First Sentences of Non-Fiction

After an online debate with Brian Moore over the opening sentence of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (best of lines, worst of lines), which I would have rejected for my Top 10 First sentences of novels even if it had not been too long, I thought we should turn to non-fiction.

  1. ‘The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful’ Alfred Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, 1936. Thoughtfully nominated by Man Ray.
  2. ‘L’homme est né libre, et par-tout il est dans les fers’ (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, 1762. Chris Sladen tied himself to the original French.
  3. ‘A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe’ Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848. Issy Flamel put forward Helen McFarlane’s 1850 translation.
  4. ‘We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving The Rainbow, 1998. Nominated by Emma Hutchings.
  5. ‘No comet blazed when I was born’ Denis Healey, The Time of My Life, 1989. Brought to light by Mark Bassett.
  6. ‘The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad’ FR Leavis, The Great Tradition, 1948. Adam Lent does not say whether he agrees.
  7. ‘There are idiots’ Larry Summers, US Treasury Secretary 1999-2001, unpublished paper on efficient markets. Offered without prejudice by Ian Leslie.
  8. ‘Louvain was a dull place, said a guidebook in 1910, but when the time came it made a spectacular fire’ Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace, 2013. From Ian Johnston.
  9. ‘We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold’ Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1972 (it’s partly autobiographical). Nominated by Twlldunyrpobsais.
  10. ‘We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA)’ James Watson and Francis Crick, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”, 1953. From Damian Counsell.

Originally published in the Independent on 5th October 2014


Misleading Definitions

This list started with a conversation on Twitter. Aric Gilinsky (respectfully) disagreed with Tom Doran’s opinion on the meaning of irony. Tom had said: ‘It means ‘a bit like iron’. Everyone knows that.’ Aric asked: ‘Is this part of a Top 10 false meanings of words that you could totally convince a foreigner are true?’ It is now.

  1. Oyster A person who overdoes Jewish mannerisms, according to Guy Herbert.
  2. Sitar A guitar on which you sit, reckons Kit Marsden.
  3. Gullible “Many years ago, when asked by my little sister the meaning of the word, I told her it was a shade of blue,” says Alan Robertson, helpfully.
  4. Lampoon Noun. A tool for whaling at night. From Elliot Adams.
  5. Discontent A marquee put up for a party, insists Robertson.
  6. Glacier More glacé; for example: “all cherries are glacé, but some are glacier than others”, suggests Marsden.
  7. Disorder Verb. To cancel an Amazon purchase, says Jack Blackburn.
  8. Timid Central Yorkshire. See also, Tabby: big church in Yorkshire; Tissues: important matters in Yorkshire. Each suggested by Tom Joyce.
  9. Antidisestablishmentarianism The movement for banning insults in restaurants, led by Tom Doran.
  10. Slippery Adjective. Like a slipper, says Lee “Budgie” Barnett.

Originally published in the Independent on 26th September 2014


One-word Lines in Films

This list was suggested by Mark Wallace, and I am taking some of these on trust as they are from films I haven’t seen and, in the case of ‘Evil Dead 2’, have no desire to see. There were a couple of nominations from ‘Withnail and I’, but I didn’t understand them.

  1. ‘Stella!’ Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, in A Streetcar Named Desire. From Omer Lev and Jess Bowie.
  2. ‘Groovy’ Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams, after he straps a chainsaw to his stump, Evil Dead 2. Nominated by Twlldunyrpobsais.
  3. ‘Bottom’ A minion’s response to Silas Ramsbottom introducing himself, Despicable Me 2. From Tony Payne.
  4. ‘Ahhhhhhh… ahh… ah… ah…ahhhhhhhhh’ Tarzan. Thanks to David Lindsell.
  5. ‘Plastics’ Career advice to the Graduate. From Western Independent and Omer Lev.
  6. ‘Rosebud’ Orson Welles as Citizen Kane. Possibly the most famous, although I’ve never seen the point. Nominated by many, including, er, Citizen Sane.
  7. ‘Attica!’ Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik, Dog Day Afternoon. Nominated by Omer Lev and Robert Epstein.
  8. ‘Always’ Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. From Lutra Nippon.
  9. ‘Supercali- fragilistic- expialidocious’ Mary Poppins. Nominated by Labour History Group.
  10. ‘Madness!’ Major Clipton, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Recalled by Richard T Kelly.

Originally published in the Independent on 21st September 2014



Eponyms are words that derive from a person’s name. This idea was suggested by Rich Greenhill, a word wizard extraordinaire. He started with ‘milquetoast’ (a fictional cartoon-strip character) and ‘quisling’, the name of the army officer who ruled Norway for the Nazis. Alan Robertson mentioned Stigler’s Law: that no discovery is ever named after the person who actually discovered it.

  1. Silhouette Named after Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), French author and politician, although no one knows why. Nominated by Rich Greenhill.
  2. Sideburns General Ambrose Burnside (1824–81), the Union army leader who boasted “burnsides”. From Adrian McMenamin.
  3. Pander Pandare, a character in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, aka Pandarus in Shakespeare’s version. Suggested by Stig Abell.
  4. Quixotic Don Quixote, hero of Cervantes’ satire. From James Ball.
  5. Shrapnel General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842), the British soldier who invented the shell. Nominated by Matt Prissick.
  6. Trilby From the name of the heroine in George du Maurier’s novel Trilby (1894), in the stage version of which such a hat was worn. With thanks to Allan Draycott.
  7. Mesmerise Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), a German doctor who propounded animal magnetism, later called hypnotism. From Josh Spero.
  8. Maverick Sam Maverick (1803-1870), the Texas politician and rancher who refused (or couldn’t be bothered) to brand his cattle. Suggested by Rich Greenhill and Steve Smith.
  9. Diesel Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913), French-born German engineer, inventor of the diesel engine. From David Head.
  10. Bloomers Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), American social reformer who advocated such garments. From Michael C.

