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Saturday, 19 July 2014

Laugh? I thought I'd never start

There was a time when the news that three naked ladies were headed to my house would have given me a thrill. But those days are gone and it's an inanimate garden ornament anyway, not living flesh, that I've been told is winging its way to me

Although that is an improvement, I have to say, on some females from my past, since a statue can't hide its heart of stone.

But all the same I do not want naked lady statues. I really don't. What would the neighbours think? Already I'm the suspiciously single guy at No 3. If some of their kids wandered into my garden, saw large naked ladies and went home and told their parents, I would become a pariah. They would put barbed wire around my house.

I would be ostracised - a word I've always assumed came from the same root as ostrich. Because they bury their heads in the sand or something. I hadn't really thought it through. So I looked it up and guess what? It's not ostriches. It's oysters

Now I can just hear what you're thinking. "I'm not a shellfish expert, pal, but I know oysters don't have a well-developed social system. So they can't ostracise each other. And even if they did, how upset is one oyster going to be if the other oysters stop talking to it?"

And of course you are right. As always.

So let me explain. The word 'oyster' comes from the Ancient Greek word for shell, which was ostrakon. And so does 'ostracise'. Why? Because the Athenians used to write the name of the person they wanted ostracised - which in those days meant banished from the city - on a piece of broken pottery, the word for which was also ostrakon because it often looked like a shell.

Incidentally, while we're on word origins, some folk mistakenly think the word 'vegetarian' is closely related to the word 'vegetable', which they imagine we eat all the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. The last time I ate a vegetable was 40 years ago, when I mistook a Maris Piper potato for a deep-fried Mars bar and nearly choked to death.

This kind of verbal confusion is common in the language of a country like England, which was invaded many times during the Dark Ages, as well as the Slightly Lighter Ages that followed, by various foreign-speaking foes, including the Saxons, the Angles, the Triangles, the Jutes, the Hessians and the Woolly Jumpers, a savage Nordic race that rode on the backs of giant, genetically modified sheep.

The different meanings of the word "file" for instance - a grinding tool and a folder of information - came about because two different words, one German, the other Latin, became absorbed into the English language.  (This is true.)

In the same way the word vegetable comes from a Greek word meaning "repulsive inedible object", while vegetarian is derived from a Chinese pictogram meaning "irresistible sex god". (This is disputed.)

So it turns out the naked ladies are a practical joke and my friend hasn't really ordered them for me at all. What a jolly wheeze. I've always felt practical jokers should be lined up in front of a firing squad that pulls their triggers and little flags saying "Bang!" unfurl from their guns, and I go "Who's laughing now, pal?"

But the incident does get me thinking about how I can improve the appearance of my garden, and I decide that a water feature would make my pond more appealing. So I head off to the garden centre in search of a statue that is small, tasteful and extremely well clothed. 

Ernest Shackleton, kitted out for the Antarctic, with six string vests and a parka jacket, would be just the job. 

But how successful is my quest, Dear Reader, you will have to wait till next week to find out. 

Time and space have beaten us again.

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