Diane Nicholls

Diane Nicholls

Thursday, 16 February 2012

You lost me at knickers!

What lies between paraffin and knickers?

I like to think I'm a fairly easy-going linguist, when I'm off duty. I don't much care what Waterstone's does with their apostrophe, a green grocer's apostrophe will usually raise a wry smile from me if written in chalk or on a piece of cardboard, though less so if I see it in print, and I long ago learnt to turn a blind eye to if instead of whether if it doesn't create ambiguity. But what does really get my goat is when someone says or writes something that leaves me wondering 'what on earth do they mean?'.

This happens often with the very simple and handy construction from x to y.

It's used to describe a range of things or the distance in time or space between two points and is, of course, not always intended to be taken entirely literally. When we say from John O'Groats to Land's End we might be describing the actual route on a map of a charity bike ride, or more generally the whole of the area of Britain, but just about any native English speaker will understand our meaning. This construction can be used rather poetically, as in from the cradle to the grave, and alliteration can come in handy too, as in from rags to riches. In US English everything from soup to nuts is commonly used to refer to 'just about everything'. This puzzled me for a moment, but once I deduced that it referred to the opening and closing courses of a meal, I was happy. I could fill in the gaps – soup and nuts existed on a continuum and I could more or less imagine everything that might come in between. Similarly, if someone says they are plunged from ecstasy to despair, I'm quite comfortable filling in the various stopping off points on that particular emotional journey in my own imagination if necessary, and it rarely is – I get the point.

Often, users of this construction use the extremes of the alphabet to define the boundaries of their category:

Our creative team have brought to life everything from Aardvarks to Zebras.

Musical taste covers everything from ABBA to ZZ Top.

Well presented and arranged, the site takes in everything from Aerospace to Zoology and lots in between.

I'm OK with these. They do, at least, seem to define a clear category membership with logical borders. I can imagine what is likely to come in between.

I do start to get a little impatient when alliteration is used to define the boundaries, á la from rags to riches, but with a complete absence of logic or recognisable imagery. It makes for some very nice-sounding sentences, admittedly, but leaves me scratching my head as if I need to crack some obscure code:

In the back of my mind, I'd expected the show to fall into that vast category corralled by everything from bingo to Big Brother.

They play everything from bluegrass to Buddy Holly, The Eagles to The Everlys.

Nowadays you can get everything from burgers to boxty, pizzas to pakoras, gumbo to guacamole.

I'm trying to imagine what a 'vast category corralled by everything from bingo to Big Brother' might contain. Or is it just me? Ultimately, I can live with these by taking the whole construction with a pinch of salt. And that is how I cope with this:

She persuaded them to invest in ten rolls of wallpaper bought from a corner shop that sold everything from paraffin to knickers. Tiller's Girls, Doremy Vernon, 1988

Any attempt to apply any sort of logic or analysis to that one is clearly unlikely to lead anywhere and was presumably not the intention of the author, who, I assume, was just having a bit of fun with the construction. And why not? She's not encouraging her readers to shop there.

But my blood does begin to bubble when I suspect I'm supposed to read something into the boundaries set on some strange, qualified everything. For instance:

He reads anything and everything from Alexander Solzhenitzyn to Sue Townsend and Ian Banks.

Is there some value judgment implied here? For example, suggesting a trajectory of literariness that has Solzhenitzyn at one extreme and Sue Townsend and Ian Banks (together?) at the other? Which authors lie outside of these extremes and which authors lie between? Did literature begin with Solzhenitzyn and end with Ian Banks? Or is the message that he reads all genres of literature of which grim realism and science fiction are the extremes, and the gaps I need to fill in are all the others? In which case, wouldn't the strangely tautologous anything and everything have sufficed? It bothers me. But, ultimately, does it matter? Well, sometimes. It matters in contexts where I actually want or need to know what a range of things includes. Then my goat is well and truly got!

Which professions are included here?

These people work in vastly different roles - everything from accountants to anaesthetists.

The British Library's collection is described as having:

... a range of subjects covering everything from art to accountancy and literature to law.

