Saturday, 3 June 2017

English language weekend update

One never knows, with a new idea like this, whether it will appeal, or whether the people who have asked for it will actually come, given all the uncertainties in life that have to be managed. The purpose of the Early Bird registration was to establish whether, as they say, we have a 'goer'. That period is now over, and I'm pleased to report that we do.
I'm told by the Ucheldre Centre that enough people took advantage of Early Bird registration to make the event viable. So it's definitely on, and I'm very much looking forward to it. It looks to be a very mixed group, with attendees coming from as far away as Japan, along with several English-language teachers from the UK. The variety of backgrounds will I think add greatly to the occasion, and I'm really looking forward to it.
Details about the event can be found in the previous post. Places can be reserved by contacting the Ucheldre Centre Box Office: boxoffice@ucheldre.org
phone: (+44) 1407 763361 (10 am - 5 pm weekdays, 2 - 5 pm Sundays)

post: David Crystal Summer Weekend, Ucheldre Centre, Mill Bank, Holyhead, LL65 1TE, UK


Monday, 6 March 2017

On an English language weekend

I've frequently been asked to put on a summer course for people unable to attend the various lectures I give to schools, literary festivals, and the like, and an opportunity has now arisen to do so. The Ucheldre community arts centre in Holyhead (the name means 'high town' in Welsh) is having a fund-raising campaign, and I've agreed to present a weekend in support. I paste below the flyer that has been produced for the event, which includes contact details.

David Crystal Summer Weekend on the English Language
For anyone interested in the English language and how it works

Saturday and Sunday 19-20 August 2017

David Crystal presents a series of his talks on the structure, use, and history of the English language in this two-day event, to be held in the Ucheldre Centre, Holyhead, Anglesey, North Wales. See www.ucheldre.org for the setting.

Day 1, 9.30 - 5.00
Language Structure - talks (including Q&A) on the structure of English, pronunciation, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and vocabulary.

Saturday evening is free, with the option of booking for dinner at the Ucheldre Centre and an evening musical concert.

Day 2, 9.30 - 5.00
Language Variation and Change - talks (including Q&A) on accents and dialects, the internet and texting, child language acquisition, the future of Englishes, language play and literature, and original pronunciation (with particular reference to Shakespeare).

Cost: £150 a day, to include buffet lunch, coffee and tea

Early Bird booking by 1 June 2017, £125 a day

Reserve a place by contacting
boxoffice@ucheldre.org
phone: (+44) 1407 763361 (10 am - 5 pm weekdays, 2 - 5 pm Sundays)
post: David Crystal Summer Weekend, Ucheldre Centre, Mill Bank, Holyhead, LL65 1TE, UK

On receipt of your reservation, you will be sent a registration form which will include a place to inform the Centre of any dietary/access requirements and whether you want to take up the dinner/concert options, as well as details of local accommodation, restaurants, and (if you want to bring family members) a list of Anglesey attractions.

Places are limited, so early booking is advised.

Nearest airports are Liverpool or Manchester; direct train service (3-4 hours) from London Euston; by road, at the end of the A55; ferry from Dublin.

The Ucheldre Centre has free wi-fi.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

On myths and the making of the OED


I've been pulled out of blog semi-retirement by a correspondent who watched the BBC TV show QI last week. It had a sequence on difficult-to-understand negatives, at which point one of the panellists (Gyles Brandreth) made a number of assertions about the size of vocabularies in languages, which my correspondent thought were wrong. She was right.

How many words in English? He said there were 500,000 in the OED. Wrong. There are well over 600,000 in the OED. And of course the OED doesn't claim to include every word in the language; it has, for example, always avoided including the most arcane scientific terms (see further below). The new presenter of QI, Sandi Toksvig, chipped in with 'a million' or more, but the point was drowned out. In fact, the only correct answer to the question is 'we don't know'. Once all the abbreviations, slang, regional dialect, global English lexicon, and specialized scientific vocabulary are added, we are talking about an unknown number of millions.

He then went on to say that English vocabulary is larger than that of other languages, which may well be true, given its global reach and its status as the first language of science, but then asserted that French has only 200,000 words and German half that. Again, absurd notions, based on the naive assumption that the words contained in the largest dictionaries equal the words in the language.

