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Finding Fault with Stephen Fry

Chris Jackson | 17:00 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010

Stephen Fry. host of QI

Stephen Fry - host of QI

I have always revered the wit and astoundingly vast brain of Stephen Fry. On the BBC TV comedy quiz show QI he displays the extraordinary range of his expert understanding on the most obscure of subjects.

He does occasionally admit that he has little helpers who rummage around in the oft unswept nooks and crannies of the human library of knowledge to dust down a factual gem or two on his behalf. Even so you cannot fail to be impressed.

But suddenly my idolatry of this man was shaken. On reading the latest instalment of his autobiography, 'The Fry Chronicles', I  spotted his use of a word in the English language that I feel must be exposed as erroneous.

I better say right away I am standing firmly on the pedestal of pedantry but I thought a man as well versed in the use of words as Mr. Fry might be standing shoulder to shoulder with me on this one. Yet, it appears not to be so.

As in QI where in each series a letter of the alphabet is chosen to select a topic, all the sections in this book are a C word. But one stood out as I devoured his writing. My bête noir of our vocabulary - celibacy.

He recounts how he once wanted to write about celibacy, noting that:

"a life without sex...offered numerous benefits. The celibate life allowed productivity..."

The problem is that is not the proper meaning. To abstain from sex is chastity. According to the online Oxford English Dictionary the definition is:

 The state of living unmarried. [f. L. cælib{amac}tus in same sense, f. cælebs, cælib-em unmarried, single: . (Cælebs, and its noun of state cælib{amac}tus, are the only cognate words found in Latin).] 

Theological tracts by the Vatican still uphold this traditional definition of the word. The earliest priests had wives and they were commanded to abstain from sex, something that is rather delightfully called 'clerical continence'. Later of course Catholic clergy were expected not to marry in the first place. You can see how easily chastity and celibacy came to be interchangeable in conversation.

Bah Tish Humbug! What is all the fuss about I hear you cry. Actually I can happily argue against myself on this one. I do believe the English language is a living thing and meanings do change.

Stephen Fry would be happy to be called 'gay' whether in the 1930's sense or that of the 1980's. I suppose my point is we should at least know what the words originally meant. 'Wicked' to a teenager of today is anything but sinful.

I of course revere Stephen as much as ever.

If I dare not mock a fellow Englishman, nay a national treasure no less, at least I can laugh at the mangling of our language by those for whom it is not the native tongue. So in the style of QI I leave you with this little morsel from a notice board in a hotel with a sunnier clime than ours...

If you wish breakfast, lift the telephone and our waitress will arrive. This will be enough to bring up your food.

Thank you and goodnight. 

Normal service will be resumed in the form of Inside Out which returns to your screens on October 18 2010.


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