So, does that include linguistics?

Lancaster University has been awarded ...

hundreds of extra foundation degree places in vocational subjects ranging from criminology to computing.

Well, that's great news, but it tells me only that there are degree places in criminology and computing and some other unnamed everything that may or may not begin with 'c'.

They have a comprehensive range of fitness equipment for you to choose from and if you need any other sports equipment they sell everything from Cricket Bats to Tennis Rackets.

Thanks, but will I be making a wasted journey if go to their shop assuming that this everything includes golf clubs, for example?

And now that I've charted my course from delight to flummoxed frustration, will somebody please tell me what could possibly lie between boredom and the ironing?!

Give me a break http://www.givemeabreak.org Recommends books to give you a break from everything from boredom to the ironing.


  1. Oh no, I'd never really thought about that one. Now I've got another linguistic niggle to look out for!
    Nice blog, by the way, duly bookmarked and look forward to reading more ...

  2. Where would you put these examples on a scale of i to π?

  3. A few niggles:

    Why would you conflate the use of if for whether, a normal part of Standard English, with errors in punctuation? That strikes me as false categorization indeed.

    I do happen to know what from John o' Groats to Land's End means, but I suspect that hundreds of millions of my countrymen have no clue. It's incredibly hard not to be parochial about our common language.

    Lastly, rags to riches is assisted by alliteration, but its primary meaning is temporal: youthful poverty to mature wealth.

    1. John: thanks for your feedback.

      I haven't 'conflated' anything here, but given two random examples of issues recently hotly debated by my professional peers, which don't trouble me. If you do a search on 'Waterstone's apostrophe', you'll find plenty of coverage of something I personally don't see as an 'error of punctuation' but as a more-or-less trivial branding decision, which is the business's prerogative and for which there are plenty of precedents.

      I didn't say 'English native-speaker', but 'native English speaker' - the 'native' referred to 'Britain' in the previous sentence. I could have said 'New York to L.A.' or 'Boulder to Birmingham', but I was talking about Britain. I take your point, though, on the pitfalls of linguistic parochialism.

      Rags to riches: Interesting. I wonder whether in the age of lotteries and talent shows, a more overnight-phenomenon sense might be coming to the fore?

    2. I do know about the apostrophe issues. I'm just kind of surprised that if for whether would be something you needed to learn to accept rather than something you take for granted. Is this a BrE/AmE difference?

      And (perhaps another such difference) I would read English native speaker as being someone who's English and a native speaker, and native English speaker as someone who speaks English natively. Go figure.

  4. One of my favorite false ranges is "from arsehole to breakfast table" (from one of Green's slang dictionaries): http://glassbottomblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/antonyms-for-breakfast-table.html

  5. A range that sounds false but is actually true: Dorothy Parker saying that Katharine Hepburn in the play The Lake "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B".

    1. That's great, John. Perhaps only Dorothy Parker could use a range to such sarcastically cutting effect. I'd love to find more 'faux false ranges'!

  6. I agree with everything you've written here, Diane, from soup to nuts. Book cover copy at work typically carries more false ranges than a cardboard western. But I've pretty much given up trying to fix anything but the worst offenders. I tell myself that it's only marketing material, but my conscience is troubled.

    In your capacity as wordy agony aunt, is it time to admit defeat on the 'like/such as' distinction?

  7. In Latin, from soup to nuts is ab ovo usque ad malum, and evidently Roman banquets did begin with eggs and end with apples.

  8. Loved both blogs, are we likely to be advised about gerunds?
    Elyzimmer xx

  9. First of all : I *love* your blog! it's so useful to everyone, but especially to learners of English!
    I also find it very interesting (and entertaining!)in your wording of remarks and reflexions : for instance when something "really gets your goat"and your "blood does begin to bubble"!I have a very clear image of a furious goat here, with fiery eyes and bubbly blood!

  10. Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement, Alice. I'm so glad you like my (tiny, neglected) blog! And I see we share a love of figurative language too :-)