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This article is taken from PN Review 149, Volume 29 Number 3, January - February 2003.

Oops Raymond Tallis

I want to approach this little item in a state of relative innocence, with no sense of anything being settled in advance, or of a defined goal. In order to keep the Owl of Minerva caged until dusk, I shall consult the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) only after I have spoken my cortex dry on this subject. I fear that the OED, by far the greatest book in the English language, the most comprehensive account of the boundless collective genius that is our mother tongue - an endless comb whose every cell is loaded with the honey of past time and lived thought - may fail me in a rather subtle way. The OED will, of course, tell me what part of speech we are dealing with - interjection, I suspect - and then what it signifies. It will give instances of its use and trace its origin out of the undifferentiated murmur of history and follow its metamorphoses in the mouths and under the pens of all those who avail themselves of this public resource. All very fine, but I fear that the precision of its account will be at odds with the requisite delicacy. 'Oops' will be handled too roughly and may, by dint of rough handling, curdle to something more solid than it essentially is. 'Rough handling' is perhaps an unfair way to describe its being taken seriously as a fully paid-up word and being given the kind of job description and accoutrements of office that ...

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