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Drowning in a tsundoku

12 Jun

There is a word in Japanese, they tell me, that means letting books pile up without reading them: tsundoku. I don’t speak Japanese, but it sounds appropriate, reminding me both of sudoku, something stressful and time-consuming, and tsunami, which is what happens when your to-read pile becomes unstable.

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Neologophilia (or, the joy of made-up words)

26 Mar
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Barter Books

Last weekend I experienced the pure joy that is Barter Books in Alnwick. (Pronounced ANNick, apparently. Never teach your child to read using British place names.) It is an old station complete with buffet and waiting room, all converted into a massive second hand bookshop. There are open fires, toy trains, snatches of poetry stuck up in odd places. It is a wonderful place to spend a few hours. It is also a wonderful place to contemplate the lovely word “vellichor”.

Vellichor is from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, and has a very specific definition, which I will give in full:

the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.

It’s obviously related to petrichor, the smell the earth gives off when it rains after a dry spell. It’s not too much of a stretch to get from the smell of vellum (ok, books are made of paper these days, but you get the idea) to the feelings it conjurs up in you. (I, in fact, don’t feel melancholy in old bookshops. Vellichor to me smells like endless exciting possibilities, the widening of horizons. But that’s beside the point.)

Vellichor and petrichor are both, of course, made-up words. Petrichor was invented in the 1960s, vellichor much more recently. Calling them made-up words sounds dismissive, as if they were less than real words. In fact, of course, all words were made up to start with. Usually not from scratch – there are prefixes, suffixes and roots enough to keep us all happily neologising for decades. I made up the title of this post, then a quick web search showed me that plenty of other people had beaten me to it. (One of them said “This is a Latin word I’ve made up.” Spot the deliberate mistake, those who care about that sort of thing.)

Then there’s the verbing of nouns (whatever your view on the acceptibility of it) and the reverse and so on. There are acronyms (laser) and words made out of people’s names (lynch) and ‘borrowings’ from other languages (although we never give them back).

Then there are those who deliberately make up words for fun, rather than to express something they’re trying to say. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is one example, the Dictionary of Liff is another. It uses place names such as Corriecraving to come up with liffs – words for things that there aren’t words for yet.

When it’s done well, you can’t tell that a neologism had just been made up at all. It sounds right, it feels right, and you can see how you could use it. When it’s done badly you end up with abominations like “framily” and “guesstimate”, which add nothing of value to the language, and carry a real risk of making my toes curl so much that I’ll require foot surgery.

Shakespeare was a famous neologiser. He gave us an astonishing range, from “dwindle” to “hint” to “fancy-free”. Of course, we don’t actually know which ones he made up himself, and which he was simply the first to record. Unless you were there when a word was made up, or made it up yourself, you can’t say for sure.

I remember when I read the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake, many years ago. There were so many words in it that I didn’t know, that I started reading it with a pocket dictionary beside me. The pocket dictionary couldn’t cope, so I bought a much bigger dictionary, but that didn’t contain all the words either. Did Mervin Peake make them up? Quite possibly, but as even the biggest dictionary doesn’t contain every word in the English language, I just don’t know. When I reread them someday, I’ll presumably have a smartphone at my side, and see if that gets me any further.

In the meantime, happy neologising, and if you have a couple of spare minutes, enjoy this classic from Blackadder with some very mischievous coining indeed!

