Blog Archive 2008-09

And the nominations are…

I’m pleased to report that I’m up for an award for my writing.

I’ve been shortlisted for Columnist of the Year in the EDF Energy East of England Media Awards, for my football articles on the MyFootballWriter website.

All right, so it’s not a Pulitzer prize.  And the awards ceremony next month is taking place at a hotel near Stansted airport rather than Grosvenor House or the Royal Albert Hall.  But it’s rather pleasing all the same.

I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to get to the ceremony, though.  It’s being held on a Thursday lunchtime, so I’d have to keep our son out of his pre-school that day and take him along with me.  Somehow I don’t think a boozy media lunch is a suitable environment for a three-year-old – let alone an unsociable 48-year-old.

I’ll let you know what I decide.

Posted on 22 December 2009

Situation conflagrant

One of the first jokes I can remember from Harry Hill – and still one of my favourites – is this one:

‘My father used to say, “Always fight fire with fire”.  And that’s why they drummed him out of the fire brigade.’

The clever twist on a common expression, leading to an absurd image, just tickled me.  As if anyone in the fire brigade would actually do that.

But then I spotted this recruitment ad for the London Fire Brigade in yesterday’s Guardian…

Posted on 20 December 2009

When slang doesn’t work

According to a report on the BBC site this week, many youngsters are being held back in the jobs market because they don’t know when they should and shouldn’t speak in slang…

Interviewer:  Ah, Mr Johnson.  Do take a seat.

Candidate:  What’s good, guy?

Interviewer:  Er… the morning’s good.  Good morning to you.

Candidate:  Safe, safe.

Interviewer:  Right.  So, you’re interested in a job here?

Candidate:  Standard.  I’d bum it blue.

Interviewer:  Excellent – I think.  But why our company in particular?

Candidate:  ‘S proper nang, innit?

Interviewer:  Sorry?

Candidate:  Mint, da bomb, buzzin’.

Interviewer:  Actually I can hear a buzzing.  What is that?

(The candidate takes a ringing mobile phone out of his pocket.)

Candidate:  Check the ringtone, guy.  Sick, yeah?

Interviewer:  I’m sick of it already.  Would you mind turning it off?

Candidate:  Seen, seen.  Don’t be vexed.

Interviewer:  Thank you.  Now, I understand that you had a spell of work experience but left before completing it.  Could you tell me a little more about that?

Candidate:  It was well long, man.  The boss was sooo dry.  Thought I was a fudge, the munter.

Interviewer:  Right.  Well, I’m pleased to say you’ve got the job.

Candidate:  For real?

Interviewer:  Ha!  Owned!  No, you haven’t.

Candidate:  I’m ghost…

Posted on 10 December 2009

Yeah – what that guy said…

I’ve come across some pretty horrendous examples of marketing-speak in a few advertising briefs I’ve been given lately.  I was going to include them in a post about how people often fall back on jargon to cover a lack of clear or original thinking, but then decided it would be wiser not to.  If the people who wrote those briefs were to recognise the examples, they might not put any more work my way.

Fortunately, however, advertising luminary Dave Trott has just written on this very subject in his excellent Campaign blog, so I can direct you towards that instead.

I particularly like the example he gives in a comment appended to the post, which makes the point that jargon can be used in a crafty way to reassure habitual jargon-users that you ‘get’ them:

In a pitch, Mike Greenlees once said to a client, “In order to increase stock-turn you need to optimise your on-shelf margins.”

We won the pitch.

Later I asked Mike what it meant.

He said, “Well if they make it cheaper people will buy more.”

I asked him why he didn’t just say that.

He said, “Because then they would have thought I knew nothing about marketing.”

Posted on 02 December 2009

Updates upon updates

Two quick things:

Back in January, I mentioned a school in Sheffield which decided to call itself ‘a place for learning’ because the governors felt that the word ‘school’ has negative connotations.  Things just got even worse.  My wife spotted an ad in the current TES for a ‘learning manager’.  That’s right – they’re after a teacher.

And way back in September of last year, I quoted Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker talking about how hard and unpleasant he finds it to write.  The Guardian site now has a video of him expanding further on this subject.  It’s entertaining, enlightening… and rather reassuring.

However hard I’ve found it to write on occasions, I’ve never sat in my underpants in floods of tears.

Posted on 13 November 2009

Raven mad

It’s been a couple of months now since our daughter Emily (5) decided it was time to move up from CBeebies to CBBC.  There have already been linguistic consequences; for example, our son Harry (3) had to spend some time on the naughty step yesterday for constantly shouting ‘You suck!’, which he’s picked up from some programme or other.

And the relief at escaping such CBeebies horrors as Big Cook, Little Cook and In the Night Garden didn’t last long.  CBBC has plenty of annoying programmes of its own.  Fortunately, however, Emily and Harry’s favourite is actually watchable.  I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite good – and the language used in the programme is one of the most enjoyable aspects.