It's sad to see such errors still being trotted out. Still? See my post back in April 2009, 'On the biggest load of rubbish', when somebody claimed to have found the millionth word in English.

But to be more positive: the most wonderful book has just come out. I hate to use the word 'definitive' about any book, but this one justifies it. It is by Peter Gilliver, and it is called The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. In its 625 pages we get a blow-by-blow, at times even day-by-day account of the way the dictionary was conceived, planned, and implemented, from its origins in the mid-19th-century to the present day. He has trawled through all the correspondence in the Press's archives, and manages to weld everything he found into an engaging story of all those involved - not just the senior editors, but including everyone associated with the project, and not forgetting the secretarial assistants. He has actually written two books in one. Beneath the maintext is a footnote series that at times is a story in itself.

It is fascinating, because what comes to light is a tale of such human and dramatic character that it's amazing the dictionary was ever completed at all. I had no idea, for example, just how much the project was affected by illness, throughout its development. An attack of flu might cause a serious delay in the production schedule - and that was just one of the minor illnesses. Nor was I aware of how many differences of opinion there were between the editors (eg over how many scientific terms to include), between the editors and their academic advisors (including the Philological Society), and between the editors and the managers of the Press (over policy, deadlines, and, of course, money). Money is a recurring theme - from the Press's point of view, a hugely expensive project that needed to pay for itself over time, and, from the editorial point of view, a demanding schedule where salaries were dependent on productivity - a situation that inevitably took its toll on health and family life. Add to this concerns about reputation, both within the University and abroad, and the inevitable personality clashes, and we get a riveting story that Gilliver writes up brilliantly, even to the extent of giving us chapter-ending cliffhangers. I can easily imagine a television drama coming out of it.


Along with John Simpson's equally fascinating memoir, The Word Detective, it has been a great year for the OED. I'm making my own additional contribution next May, following up my book on the historical thesaurus, Words in Time and Place. The new one is to be called The Story of Be - a writing-up of the amazing amount of information on this tiny word to be found in the OED entry. Its sub-title: A verb's-eye view of the English language.

Monday, 20 June 2016

On Mundolingua

Last week I finally managed to get to see the amazing Mundolingua - the language museum in Paris founded by Mark Oremland a couple of years ago. I don't use the adjective lightly. He has managed to pack into two floors of a small building a remarkable array of pictures, books, artefacts, and interactive facilities relating to language, languages, and linguistics, all presented in a user-friendly and multingual way.
I had a personal interest in making my visit, as Mark describes his museum as a three-dimensional representation of my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. That may have been the starting-point, but in its range of illustrations the museum now goes well beyond what is in my book. And the ingenuity of the presentations has to be experienced.
Mundolingua is a must-see. It's on the south bank, and easy to find. Aim for the church of Saint Sulpice. Stand in front of it and Rue Servandoni is just around the corner on your right. A few metres down and Mundolingua is on your right. At the other end of the street are the Luxembourg gardens.

The museum is open every day between 10:00 and 19:00, with a modest entrance fee of just a few euros. Don't rush the visit. There is so much material that a language buff could spend a whole day here - or even two - exploring the collections in detail. The day I was there a group of visitors was sitting around a sociolinguistic exhibit with headphones, happily listening to usages in various languages. Another couple was by the phonetics chart copying the IPA sounds represented there.

I spent some time trying the braille quiz: a chart in front of you gives you all the braille letter codes, and then you place your hands under a cover and feel the message hidden there. I thought it would be easy and found it really challenging.
Mark has succeeded where other language museum projects, conceived on a larger scale, have failed. In a post on this blog in 2013 I described some of them, all of which have not gone ahead, usually for lack of financial support. Mundolingua is the exception, and it needs all the support it can get. The day I visited there were quite a few people looking around, but there are days, I was told, when there are no visitors at all. So spread the news. Tour Eiffel? Tick. Louvre? Tick. Mundolingua? Tick.





Tuesday, 14 June 2016

On a dialect labour of love, and a Hopkins illustration

The Disappearing Dictionary (2015) has just been published in paperback. It was my attempt to celebrate the amazing English Dialect Dictionary compiled by Joseph Wright over a century ago - a dictionary that has been unjustly neglected. But not any more. Wright has been brought into the internet age by a team from the English Department at the University of Innsbruck (Dr Reinhard Heuberger, Dr Manfred Markus), who have put the whole work (all six volumes of it) online in a beautifully presented searchable website at EDD Online. It has taken them ages, but what a resource we now have! Anyone interested in English dialects will revel in it.