Gaudeamus igitur linguam latinam dum loquimur

28 Dec

(Let us rejoice, therefore, because we speak Latin.) Christmas is one of the few times that speaking, or at least singing Latin is commonplace. You may well have belted out the words “gloria in excelsis”, “in dulce jubilo” or (if you’re hardcore) “adeste fideles” yourself this festive season. While teaching the Sunday school about Christmas I noticed how ubiquitous it is at this time of year. “What does ‘advent’ mean?” “It’s from the Latin for ‘arrive’.” “What does’ nativity’ mean?” “It’s from the Latin for ‘born’.” And so on. It’s not just in church that you find Latin though. There are bestsellers other than the Bible that benefit from a little Latin magic – literally, in the case of Harry Potter. Most of the spells taught at Hogwarts are just instructions in slightly mangled Latin, and there are secret wee clues on the books for Latin speakers, too. I was kicking myself when I discovered the secret about Remus Lupin because it was there in his name all the time. J K Rowling isn’t the only author putting her classical education to use. The author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, uses a lot of Greek and especially Roman references, particularly in the names of Capitoline characters. When I found out that the name of Panem, her fictional land, was from panem et circenses, bread and circuses – the only things the Emperor Tiberius said Romans cared about – it gave me a lovely satisfied feeling all day, it was so right. The moral, clearly, is if you want to write a best-selling book for younger readers, speak Latin. In all seriousness, though, Latin is amazingly useful. I often say that it was the most useful subject I ever studied (barring reading, writing and arithmetic, which are the sine qua non of any education) and that’s no exaggeration. In Latin classes I learnt not only how to read Latin (although that’s sometimes handy) but also European history and geography (which weren’t really covered in History and Geography classes at that time, due to the vagaries of educational fashion). I picked up the bones of all Latin languages, so that I have an advantage when it comes to understanding Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and even Romanian. What’s more, by studying a dead language I learnt how to take a language apart, understand its components, and put it back together again. That has made it so much quicker and easier for me to pick up any language, as well as making my English grammar pretty much impeccable – no bad thing for a writer. Latin classes were also my first introduction to another culture, one that still fascinates me now. It was because I enjoyed GCSE Latin that I went on to study Classical Civilisation at A Level, and then Ancient History at university. If I hadn’t learnt Latin I might never have met my darling Alexander, and would almost certainly not have written my new book Augustine: The Truth Seeker. It’s no exaggeration to say that the course my life (my curriculum vitae, if you like) would have been quite different if I had never studied Latin. For centuries, Latin was the international language, spoken by all educated people (although admittedly the proportion of people who were educated was a lot lower than it is now). All those old documents and inscriptions in Latin were written not so that people couldn’t read them, but so that they could. With a knowledge of Latin you could study at any university in Europe in the Middle Ages, because that was the language they all taught in. Even today, the University of St Andrews (my alma mater) uses Latin in its graduation ceremony, so that I became a Master of Arts by the use of the secret magic words “et super te”, or Super Ted, as we liked to call it. These days, Latin is a bit of an elite pursuit, usually available as a subject only at private schools. I think that’s a terrible shame. Such a useful subject (and an enjoyable one, if you do the Cambridge Latin Course) should be available to everyone. So if you ever do get the chance to study Latin, seize it! Or to put it another way, carpe diem! For those of you who already speak Latin (or rather, read it, since conversational Latin isn’t very useful), here’s a wee Christmas treat to make you smile: image

What you think, you are.

19 Aug

If I hadn’t lived in Albania I would have been very confused by the way my Italian lodger empties the dishwasher. Glasses, pans and spoons pose no problem, but bowls are placed on a pile of plates, and plates on a pile of bowls, totally at random. Wooden spoons and spatulas find their place, but kitchen knives are nestled next to table knives.

Because I lived in Albania, where they obviously have a similar approach to cutlery and crockery, I know that he didn’t just get fed up half way through and stop caring where he put stuff. Instead, if his culture is like Albania’s, it makes no distinction between plates and (eating) bowls, or between kitchen knives and table knives. To fit out our kitchen in Tirana we got a pile of shallow bowls which served for everything from soup to bread and jam, and after searching in vain for proper table knives we got a packet of the awkward plastic knives that everyone else had – too sharp to be safe at the table, too small and blunt to be useful in the kitchen.

What interests me about this is not so much what plates different cultures eat off (although I’m sure there’s a PhD in there for someone), but the way our cultural assumptions affect the way we think,  behave and even see. My Italian lodger has perfectly good eyes and, if he stopped to think about it, could see that there is a pile of flat plates next to a pile of concave plates, but since he thinks of them all as plates, he doesn’t see it, so he slots them in at random. Similarly, in his mind knives are knives, so the fact that there is a cutlery drawer and a separate utensil drawer gives him no pause.

This sort of thing is often connected to language. In Albania, ‘pillow’ and ‘cushion’ are the same word, and people do seem more ready to use cushions as pillows than they would be here. A dislike of moths combined with a liking for butterflies strikes people as illogical, since they are both flutura.

It works the other way round, too. To me, there are different kinds of brushes but they are all still brushes. In Albanian there are two distinct words, so you have to think about what you’re using the brush for. Is it a sweeping motion (fshes) or a scrubbing / stroking motion (furce)? When you ‘change’ something, are you exchanging one thing for another (nderroj), or changing the form or substance of the thing itself (ndryshoj)?

All very boring if you’re not interested in comparative linguistics, I’m sure, but it has an application in our own language as well. There’s no male equivalent of ‘slut’, for instance, or any of its many synonyms. Also, ‘mistress’ might be the feminine equivalent of ‘master’, but it does not mean the same thing. There are well-known derogatory terms in British English for most ethnic groups, but not for white people. These things might seem tiny, but they do colour our thinking, because words are the tools we use to think about the world; they are the lens through which we see it. It is a good thing to be aware of the deficiencies of your lens.