Originally published in the Independent on 14th September 2014


Tracks Not As Good As Their Intro

This list was suggested by my excellent former colleague Matt Chorley, who launched it with ‘Bump N’ Grind’ by R Kelly; ‘Never Ever’ by All Saints; and the Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’. Someone (David Bright) tried to nominate ‘Gimme Shelter’, by the Rolling Stones, but my power is absolute.

  1. ‘Block Buster!’, The Sweet Nominated by Simon Wilder and Tom Doran, who says that “Block Buster!” is to “Jean Genie” as Poundland is to Tesco.
  2. ‘Two Tribes’, Frankie Goes to Hollywood “It’s a great song but fails to live up to the soaring air-raid/orchestral opening,” says Tim Shipman.
  3. ‘Layla’, Derek and the Dominos “I like the intro and outro but could lose the rest,” says Dave Gilmore.
  4. ‘Rapper’s Delight’, The Sugarhill Gang “Never improves after the delight of the intro rap,” claims Matt Chorley.
  5. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, Madonna Nominated by Richard Morris.
  6. ‘Spaceman’, Babylon Zoo Paul T Horgan and Emma, who says: “Sounded ace in the Levi’s ad; crushingly disappointing in its entirety on Top of the Pops.”
  7. ‘Seven Nation Army’, The White Stripes Nominated by Lucy Hunter Johnson.
  8. ‘Benny and the Jets’, Elton John Never goes anywhere. From Patrick Hennessy.
  9. ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’, Guns N’ Roses Nominated by Martin and Marianne Talbot.
  10. ‘I Feel Love’, Donna Summer From Rob Warm.

Originally published in the Independent on 7th September 2014.


Political Interviewers

This list was compiled by Oscar Pearson, inspired by news of Evan Davis’s appointment to replace Jeremy Paxman on ‘Newsnight’.

Pearson set up last year, featuring interviews with politicians, writers and comedians. The rankings were decided by a straw poll on Twitter, and are therefore completely unreliable.

  1. Andrew Neil When MP Diane Abbott said West Indian mums would “go to the wall for their children” he asked if she would like to make clear they were no better or worse than other mums.
  2. Eddie Mair “You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?” he asked Boris Johnson.
  3. Cathy Newman Told George Galloway, “I think you got a little bit carried away,” when he compared his Bradford by-election victory with the Arab Spring.
  4. Martha Kearney Ed Miliband struggled with her repeated, polite question: “Your solution to producing more growth is to spend more, is it not?”
  5. Nick Robinson Expertly cornered Ukip’s Nigel Farage into saying, in a live interview, that no British person could do the job of his secretary – his German-born wife.
  6. Adam Boulton Has interviewed every British Prime Minister from Alec Douglas-Home onwards, and even swallowed a fly live on air in July 2014.
  7. Krishnan Guru-Murthy Dismantled then-MP Jim Devine on his expenses. “I moved money around, as I was told I was entitled to do.”
  8. Laura Kuenssberg Asked Harriet Harman about her past link with the Paedophile Information Exchange: “It’s a very simple question. Yes or no? Was it a mistake?”
  9. Fi Glover Told Jeffrey Archer that, according to a computer analysis, “Your book is worse than a Sun leader.”
  10. Jon Snow Spent the first six minutes of a live interview debating whether or not Tory MP Zac Goldsmith had agreed to do the interview. And the ties.

Originally published in the Independent on 31st August 2014.



Eggcorns were named in 2003 by Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist, because this mishearing of ‘acorn’ is quite common.

This list was suggested by Georgina Wragg, who nominated ‘cold slaw’, ‘dough-eyed’ and ‘wipe board’ (for whiteboard). One correspondent said, ‘From little eggcorns do mighty irks grow,’ but these are charming.

  1. Curve your enthusiasm Nominated by Citizen Sane
  2. Damp squid Set off by James Chapman. Squib is an obsolete word for a firework or banger.
  3. To all intensive purposes From Matt Prisseck and Andy Willetts.
  4. Ex-patriot Nick Morris’s favourite: “Someone who previously loved their country but became so sick of it they relocated.”
  5. Eaten mess From Luke Hildyard, who has also seen “mould wine” on a pub menu.
  6. Duct tape Amazingly, it was originally duck tape – strips of cotton duck cloth (from Dutch doek, canvas) made adhesive on one side. With thanks  to Ben Stanley.
  7. A doggie-dog world A former colleague who shall remain nameless.
  8. Foe par Citizen Sane says he saw an email at work in which someone apologised for one.
  9. Card shark For card sharp: David Artley thinks this must be the most common eggcorn.
  10. To be pacific Heard by Lisa Markwell. Also, “pacifically”– Iain Dale

Originally published in the Independent on 24th August 2014.