I love word play and word games. My favourite radio program used to be ‘My Word’ with Frank Muir and Denis Norden and guests. ABC RN used to play old episodes at 5am Sunday mornings. They played something from BBC Comedy every morning at that time eg ‘Just a Minute’ but replaced them with ‘World Business Report’ or similar. Not many laughs to accompany the magpies now.
My favourite TV program at 5.30 pm each evening is (replays of) the quiz ‘Letters and Numbers’. I love David Astle’s phenomenal word knowledge and puns, Lily’s mathematical gymnastics, and the dagginess of the fact that the most you can ever win is a Macquarie dictionary. I do ‘The Age’ Target quiz every day. I always get the 9 letter word sooner or later, and the rest. As I love words and need a theme for a blog I’ve decided to take some of the 9 letter words to blog on about, to roll them around in my head and see what associations I come up with. First word:
According to Chambers 21st Century Dictionary to witter is to “talk or mutter ceaselessly and ineffectually”. How many times have you wanted to say to someone: “Stop wittering on!” or “For godssake – shutup!”? I once had a colleague who wittered. If the conversation became serious or reflective, she would change the subject with a bout of wittering. I think it was her way of remaining the centre of attention or of hiding her inadequacy or discomfort with pauses.I think there’s a difference between small talk and wittering. Sian prior has an interesting discussion of the role and importance of the former in her book ‘Shy : a memoir’. Her book and the word wittering got me thinking about the role of its opposite (perhaps): silence - and its role in my childhood.
When I was 13 my father wrote in my autograph book “Speech is silver. Silence is golden.” He had four children from 13 to 3, and a nagging wife, so at that age I thought he meant he wanted a bit of peace and quiet. Adults told us that “children should be seen and not heard”, to “button our lips” and to “bite our tongues”. At the same time my sisters went to elocution classes and at Nambour High there was a Debating Club and a Drama Club where we were told to project, not to mumble. My sin was to give cheek. Still is. Guilty of hand-over-mouth subversion. The same as some people talk too much, I’m someone who ‘listens too much’. I’ve been told I’m ‘very quiet’ and I never know if that’s regarded as a personality shortcoming or otherwise.
The rules at our meal table were: elbows off the table, don’t start until everyone’s sitting down, eat everything put in front of you (swapping allowed), and there had to be silence except to ask ‘May I start?’, ‘Could you please pass the...?’ and ‘May I leave the table’. My parents could talk, except if they’d had a row, in which case they’d be ‘not talking’.
During the eighties this last rule, of silence at the table, was definitely broken at business lunches, which were all about talk. In her book on Australian etiquette however I noticed that Ita Buttrose suggests that business talk should not begin until after dessert. Check out the YouTube ‘Disruptions: more connected, yet more alone’ (Nick Bilson, 2013) if you want to be saddened about what happened to conversation with the advent of the smart phone ... before, during and after dessert.
Recently I heard Dr Jay Winters talk about the silence of active and returned servicemen in ‘Shell Shock, Gallipoli and the Generation of Silence (sydney.edu.au/about/profile/history/beyond-914.shtml) This was a silence that my father practised after having seen service on HMAS Burdekin as a 19 year old in WWII. He helped collect the body parts of submariners blown up by depth charges and also saw men fried alive when oil on the surface caught alight. Why did he write ‘Silence is golden’? He has had nightmares since his naval service and still does as a 91 year old in a Queensland retirement home. Did he mean a silence from the voices in his head might be golden?
PTSD they call it. Post Traumatic Silence Disorder I call it.
Since ‘wittering’, two other 9 letter Target words have been along the same line - ‘yammering’ and ‘blabbered’.
I’ll stop wittering on.
Next Target blog words: TIGHTROPE and JACKKNIFE
(Image by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash)