was deeply troubled by the angel’s message, and she wondered what his words meant. [The Good News Translation, formerly the Good News Bible or Today’s English Version (1976, American)]

They don’t quite have the same aura of wonder and respect.

Anyway, I digress. (I’ve been doing it for three years so I’m not stopping now.)


Although William Shakespeare (around 1600) introduced many words to the English language that we now use all the time, his plays still use many obsolete words and use old ways of speaking and can be incomprehensible at times.

When the eponymous Hamlet speaks the words,

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?”

We can still work out that he is actually saying, “Shall I kill myself?” but it gets more difficult to follow when it goes on:

“ … For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of th’ unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life …”

I wouldn’t like to give a modern day version of that speech. (OK, I admit it. I passed all my GCE “O” Levels – except English Literature.)

Jane Austen

When we get to Jane Austen (about 1815) we find that the words are more or less familiar and the language is almost modern but people speak in a way that is decidedly old-fashioned. It’s more formal.

In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet says to Mr Darcy, in language that would now seem very convoluted,

“From the very beginning – from the first moment, I may almost say – of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

And his speech is equally lengthy.

“I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding— certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of other so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever.”

Of course in those days speech was formal, so much so that we have to look very hard to find that Mr Darcy even had a first name. It occurs twice in the book. He was certainly never addressed by it as a name. Mr and Mrs Bennet and many other characters exist only as surnames.

Victorian England

[We think of the Victorians as English. I don’t know how they viewed the United Kingdom but I think they would have thought of themselves as British. They still had India and the British Empire.]

We can blame a lot of our modern grammar and spelling on the Victorians. They formalized some of the rules that pedantic linguists thrive on. They had rules like not ending sentences with prepositions. (Oops! I just did.) They made the rules about apostrophes and redefined some spellings the way they thought they should be. Words like ‘debt’ and ‘subtle’ had lost their silent letters. The Victorians put them back to make them fit their Classical origins.

(While people argue about ‘a hotel’ or ‘an hotel’ and it is seen as uncouth to pronounce many words without an initial ‘H’ sound it’s worth noting that none of these words actually came directly from the Latin form when the ‘H’ was significant. They all come via French and had long lost this sound before they reached us.)

Mr Adlam

I am going to go back to Mr Adlam at Highlands School to show you that some changes were already underway. Language change can be slow and school may be one of the forces trying to make it slower.

Some of the things I remember from Mr Adlam are these.

  • Never use contracted forms like: don’t, can’t, would’ve … in written English. You will have noticed that I now completely ignore this rule. I produced quite a lot of formal documents when I worked and I have pretty well ignored this rule for at least twenty years. Now avoiding these contractions makes a document look overly formal.
  • Never use ‘got.’ This is quite complicated but the problem is that informal or slang American usage is ‘got’ where we would say ‘have got.’ While “I’ve got something here” is correct, “I got something” doesn’t fit the grammatical models. My comment here is that when English as a foreign language is taught abroad it is often American English. I have seen references where such teachers were instructed not to ‘correct’ American usage such as ‘I did got’ for ‘I did have’ or ‘I had.’
  • Watch out for the American pronunciation coming across the Atlantic with glottal stops instead of ‘T’ sounds.

I think you could sum these up by saying that informality and Americanization were coming our way. Both of these predictions were true. Now that we have automatic grammar and spelling checks as I write it is noticeable that changes have been faster than the software can manage. When I do a full style check I reject most of the suggestions as being too pedantic or old-fashioned.

Style and formality

We were also taught to use strictly correct grammar and spelling. But this changed somewhere around the Seventies with changing ideas in schools. Ideas and intelligibility were considered to be more important than mere spelling or accuracy. Even in subjects like English or French, answers were no longer marked as wrong just because the spelling or grammar was wrong.

Also now we have the ability for anyone to write their own documentation without the opportunity for trained secretaries or typists to correct simple mistakes. I have seen very high level managers issuing important documents with glaring mistakes.

I have already written about Formality particularly the ways we addressed and greeted people. I remember the first time I went to a shoe shop on my own. I must have been about fourteen. The shop assistant called me ‘Sir’ every time he spoke to me. That was the way we expected to be spoken to. (Another sentence ending in a preposition!)

When we first had supermarkets the assistants said little. I remember the surprise in French lessons when told that in French shops you were greeted with ‘Bonjour’ and you left to ‘Au revoir.’ Much later we had ‘Good Morning’ in UK supermarkets. When this changed to ‘Hello’ I felt mildly insulted at the informality. When it became ‘Hi’ I was shocked. (I still can’t cope with cold callers on the telephone who say ‘How are you today?’ That’s a very personal question from someone I don’t know. I do what I always do with such callers – say nothing and put the telephone down.)