I revelled, a few months ago. I was asked to give the annual Gerard Manley Hopkins lecture at Liverpool Hope University, so I chose as my subject to follow up the clue seen in a letter written by Hopkins to his mother on 13 March 1888:

'I am making a collection of Irish words and phrases for the great English Dialect Dictionary, and am in correspondence with the editor.'

No copy of what he sent has been found in his collected papers. Several scholars, as a consequence, have tried to find them all, but with around 117,500 senses in the Dictionary as a whole, many of which take up many columns, it was not an easy task. Norman Mackenzie was one who began to wade through the EDD, but gave up. Norman White, in English Studies 68/4 (1987) found 89 locations. Did he find them all?

Hopkins must have impressed Wright, for he is not listed in the lists of voluntary readers or correspondents, but in the 'list of unprinted collections of dialect words quoted in the dictionary by the initials of the compilers'. A member of the dialect elite, in other words. And an early one: Wright wasn't approached to be editor until mid-1887 (there's a letter from Professor Skeat, 13 June, reprinted in his wife's biography, The Life of Joseph Wright), so Hopkins must have been one of the earliest contributors if he was in correspondence just nine months later.

Thanks to EDD Online, it proved an easy matter to find a named contributor. I simply typed the string G.M.H. into the appropriate search box, and up came the answer. There are 92 entries attributed to him. Norman White was almost right.

Wright used 49 of Hopkins' examples; the rest are shown simply as G.M.H. In one entry (become) it's unclear just how much of the preceding text came from Hopkins. In (chiuc) and (uncared), Hopkins is the only evidence for the entry.

Other points. The list shows an awareness of dialect grammar (containing grammatical words such as and, be, but), as well as lexical items. Two entries are observations rather than illustrations: avail of, hockey. Three entries show his personal background very well: bloody wars, boy, and especially (and amusingly) craw. And most of the entries relate to words beginning with A, B, and C. Evidently other events in Hopkins' life soon took him away from dialects.

able for, fit to cope with
Ireland. Ah, he'd never be able for the attornies, Paddiana (1848) I.28

admire at Limerick. 'Tis to be admired at - such a long distance traversed between Ireland and America so fast.

afraid, conj, lest, for fear that
Dublin. Run indoors, God bless you, for afraid the cows'd run over you [said to a child by a man driving cows]

after, prep, behind
Ireland. I left him after me.

after, when used with a progressive tense to indicate a completed action.
Ireland. I am after dining [I have dined]

to be after, (5) the word also conveys the idea of a state or condition in the immediate future, and (6) of a recently completed action
(5) Ireland. The child is after the measles. (6) I am after my dinner.

again, adv, at a future time, by-and-by
Ireland. I didn't do it yet, but I'll do it again.

alannah, sb, Ireland. my child
Alana, properly 'my child'; used as a friendly or affectionate word of address, especially to the speaker's junior

all out, adv, completely, altogether, fully
Ireland. Not far from sixty [years of age], if he was not sixty all out.

and, conj, to introduce a nominative absolute, sometimes with ellipsis of v.
Ireland. See all the people and they laughing! How could I say it an' me an me oath? [said by a witness before the Times Allegations Commission]
Kildare. I walked in the garden, and hid [it] in bloom [it being in bloom], Oral ballad.

any more, for the future
Northern Ireland. A servant being instructed how to act, will answer, 'I will do it any more'.

arrah, int, an exclamation of surprise
Tipperary. 'Arrah, sweet myself!' said a youth after making a good hit at cricket, as he thought, unheard.

at, prep, motion to, arrival at a place or condition
Ireland. To call at [visit a person].

at all, used in positive clauses; absolutely, altogether
Ireland. It's the greatest fun at all.

at all, at all
Limerick. GMH [no example]

avail of, to take advantage of.
Ireland. Used freely in all newspapers.

