Now here's a real find, for which I have to thank Edmond Clay. In World Wide Words, Michael Quinion writes about international English from a British viewpoint.
It would take a long time to explore this site fully, but it is clearly the work of one of those old-fashioned, elderly men (they're almost always men) who are fascinated by the English language, and who manage to communicate their enthusiasm to the rest of us. When they are gone, these chaps, are they likely to be replaced? I can't say that it seems likely.
Meanwhile we can all enjoy the benefit of their scholarship.
How to speak sooth safely. That is the question.
You may remember that, on Monday last, I noted that Rod Liddle, in the Sunday Times, had referred to O.J. Simpson as a man who 'murdered his wife'; and he had done so without so much as an 'allegedly' by way of qualifier. Where, I enquired rhetorically, was the ST duty lawyer when that went through?
I was assuming, you see, that the statement that O.J. Simpson was a murderer was libellous in terms of English law. I also assumed that the lawyer in question had not been down the pub and neglecting his duties, but had taken the same view as myself: namely that, while the statement was libellous, he did not think it likely that O.J. would sue; and that, if O.J. did, the whole of the UK would be greatly entertained while O.J.'s lawyer attempted to convince an English jury of his innocence, and while O.J. was being given the third degree by the ST's Queen's Counsel. The latter interrogation being a spectacle for which I, for one, would gladly buy a ticket.
However, the question niggled. What, exactly, was the true position?
Well, it is well known that this blog spares no expense or effort in the pursuit of a story and after the exchange of -- ooh, at least two emails -- I am able to bring you the facts.
You will probably recall that O.J. Simpson, as famous in the US as David Beckham in the UK, was charged with the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. In due course the jury acquitted him. Subsequently, Ronald Goldman's father brought a civil case against O.J. The civil jury in that case found O.J. liable for the wrongful death of Ronald Goldman, and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages. (He has not complied.)
M'learned friend has advised me that the civil verdict is the key to what we may and may not safely say about O.J. Simpson. A speaker is entitled to rely upon any legal finding that has been sustained by a final judgement, except if reversed on appeal, as sufficiently factual to defend against a claim of libel, either under US or English law.
So, any and all US and UK citizens can safely thumb their noses at O.J. Simpson and call him a murderer as often as they like. Although, if being extra cautious, they might wish to substitute the word 'killer'.
'Murderer' necessarily implies 'criminal'. M'learned friend, ever conscious of little tiny quibbles and loopholes, as these weaselly fellows are, points out that objections to the claim that O.J. 'killed' anyone would get thrown out by a judge at early stage, whereas if you said that he 'murdered' someone it would only get thrown out after discovery. And if you want to know what discovery is all about, go see your own learned friend.
However -- here's another of those little tiny quibbles -- it's possible, in theory, that the ST lawyer was dangling a bait here. Maybe the duty man doesn't like O.J. (Extraordinary, I know, but possible.) He might, perhaps, have been offering O.J. and his not-too-experienced-in-English-law US lawyer some hope that they could, after all, clean up in the English courts. And if they lost, the English courts have a much more vicious 'loser pays' regime than do the Americans. So who knows. It would probably be pretty hard to collect, though, given O.J.'s capacity for avoiding payment.
Isn't the law fun, eh?
But.... There's always a but where the law is concerned, isn't there? If laws were the same everywhere, and if it was all easy to understand, then all those lawyers would be out of a job; and then where would we be? Who said better off?
But, if you live in France or Germany you had better tread carefully. M'learned friend points out that those countries have exceptions for civil findings in the case of prior criminal acquittal. So there the saintly O.J. is a deeply wronged man, and you had better zip your mouth.
Of course, I doubt if O.J. can actually read French or German. But nevertheless, just thumb your nose and omit the description.
You will recall, I'm sure, that the question of how to make jam was hotly debated (both literally and metaphorically) in chapter two of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. How could one forget? And the key issue, of course, was whether or not one added water to the fruit.
Agafea Mihalovna maintained that jam could not successfully be made without adding water, while Kitty took the view that it most certainly could, and should, be.
You will be pleased, but not surprised, to hear that the UK politician and polymath Boris Johnson has come up with the definitive answer to this contentious issue. He passes on the secret in the Daily Telegraph.
Those readers who are not resident in the UK may not realise that Boris is currently the Conservative candidate for the post of Mayor of London. And how reassuring it is to find that Boris has his eye firmly on the ball.
Other candidates are rushing around making speeches about how to improve London's transport system, and how to prevent the Thames overflowing when global warming takes hold, and all like that. But Boris is much more down to earth; much more in touch with the everyday concerns of London citizens. Boris well understands what any Englishwoman will tell you, namely that a slice of newly baked bread, heavily encrusted with butter and damson jam, is a far more satisfying experience than sexual intercourse, any day of the week. And it is to this end that Boris's efforts are, rightly, directed.
I would be willing to bet that Mr Bloomberg never came up with an infallible and sensational recipe for damson jam. On matters of jam-making the citizens of New York are, I would wager, left entirely without guidance.
Next week, Boris will deal with the tricky question of how to get a vacuum cleaner into those awkward corners. Did Virginia Woolf have the right technique? Or is the answer to be found in the correspondence of the Mitford sisters?
One can hardly wait.