HorobinSimon Horobin is Professor of English Language and Literature at Magdalen, and author of How English became English 

By Richard Lofthouse

Several volumes graced our desk this month, starting with Simon Horobin’s How English became English, A Short History of a Global Language. Horobin is a Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, a Fellow of Magdalen. He caused howls of rage at the Hay literary festival three years ago when he questioned whether it was imperative to enforce correct spelling. After all, he concluded, the English language has always been in a state of rapid evolution. What he said then informs the tone of this lovely little volume, which in the space of 150-odd small format pages reminds us again and again that almost anything we are outraged at has a string of precedents, seen historically.

ow English became English, A Short History of a Global LanguageI’ll give you but one example. Recently, I raised my eyebrows at a particular author’s use of the verb ‘to disappear’. His construction began, ‘Disappearing people is…’ and I thought, hurrumph, you cannot do that in a formal context. But Horobin tackles just this on page 124, noting that so-called verbing, while on the rise (Google it! Is a good example; Facebook me! another) is an old game. He merely points out that, “…many unremarkable verbs in common use today, such as rain, bottle, and near, are the result of conversion.” He adds that managerial jargon is guilty of some horrific verbing (let’s action this decision…). But so it goes with English, where the debate is a lively one rather than a strict agreement on rights and wrongs. He has a lovely tilt at Waitrose for their superior correctness at the checkout, ‘10 items or fewer’ instead of ’10 items or less’. Apparently they’re not entitled to be overly smug after all. And so on; you get the mood.

Of course Oxford remains on a much higher linguistic plain than Waitrose, and we are reminded by Reginald Adams, who has compiled a terrific collection of Latin Inscriptions in Oxford (originally 1994; now updated), that the statutes composed by Scottish princess Dervorguilla in 1282 for the foundation of Balliol College, included the requirement that ‘our scholars shall commonly speak Latin.’ Even today, every meeting of Congregation begins with the Senior Proctor seeking a permission to continue in English, ‘Insignissime Domine Vice-Cancellarie, licetne Anglice loqui?’ Another marvel, of course, is that honorands at Encaenia are described fully in Latin, alongside English, confirming that the language remains alive, if not exactly in rude health. Former Public Orator Jasper Griffin reminds us that Latin has no compare when it comes to inscriptions, due to its ‘weighty and pregnant manner, uncluttered with little auxiliary words…’Pym

For Barbara Pym (above) fans there is a new biography by Ann Allestree, Barbara Pym: A Passionate Force, which might be taken as a follow-up to Pym’s centenary year in 2013. A further milestone in her re-accommodation by the literary establishment, this is another subject previously visited at length by Oxford Today.

TolkeinHere are two Oxford-related books for quick noting: Tolkien at Exeter College How an Oxford undergraduate created Middle-earth, by much esteemed former digital editor of Oxford Today world Tolkien expert John Garth; and Versatile Verse by Norman Friskney, who writes widely in his nineties. His time at Jesus College was interrupted by the war and he served an officer in Italy. This 34-page collection is a wonderful little jewel best described by its sub-title: ‘A collection of poems inspired by the corridors of Oxford and the battlefields of Oxford.’

Finally for this month, an economist and current Oxford research associate Paul Anand, who has penned Happiness Explained, What human flourishing is and what we can do to promote it. He turns at length to the research of the charity Action for Happiness (the mere existence of which made this reviewer laugh, so it must be working). Among the actions it recommends include doing things for others, expressing gratitude, seeking help when in a spot of bother, trying something new, volunteering, helping a friend in need, getting enough sleep, listening, talking to neighbours, ringfencing technology, exercising, making time for family and friends, looking for satisfaction at work. It adds top this action list some ways of thinking and recommends curiosity, looking for the good in others, positive thinking and being realistic; mindfulness and finding your purpose. So there you have it.

*Laurence Brockliss’ superb, 871-page The University of Oxford, A History has just landed on our desk.  Just a reminder here, that this volume is being promoted at £25 (instead of £35) at the OUP Bookshop and Blackwells, upon presentation of an Oxford University alumni or Bodleian card.

Both offers are valid until June 30, 2016.


By timothy keates

Truth demands that I must say I don't think the productions of Barbara Pym confer much lustre on Oxford. In my opinion, she belongs within a category (I refrain from stating the half-dozen names that spring to mind) of Oxonienses who do not represent the best figures of our beloved alma mater. We can do better. We have done better.