Context is important. We have always tried to say that written language should have a different style to spoken language but now we have messaging, texting and chat areas in on-line games. Here the language is written but is far less formal than even normal spoken conversation.

I write a lot in chat for computer games. It took me months to realize that I would still be understood if I missed out the final full stop. Then I stopped bothering with capital letters, left out question marks and generally abandoned all punctuation … apart from the use of three dots … Now I unashamedly use words like ‘gonna’, ‘wanna’ … (I still flinch mentally when I hear ‘wanna’ and correct it in my mind to a clear ‘want to.’)

I see others writing with very inaccurate use of spelling in chat but it doesn’t matter. I can understand what they mean. Some people still think that ‘would’ve’ is ‘would of.’ Maybe we will eventually spell it that way.

New and Changed Words

Ok, so let’s look at some words we have that someone from the Fifties would not understand, either new words or old ones with new meanings. I won’t attempt to list them all, I’ll just make some general comments.

  • Technology – There are many new and changed words relating to the new technological advances and new products. I made a list over fifteen years ago and some of these have already come and gone. Young people today may not have seen a computer ‘mouse’ or a ‘video’ or ‘fax’ machine! We have lots of new words that someone in the Fifties would not have understood because the concepts did not exist – mobile, tablet, icon, download, streaming, blender, drone …
  • We have items of clothing that did not exist then – gilet, anorak, hoodie, tights, snood, chinos …
  • Almost all of what we eat and drink is new – cappuccino, yoghurt, qinoa, tiramisu, …
  • Things we do (bunjee jumping, mugging, chilling …)
  • Places we go (supermarket, disco …)


I am going to say something now that not everyone will agree with. (Another sentence ending in a preposition!) When I was young nobody used the word ‘fewer.’ The opposite of ‘more’ was ‘less,’ whether used with countable or uncountable nouns. (We think of ‘more’ as the comparative form of ‘many’ or of ‘much.’ In the same way ‘less’ is the comparative of ‘little’ or of ‘few.’)

There came a time when supermarkets tried to help their queueing process with a separate checkout for those with, ‘Five items or less.’ Marks and Spencer, in their wisdom, insisted on ‘Five items or fewer’ for their notices. I think this sparked a trend to the modern use of ‘fewer,’ taken up by those pedantic about language. Now television reporters and newspapers have adopted it because they don’t want to appear uneducated. I think they are wrong. I stick to ‘less.’

Here is what Wiktionary says on the subject.

“Some regard the use of the determiner less with quantities to be incorrect, stating that less should indicate only a reduction in size or significance, leaving fewer to indicate a smaller quantity … In typical usage this distinction is absent, and less has been widely understood and commonly used as a synonym for fewer since it first appeared in Old English as ‘læs.”

Political Correctness

Many changes have come through feminism and the desire for political correctness. We used to use words like ‘actress’, ‘manageress’, ‘conductress’ to distinguish women from men in a way that was not at all pejorative but now this usage has become undesirable. Words that seemed to imply men rather than women have also disappeared. When we used to say ‘chairman’ or ‘spokesman’ we now say ‘chair’ or ‘spokesperson.’ (I remember women who were quite happy to be addressed as Madam Chairman.) Workers of indeterminate gender have become ‘operatives.’ And, of course, in the Fifties, no one questioned the use of Mrs or Miss where now the term is generally Ms.

I can’t understand all the changes but those we used to call ‘coloured’ (because we thought ‘black’ was pejorative) are now called ‘black.’ Those we called ‘Indians’, ‘Red Indians’ or ‘Redskins’ are now ‘Native Americans’. ‘Eskimos’ have become ‘Inuit.’


We have familiar terms and slang expressions that we may just use in family circles. Some of these have spread to general use. It’s as if the people who try to sell us things want to appear like close friends.

One example is the word ‘kid,’ for a child. We might have referred to children in our close family as kids but we would never presume to do so for other people’s children. Shops sold Menswear, Womenswear and Childrenswear. Gradually the word has spread and now clothes come in kids’ sizes, food comes in kids’ portions. In a retail context the word ‘children’ has disappeared.

Other slang terms have come in via abbreviations. We used words like ‘television’, ‘photograph’, ‘examination’, ‘aeroplane’, ‘telephone’ and ‘University.’ Now we have ‘TV’, ‘photo’, ‘exam’, ‘plane’, ‘phone’ and ‘Uni’. [Yes, I do mean ‘aeroplane’, not ‘airplane’. One is English, one is American.]

I went to University as did most of those I knew at school. It was not until over fifteen years later, when the Australian series ‘Neighbours’ first appeared, that I first hear the word ‘Uni’.

In youth culture there seems to be a tendency sometimes to use words in unusual ways to confuse the older generations. But eventually the adults catch up and use the same slang terms. Another thing Mr Adlam taught us was to try to avoid the vague word ‘nice’ for something we liked. It has largely been replaced by the word ‘cool,’ originally part of youth culture.