Raven is a game show, but quite different to most of the ones served up on children’s TV.  There are no shouty presenters, flashing lights, loud music or gunge tanks.  Instead, the show has a medieval Celtic setting with the contestants playing the parts of young warriors undertaking a series of challenges in a quest to prove their mettle.  The language has an archaic, almost epic feel throughout; here are the words which open the programme:

“Evil still lurks in this sinister and foreboding land.  Danger is omnipresent as the vile servants of Nevar patrol every forest and river in search of my brave warriors.  But we will hunt them and their malevolent master down and destroy his wickedness once and for all.  I must strive to return this land to its true path and bring light to the darkness…”

Even the children’s names are changed.  They are given ‘warrior’ names like Satnav and Nobrot (well, maybe not quite like that) to fit in with the tone and setting.

I should imagine it’s a lot of fun to write that show.  It feels as though the writers and the actor who plays Raven enjoy the language they use, anyway.

I wonder whether the actor continues to speak that way when he goes home in the evenings, though?  I think I would, for a laugh.

Posted on 01 November 2009

Is it? No, it isn’t…

Our five-year-old daughter Emily spent the weekend working on a project about owls.

Looking over her shoulder to see how she was getting on, I noticed one subhead that I couldn’t understand at all; it read ‘Owls isit’.  I was pretty sure that this wasn’t meant to be an owl-related version of the old advertising slogan ‘Coke is it’, so I asked her what it said.

‘Oh, Dad,’ she sighed scornfully.  ‘It says “Owls’ Eyesight”.’

Hmm.  I still have some reservations about this phonics system they use in primary schools nowadays.

Not that this was the only linguistic mistake I spotted on Saturday.  I bought a new saucepan from Sainsbury’s and spotted this on the packaging.

‘Twice as stronger’?  I can’t decide whether the proof reader had poor grammar or poor isit.

Posted on 19 October 2009

Safire’s gems

Although I haven’t yet reached the stage where I check the obituaries in the paper every day to make sure I’m not dead, there was one in the Guardian which caught my eye this week: a piece about New York Times columnist William Safire, who died on Monday.

I hadn’t heard of him before – and from what I’ve read since, I wouldn’t have had much time for his political views – but he was apparently a respected figure in linguistics in the States, defending the correct use of English and mocking poor usage.  To this end, he compiled a witty list of rules for writing (or ‘Fumblerules’), which I’m happy to reproduce here…

• Remember to never split an infinitive.

• The passive voice should never be used.

• Do not put statements in the negative form.

• Verbs have to agree with their subjects.

• Proofread carefully to see if you words out.

• If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.

• A writer must not shift your point of view.

• And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)

• Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

• Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.

• Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.

• If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.

• Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.

• Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.

• Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.

• Always pick on the correct idiom.

• The adverb always follows the verb.

• Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

Posted on 01 October 2009


Our daughter Emily’s primary school held an Inventions Week last year.  During the week, there was a competition in which entrants had to create a device which would make a teacher’s life easier.

With only a modicum of parental help (ahem), Em won second prize with her ‘class controller’ – a remote control which the teacher could use to modify the children’s behaviour.  (Buttons included ‘volume’, tidy up’, ‘sit down’ etc.)  We did consider a robot which could read and mark pupil’s work, before discounting this as a preposterous notion…

…but now it seems that it’s about to happen.  The Times Educational Supplement reports today that a UK exam board is to start using computers to ‘read’ and assess English essays from next month.  There is even speculation that automated marking of essays will be extended to GCSEs and A-levels; the research director at another exam board is quoted as saying that this is a question of ‘when, not if’.

This seems a crazy notion to me.  How can a computer, however advanced, pick up on the subtle nuances of a piece of writing?  How can it fully appreciate an elegant turn of phrase, a clever double-meaning, a particularly appropriate metaphor or references to other works and quotations?  It might be able to detect poor spelling or grammar, but that’s about it.

For example, if a computer were to ‘read’ the book I’ve just finished (Instructions for Living Someone Else’s Life by Mil Millington), it might well spot the errors which the proofreader missed, such as ‘it’d had truly become something that made her spirits sag…’ (p.238) or ‘alternations’  (p.233).  However, it wouldn’t enjoy bits like:

‘Etiquette and the mechanics of temporal shifts had him trapped in a pincer movement.  As, come to that, did Katrina’s legs.’ (p.224)

‘…a groan like a creaky door rolled about in the dark alcove inside his head where his throat and nose met secretly to plot phlegm.’  (p.229)

As the English lecturer quoted in the TES article remarks, students will end up writing for the computer instead of for people – which will be absolutely 001101010101000101110111011010101.

Posted on 25 September 2009




(Sorry, was I shouting just then?)

Posted on 05 September 2009

B*gger me!

When you’ve finished revising or editing a piece of copy, it’s very important to check the whole thing thoroughly to make sure that it reads as it should.

Otherwise you could end up with something like this headline, which appeared in some editions of the Daily Express this week:           

Apparently the first version of the headline ran: ‘Can Dec finally match Ant?’  It was decided to change this to ‘Can Dec at last match Ant?’ – but somehow the ‘a’ from ‘at’ was added to the ‘nally’ of ‘finally’ with the result above.

Posted on 02 September 2009

Miscellaneous mistranslations

A couple of language-related things in the media today.

First – and following on from my recent post about making mistakes in French – there’s a funny story on the BBC website about a British woman who was looking for a place to stay in a small French town.  She spotted a place called the ‘Hôtel de Ville’ – and not realising that this means ‘Town Hall’, went inside to enquire about a room.  Before doing so, she popped into the toilet.  When she came out, she found that the building had been closed and she was locked inside overnight.

(It wouldn’t have happened in Germany.  Their word for ‘town hall’ is ‘Rathaus’, so the woman would hardly have wanted to spend a night there.)

The other item concerns ‘Chinglish’, or the ungrammatical and often incomprehensible English frequently found on signs in China.  The Telegraph reports that the embarrassed authorities in Shanghai are launching a campaign to get rid of all such signs before the World Expo takes place there next year.

It’s a shame, really.  The signs are very entertaining, and at least the Chinese offer translations to visitors, which is more than we usually do in Britain.  You can see plenty of examples herehere and here – but these are some of my favourites:

– ‘To take notice of safe. The slippery are very crafty.’  (A warning at a sloped entrance to a shopping mall)

 ‘Please keep your legs’  (A sign next to an escalator)

– ‘Deformed man toilet’

– ‘Please bump your head carefully’

– ‘Building asks a smoked visitor in the outside smoking section that you cannot smoke in’

– ‘I like your smile, but unlike you put your shoes on my face’  (A ‘Keep off the grass’ sign!)

Posted on 24 August 2009

French Vogue

Three linguistic observations from our (very enjoyable) holiday in France last week:

i)  Misspelled signs are not the preserve of English-speaking nations.  (This may sound obvious, but for some reason we tend to assume that all notices we see abroad have perfect spelling and grammar.)  On the journey home, we saw an electronic sign above the motorway which advised: ‘Faites une pose toutes les 2 heures’.  I assume the person who posted this meant ‘pause’ rather than ‘pose’; that is, they wanted us to take a break every two hours, rather than strike a pose in the manner of Madonna’s Vogue.

ii)  I mentioned last August that the French often give their clothes shops English names which sound a bit funny to us.  Here’s another one for the list: ‘Gentleman Farmer’.  (It seems to be a chain; there were branches in both La Rochelle and Rouen.)  Strangely, the items in the shop windows didn’t look like they’d be worn by either gentlemen or farmers.

iii)  The fast food chain ‘Quick’ is quick in the same way that fun runs are fun and the German Democratic Republic was democratic.

Posted on 06 August 2009

Left, right, left, right…

My word of the week, if not month, if not year:


It means the writing of alternate lines in opposite directions – left to right, then right to left and so on.  (A bit like the numbers on a snakes and ladders board.)

I came across the word for the first time in the Guardian puzzle section last Saturday.  How could I have lived for over forty-ahem years without ever discovering it before?

Posted on 22 July 2009

Commons parlance

There was a Select Committee meeting at the Houses of Parliament last week on the subject of official language – or to be more specific, the confusing jargon which is frequently employed by politicians.

You can watch the meeting here, though I should warn you that it goes on for well over an hour.  Oh, and there’s no sound for the first minute or two while people are taking their seats.  But there are enough interesting thoughts in there to make it worth a look.  A few to look out for:

16 mins  The Chair of the Committee quotes a George Orwell remark from 1946 which suggests that a chaotic political situation may be improved by addressing the language people use.  In other words, if politicians speak and write more clearly, the rest will follow.

25 mins  David Crystal, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, suggests that the period when formal grammar was no longer taught in schools may have something to do with the readiness of the current generation of politicians and civil servants to fall back on meaningless stock phrases.

34 mins  The Chair offers the theory that MPs have picked up much of their jargon through travelling in first class on trains and overhearing the conversations of management consultants – though with this perk likely to disappear in the wake of the expenses scandal, they may soon be less exposed to consultant-speak.

36 mins  Professor Crystal speculates that new media – Twitter, blogs and the like – are likely to influence political language.  In particular, the need for brevity on Twitter (where Tweets can be no longer than 140 characters) may have the effect of sharpening what politicians say.

54 mins  One of the MPs on the Committee cites an example of a particular word being given a meaning different from most people’s understanding of it; he points out that the word ‘entitlements’ in Gordon Brown’s recent document ‘Building Britain’s Future’ does not seem to mean ‘things to which people have a right’.

