My boundless admiration for P.G.Wodehouse, an unrivalled craftsman of English prose

Wodehouse wrote 95 books, and authored more than 30 plays and musical comedies, and more than 20 film scripts. His impact on the English language was considerable

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 11 May 2023, 7:04 PM

Those who follow my literary life are aware of my boundless admiration for P.G.Wodehouse (1881-1975), the great British comic novelist, playwright and lyricist, whom I consider to be an absolutely unrivalled craftsman of English prose. But since this column is not about literature, I will refrain from sharing with you the many examples of Wodehousean style and technique that justify my judgement. Instead, since our column is about language, I will just confine myself to some of the words the Master invented, or brought into circulation (a habit he shared with William Shakespeare, no less), to our endless delight. Of course, it’s much more fun to encounter these words in his novels, but this is just to whet your appetite!

Wodehouse wrote 95 books, and authored more than 30 plays and musical comedies, and more than 20 film scripts. His impact on the English language was considerable. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, contains 1,756 quotations from Wodehouse to explain word usage. It confirms he invented multiple common expressions, like the word “cuppa” (as in “Come and have a cuppa”, Sam the Sudden, 1925) and “fifty-fifty” (“Let’s go fifty-fifty”, Little Nugget, 1913). And his famous character Jeeves, the super-smart valet to the feckless Bertie Wooster, is entered in the dictionary as a generic noun. A “Jeeves” means “a valet or butler especially of model behaviour.”


The most-quoted Wodehouse invention must be gruntled. It’s from his brilliant The Code of the Woosters (1938): ‘He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.’ Now the word ‘disgruntled’ never had an antonym before, but here’s a mock-serious adjective meaning ‘satisfied’ or ‘contented’.

Wodehouse's upper-class idlers, members of the Drones Club, were all steeped in alcohol, but the author did not describe them merely as inebriated. In his 1927 book Meet Mr Mulliner, Wodehouse had already anticipated new words for ‘drunk’: ‘Intoxicated? The word did not express it by a mile. He was oiled, boiled, fried … whiffled, sozzled, and blotto.’ His characters’ lexicon for those who have consumed too much fire-liquid also included: awash; lathered; illuminated; ossified; pie-eyed; polluted; primed; scrooched; stinko; squiffy; tanked; and woozled.


And, as befits a master of comic-hall theatre, Wodehouse had a great ear for onomatopoeia. At the age of 22 he published a story which used a new word for the sound of a cricket ball hitting a bat: ‘There was a beautiful, musical plonk, and the ball soared to the very opposite quarter of the field.’ (From Tales of St. Austin’s, 1903).

The same talent is evident in this description from Blandings Castle (1935) of a pig eating: ‘A sort of gulpy, gurgly, plobby, squishy, wofflesome sound, like a thousand eager men drinking soup in a foreign restaurant.’ Neither “plobby” nor “wofflesome” will be found in your home dictionary, but they marvellously convey a greedy and ill-mannered creature tucking in. Apply it to some of your acquaintances at their next meal?

When someone speaks sharply, it’s hard to think of a more original way of describing it than this, from the 1930 novel Very Good, Jeeves: ‘When not pleased Aunt Dahlia, having spent most of her youth in the hunting-field, has a crispish way of expressing herself.’ Also in Very Good, Jeeves, came a new way of saying things were ‘all right’ or ‘fine’: ‘“All you have to do,” I said, “is to carry on here for a few weeks more, and everything will be oojah-cum-spiff.”’

The Oxford English Dictionary includes at least one Wodehousean invention that didn’t last: “snooter”, meaning to ‘harass’ or to ‘snub’, (“My Aunt Agatha wouldn’t be on hand to snooter me for at least another six weeks”, The Inimitable Jeeves, 1923) never really caught on and is listed in OED with the parenthesis ‘Only in P. G. Wodehouse.’ But some Wodehousiana seems very contemporary. Zing, for instance, inserted to convey ‘the sudden advent of a new situation or emotion’, as the OED puts it, could work today but actually appeared in the 1919 book Damsel in Distress: ‘The generous blood of the Belphers boiled over, and then—zing. They jerked him off to Vine Street [police station].’

More from the Master next week!

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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