The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language,’ is generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw in the Forties although several similar claims have been made by others. We both call it English but there are many differences.

(For those interest in language the main differences are in vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation. The other notable difference is in the use of singular or plural verbs for a noun representing a collection of people. We might say that ‘Manchester United are playing Chelsea today’ when Americans might use the word ‘is’.)

Increasing communication and, in particular, television and films, have led to a tendency for American usage to prevail in ways that are too slow for people to notice. While we used to talk of going to see a ‘film’ the almost universal term now is ‘movie’. ‘Cinemas’ are becoming ‘theatres.’ Sometimes now we talk of ‘apartments’ instead of ‘flats.’

When it comes to new words it still happens that the United Kingdom and the USA pick different words for new things and the differences generally remain. While stockings have been replaced by ‘tights’ here, America still has ‘pantyhose.’ While America has ‘Automated Teller Machines’ (ATM) we have ‘cash machines’, ‘cashpoints’ or ‘holes-in-the wall.’ We have ‘cling-film,’ where Wikipedia tells me it’s called ‘plastic wrap’ in the US.

Changes in pronunciation may be copies from American usage, or may be a similar laziness creeping into our language. The American habit of not pronouncing medial ‘T’ became obvious with the emergence of what they call the ‘Inner-net’ and traditional Britons would call the ‘Internet’. While this usage is not yet universal here it is beginning to take place – noticeable in words like ‘twenty’ which is rapidly becoming ‘twenny’.

Similarly there are changes with the pronunciation of ‘U’ sounds losing the English style ‘Y’ sound which often precedes. ‘News’ for example is increasingly often pronounced ‘nooze’ rather than ‘nyooze’.

The change I dislike most about Americanization is with the words ‘billion’, ‘trillion’ etc. When I was a boy a billion was a million million (and 1 000 000 000 was a thousand million.)

We never really talked about such large numbers so to most people it didn’t matter. Now we have to use large numbers to talk about the UK economy and the American usage has been adopted. We now have a National Debt of about 1.5 trillion pounds sterling or £1 500 000 000 000. I would have called this figure 1.5 billion. (It’s a lot however you say it.) You will note my use of the pound sign (£), which was universal for our currency and could be done on a typewriter. Keyboards have changed, we now use the Euro sign (€) and often now resort to GBP for our pounds!

Reduced Spelling

As laziness creeps in and pronunciation continues to degenerate, particularly for longer words, there has been a recent trend for spelling to reflect actual punctuation. Now it is not unknown to see ‘gonna’ written for ‘going to’ and ‘wanna; for ‘want to’. We even now have the word ‘wannabe’ for ‘(those who) want to be’. Back in the Fifties speech was probably just as lax as today but writing did not reflect this.

Similarly, back then, anything printed followed the conventions of grammar which we used to be taught then. Names and titles always started with capital letters (and names were made of letters, not typographical symbols). Abbreviations used full stops to show that they were abbreviations such as ‘Mr.’ ‘Dr.’ ‘B.A.’ Now we have far too many abbreviations and acronyms to worry about such things.

Names of Places

Changes here are due to changes in spelling style and changes promulgated from the countries concerned, perhaps associated with political correctness. In the Fifties, Beijing was known as Peking, Mumbai was Bombay, Kolkota was Calcutta and Myanmar was Burma. Many other cities and countries of the World have changed their names. Some changes have just affected pronunciation. The country of Kenya now pronounced ‘Kenn-ya’ used to be ‘Keen-ya’.



The media of television and cinema are very good at research for set design. Programmes and films set in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties generally get their street scenes and house decorations almost perfect. But without people like me to advise them they are not so good at expressions. I often spot people saying things they would not have said. (If you weren’t there it’s hard to know.)

I should have been taking notes of these but the only one I can remember from recently is someone saying ‘numeric dyslexia’ back in the Fifties. The word ‘dyslexia’ may have existed then in psychological circles but the general public would not have used thus word. The idea of numeric dyslexia was even later.



So much of our language is based on sayings, often with no literal meaning, and these expressions come and go. Every day I see people using expressions that are either new or changed. It’s not that we would not have understood. We just would not have said it like that. I assume that many of them came to us via popular television but this begs the question of how they got there.

So, in no particular order here are some.

