Saturday, 7 September 2013

Do words like velleity, nimiety and sorites mean nothing to you? Perhaps you need a Frank Miles Online Dictionary

From all the reminiscences shared by KCS English teacher Frank Miles’s former pupils since the great man died earlier this year at the age of 92, it’s obvious that, as well as all the mannerisms, verbal tics, his unique teaching style, his humour, rumours about his past life and his many acts of spontaneous kindness, one of the aspects of the man that have enabled us to recall him in his pomp with such powerful clarity was his extraordinary vocabulary. (I alluded to it in a previous post, here.)

There have been many email exchanges in which Frank’s boys have tried to capture some sort of definitive list of the words with which he routinely peppered his lessons – and our brains. Of course, not all of his critical vocabulary was obscure – after all he wasn't inventing a private language – but, taken as a whole, there was something distinctly arcane about it. Here’s where the list - much of which was created by Rod Conway Morris - has got to so far (the definitions are either my own, or pinched from the OED):

mysterious, secret e.g. arcane knowledge

ancient, ancestral, e.g. “Britons display an atavistic fear of snakes”

sounds like a type of vinegar, but it actually means “mundane”

producing an unintended anticlimax

real, solid

wilfully disobedient – often used to modify “muttering”

really, really dreadfully bad

engendering emotion – not a synonym for “emotional”: Frank often used it to imply that a writer was straining to wring an emotional response from the reader

draining of energy or vitality - although increasingly used to mean the exact opposite by semi-literate TV folk

effeminate, asexual, lacking vigour

the act of making amends

criticise severely

Frank used it to mean riddling, enigmatic

a concise, elegant or cogent statement, sentence or poem suitable for engraving on stone

nauseatingly sentimental

apparently attractive but having no real value

threatening, often in a supernatural context

the state of being more than is necessary or desirable; excess

of no value

relating to orchids, obviously, though I vaguely remember Frank using it to mean over-ripe or showy? I'm probably wrong.

serving no useful purpose

preference or bias in favour of something

affectedly religious

linguistic or grammatical impropriety – e.g. any sentence uttered by Lord Sugar

The Sorites Paradox: when you remove single grains of sand from a heap, when does it stop being a heap? (Sorites means” heap” in Greek.)

a wish too weak to lead to action – e.g. “The notion intrigued me, but remained a velleity” or "Ed Miliband wanted to teach the Syrian regime a lesson, but that desire proved no more than a velleity".

I don't claim to use a lot of Frank words in everyday conversation - I'm certain that sorites-like, banausic and nimiety haven't passed my lips for 42 years (to be honest, I'd completely forgotten what they meant before looking them up just now). But others - minatory, mawkish and enervating - have come in very handy over the years.

There's a lively dicussion taking place about erecting some sort of memorial to Frank at King's College School, Wimbledon. I wonder if there shouldn't also be some sort of Frank Miles Online Dictionary - which, would, of course, be entirely non-frangible (as he might very well have put it).


  1. egregious
    really, really dreadfully bad



    I think it means really, really exceptional, whether good or bad.

    My friend xxxxxxxxxx was always referred to by Frank as "the egregious xxxxxxxxxx" and I don't think he meant it as an insult.

    Also, while doing some consultancy work in Italy in the 1990s, a supplier addressed me in a letter as "egregio signor" and I don't think he was trying to rule himself out of getting a contract.

  2. David Moss. "Ex Grex". Outside the flock. Unusual. Eccentric. In the same way, "decimate" does not mean destroy. It means the killing of every tenth member of a Roman Legion. I could go on, but I suspect I have lost you at this stage.

  3. Thanks to both of you - because I'd only ever heard "egregious" used in a non-pejorative context, I hadn't realised it was a switch-hitting adjective. Mind you, I still can't imagine referring to personal heroes such as Jung, Federer and Hayek as egregious.

  4. My brother's class once sent Frank a Christmas card with the greeting 'Merry Trishers' inside. It was not well received.

  5. For obscure reasons, I read Naomi Klein: 'Big green groups are more damaging than climate deniers' in yesterday's Guardian.

    It's an inordinately long piece, which starts for no obvious reason and after a while it finishes, equally inexplicably.

    In between, you get slabs of words like:

    ... I think it's a really important question why the green groups have been so unwilling to follow science to its logical conclusions. I think the scientists Kevin Anderson and his colleague Alice Bows at the Tyndall Centre have been the most courageous on this because they don't just take on the green groups, they take on their fellow scientists for the way in which neoliberal economic orthodoxy has infiltrated the scientific establishment. It's really scary reading. Because they have been saying, for at least for a decade, that getting to the emissions reduction levels that we need to get to in the developed world is not compatible with economic growth ...

    It looks and sounds like language but ... it's not.

    Otiose. Nugatory. Turgid. Jejune. Any man (or woman) could write like that if he abandoned his mind to it.

  6. Frank was a wonderful English teacher.I was in his class 1952-1954. He could throw a piece of chalk with extreme accuracy,and hit an inattentive boy plumb on the forehead every time.I remember we read H.G.Wells "History of Mr.Polly" for "O" Level,and he told us if you don't like something in your life...change it,just like Polly.
    Also he didn't like using too many unnecessary words to describe something.He wrote 5 words on the blackboard "Fresh Fish Sold Here Daily",and then proceeded to delete them one by one saying what was unnecessary about each one until only the word "Fish" was left,and he said you didn't need that either because you could smell it!
    James King