(Usually, of course, it’s phrases rather than individual words which have meanings at odds which what the words suggest.  Simon Hoggart, the Guardian’s political sketch-writer, comments on the phrase ‘Care in the Community’ early in the meeting [12 mins]: ‘We’re all in favour of care, we’re all in favour of community… in fact, as we know, it means poor mad women exposing themselves in Victoria Gardens.’)

There were a few aspects of political language which, to my surprise, weren’t covered.  I thought that its use to deliberately confuse or mislead the public might be a major concern.  Coded statements (e.g. ‘I have no plans to do so’ meaning ‘I fully intend to do so’) weren’t mentioned.  And the word ‘redacted’ – the term used to describe the heavily blacked-out expense claims of MPs published recently – wasn’t used once.

But it was still a worthwhile conversation, and one which needs to be repeated at regular intervals.  After all, there will be politician-speak as long as there are politicians.

Posted on 15 July 2009

Sorry this isn’t a vlog

Oh, hello.  I’m just taking a break from watching webisodes of my favourite docusoap and listening to reggaeton to write this brief entry, which I’ve earmarked to let you know – be you friend or frenemy – that the American publisher Merriam-Webster has just released a list of new words and phrases which have made it into its 2009 dictionary.

Our old friend ‘staycation’ is in there – but I can’t say I’ve ever heard of any of the others, let alone used them.

Right, I’m off for a shawarma at the cafe round the corner.  (I am a green-collared locavore, after all.)

Posted on 10 July 2009


Oh dear, oh dear.

It’s just been announced that the Russian gas company Gazprom has set up a joint venture with a Nigerian company called NNPC.

The name of this joint venture?  ‘Nigaz’.

It’s hard to think of a worse possible name.  Perhaps if Weetabix set up a new company in conjuction with Marks & Spencer, it could be called ‘WeeMarks’.  (Something that might be tackled by ‘BudgeMarks’, a merger between Budgens and M&S.)

Or how about a company formed by a major news provider and a mobile phone network: ‘CNNT-Mobile’?

No, I think Nigaz still outdoes them all.

Posted on 02 July 2009

School rule broken

The new Government publication Support for Spelling is now telling primary schools that the age-old ‘i before e except after c’ rule should no longer be taught since it is, apparently, irrelevant and confusing.


Posted on 24 June 2009

Slips of the French tongue

It’s only just over a month now until our family holiday in France, and already I’m starting to tense up about the inevitable problems with the language.

It’s not that I can’t speak French; I read it at Cambridge, after all.  The problems stem from frustration that I’ve allowed my French to fall into such a state of rusty disrepair.  I find it almost impossible to understand what’s being said on the TV and radio – though I generally find that my ears begin to become attuned just as it’s time to return home.  Even if I manage to follow the beginning of a news report, a word or phrase will inevitably come up which I realise I used to know but can’t now recall.  By the time I’ve finally remembered it or (more likely) looked it up, the programme has moved on to another item.

It’s hard to see at present when I might ever have the time or opportunity to regain any sort of fluency.  Though even if I had the time, I fear that my brain has now lost the adhesive qualities it once had.  It’s a sign of age which I find much more alarming than any physical deterioration; words simply don’t stick as they used to.

It’s not just French.  I’ve had a ‘Learn Spanish’ course for some time – the fact that it comes with cassette tapes should give you an idea of just how long – but I just can’t retain any vocabulary or grammar beyond the end of any session.  And there are a number of English words whose meanings I’ve looked up countless times, only to forget them almost immediately.  Venal and venial, for example.  And all sorts of grammatical terms such as synecdoche and metonymy.

On a more positive note, I can at least be reasonably confident that in France I won’t make any howlers as bad as those described in this article on the BBC website.

There are some good (though possibly apocryphal) anecdotes in there.  I particularly like the story about the man wandering around looking for the rail station, asking: ‘Où est la guerre?’

My favourite such story isn’t included.  It concerns an Englishman lighting a cigarette in a French train carriage back in the days when this was allowed.  Thinking it only polite to offer one to the one other occupant of the compartment, he leans forward and says: ‘Pardon, monsieur.  Êtes-vous un fumier?’

‘Un fumier’, in case you didn’t know, means ‘a dungheap’.

Posted on 18 June 2009

Do the WHAT??!!

This week’s top three slips of the tongue from the children:

3)  Emily: ‘My hair keeps sticking up, it’s all ecstatic’.

2)  Me:  ‘What sort of ice cream would you like, Harry?

     Harry: ‘Umm… manila‘.

1)  Emily again: ‘Dad, what’s the Fucky Chicken?

     Me (after spitting tea all over the floor): ‘It’s Funky Chicken, Emily.  F-u-n-k-y.  Don’t say that other word, it’s very rude.’

