Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Keeping the conversational pot boiling.

Excuse the recent sparsity of blogging. I've been preparing for this concert and also hacking away at the word-face (assiduous followers may have caught my foray into the world of schmaltz as I‘m still on "-al".)

A few days ago I caught on Radio 4 Extra a reading of an Edith Nesbit ghost story:
The Ebony Frame (it was  a repeat of a recording made in 2012, so  not iPlayer-able; that link is to Google Books.) What caught my attention was this sentence:
Mildred and her mother kept the conversational pot boiling with a profusion of genteel commonplaces, and I bore it, as one can bear mild purgatories when one is in sight of heaven. 
What particularly struck  me was the expression "keeping the conversational pot boiling". Grim Tales , the collection that includes The Ebony Frame, was published in 1893 (says  ISFDB) and Etymonline dates potboiler to 1864 in what it calls "the figurative  literary sense". So Edith Nesbit was expanding  the scope of an idiomatic (and quite recent) coining, and at the same time illuminating it. Etymonline glosses it as "The notion is of something one writes solely to put food on the table"  – the figurative pot is the one on the author's cooker. Well,  ye-e-s-s-s, but where – there – is the idea of "keeping something going"? (the something  in question being a commercial literary presence)? It wasn't until hearing that Nesbit usage  that I saw this image's richness.

The word potboiler has – not inappropriately – been a slow burner, as the Collins frequency graph shows:

So much for pot boiling. 


PS A quick clue to keep you going: Letting off about marching orders. (9)

Update 2015.03.06.18:55 – Updated TES stats.

Update 2015.11.06.12:05 – Added PPS

And while we're on the subject of conversations, my ears pricked up earlier this week when I heard a reading from a book by Agatha Christie: it was a sentence something like 'They were dining tête-à-tête [I assume she would have used italics in those days] on the other side of the room.'  Now I know that tête-à-tête was originally, in French, a prepositional phrase, often used adjectivally, but that prepositional use in English struck me as rather dated. Onelook finds 18 (serious) dictionaries, some of which recognize this prepositional use, but the popular preference is summarized in this snippet:
screengrab from Onelook

This calls for further research – but not now. I  must do my Good Turn for the day.

(And I'm still thinking about that clue! I thought it was a good'un [though I says so as shouldn't] when I hatched it.)

Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?) 

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  
well over 46,800 views  and nearly 7,000 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with well over 2,500 views and well over 1,000 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.


  1. Nice tools:) I hadn't seen the Collins Frequency Graph before. I checked it out on their site, but I still don't quite get it. Do you happen to know what the scale is on the Y-axis?


    1. Yes, it's strangely unsung - considering it's so neat. But I'm afraid What You See Is ALL You Get. I have no idea what the Y-axis means - so the only information it's good for is trends. (There ARE some numbers for what they're worth. "Potboiler" had a frequency - whatever THAT means - of 0.00001938375 in 2008 [point the cursor at the curve]. That MAY mean something to a statistician, but it means nothing to me.)

      Shame it runs out in 2008. I expect that's just to do with the corpus it's based on - but again I've no idea what THAT is. Sorry :-)