  • ‘In no particular order’ – This comes from the slow reveal process when TV shows reveal who has been eliminated.
  • ‘Sick as a parrot’ – From Football journalism.
  • ‘Bit and bobs’ – We used to say ‘bits and pieces.’
  • ‘Odds and sods’ – Ditto: ‘odds and ends.’
  • ‘Roller-coaster of emotions’ – We just never had the intrusive journalism that asks such questions.
  • ‘No way’ – an American import.
  • ‘Whatever’ – meaning ‘It doesn’t matter’ in a pejorative sense.
  • ‘I’m good’ – This one needs an explanation. It was absolutely clear when I was young that when someone asked how you were you could say, ‘I’m well, thanks,’ but you should never say. ‘I’m good.’ That would mean that you were saying you were a good person in a way that was very un-British. I always used to say ‘I’m fine,’ which was also acceptable. Somehow ‘I’m good’ has become acceptable in the last few years.
  • ‘So much’ – meaning even more than ‘very much.’
  • ‘Engage with’ – This now seems to mean the process of talking to someone or dealing with them in a sympathetic way that implies understanding and good intentions. It’s one of several expressions that have emerged in general use after their introduction in business circumstances.
  • ‘Yeah, no’ – is the new meaningless expression. We used to be told to avoid ‘um’ or ‘er’ in interviews or important meetings. They were noises that people made when they were deciding what to say next. I don’t know about general use but in interviews on television now we just get repeated ‘yeah …’ or the even more meaningless ‘yeah, no…’
  • ‘Like’ – Again I could write much on this. When I was young ‘like’ was a preposition (as in, ‘a damson is like a plum.’) but there was a tendency coming from the USA to use it as a conjunction (as in, ‘do it like I do.’) There has been a form of slang, originating in California High Schools a few years ago that uses ‘I was like …’ to mean almost anything. It can mean, ‘I said …’ ‘I thought …’ ‘I decided …’ @I started to …’ … Sadly, it seems to have crept almost everywhere now into general use.

There was a song called ‘Words’ by the Bee Gees, released in 1968, that and ended with the repeated lyrics:

It’s only words, and words are all I have

                                                                        To take your heart away …                         



Thanks for reading. It has been fun. Over a hundred blogs and 200 000 words.

If you like my blog please share it to your friends. The picture above from the early Sixties shows my class at Ilford County High School. One of them is me. (I’m the good-looking one.)




[94] A Life in the Day


I’ve been thinking about some of that things that typify my daily and weekly life. Just routine, ordinary things.

Starting the Day

I don’t have to wake up at any particular time but if I need an alarm I use either my [mobile phone] or an [app] on my [tablet.] I shower with [shower gel] or bath with the bubbles provided by [foam bath], then get dressed, with clothes almost entirely made from [man-made fabrics] such as [viscose] or [polyester] in the warmth of my home with its [double glazing] [cavity wall insulation] and [central heating.] The heating has, of course, already come on with its [automatic timer.]

[For this blog, for reasons which will become obvious, I am not going to try to note all the differences in UK and USA word usage.]

If I have breakfast it’s fairly old-fashioned, perhaps cereal with [semi-skimmed] milk. We don’t have [breakfast cereal bars.] My wife has a concoction of [blueberries] and [yoghurt.] We both always have [Americano] coffee made with our [Nespresso] machine. I used to like [peppermint tea] or [camomile.] Cups and saucers and dishes go into the [dishwasher.]

The post comes through the letter box. It’s normally either [first class post] or [junk mail] and it’s all addressed with our [postcode.] Throughout the day we also get [junk phone calls] mostly about [compensation claims] or [payment protection insurance.] When we’re out they are recorded on our [answerphone.]


We use an [automatic key] with [central locking] for the car, which is, of course, a [hatchback.] It has [climate control] and [satnav.] It may also have [cruise control] but we only use this on a [Motorway.] The car stops frequently at [traffic lights] and [pedestrian crossings] where pedestrians wait for the [green man] signal. Almost all the roads in town have [double yellow lines.] Parking, where available, is usually managed by [pay and display] or [coin machines.]


We usually go to the [supermarket] either by car or on foot. Before shopping we stop for coffee where we both entertain ourselves on [mobile phones] or [tablets.] Most of the [apps] access [the Internet] using the café’s free [wi-fi.]

I won’t go through our daily shopping but here are some things we get often. We have [palm oil spread] or [sunflower seed spread] on bread and use [sugar substitute] instead of sugar. Sometimes we eat [pre-packed meals] [vacuum wrapped] and made for the [microwave] – but some cook best in a [fan oven.] There are things like [chicken tikka marsala], [lasagne] or other [pasta], [pepperoni] [pizza] and others.

We regularly buy fresh fruit and vegetables like [avocado] and [rocket salad.] Our regular weekly food list includes [hummus] and [goji berries.] If food is left over is goes into the refrigerator covered in [clingfilm.]

We drink [fizzy water] and [canned] Coca-cola. It’s easy to open the can with its [ring-pull.]

After going round with our [shopping trolley] we stop at the [checkout] where [bar-codes] are [scanned] by [laser.] We pay by [credit card] using a simple [PIN number.]