Emily: ‘Oh.  (pause)  What’s ‘fucky’, then?

Posted on 05 June 2009

To all in tents

My wife’s sister and her family stayed with us last night.  They’re on their way to France for a brief camping holiday, and broke up their long journey by stopping here.

I’ve never fancied camping myself – and by coincidence, I came across a beautiful description of the unpleasant aspects of it in the Guardian today.  The words were spoken by the late Matthew Crosby, a boy with Down’s syndrome who is the subject of a new memoir by his mother Anne:

“Nasty peeing by tree, eated smoke, plates muddy, sitted on grass, no television, both socks wetted all time.”


Posted on 23 May 2009


It was the Eurovision Song Contest last night (or last week, if you include the semi-finals they have now).  For the first time in ages, the UK finished in the top five – not, I think, because the song was an improvement on previous years (it wasn’t), but because the voting system was changed to reduce political and regional voting.

In previous years, it’s been clear that we have few friends in the rest of Europe prepared to direct any points in our direction.  Yet, somewhat paradoxically, most of the other countries’ entries sing in English.  Why do they do this?  Because English is seen as the international language of pop?  Or because the acts see the contest as their big chance of breaking through in the English-speaking countries of the world, especially the US?  I don’t know; I’m just suggesting possibilities.

Last year, there was huge controversy in France over the fact that Sébastien Tellier’s entry Divine was almost entirely in English.  (‘When one has the honour of being selected to represent France, one sings in French,’ a government minister complained.)  If Tellier’s intention was to speak to the English market, the bizarre lyrics undermined it.  A brief sample:

          Oh oh oh
          I… I’m alone in life to say
          I love the Chivers anyway
          ‘Cause Chivers look divine
          Look away
          They try to find the Milky Way
          They love to drink it every day

No, I’ve no idea who or what the Chivers might be.

The use of English lyrics often sounds a little odd in other countries’ entries.  You can’t help feeling it would have been a good idea to get a native speaker to give them the once over before they were finalised.  Here’s an extract from I Wanna, the Latvian winner from 2002:

          Today you think you are the winner
          Today you think you are the king
          You make me sweat in my emotions

I’ve been sweaty in lots of places in my time, but never in my emotions.

Back to this year’s contest, though, because there was one entry where you could see exactly why the contestants had elected to sing in English.  The Georgian song was called We Don’t Wanna Put In – a thinly veiled attack on Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  The chorus goes:

          We don’t wanna put in the negative move
          It’s killing the groove
          I’m trying to shoot in some disco tonight
          Boogie with you

The words ‘I’m trying to shoot in’ sound very much like ‘I’m trying to shoot him’ – and the female singers accompany them by miming a gunshot to the head in the song’s video.

However, Eurovision organisers ruled that the song infringed the contest’s rules against making political statements – and rather than amend the lyrics, Georgia decided to withdraw.

It was probably a wise move; singing about wanting to shoot Putin when the contest was held in Moscow would not have been advisable.

Posted on 17 May 2009

Wight words – wrong words

Oh, I do like a good bit of gobbledegook now and then – not least because it serves as reassurance that there’ll always be a need for copywriters who can write clearly.

Last week, the Isle of Wight council published a document on its adult learning programme, intended to help people improve their powers of communication.  Unfortunately, the document serves only to prove that those who produced it are in dire need of such help themselves.

For example, the council’s Train to Gain programme is said to have been “well received within the Isle of Wight council with recent pilot with leisure staff leading to the future expectation of this would be to have this project open to all departments of the council and have people directly referred through self-referral and the PDR cycle”.

There’s also the news that the quality improvement plan has been revised “to focus and cross referenced to the new Framework For Excellence so we are working towards meeting future expectation enabling a more workable and live document which has met with the approval of the LLSC”.

‘PDR’ and ‘LLSC’ are just two of the baffling acronyms used in the document – others include CAF, CFL, CPD, FLLN, FLIF, IAG, JISC, NCFE, NIACE, NLDC, NOCN, OCN, PCDL, QIP, SMT and WFL.  (None of them is even as memorable as SPLINK.)

Apparently a rewrite is already under way.

Posted on 11 May 2009

Snap, crackle and… ugh!

It’s not quite a spoonerism, but our son Harry (aged 2) asked for a surprising spoonful this morning.

Me:      Harry, what do you want for breakfast?

Harry: Umm… Christ Pispies, please.

Now there’s a name for a cereal.  Wonder if that’s what the photographer Andres Serrano has in his bowl every day?

Posted on 25 April 2009

Ooh, let me think, I’ve seen it somewhere…

Not sure whether this is an illustration of the imprecise nature of language or just another example of me being a bit thick, but anyway…

My five-year-old daughter Emily asked me a question a couple of days ago.

Emily:  Dad, where’s Madagascar?