ballyrag, v, to abuse violently, to scold or revile in bad language
Ireland. GMH [no example]

bang, v, to beat, surpass, excel, outdo
Ireland. That bangs Bannagher, and Bannagher bangs the devil [Bannagher is a town in King's County]

be, prep, forming the first unemphatic syllable of oaths
Ireland. Begorra, bedad, begonnies. If your bees are as big as ponies and your hives no bigger than ours are, how do your bees get into your bee-hives? - Begob, that's their own affair, Pop. story. [also used as the example at begob]

become, v, in phr. it well becomes
Tipperary. Ironical phr. 'Well becomes me, &c., that is, 'And a fool I am for my pains.' It may govern a v. with to, expressing what it was that was foolishly done; as, ' 'Twell becomes me to have taken all that trouble.' (GMH) [unclear which bits are GMH's]

bedad, int, An exclamation, a disguised oath.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

begob, int, uses the same example as in be above

begonnies, int, an exclamation
GMH [no example shown here: see be above]

begorra, int [no example shown here: see be above]

behold, v, in phr. behold you, and behold you of it, mark you, do not overlook this point.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

bet, v, past tense of beat
Ireland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]

better, adv, in phr, I am better to, I had better, it is better for me to.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

beyond, adv, yonder, outside
GMH [no example]

beyond, in phr, beyond the beyond(s), unexpected, incredible, out of the way; a very out-of-the-way place.
GMH [no example]

blarney, sb, persuasive talk, flattery, humbug.
GMH [no example]

Blarney-stone, in phr, to have taken a lick of the Blarney-stone, to have the gift of flattery or persuasiveness.
Ireland. A certain stone in the walls of Castle Blarney in Co. Cork, the kissing or licking of which is fabled to convey the gift of blarney.

blarney, v, to flatter, persuade; to wheedle
Ireland. GMH [no example]

blood, sb, in phr. blood or blur and ouns
GMH [no example]

bloody wars, adj, serious consequences; also used as an exclamation of annoyance.
Ireland. If the Pope makes Dr. X. Archbishop there'll be bloody wars.

bo, sb, in bo-man, a name used to frighten children.
Ireland. GMH N.I. [no example, and no other Irish example given]

bodach, sb, an old man; a churl
Ireland. GMH [no example]

bold, adj, Of children: naughty fractious, ill-behaved.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

boodie, sb, in boodie-man, a bugbear, a bogey
Ireland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]

boreen, sb, a narrow lane, a byroad; a passage.
Ireland. He hasn't sense enough to drive a pig down a boreen.

bosthoon, sb, a big, awkward fellow; a witless, senseless, tactless fellow.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

bouchal, sb, a boy; a youth or young man.
Ireland. two instances of GMH [no example]; also buachailin [no example]

boy, sb, a male human being of any age and condition, esp, if unmarried
Tipperary. There's a boy over from the Pope, and Archbishop Croke went on his knees to him [said by a Tipperary man of Monsignior Persico, the Commissary Apostolic 1888]

bring, v, in bring and take, fetch and carry.
Ireland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]

bugaboo, sb, a hobgoblin, ghost; an imaginary object of terror.
Ireland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]

busy, adj, in to be busy growing, to grow fast.
Ireland. The corn is busy growing.

but, conj, just, only, though; used as an exclamation.
Louth. It is but! - It isn't but!

but, in phr, be done or damned but, actually, really; used as an exclamation.
Ireland. They won't send you a bailiff with the writ; no, but it's by post it would come, be done but.

cailey, sb, a call, friendly visit, chat, gossip among neighbours.
Meath, Dublin, Kildare. To go on caley [to go about gossiping]

call, v, in call to, to call on, pay a visit
Ireland. GMH [no example]

call, v. in call to, to check, chide
Ireland. Call to this fellow; he is hitting me.

care, v, to take care of, to tend.
Ireland. To care a horse or a room.

carry, v, to take, convey, conduct.
Ireland. 'If you are going out will you carry us with you?' said by schoolboys to their master. That is the wagonette we carried to Powerscourt.

castle-top, sb, a peg-top.
Galway. GMH [no example]

cess, sb, a rate, tax.
Ireland. County cess, borough cess.

cess, sb, luck, success, gen. used in comb, Bad cess, bad luck.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

chiuc, sb, Ireland. A hook or sickle to shear or cut grass with.
Antrim. Go and get me the chiuc till I shear some grass. [sole example for the entry]

clifted, pp, fallen or thrown over a cliff.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

clout, sb, a nail.
Ireland. Heavy shoe-nail.

