Braggadocio. A resonant word with a hint of history and romance… and new to me when I came across it in a slim 40-page paper-back with a canary-yellow cover bearing the title THE TIMES STYLE BOOK in the first week of May 1961 – a few days after joining the City staff of The Times. It contained a list of frequently misspelt words; ‘The Thunderer’s’ own choices where there were variants; and, to my initiate’s delight, one of its own quirks – connection spelt ‘connexion’.
A considerable part of the booklet was devoted to defining the size of headlines – mainly for the benefit of linotype operators and type-setters in an era when the only type used in the paper was Times New Roman.
These were indicated by alphabetical lettering. Thus (as I recall) ‘A’ indicated 36-point capitals across three columns, and its lower-case version the same type size but in lower case; ‘B’ similarly for 26-point capitals across two columns – the style used for the bulk of news reports – and so on, down the alphabet. Then still a broadsheet – and, of course, with no online version – The Times was the last of the dailies to carry ‘smalls’ adverts on its front page.
Never use ‘And’ or ‘But’ to begin a sentence. But I do.
Fascinated by its resonance and the fact that the newspaper had chosen so obscure a word as ‘braggadocio’ to rule on its spelling, I probed – found its origins in Braggadocchio, the name of a braggart in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and, more significantly, that it had been a favourite word of William Howard Russell, widely regarded as the world’s first war correspondent, who covered the Crimean War and was first to report the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade. His incorrect spelling of the ‘bragadacio’ of that charge into the Valley of Death by the noble 500 was missed by the newspaper’s sub-editor, and infuriated the paper’s towering and influential editor John Delane… hence the word’s style-book appearance.
Newspaper editors and columnists have their own stylistic foibles, and Delane was a stickler for spelling. The editor of my first newspaper disliked ‘despite’ and insisted staff, instead, used the phrase ‘in spite of’ – and woe betide any sub-editor who let ‘despite’ slip into print. Alas, in spite of his grammatical injunctions, in the more than six decades since then, I frequently use the single word. His deputy, a stickler for punctuation whom (it was said) slept with a copy of Fowler under his pillow, introduced me to the ‘Oxford comma’ – a literary conceit which I still follow.
[Like myself, he would have mourned the fact that, early in December, the Apostrophe Protection Society came to a full stop – closed down, according to its founder 98-year-old ex-journalist John Richards, by the ‘ignorance and laziness present in modern times’. Richards started the society in 2001 after complaining (in a letter to The Times) of seeing the ‘same mistakes over and over again’, and within a month received more than 500 letters of support world-wide. The Society listed the three simple rules for correct use of the punctuation mark*.]
First published in 1926, and commonly known as ‘Fowler’, after its author Henry Watson Fowler (a schoolmaster, lexicographer and grammartarian) A Dictionary of Modern English Usage was, for decades, both a vital writer’s tool and the bug-bear of English classrooms. In it, Fowler offers comprehensive and practical advice on grammar, syntax, style, and choice of words. He also clarifies questions of usage such as the split infinitive, and – in later editions –the intricacies of political correctness.
Sadly, although an updated edition was published twenty years ago, Fowler is largely neglected today. A local English teacher admitted that she had never heard of the lexicographer, let alone used his ‘Dictionary’ as a teaching tool. And I am as guilty as anyone in failing to follow his rules… he must spin in his grave every time I open my laptop. There! I’ve just broken one rule – beginning a sentence with a conjunction. Never use ‘And’ or ‘But’ to begin a sentence, Fowler would have told me. But I do.
So how horrified he must be by some of the writings of many Gibraltarians whose casual, and improper, use of capital letters, other than to start a sentence or to denote proper noun, must have the great man spinning even more frequently than I do.
Years ago, I lost my school-days copy of Fowler and have never replaced it. And my little Times Style Book was lent to someone… and never returned.
After bemoaning its loss to Marcus Killick a few months ago, he recently presented me with a new edition of The Times Style Guide … A Guide to English Usage. A 284-page paperback that effectively could replace Fowler.
But nowhere in it do the words ‘Braggadocio’ or ‘connexion’ appear.
Small wonder then that Delane’s ‘The Thunderer’ no longer thunders.
*Apostrophes are used to denote a missing letter or letters, as in ‘can’t do that’; to denote possession, for example ‘the magazine’s cover’; and are NEVER ever used to denote plurals! Common examples of such abuse: ‘road closed to lorrie’s’, ‘egg’s for sale’.