Me:  It’s a large island off the east coast of southern Africa.

Emily:  (rolling eyes) No, I mean the DVD…

Posted on 14 April 2009

A fish by any other name…

It’s been reported that Sainsbury’s has given a new name to the fish pollack after research showed that customers were too embarrassed to ask for it.

Who on earth did they talk to when they carried out their survey?  Are there really people out there who blush at saying ‘pollack’, presumably because it sounds a bit like ‘bollock’?  I don’t suppose the respondents ask for calamari at the fish counter either, since ‘tentacles’ sounds a bit like ‘testicles’.

But what new name has Sainsbury’s given to the fish?


This is supposed to be pronounced in the French style (i.e. ‘co-lan’ rather than ‘co-lynn’), but it’s still going to look as though the staff have started giving the produce pet names.

Wonder if they’ll call the monkfish Harry next…

Posted on 08 April 2009

At least sticks and stones are straightforward

As a parent of two young children, I’m obviously aware that the language you use with them is hugely important in shaping their development; not just for their self-expression, but for their self-confidence.  However, I was completely taken aback by a revelation in this week’s fascinating edition of Horizon on BBC1.

In the programme, David Baddiel went in search of the best way to maximise his children’s potential for both success and happiness.  He interviewed Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University, whose research has shown that parents can often ruin their children’s chances by using three little words.

The words?  ‘You’re…so…’

‘Stupid?’ I thought.  No.  ‘Clever’.

She explained it thus:

‘Our research shows that it makes children think, “Oh, I have to be intelligent all the time.  That’s what they value me for”.  They stop taking on challenges, they hide their mistakes – so many people think we’re building confidence, we’re showing our regard for them when we praise their intelligence, but I have found it’s just the opposite.’

This parenting lark really is a minefield. 

Posted on 21 March 2009

Addenda and miscellanea

First, a few follow-ups to some topics we’ve already covered.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Last September, we considered the pleasure of writing – or rather, the lack of it.  Last week, the Manchester Review carried an interview with novelist Colm Toíbín in which he candidly admits that he doesn’t enjoy the process at all:

“Oh, there’s no pleasure. Except that I don’t have to work for anyone who bullies me… I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it.” 

He continues:  “After a while [writing is] not really difficult, but it’s never fun or anything. With a few of the books, especially The Heather Blazing and The Master and the new novel Brooklyn, there has been a real problem… I don’t want to go on about this too much, but there is a passage in each of those books which I found almost impossible to write and then harder and harder to re-write. I hope never to have to look at those passages again.”

The best thing about being a writer, in his view: money.

The Guardian followed this up by asking a number of other well-known writers whether they enjoy writing.  The responses were split down the middle.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

In January, I made passing mention of the peculiar jargon used in the teaching profession.  One of these days, I’ll find the time to write a fuller entry on this, but there have been a couple of classic examples this week.

First, my wife came home still giggling after a meeting at school where the concept of ‘learner-centred learning’ had been discussed at some length.  It sounds more effective and useful than ‘caretaker-centred learning’ or ‘lollipop lady-centred learning’, I suppose.

Then she showed me an extract from a document produced by another school, describing its achievements and progress (I’ve changed the name of the school to save its embarrassment):

“Building upon the collaborative action research project titled ‘Imagine Hillview’ held four years ago, ‘Imagine Healthy Hillview’ is our latest action research project that brings these student groups together in order to enable our community to discover the stories of what is taking place when learning is at its best and creates well-being and from these stories to dream how a future will look when these conditions are the norm.  From these dreams, a design of the future will be strategically planned and finally the planning will be implemented or delivered.  The entire project is collaborative using a positive change form of action research and will form an important aspect of our self-evaluation of our effectiveness at delivering the agenda for Every Child Matters and enabling community cohesion.”

The underlining isn’t mine, by the way; it seems to be a deliberate attempt by the school to suggest that they have clearly delineated goals and a sense of direction, though it has to be said that the result comes across as a bit desperate.

I know that most professions have their own jargon which can seem odd to outsiders.  But I’m constantly astonished that people in education – who you would think would value the clear communication of information – so often resort to language which is baffling.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Also in January, I expressed the view that bad language can be funny when used properly.  While the language is mild, there was a line in David Mitchell’s excellent column in last Sunday’s Observer which I think proves the point:

“One of the fastest growing areas in our economy in the years leading up to the crunch was the selling of crap to twats.”

You had to see it in context really, but it makes me smile every time I think of it.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Our daughter Emily has her first ballet exam this weekend.  Actually, here’s the exact time, as given in the letter from the dance school:

“Your Childs Ballet exam is on Sunday 15th March 09 at 12:15 noon.”