I don’t do much cooking but my speciality is a [stir-fry] with a [wok] usually with [cous-cous.] I use an [electric kettle] for the cous-cous. I can also do omelettes in a [Teflon] [non-stick frying-pan] and make a mean frangipane with our [food processor.]


Because I am doing a [blog] I take lots of [JPG images] with my [digital camera.] It’s easy to see what I am photographing on the [LED screen] and I can [review] what I have taken instantly. Back home I [upload] pictures to a [laptop] [computer] with its [mouse] and [touchpad] – or [touchscreen.] I put the pictures into [folders] and maybe edit them by [cropping] or [photoshop.] Then I load pictures to [Wordpress] and also to [Facebook] and other [social media] [web-sites.] Anyone can find my blog by using [Google] or other [search engines.]


We play a lot of Bridge. It’s a card game where you shuffle and deal cards. Now we use [computer generated hands] and we enter the scores on [Bridgemates.] By the end of the evening scores are available on the Bridge Cub [web-site.] The English Bridge Union (EBU) updates our [Bridge gradings] overnight.


We entertain ourselves in the evening with our [flat-screen] [colour monitor] and [Freeview] television showing dozens of [satellite channels.] We can [record programmes] and watch them later or we can use [IPlayer.] The same equipment gives access to [digital radio.] For music we also have [CD] [DVD] [MP3] and other formats for music. All of these devices use [remote controls.]


I can check my bank statements [online.] It’s mostly [transfers] with a [debit card] but there are lots of monthly [direct debits] – for things like [ISP] [online shopping] and [council tax.] It’s nice and easy with [decimal currency.] 


We wash clothes with [non-bio] [capsules] in our washing machine according to their [laundry care labels], using a [fabric softener] and iron with a [steam iron.]


Once a week I put out the [wheelie bin] and [recycling boxes.] If we need cash we can get it from a [cash machine] outside the supermarket. We go out to eat fairly often. I like [carveries] where the standard desserts may include [banoffee pie] [lemon drizzle] [Mississippi mud pie] or [death by chocolate]. Sometimes we just lice ice-cream – [mint choc chip] is my favourite.


And the day ends I put on my [onesie] for bed and snuggle under the [duvet.]


Some of you may be thinking that all these words in [brackets] are things we didn’t have in the fifties. That’s true but that’s not my point. It’s about the words themselves. They are words and phrases that most people would not have even understood. There are, of course, some sweeping generalizations. You can find more thoughts about words in post number [39.]

(I would like to point out that not all of the above is strictly accurate from a personal point of view. In particular I do not own a onesie. Nor do I ever intend to do so. I have nothing against people who wear them.)


[39] Just What I Choose it to Mean

Here are fifty words which don’t mean now what they meant in the fifties. They illustrate changes in technology and culture; ‘political correctness’; and the different way we live now … Let’s do them … in … alphabetical order.

[Sorry, not a good one for US readers or others outside the UK. There may be lots of differences in meanings, both now and then.]

Actor:               A man who acted. A female in the acting profession would always have been called an ‘actress.’ I don’t know why this distinction has disappeared – now actresses like to be called actors.

Amateur:          Someone who participated in sports just for the enjoyment, without payment. There was a rigid line between ‘amateur’ and ’professional,’ with the implication that amateurs were the ideal. The Olympic Games, Athletics in general and Wimbledon tennis were all for amateurs only. The definitions have changed. Now the AAA and the Olympics both ignore the word.


Awesome:         Wonderful in the sense of instilling awe. Not just ‘nice.’

Billion:             A million million. (‘Trillion’ was a million billion.) The American usage was always illogical but it has now crept into usage this side of the pond.

Bonk:                Hit lightly, often used in a jocular sense. Nothing to do with sex (modern definition).

Boob:                An accidental mistake, perhaps a faux pax or solecism, general used colloquially. Nothing to do with what we now call boobs.


[I have left out some others in the same genre as bonk and boob that I couldn’t possibly admit to knowing.]

Book:                Something made of many pages of paper bound together, generally with a hard cover. Nothing to do with electronic book readers, computers or the Internet.

Bookmark:        Generally a thin strip of paper of leather inserted into a Book to show how far we have read. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet. [I will say nothing of the US word ‘favorite.’ For the same reason I have excluded ‘cookies.’]

Chair:               Something to sit on. Not a chairman, or female chairman, or chairman of indeterminate sex (gender).

[It’s strange that some words like chairman were always used for both sexes, and others like actor and actress differentiated.]

Channel:           A narrow ditch, pipe or conduit. Nothing to do with radio or television.

Cool:                 A temperature less than ‘warm’ but not as cold as ‘cold.’ I try hard, but still fail to understand exactly what this word means now. I think it means what we would have called: ‘nice’ or ‘good.’

