Words in the News


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The death this week of the writer and presenter Denis Norden brought many tributes to the wit and charm of a man who in the course of his very long career in radio and TV brought pleasure to millions of listeners and viewers. To many people of my generation his name is indelibly linked to that of Frank Muir, his flamboyantly moustached writing partner and co-contestant on BBC quiz shows like My Word! and My Music! The former included a round in which contestants had to provide a pun-filled shaggy dog story to explain a well-known phrase. Norden’s rendering of Gertrude Stein’s A rose is a rose is a rose, which involved a train journey, the public school Harrow, busts of Cicero and showers of arrows, has stayed with me to this day.

Muir and Norden also worked together on a long-running comedy show called Take It From Here, one of whose recurring characters was Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. The origins of this cultural archetype–based on an imaginary member of the public resident in the Kent town who repeatedly writes letters objecting to all manner of things they hear, see or read in the media–are disputed, but the label is still used for those who combine reactionary views with habitual moral outrage.

If you are disgusted, you either feel angry and upset about something you do not approve of (the ‘Tunbridge Wells’ meaning) or physically ill because you have seen, smelled or tasted something revolting. The things that cause these feelings can be referred to as disgusting. Both adjectives are of course derived from the verb and noun disgust, which came into English, via French or Italian, from the Latin prefix ‘dis-‘ meaning reversal or negation and ‘gustus’ meaning ‘taste’. As you would expect, the adverb disgustingly means ‘in a disgusting way’, but it can also have a slightly surprising emphatic function, so if you say that someone is disgustingly healthy or happy, for example, you mean they are so obviously and abundantly healthy or happy that you feel slightly envious of them, and perhaps a little cynical about them as well.

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Macmillan Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

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