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Psycho Killer: Qu’est-ce que c’est?


And well might you ask, Talking Heads, well might you ask. Is a psycho killer a killer of psychos, or a psycho who kills? It’s a crucial distinction. We’ve been dealing with this particular grammatical point at home today.

This morning May Blossom realised her face was covered with mosquito bites. The rest of the family already knew, but we’d decided not to mention it because we could do without the drama.

But you can’t stop the drama, because mirrors exist. Once she caught sight of her face she was very angry about the spots, in a sort of Why Does Everything Bad Always Happen To Me? way, which, to be fair, it sort of does. Actually, that depends on your opinion of whether something like, say, putting her hand through the upstairs window last night and getting cut (not badly) was something that just happened to her or something more that was a result of her running on her bed (FORBIDDEN) towards the window and tripping. I tend towards the latter theory, in which she had more agency. She did not appreciate me mentioning that theory when we were steri-stripping her wound.

But back to psychos and grammar. She was furious about the mozzies and Garnet, who is a problem solver, declared, ‘I will kill them!’

Because I don’t approve of killing, as a general rule, I didn’t ask him how, but that didn’t matter because he was going to tell me anyway.

‘I’ll bullet them!’

‘Right, two things,’ I said. ‘Bullet isn’t a verb, and anyway, I think mosquitos might be too small to shoot.’ Popping holes in the balloons of children’s imaginations — bulletins them, if you will — is my number-one hobby.

‘Aha,’ said Garnet, in the manner of one who has a cunning plan. ‘But I will shoot them with THIS!’

In triumph he held aloft a plastic caterpillar toy, a gesture which made an enormous amount of no sense at all.

‘This,’ he explained, ‘is a baby toy. So I am going to use it to kill the mozzies, because I am a baby who kills mozzies. I am called …the Baby Killer!’

‘The Baby Killer?’

‘The Baby Killer!’

May Blossom looked up from drawing with her right hand while trying to remember to hold her left, slightly damaged hand, like a kitten with a broken paw. ‘That sounds like you kill babies.’

‘No, I am a baby killer!’

‘It still sounds like you kill babies.’

‘I don’t kill babies. I kill mozzies. I am baby who kills mozzies.’

‘I understand that,’ I told him, ‘I just think you’re gong to have a hard time marketing yourself with a name like “The Baby Killer”.’

Despite having spent my entire working life correcting people’s grammar and spelling before allowing their books to go to the printer, I am very bad at explaining why things are they way they are in the English language.

I couldn’t explain to Garnet why the word ‘baby’ doesn’t, in this case, describe the noun ‘killer’. In my work as an editor I’ve generally just relied on my innate sense of authority to make authors believe what I tell them about language; to take me at my word when I tell them to change something because it’s grammatically incorrect. In hindsight, I have no idea how I got away with this for so long.

I must have something to do with the way we aren’t taught much formal grammar in schools anymore, and how authors feel ashamed that they often can’t describe which parts of language are which and how they are functioning, and they assume I know more so they let me tell them what to do. I tell you, it’s been the blind leading the blind since they stopped teaching Latin at primary school.

When it comes to my children I haven’t got much sense of authority, innate or otherwise, except that I can reach the cupboard where the chocolate is kept, so I think Garnet will go on believing what he wants to about how language works. He will go on calling himself the Baby Killer and wondering why his aunt stops bringing his three-month-old cousin over to play. There are some lessons you just have to learn in your own time.

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