Coke:                A smokeless fuel made by heating coal in the absence of air. See [2] Fire, Coal, Smoke and Gulls. Nothing to do with cocaine or any fizzy drinks.

coke Coca_Cola

Contacts:          Things that touched, for example electrical contacts in switches. Not a list of names, addresses and email details. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Epic:                 See Saga.

Friend:             Someone you know well, meet, talk and get on well together with. Not someone you know nothing about who once commented on your Facebook posting, or vaguely knows a friend of a friend.

Gay:                 Jolly, frivolous or joyful. You might do things ‘with gay abandon,’ or you could be a ‘bachelor gay.’ Nothing to do with the modern meaning (which we never talked about).

Gender:                        A grammatical concept, (masculine, feminine or neuter) used only in teaching French or Latin. Presumably applied to other languages. It did not imply sex – but there was a loose grammatical link, males were generally masculine words etc. See [20] Vive La Différence

Green:              A colour coming between blue and yellow in the rainbow. Nothing to do with ecology or politics.

Grooming:        Something done to a horse, brushing it and making it look smart. Nothing to do with computers or sinister dealings on the Internet. And not what we now call personal grooming.

Hit:                   Physically strike something or someone. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Home:               The house or place where we live. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Hot:                  Having heat. The opposite of cold. Nothing to do with popularity, fashion or attractiveness.

Knickers:          See Trousers.

Log:                  A chunky piece of wood to go on a fire, or a Christmas cake decorated like a Yule Log, or an official type of book serving as a diary. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Negative:          A reversed contrast image used as a means to produce photographs. (Or you could look at an eclipse through it!) The word could also be the opposite of positive, as now.

Notebook:         A small book to write notes in! Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.


Mobile:             Able to move around. Only used as an adjective, Nothing to do with telephones. See [4] My Lovely Mobile!

Page:                A sheet of paper making part of a book, magazive or newspaper. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Partner:            Someone in a joint business venture. Cohabiting couples did not exist. (OK, there must have been some, somewhere, but we didn’t talk about them.)

Password:         A word or phrase said to get past a sentry or army guard. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Port:                 A harbour for ships and boats. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet..

Portal:              A kind or doorway. An architectural term. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Post:                 Letters, which we sent through the mail, by putting them in a pillar box. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet. See [37] Car Tax, Family Allowance and Dog Licences


Profile:             A picture showing a side view, generally of a person. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Recession:        When the economic situation went badly. Now those in charge have defined it as meaning two consecutive months when a precisely defined retail price index has a value less than zero. Nothing else is considered a recession.

Regular:           Normal or usual. [Or a polygon with equal sides and angles.] Not of medium size.

Saga:                A long, epic tale, sometimes in the form of poetry, from folklore, for example the Vikings. Nothing to do with crushing candies or other computer games.

Sex:                  The state of being male or female. We filled in forms that said ‘Sex:’ where now we have ‘Gender:’ It did not mean what we now call ‘sex’ (not that we talked about such things then.) See [20] Vive La Différence

Site:                 Where something happened. A building site or a historical site. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Spam:               A processed product made of meat, which came in tins. Generally eaten cold, in salads or sandwiches, or cooked as spam fritters. Nothing to do with modern usage, which seems to have come from the famous Monty Python sketch. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.


Tablet:              A small medicinal thing to be swallowed, like Aspirin, larger than a pill. Also, a tablet of stone was a large engraved monument or other stone, as used to deliver the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.


Tanner:             Six pence (6d) or more particularly, the sixpenny coin, or someone who tans leather. Now I suppose it is someone using a sun-tan bed!


Text:                 Anything written, usually in a book, perhaps even a text book! Nothing to do with telephone messaging.

Troll:                A nasty ogre in children’s stories. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Trousers:          A pair of trousers were what you wore. Now it’s a trouser. The female clothing industry changed the definitions just before 2000. Male clothing is doing it now. It applies to pants, knickers, slacks and similar clothing. [‘Scales’ have gone the same way. Watch out for ‘scissors’.]

Twitter:            (And Tweet) The noise made by birds. (A general expression. House Sparrows twitter. Different birds make different noises.) Nothing to do with social media. [If I could put in two word expressions, ‘social media’ would be here!] Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.


Web:                Something made of fine silk by a spider to catch its prey. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet.

Wicked:            Very evil, as the Wicked Witch. Now it seems to mean ‘very good.’

Windows:         Things made of glass in houses and other buildings allowing light in, while preserving heat and preventing access. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet..

Wireless:          Radio, particularly a radio set. Nothing to do with computers or the Internet..


And there are many words that didn’t exist then. Here are just a few: AIDS, apps, chairwoman, cling-film, download, Google, hovercraft, Internet, laser, motorway, on-line, onesie, phone-in, software, upload, video, and vuvuzela …

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’              From Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll.


[30] ‘Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?’


