When words come to life and evoke sounds, smells and images


Charles Lamb, writing to Joseph Hume at Christmas 1807 on the subject of ‘a certain turkey and a contingent plumb-pudding’, added, ‘I always spell plumb-pudding with a b, I think it reads fatter and more suetty’.

As it happens, the big OED has found the same suetty spelling in a cookery book published in 1726. As Lamb says, one of the delights of the English language is the existence of words which have almost physical properties, a propensity to conjure up succulence or flavour, warmth or cosiness, sounds and magic, powerful images and sheer solid matter. The word spelt with a ‘b’ has nothing to do with ‘plum’, which is correctly defined as ‘The fruit of the tree Prunus domestica, a roundish fleshy drupe of varying size and colour, covered with a glaucous mealy bloom, and having a somewhat flat pointed stone and sweet pulp.’ Useful word that ‘drupe’, isn’t it? By contrast, plumb means ‘to sink or fall like a plummet, to fall straight down’.

Plum or plumb is a good, nutritious, mouth-filling and rich word, one to get your teeth and tongue round, and inhale deeply through the nostrils. But then so is pudding, and the combination is powerful. In its origins, pudding is the English equivalent of haggis, that is the stomach of an animal, usually sheep or lamb, stuffed with minced meat. A 1584 health-and-diet work states ‘from the inward of Beasts are made Puddings, where are best of an Hog’. In itself a humble dish, though one can’t be sure. On the Lord’s table, the dish would more likely be a whole roast, with a pudding tucked inside. This is the explanation of Prince Hal’s abuse of Falstaff (I Henry IV, 2. 4) as ‘That rosted Manning Tree Oxe with a Pudding in his Belly’. This would be for a big, public, open-air feast for all the tenantry or a royal visit. And the oxen from that part of Essex were ponderous, fatted kine. The same principle of a pudding inside applied to smaller roasts — a goose, say, or a hare.

Savoury meat puddings continued for a long time into the early modern period, though the first sweet puddings began to nose their way on to the table in the early 16th century. In Shakespeare’s day, the word ‘pudding’ had to be qualified in some way to explain whether you ate it early or late in the meal. When Pope wrote in his ‘Epistle to Bathurst’, ‘One solid dish his weekday meal affords/ An added pudding solemnised the Lord’s’, he may have been referring either to a savoury or a sweet pud. Almost certainly the Mrs Carter praised by Dr Johnson because she could ‘make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus’ was our kind of pudding, of suet, with currants and sultanas in it, and served with a honey syrup. Between 1700 and the end of the 19th century, the number of different puddings multiplied enormously. The Pudding Book published by Massey and Son in 1865 contained over 1,000 recipes. These were substantial dishes as a rule — Pope contrasted ‘empty praise’ with ‘solid pudding’ — contrasted with French-style efforts which were lighter and more sophisticated. Hence Voltaire’s observation that English plays resembled English puddings — a good deal of matter in them. When it became current to refer to the pudding course as ‘the sweet’, I do not know. As late as 1968 the left-wing weekly New Society laid down: ‘Another course of the meal is called sweet by the Non-U. The U-word for the course is pudding.’ Today, ‘sweet’ is used on menus at Blenheim and Windsor Castle, ‘pudding’ having become, like ‘wireless’, a self-conscious anachronism. The true proles, if there are any now, say ‘afters’. Shakespeare would have liked the term, and had fun with it.

Dr Johnson was fond of it, though he claimed he was not a growler himself: ‘I hate a fellow whom pride, or cowardice, or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl. Let him come out as I do, and bark.’

Another word I value is ‘snug’. It conveys beautifully its sense of warmth, cosy neatness and content. The term is nautical: a ship was made snug against stormy weather, or in harbour, everything tied down or tidied up. It went on shore to become the cosiest part of a multi-room port tavern, and so spread inland. In the snug you were private, protected from the bustle and noise of the ‘public’ or saloon bar, and you had a coal fire to warm your hands at.

As the middle class expanded and consolidated itself, snug began to mean privately affluent, as opposed to publicly rich. ‘Jog-on’ Lambton might have had £40,000 a year but most gently rising people were content to set their sights on, say, a thousand or so, regarded as snug. That spritely Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth, in her 1812 tale The Absentee, wrote ‘Well! Some talk of morality, and some of religion, but give me a little snug property.’ Bishops and Lord Chancellors, with a string of freeholds to offer to unbeneficed clergymen, reserved ‘snug’ ones for their relations, the word in this sense implying a substantial income with rather little work to do. Earl Grey, recently installed as the new Whig Prime Minister in 1830, offered Sidney Smith a canonry in St Paul’s, adding: ‘And a really snug thing, let me tell you, worth fully £2,000 a year.’ Does our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, bestowing one of the countless quango jobs on a New Labour hack, use the same term? Certainly not. It lacks the smack of humbug so essential to the Brethren in preserving their moral self-esteem. A Victorian, using the word snug, asserted that he was not a hypocrite but a healthy bon viveur who enjoyed the good things of life with proper moderation. The old 18th-century honesty of referring to a parliamentary seat with a tiny electorate, usually the tenants of a single landlord, as a ‘snug burrough’ was dropped, being replaced by the terms ‘close’ or ‘pocket’. Thackeray, sending an invitation to a friend, writes of a ‘snug dinner’, implying three or four ample dishes of choice viands, with vintage claret and port, served in a private room (no ladies present).

Not all of these delightful words convey pleasure though. Take ‘growl’, a first-class sounding verb. It is an old word, certainly prescriptive, perhaps antediluvian. No doubt Noah used a similar sounding term to tell his animals to shut up. Dr Johnson was fond of it, though he claimed he was not a growler himself: ‘I hate a fellow whom pride, or cowardice, or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl. Let him come out as I do, and bark.’

But some need to growl, being impotent to change the harsh objective facts of life. The good but unfortunate Mr Jarndyce of Bleak House appointed a certain room in his house as his ‘growlery’: ‘When I am out of humour, I come and growl here.’ He does not say if it is snug; probably. All kinds of things and beings are growlers. Thus, a rather noisy cab with four wheels (as opposed to a smooth carriage). Or a small iceberg. Or a disreputable racing dog — not a greyhound but some kind of whippet or lurcher. Or a weird marine creature called a pig-fish, also known as a grunt. The term is or was much used in classical jazz, to convey the deep rasping sound made by an abused wind-instrument muffled by tissue-paper, a hand or a mute. One Bubber Miley pioneered the growl, also said to be playing the trumpet ‘low down’ or ‘dirty’. Duke Ellington was said to produce ‘the dirtiest tones imaginable’ with his ‘unique growling effect’.

Alas, I have left myself no space to deal with other reverberating words. Knock, for instance. I began with Lamb and I end with him: ‘Not many sounds in life, and I include all urban and all rural sounds, exceed in interest a knock at the door.’ But the postman no longer knocks, and there will soon be no letters to knock for. One of the many bad things about emails (not a proper word anyway) is that they are unhealthily silent.


Paul Johnson. "When words come to life and evoke sounds, smells and images." The Spectator (January 16, 2008).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.


Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2006 Paul Johnson

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