George Orwell understood the power of words when he described “newspeak”. You can read about it in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a brilliant but disturbing book.  You can also hear newspeak in real life, if you keep your ears open, especially when listening to politicians. (‘Efficiencies’ for ‘cuts’ would be one example.)

As for the title of this post, it comes from an excellent quote attributed to Methodist minister Norman Vincent Peale:

“You are not what you think you are. But what you think, you are.”

Scots, Scottish English and Scottishness

11 Aug

I really ought to be studying Latin just now (I’m trying to get my Latin A-level. It’s a long story.) but instead I find myself thinking about Scots. Scots is what we in Scotland call our language. It sometimes gets called “the Scottish dialect”, since it is a branch of English, but it’s actually (if you want to get technical) a national language variant rather than a dialect. Anyway, what it’s called is not really the point, the important thing is what it contains, in terms of language, and who uses it.

What set me off thinking in this vein was the Pollok Park Family Day last Saturday. There were lots of animals in a big muddy field (it was a lot better than that makes it sound), and commentating on the various animals and activities was a Scottish man. That’s hardly surprising, as Pollok Park is in Glasgow. (It is a very impressive country park, incidentally, and home to the Burrell Collection amongst other things.)

This Scottish man used lots of Scottish words – muckle, clatty, that sort of thing. The problem was that they didn’t sound natural. He sounded as if he had a list of “Authentic Scottish Words for Speakers at Scottish Events” and he was determined to squeeze in as many as he could. It left me feeling a bit ambivalent. I don’t want these words to die out, and they will if the younger generation doesn’t hear them, but then what’s the point in having them if they’re only party pieces, words that you have to go out of your way to use, and pat yourself on the back when you do?

A lot of people still do use Scots words, including those who don’t realise they do. People in the rougher parts of Glasgow could never be mistaken for speakers of the Queen’s English, but at the upper end of the Scots spectrum is something sometimes known as Scottish English, which is what they speak in the Holyrood (the Parliament) and what you find in business letters here. Most Scottish people would think it was just English with a Scottish accent, except that there’s the odd wee difference that you would only notice if you weren’t Scottish, such as the word “outwith”: Perfectly acceptable and rather formal within Scotland, but unfamiliar outwith it.

A better example of how Scots can work as a modern language is found, rather surprisingly, in the Disney film Brave. It’s set in some unspecified medieval period, but the people speak more or less modern Scots. Not the full-on, Rabbie Burns version, but it features plenty of vocabulary, and even grammar, that isn’t found in standard English. (I did enjoy the line “[A princess] disnae stuff her gob!”) It doesn’t all ring true, but the vast majority of it does, probably because the actors are actually Scottish. And there’s a wee gem in the film for Scottish language enthusiasts – a lad who speaks Doric (the dialect of the North East) and is completely unintelligible to the rest of the folks speaking ‘standard’ Scots.

Of course, the reason I take such an interest in the subject is that I don’t really speak Scots myself. I lived in England for many formative years, and although I can understand Scots (except Doric – no-one understands that), speaking it comes about as naturally to me as the pointedly Scottish words did to the MC at Pollok Park. I, therefore, will not be much use in preserving the language except as a semi-external observer. But then, as Rabbie said, isn’t one of the greatest gifts “tae see oursels as ithers see us”?

Sightly Thoughts on Gruntlement

31 Mar

Many years ago, during English Language A-Level, a friend and I began thinking about words that have no positive equivalents. Unintentional, for instance, corresponds to intentional, but what does unsightly correspond to? I’ve never heard anyone describe anything as ‘sightly’.

The list is longer than you might think. It all started with disgruntled – a great word in itself, but wouldn’t gruntled be good, too? Ruthless and reckless attracted our attention as well. The Government should be running a campaign urging us all to drive reckfully.

A lot of these are what called fossil words – words that are preserved inside other words, in this case their negative versions. Reck, ruth and gorm used to actually be things, and people would use them in sentences, but they have died out, leaving only confusing traces in reckless, ruthless and gormless.

The issue sprang back to mind many years later because someone on the radio ticked Madonna off for singing “nothing’s indestructible”, criticising the phrase as a double negative. Leaving aside the fact that the criticism was based on a misunderstanding of the double negative rule (which is itself a silly rule), what was she supposed to have said? “Everything is destructable”? Is that a word?

Below is the list of these positive equivalents that are never used, as far as I know. It is nowhere near exhaustive and suggestions for additions will be considered ruthfully.