coat, sb, in phr with his coat buttoned behind, looking like a fool.
Ireland. Here comes Paddy from Cork with his coat buttoned behind.

cod, v, to sham, humbug, hoax, impose upon, lie.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

cod, sb, a humbug; a hoax, imposition, lie.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

cod, v, to sham, humbug
Ireland. GMH [no example]

cod, sb, a simpleton, dupe.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

compliment, sb, a favour conferring an obligation; the obligation so contracted.
Dublin. 'He is not a man that I should like to be under a compliment to' - said of someone of whom it was proposed to ask a favour.

conacre, sb, to hire or let land 'in conacre'.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

conacre, v, the sub-letting of land to a tenant, who acquires the use of the land to raise one or two crops and nothing further.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

convenient, adj, near.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

couple, sb, a few, several, more than two.
Ireland. 'I cursed (or 'was drunk') a couple of times' means I have done so now and then.

craw, sb, in comp craw-thumper, a term of ridicule for a very devout person, who, in praying, beats his breast.
Ireland. Lit. one who thumps, heavily beats, the craw, the breast, in saying the confiteor or other prayers.

creel, sb, a turf-cart, crate
Ireland. GMH [no example]

creepie, sb, a low, three-legged stoool, gen. used by children.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

croft, sb, a glass water-bottle for the table or bedroom.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

cruel, adv, used as an intensive: exceedingly, very.
Dublin. I'm powerful weak but cruel easy [I am very weak but quite at my ease], said by a sickman. A cruel good lady.

cruiskeen, sb, a small jug for holding liquor; a pitcher.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

cry, v, in phr cry the mare, a ritual shouted by the first farm-workers in a parish to finish the harvest.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

go with, v, fall over.
Waterford. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]

have, v, followed by a direct object and pp.
Ireland. 'I am sorry I have kept your book so long.' 'It is no matter: I had it read.' That woman has me annoyed. She has my heart broke.

hockey, sb, a harvest-home or supper; the last load in harvest.
Ireland. The game also called 'Hooky' and 'Crying the Mare'.

let, v, used as an auxiliary with the second person imperative, instead of do.
Limerick. Let you go this way and I will go that.

let, v, in let round a dicad, to recite a decade of the rosary.
Ireland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]

let on, v, to pretend, feign; to make a pretence or show of.
Ireland. One of the conspirators who murdered Caesar 'let on to pleas for his brother.' 'I didn't let on to hear,' I pretended not to hear.

let, v, to give out, emit; to utter, give forth.
Ireland. He let a shout.

on, in phr to blame on, to lay the blame on.
Ireland. GMH [no example]

rise, v, to raise, cause to rise; to lift up; to rouse, stir up.
Ireland. They rose a cheer. God will rise me a friend.

shall, v, used in the 1st person to express will or intention.
Dublin. He should have his meat tender. His meat should be tender.

shall, v, used to express insistence or duty.
Dublin. 'Leave it in my room.' 'I shall, Ireland.'

times, sb, in phr a couple of times, occasionally; more than once.
Ireland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]

uncared, adj, Ireland. Untended; uncared for.
GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given] [sole reference for the entry]

will, aux v. Preterite. Used instead of 'could'.
Ireland. They had fever on board and they would not be allowed to land [and the people on shore would not allow them to]

will, aux v. Used for 'should have'.
Ireland. 'I sat where I should have seen him' becomes 'where I would see him'

yees, pron, you; used when speaking to more than one person.
Dublin. How long did yiz get?

yerrah, int, an exclamation of surprise.
Limerick. Yerra, be aisy! [Come, be easy.]

Saturday, 11 June 2016

On the reported death of the full-stop / period

It's amazing how a small point (literally) makes the headlines. Last week I gave a talk at the Hay Festival about my book on punctuation, Making A Point. Towards the end, I illustrated the way the use of the full-stop (period) was changing in fast-moving dialogue settings on the Internet and in short-messaging services - being omitted at the ends of statements, and used only when the writer wanted to add an emotional charge to what's being said. This sort of thing:

John's coming to the party [statement of fact]
John's coming to the party. [Oh dear!]