Names can be significant, sometimes very significant. When Juliet said these immortal words, she was lamenting the fact that Romeo, the boy she wanted to marry, was from the Montague family, in a bitter feud with her family, the Capulets. His surname made him an enemy of the family. This post is all about names.

[As you read on, look out for your name. It’s probably here somewhere. See which list you come in!]

Long ago, we all had just one name. With civilization and growing populations, surnames gradually crept into use (for everyone except reigning monarchs!) Now we normally have two names. (Middle names are as irrelevant now as they were fifty years ago. We may have them but we don’t use them.)

I am going to talk about what I can only think of as ‘Christian names’. That’s what we used to call them – because in the Christian religion, names were acquired formally at baptism (otherwise known as christening). It did not imply, in any way, that the speaker or the person named was of the Christian religion. (Just as we talked of French toast that was not French, or Brussels sprouts that were not Belgian, or a Jew’s Harp, or Danish pastries, or black and white grapes that were dark purple and light green.)

Where I grew up, there was a high proportion of Jewish children in the area and at school. As far as we were concerned, just like us, they had Christian names and surnames. (They may have used different terminology.)

Old Names

If you go back hundreds of years, you will find names that kept on going. Eldest sons were routinely given the same names as their fathers (sometimes for many generations), and younger sons acquired the names of uncles. Many of these names were still very popular back in the fifties. You will recognize here the names of kings and queens of England. (We still copy the names given to royal princes and princesses.)

For boys, we had (listing in alphabetical order) Charles, Christopher, David, Edward, Geoffrey (or Jeffrey), George, James, John, Michael, Peter, Richard, Robert, Thomas, William – all popular and well-liked names. For girls, Ann, Catherine, Elizabeth, Jane, Jean, Margaret and Mary were still common.


Most names have shortened forms or nicknames associated with them. One thing that was different in the fifties was that many common names then were always used in a well-known nickname form, many of which were not immediately obvious. For example, if you were a Robert, you were never called Robert, you were always ‘Bob.’ (But you were always christened or registered as ‘Robert.’) This applied similarly to Bill for William, Dick (Richard), Jim (James), Ted (Edward), as well as more obvious ones like Chris (Christopher) and Tom (Thomas). Sometimes there were variants so that Catherine or Katherine could be called Kate or Cathy.

The habit of calling every John by the nickname Jack had disappeared fairly recently. Jack had already become a separate name. Similarly, Harry was a separate name, no longer a nickname for Henry. These nicknames had been established long ago. (If you can’t see why Henry became Harry, think of current French pronunciation, which is much nearer to how we spoke in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.)

Other Common Names

As well as the long established names listed above, there were several names that were popular at the time – perhaps less common traditional ones and some fairly recent additions. For boys we had: Alan, Anthony (Tony), Daniel (Dan), Dennis, Derek, Graham, Ian, Keith, Kevin, Malcolm, Mark, Martin, Nicholas (Nick), Nigel, Philip, Robin, Roland, and Stephen or Steven. For girls there were: Barbara, Carol or Caroline, Christine (Chris), Clair (various spellings), Diana or Diane, Doreen, Dorothy, Gillian (Gill), Helen, Jacqueline (Jacky), Janet, Jill, Joyce, Judith (Judy), Kay, Louise, Maureen, Nicola (Nicky), Pamela, Patricia (Pat), Penelope (Penny), Rebecca (Becky), Sally, Sandra, Shirley, Valerie and Wendy.

I always felt that Alan was a quite common name. My class at school had two Alans. One of had to change for nicknames – so I was known by my middle name. (I think we also had two Malcolms and two Trevors, who sorted out appropriate nicknames.) Later, I remember playing ten-pin bowling at University – we always played three at a time against three from the opposition team. Once five of the six men playing were called Alan!

I may have missed some or have some wrong here! (All my lists of names may be mor etypical of where I grew up than the nation as a whole.) Growing up in an all-boys school, I was less familiar with girls’ names.

Old-fashioned Names

Some of these names now date us to that period. I know now that if I meet another Alan, he will be about my age, and the same is true for many of the names I have listed. Other names have come in since then. When I grew up there were many names that we knew but treated as old-fashioned. We associated them with our grandparents, because they had been common and had become rare. We would not have thought of using these names for our children.

Into this list I will put: Albert, Arthur, Henry, Oliver and Stanley for boys; and Ada, Adele, Agatha, Agnes, Alice, Amelia, Clara, Clarissa, Daisy, Deirdrie, Emily, Florence, Gertrude, Isabel, Ivy, Jessica, Lily, Mabel, Martha, Matilda, Mildred, Muriel, Olivia, Primrose, Prudence, Rose, Sybil, Sylvia, Ursula and Violet for girls. (Why are these mostly girls’ name? I think if you look above, you will find that boys more often stuck to the traditional names. The way we pick names for boys is not the same as how we pick girls’ names. There is still more variety and use of exotic names for girls than for boys.)

