Tag Archives: prosody

The twenty-ninth of September, 2011: a cretic foot, a distal phalanx, and a cheese-and-onion crisp

Some quotidian prosody for you (I should say, rather than quotidian, trivial – as that word stems from trivium, a coming-together of three streets, and it is streets with which I am today concerned).

‘Oxford Road’ is, in prosodic terms, an amphimacer or cretic foot. Its rhythm is strong-weak-strong – dum-dum-dum, Ox-ford-road.

‘Oxford Street’, despite having the same number of syllables, is a dactyl. I like the origin of the word ‘dactyl’: it is Greek for ‘finger’, because a finger has one long joint and two short ones (the proximal (long), middle (short) and distal (short) phalanges, if you’re interested), and a prosodic dactyl has one stressed syllable (technically, in Greek, it’s a long syllable rather than a stressed one) followed by two unstressed ones. Ox-ford-street.

Interesting, that (and nice to have the proper words to express it). I think it is, anyway.

I suppose this is because ‘street’ is the default surname (you know what I mean) for a street. So when you say Ox-ford-road you’re sort of saying ‘Oxford – aha! you thought I was going to say street, but this’ll surprise you: I’m actually saying road!’.

Stephen Fry calls this “an oddity of English utterance”. Yes, I’m still reading The Ode Less Travelled.

It put me in mind of a similar oddity, delineated by Martin Amis in his Independent on Sunday review of the American writer Bill Buford’s Among The Thugs (1991), collected in The War Against Cliché (Jonathan Cape, 2001):

‘Among the Thugs’ is full of minor solecisms (Listen, mate… you might say THE Fulham Road but you never say THE  Fulham Broadway, okay?).

Of such thin stuff we build our local identities.

Again, there’s probably sound logic here. The Fulham Road is the road that goes to Fulham, regardless of what its actually called. In fact, ‘road’ might not even need a capital letter. Whereas Fulham Broadway is a given name, and must be used as such.

Incidentally, this same review was the one that got Amis in some hot water, as his description of fans at a football match – ‘the complexion and body scent of a cheese-and-onion crisp, and the eyes of pitbulls’, for starters – put intelligent football supporters like Nick Hornby on the defensive. But that’s a discussion for another Clutterbuck.

Clutterbuck, by the way, is also a dactyl.