My general point was to warn people against accepting uncritically the kinds of definition often made when children are being taught punctuation, such as 'A sentence must end with a full-stop'. It's important to draw their attention to the limitations of such a definition. To start with, it should be 'A statement...', contrasting the full-stop with other forms of sentence-final punctuation (?, !, ...), but it's also important to acknowledge that there are many exceptions. Look around you: public signs (WAY OUT - elliptical for the statement 'This is the way out'), for instance, typically don't end with full-stops. Headlines in newspapers don't end with full-stops (these days - a different story in Victorian times). Abbreviations such as BBC and Mr dropped their full-stops during the last century. And on the Internet, in certain settings where it's obvious from the layout that a sentence has ended, they are being omitted.

As John Humphreys once said, in the Spectator, the job of a journalist is to simplify and exaggerate. And that's what happened. My point got reported on the front page of the Telegraph - front page, no less - and the online site had the headline 'Full stop falling out of fashion thanks to instant messaging'. Note the generalization. Whereas I was saying that the full-stop was changing in instant messaging (and the like), the paper reports it as changing everywhere because of instant messaging.

Unsurprisingly, as papers and radio programmes steal from each other all the time, Chinese-whisper-like, the drama increased. And when it got to the New York Times - the front page again - the headline read 'A Full Stop for Periods?' and the opening paragraph made a summary that then spread all over the globe: 'One of the oldest forms of punctuation may be dying'. And the writer went on:

The period ... is gradually being felled in the barrange of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age

He used no full-stop at the end of his paragraph, or elsewhere in the article. It was a clever trope, but it went well beyond what I was saying, for there is no evidence at all that the full-stop is being less used in conventional writing, such as in newspaper articles. The writer's joke worked because he restricted his piece to single-sentence paragraphs. If he had used more than one sentence per paragraph he would soon have had to rely on the full-stop to make his writing easy to read.

So the full-stop is not dying, outside the circumstances I mentioned above. But in journalism, who cares about qualifying comments like that? Death always makes a good story, so why mess it up? And thus, in the last 24 hours, we see these headlines:

The period is dead - but so what? (Bostom Globe)
Period coming to a full stop (The Straits Times)
Has the period reached the point of no return? (San Diego Uninon-Tribune)
The period is dead. Long live the period. (Huffington Post)
Full stop? There is no point (The Telegraph, Calcutta)

Doubtless many more in the next 24. And my in-box is filling up with people who are wanting to draw my attention to the fact that the change in usage is context-restricted - which is of course what I was saying in the first place.

I'm hugely impressed by the fact that punctuation makes front-page news in a way that other aspects of language don't. But the journalistic treatment reinforces my main pedagogical point: that when children are being taught about punctuation, they need to be told about the mixed usage that is part of everyday orthographic experience, and not be given (or tested on!) rules that work only some of the time. Oversimplification is the curse of orthography. Fortunately, the body-copy in the articles above did usually address the complexity to some extent. But people remember the headlines, which were as misleading as the old mantra 'A sentence must end with a full-stop'.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

On Philomena Cunk, the name

A correspondent writes - having just watched Ben et al on Philomena Cunk's programme on Shakespeare - to ask why the name sounds so funny. Her name, that is, not Ben's.

This is all to do with the phonaesthetics of English. I've written about it before, such as in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, and about the general topic of sound symbolism in the Language encylopedia. There are two opposing trends:

Short vowels, plosive consonants, and monosyllables tend to be used when you want to give someone a funny or quirky (and meaningless) name - Plip, Togg, Puck ... I remember Blackadder having great fun with the name Bob once. If the sound sequence has echoes of taboo words, so much the better. Cunk inevitably brings to mind ... well, you know.

Long vowels, continuant consonants such as /l/ and /m/, and polysyllables (three or more) tend to be used when you want to give someone a gentle or romantic (and meaningless) name - Lamonian, Manderley, Ramalini ... Real names include Mariana, Valentine - and Philomena.

So it's the juxtaposition of the opposing phonaesthetic effects that provides the effect my correspondent has sensed in the name Philomena Cunk. It's a well-tried literary trick: Roald Dahl's Amanda Thripp, J K Rowling's Arabella Figg, Dr Seuss's Bartholomew Cubbins...