26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 24

Mind your language

AN eagle-eyed reader, Mrs Margaret Barman of Barton-upon-Humber (where there is a fine Saxon church), has set me a poser.

Before I get on to that, let me men- tion, while I remember, a wonderful sighting of the pervasive 'Millennium'.

My husband, of all people, showed it to me. It is on a leaflet announcing, `Colonoscopy beyond the Millennium: an international masterclass'. This is a one-day seminar for colon-gazing doc- tors which, its organisers say, 'promises to be an educational, informative and fun day!' (Their exclamation mark, not mine.) Well, back to Mrs Barman, who noticed that one week The Spectator printed the adjective loath (Paul John- son) and the next week loth (James Delingpole). She wonders if The Specta- tor has a view.

Both are correct and The Spectator, I learn, leans to the latter, only because it is the form given first by the Chambers dictionary, which is easier to use for ref- erence than the Oxford English Dictio- nary (although the OED puts loath first).

Surprisingly, the opinionated New Oxford Dictionary of English passes no comment. But Chambers' so-called 21st Century Dictionary has a weird note in a little box: 'Loath, lothe. These words are often confused with each other.' I don't know what they mean by lothe. The OED records lothe as an alterna- tive for lewth meaning 'warmth' or `shelter', but I have never heard anyone use it. Presumably Chambers' lathe is itself an error for loathe, the verb. I must say that when the dictionaries get it wrong it makes it harder for the rest of us.

As for The Spectator, it does have a house style for spelling. There are huge numbers of words that may be spelt in various ways (spelt is one). You might have noticed that The Spectator does not attempt to keep up the -ise, -ire dis- tinction, for example. But it uses judg- ment.

I cannot pretend I mind if it carries loath one week and loth the next, or absinth and absinthe, or even wisteria and wistaria (about which I have a bee in my Wisteria Lodge bonnet). Jane Austen wrote gray; Shaw, for all his spelling reformism, wrote shew (he was Irish). We who know how to spell accommodate can surely accommodate variant spellings of other words.

Dot Wordsworth