(The friend, by the way, was Kerry Smallman, who these days produces weird European house music, if you want to check it out.)

Advertant Gusting (As in disgusting, not as in wind. Although wind can be quite disgusting… )
Destructable Ruthful
Reckful Gruntled
Molish Wieldy
Effable Combobulated
Disestablishmentarianism Couth
Feckful Gormful
Defatigable Scathed (although we do have scathing)
Souciance Nominious
Pointful Sightly
Kempt Card (as in discard)
Aimfully Eluctable
Hapless Pudent
Vincible Moralised (as an adjective)
Concerting Dupitably
Solent Dolent
Gainly Punity
Evitable  

Constant Corriecraving, or The Awkwardness of Almost Strangers

18 Nov

I have a problem. It doesn’t blight my life but it does create regular moments of social awkwardness. I pass the same guy on the way to work most days, and sometimes on the way home, too. I don’t know him, I know nothing about him, but obviously I recognise him since I’ve seen him several times a week for years. You’d think we’d have struck up an acquaintance over the years. We haven’t. In fact we are condemned to what the Meaning of Liff dictionary would call ‘corriecraving’, without the relief of ‘corriedoo’.

It’s not just him, though. There are all the people who wait at the same small station as me every morning and get the same train to the same destination. I know most of them by sight but etiquette demands that I pretend not to, and we are only permitted to talk to each other when the trains are disrupted.

I once broke this law. In a fit of high spirits after receiving some good news I cheerily wished one of my fellow passengers good morning. Did this break the ice? Did I then have a companion to greet each morning? No, it just made things worse, because then I had to see this incomplete stranger every morning with the added awkwardness of knowing that I had once wished him a cheery good morning. Luckily for me, he soon moved away.

As for my corriecraving companion, that problem should soon be solved, too, since I’m leaving that place of work. Not because of him, of course, but it won’t be one of the things I’ll miss.

The Joys of Dyslexia

19 Jul

Tom Pellerau, who astonishingly won The Apprentice despite being a nice chap, was talking on “You’re Hired” about how his dyslexia had been a boon to him, allowing him to turn around inventions in his mind, a thing that other people don’t seem to be able to do.  I can’t do that either, since dyslexia is a very flexible disability which varies from person to person.  However my own dyslexia does provide some benefits – chiefly, the amusement I get from hastily glimpsed signs.

The dyslexic brain often grabs at the shape of words rather than reading all the letters, which means I have the ability to misread things more dramatically than the average person.  Here’s a selection of my favourites:

Eat your peas = Eat your pets

Trinny and Susannah = Tyranny and Susannah

Gordon Street = Gorilla Street

Providing life-changing services to people with sight loss = providing for the vices of people with sight loss

What’s on this month = What’s on the moon

Ignite your imagination = ignore your neighbours

Recycle your batteries here = recycle your enemies here

Krushems = blaspheme

coffee shop = chlorine

Experience the wisdom of the OT in a new way = Experience the wisdom of the OT in a new wax

The Bible played a central role in Calvin’s life and work = The BBC played a central role in Calvin’s life and work

disaster = distasteful

cafe and picnic area = cafe and piñata area

2 for 1 dining = 2 for 1 dripping

tapers in Universal Credit = tapas in Universal Credit

serviced offices = sacred offices

catalogue specials =  cast a spell on us

celebrating fine coffee = celebs rating fine coffee

reduce arrears = reduce Andy to tears

Special Promotional Rates = Suicide Promotional Fares

Who will you back? = Who will you kill back?

Salsa and Salsacise classes = Salary and Sausage classes

Touch Blue Telecom = Touch the Blue Pelican

Fasten your seatbelt = Fasten your breakfast

Recruiting mechanics now = Recruiting maniacs now

FedEx = feck it

Putting customers at the heart of everything we do = Putting cushions at the heart of everything we do

A&FNY = Agent Firefly

Internal management plans = Infernal management plans

Baggage reclaim = try to remain calm [particularly apt, I think]

The cosy poncho = The cosy psycho

Bifocal contact lenses = Biblical contact lenses

Professionally formulated with argan oil = Presumably formulated with argan oil

liposuction = lapsang souchong

Welding engineers = wedding emergencies

Sit-in restaurant meals = sit in respectable schools

14 days of unmissable tennis = 14 days of unspeakable tenor

Consuldictation

22 Jan

Consuldictation (noun): A process whereby someone or some people (usually in management) dictate a change (usually negative) which is about to take place whether you like it or not, but present it as a “consultation” so that your frustrated opinions can be heard, though not acted upon. It seems to be happening a lot these days.