A smart appearance is very important, apparently.  We’ll probably be up washing and ironing Em’s outfit at 1:30 midnight.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Harry, meanwhile, continues to surprise us with phrases he’s picked up.  The other day, when In The Night Garden came on TV yet again, he came out with: “Flippin’ ‘eck, not this again”.

He must have heard that from his mother.  After all, it’s not the expression I use when the programme comes on… 

Posted on 13 March 2009

Lost for words

It was while researching Bald that I first came across the Livonian language.  Specifically, I discovered this Livonian proverb: ‘The bald pate speaks most of hair’.

Now it turns out that Livonian is all but dead.  This week, Unesco published a list of the world’s endangered languages – all 2,500 of them.  500 of these are ‘critically endangered’; 199 have fewer than ten native speakers.  And Livonian, which was the mother tongue of thousands until the Nazi occupation of the eastern Baltic and subsequent Soviet annexation, is now the mother tongue of just one person.  He or she has no one else who grew up with the language to converse with.

The demise of a language is just as regrettable as the disappearance of an animal species.  As Christopher Moseley, editor-in-chief of the Unesco survey, put it:

‘…each language is a uniquely structured world of thought, with its own associations, metaphors, ways of thinking, vocabulary, sound system and grammar – all working together in a marvellous architectural structure which is so fragile that it could easily be lost forever.’

It seems there are a variety of reasons for the dwindling and disappearance of languages.  Most often, it is the large-scale movement of people from the country to the city, leaving their regional tongue behind.  It can also be the impact of what have been termed ‘killer’ languages such as English or Spanish; major languages which simply steamroller the smaller ones.

In both of these cases, there is a failure to recognise the value of these small languages.  And I think I may have been guilty of this myself.

When the proverb mentioned above appeared in Bald, I gave the origin as ‘Latvia’ rather than mentioning Livonian.  Now it’s true that the language was spoken in a region of Latvia.  And I’m certainly not taking full responsibility for its death.  But all the same, I’m feeling a bit bad today that I wasn’t more specific about the source.

Posted on 24 February 2009

Adult language, infant language

A couple of things this week.

On Monday evening, an edition of Panorama on BBC1 presented by (slightly surprisingly) Frank Skinner looked at the issue of swearing on television.  According to a poll conducted for the programme, 55% of the public believe that it is currently at an ‘unacceptable’ level.

At first, I was surprised by how high this figure was; can so many really be so easily offended?  Two such people were interviewed – a senior writer on the Daily Telegraph and the director of Mediawatch (the organisation originally started by Mary Whitehouse) – but they hardly seemed representative of the general population.  They were the sort of middle-aged types whom one cannot imagine ever having been younger – and in the case of the latter gentleman, it is effectively his job to look for things to be offended by.

It would have been useful to know the exact wording of the question used in the poll.  Could it be that people are simply bored with ‘bad’ language rather than outraged by it, and think there’s too much of it for that reason?  I often find swearing on TV tiresome – for example, when it’s used in a conscious attempt to be ‘edgy’ or is so frequent that it becomes an irritating verbal tic – but I’m not offended by it.

Swearing can be powerful and expressive; the English language is blessed with some wonderfully meaty Anglo-Saxon words.  It can be very, very funny.  But it has to be used judiciously or it loses its power and effect.

It’s rarely said, but this is the real reason why children should be told off for swearing and why adults shouldn’t swear in front of them.  It’s not because the words are intrinsically bad, but because getting into the habit of swearing all the time is likely to reduce their powers of expression.  They don’t have the experience to know how and when to use them, and the overused and wrongly used words lose their power.

Not that this issue came up at the language-related talk at my daughter’s primary school which I attended on Wednesday evening.  It was a presentation on phonics – the relatively new technique being used by the school to teach the children how to read and write – and the purpose was to give parents advice on how to give help and support at home.

Some of the advice was rather surprising.  For example, we were told that we shouldn’t:

–  use letter names.  We should only refer to their sounds to avoid causing confusion;

–  mention vowels.  The children won’t understand what they are;

–  say ‘puh’, ‘tuh’, ‘muh’ and ‘nuh’ for p, t, m and h.  The sounds are ‘ppp’, ‘ttt’, ‘mmm’ and ‘nnn’;

–  refer to ‘curly /k/’ and ‘kicking /k/’ for c and k.  They are simply different ways of writing the /k/ sound;

–  talk about the ‘magic e’ which modifies the sound of the preceding vowel when it comes at the end of a word (e.g. cub/cube).  This isn’t taught any more.

I don’t disapprove of these new guidelines, you understand; the school is apparently enjoying success with the phonics method already.  But these new tricks will take a bit of getting used to by this old dog.

During the question and answer session at the end of the talk, I was tempted to ask whether it’s still acceptable to correct a child’s mistakes with a sharp rap over the knuckles with a stick, but I’m afraid my nerve failed me…

Posted on 31 January 2009

Red wally, yerrollowarry…

It occurs to me that I haven’t given an update on our two-year-old son’s developing use of language since the list I posted last July.