As is the way with all fashions, many of these have now come back into popular use, for children born in the last ten years or so. Their parents are too young to remember them with the same aura of obsolescence.

Choosing Names

Perhaps here we should consider how we pick names for our children. Generally, we pick a name we know – or at least something we know is a name. Long ago, in a small community, we could only go by people we knew locally, and so relatively few names were re-used – again and again. In the fifties, our sources were not much larger although we probably all knew more people with names to choose from. There was one, hard-backed book of children’s names that included variations in spelling, explanations of origin, and lots of names too obscure for serious consideration.

Some new names could become popular then, creeping in from the news and other public information. As you know, if you have been with me from the start, this means newspapers, radio, cinema, and a tiny bit from television. (OK, I forgot about radio when I talked about information. We also had news on the radio, and some entertainment – by people with names!)


There was an actor known as Alan Ladd filming around the time I was born. Perhaps he was the source of the popularity of the name around then. (It only takes a few avid admirers to name their children after someone. Then others may think they can copy the names of other newly named babies.) It is no surprise that the name Winston had a peak around the time of my birth.

You could always pick what you knew was a name from the Bible, or Roman or Greek mythology, or well-known books. So you might choose Aaron or Cassandra or Romeo (but you probably didn’t). Biblical names were more popular in the Jewish community, for example Joshua or Ruth. Only the brave used obscure mythological names. Some names, like Lorna, owe their popular origin to books.

There were some stranger ways of picking names. In the well-known, long running (and still running) radio series, The Archers, a set of twins was born in August 1958. Their parents, Phil and Jill Archer picked their names by throwing scrabble letters and seeing how they fell at random. That was the origin of the names Shula and Kenton. [Both are still alive and doing well in The Archers.]

Modern Names

Since the fifties, we have the same processes generating and spreading new names but television and the Internet have led to instantaneous global spreading of new names. Names common in the US or Australia can become common in the UK. Even uncommon names can spread with a single role-model type figure. It only takes one Kylie Minogue to spread the name Kylie for new babies throughout the World. Similarly we have Chelsea (Clinton), Jade (Goody), Keira (Knightley) and many others. As well as celebrities, this also applies to fictional characters in popular films or television series. Perhaps we will see Samwise and Katniss coming into popularity. [Samwise is from the Lord of the Rings. Katniss is the main character in The Hunger Games.]

From the fifties and soon afterwards we can date many name coming from Rock ‘n Roll and pop music, mostly names from the US. They may take off in Britain regardless of whether they were real or common names in the US originally. We have, for example: Elvis, Gary, Gene, Shane.


Even more modern are the very unusual names given by some celebrities to their children, names that may then enter popular culture. I think it may be wise not to give specific examples here, but you can probably think of a few.

It is a matter of fashion and culture that in the 80s, names reappeared that had been subsumed into nicknames in my day. Suddenly those who were named William were actually called William (not Bill). James and Richard also emerged. The one name that seems to have moved in the opposite direction is Charles, with the rise recently of Charlie as a new name.

The change to more informality has taken place more with girls’ names with the emergence of Judy as a registered name (not Judith), also Charlie (for Charlotte), Sam (for Samantha), Pat or Tricia (for Patricia), Alex (for Alexandra) and Jackie (for Jacqueline). Also, the trend continues for girls to take over boys’ names. While Sam used to be short for Samuel, it is now more likely to be Samantha (or just Sam). Note also Alex (Alexander/Alexandra), Bobby (Robert/Roberta), Tony/Toni, Jacky/Jacquie, and Charly/Charlie (Charlotte). The list is far too complex for me to give them all.

All of these lists of names do not include all the people I knew in my early life. They do not include all of my family. I have missed out many names used in the fifties and sixties, because there were too many generally acceptable names to list them all. There were lots of ordinary names – not ancient and revered, not quirky and modern, not associated with nickname, just ordinary names. (If you have not found your name, perhaps you were one of these.) To keep things relatively simple, I have not considered names that we knew were foreign (mostly French, Italian, German or Spanish), or names of Scottish, Welsh or Irish extraction.


One other thing that has changed since the fifties is the use of surnames. We expected married women to take the name of their husband, and children to take the same name. It didn’t always work that way with film stars and celebrities but it was one of those generally accepted things that we did not question. Now many women who marry choose to keep their surname (which is their father’s name) rather than take the name of their new husband. Others adopt double-barrelled names or pick something new, and sometimes a different decision may be made for children. (This is, of course, blurred by the increasing number of couples who remain unmarried when they live together, with or without children.)

My intention was to combine three small topics into one post. When I started ‘Names,’ I thought maybe there would just be room for two. Now I have over 2000 words on just Names. It could be my longest post so far.

So the other topics may each get an expanded post …