Mind your language

Why my husband is throwing socks at the TV during the Covid-19 crisis

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

My husband has special ‘throwing socks’. They are a rolled-up pair of woolly hiking socks. He does not hike. He used to throw a slipper at the television, and I feared he would graduate to a whisky glass. So I introduced the socks, like a sort of dog toy.

The latest target has been the podium at government television briefings that says: ‘Stay home.’ My husband correctly regards this as an Americanism for ‘Stay at home’. The Oxford English Dictionary does not list the phrase, but it occurs 17 times in quotations illustrating the use of other words, and each is, I think, from an American source, except one from a Caribbean song: ‘Brown-skin gal, stay home and mind baby.’

We know what being at home means: in the house, or being comfortable with something, or being ready to receive visitors. Then there’s that peculiar idiom: ‘And who is Mr Lucas when he’s at home?’ That’s the earliest known example of it, in a novel from 1845 by Charles Lever. Lever (1806-72) worked with Dickens and was admired by Thackeray for his witty conversation. He said he’d lived as a young man with Indians in Canada and he did take a post as vice-consul at La Spezia for £300 a year, since there was ‘nothing — actually nothing — to do’. But does anyone read Harry Lorrequer(illustrated by Phiz) or his other 36 novels today?

Anyway, home is central to English culture and history. As ham it features in hundreds of place-names. The Anglo-Saxons called the grave our long home. Even though the television displaced the fireplace as the focus of the home, hearth and homeserves us as an alliterative doublet where other languages use one word for both. The French foyer and Spanish hogar both come from Latin focus, ‘hearth’. (The optical and geometrical meanings of focus in English derive from Kepler’s use of the Latin word in 1604.)

‘Home, Sweet Home, that’s my motto,’ says Charles Pooter. ‘What’s the good of a home if you are never in it?’ But, a generation before the sentimentality of Mole’s ‘Dulce Domum’ in The Wind in the Willows, we were meant to laugh at Pooter’s domesticity. He has the last laugh now.

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