All of the words in that list have now (slightly sadly) been replaced by the proper ones – except for one.  For some reason, Harry still can’t say ‘lorry’.  He doesn’t say ‘lolly’ any more, though; his latest attempt comes out as ‘wally’, which caused some embarrassment recently.

I was pushing him in his buggy past a supermarket in Teddington, outside which a delivery lorry was parked.  The very large and very burly driver was standing next to it on the pavement, having a quick fag – and as we passed him, Harry pointed up and said loudly: ‘Look!  Big wally!’

We moved on with markedly increased speed…

Posted on 20 January 2009

School’s out

With my wife being a teacher, I have some knowledge of the often peculiar terminology used in education today.  Pay scales are called ‘spines’.  Teachers have to cross ‘thresholds’ of achievement.  And recently my attention was drawn to the commitment of one particular school to ‘celebrate stuckness’.  (Apparently this means that when a child says they don’t understand something, the teacher should see this as a great opportunity to help and make progress – though I can’t shake the vision of balloons and streamers falling from the ceiling and a marching band trooping through the classroom whenever a blank-looking pupil says, ‘I don’t get it, miss’.)

At the same time, I’ve worked in advertising long enough to be more than familiar with the idea of rebranding.  (The biggest rebranding exercise going on at the moment is the insurance giant Norwich Union changing its name to Aviva.  One press ad announcing the change has the headline: ‘From a small corner of England to the 4 corners of the world’.  Norwich a small corner indeed.  Bloody cheek.)

Anyway… even though I’m aware of both of these things, I was still taken aback by the news that a primary school in Sheffield doesn’t want to call itself a school any more as its governors feel that the word has ‘negative connotations’.  Instead, it will be called ‘a place for learning’.

Yes, that should help – just as changing Windscale’s name to Sellafield and referring to civilian casualties of war as ‘collateral damage’ made everyone feel much more positive about them.

Anyway, you’ll have to excuse me now as I’ve got to pop out to the supermarket in the car to get some sausages for tea.  Or – given that cars, supermarkets and sausages have negative connotations for (respectively) causing pollution, damaging the trade of local shops and adding to the nation’s obesity problem – perhaps I should say that I’m going to take the box for travelling to the big building for buying to get some oinktubes for frying.

Posted on 08 January 2009

Grimm indeed

Seems even Santa is now sourcing his goods from cheap factories in the Far East to keep his costs down.  When my daughter Emily went to see him at Hampton Library last week, he gave her a Snow White theatre game that had been made in China with rather less attention to quality and detail than the spectacle at the Beijing Olympics.

Most of the figures tore and disintegrated when Emily tried to press them out of the flimsy sheets of card, and eventually she abandoned all attempts to assemble it.  I fared no better when I tried to help – but on examining the box to see if there were any useful instructions (there weren’t), I did find a beautifully written synopsis of the Snow White tale.

I thought I would share it with you here; consider it a Christmas gift…

German writer brother Green (Jacob and Willhelm Grimm) collects old legend and folktale since 1806, the untiring efforts to go through decades, finished the immortal monument al work “Green’s fairy tale” in 1857 at last.  “sow white” issued it in 1812, was one of the masterpieces of “Green’s fairy tale”.  The beautiful snow white suffers the stepmother’s jealousy and persecution, but turn danger into safety again and again.  She and seven little short persons become the good friend, the prince and becoming his bride with handsome adventure finally.  Theater this can copy snow white and seven little short person happy life in forest, in this pleasant fairyland, there are small and exquisite and lovely rooms, beautiful snow white, naughty little kind hearted short people.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh on the manufacturers.  After all, it does appear that the educational value of the game is very important to them:

The game will beneficial for kids in many aspects.  It will coordinate children’s movements of hands and brains, stimulate their distinguishing ability of vision, establish their imagination and cultivate their expression ability.

Merry Christmas – and may your expression ability be beautifully cultivated throughout 2009.

Posted on 23 December 2008 

Words of the year? Says who?

It’s that time of the year when lists of new words coined over the last twelve months start to appear.  They’re always interesting to read; the neologisms often reflect current events and concerns, and frequently display a spark of wit from the people who coined them.

But here’s a curious thing.  I’ve heard of almost none of the words in this year’s lists.  And before you say that this is because I don’t read or get out enough, see how many of these you’ve come across…

Nomophobia:  a fear of being out of mobile phone contact;

Nonebrity:  a person who is famous for no apparent reason;

Framily:  friends who are as close as family;

Glamping:  a luxurious form of camping, practised by celebrities (and nonebrities?) at places like the Glastonbury festival;

Ninja loan:  a loan offered to someone with No Income, No Job or Assets;

Boytox:  Botox for men;

Undoplasty:  surgery to rectify previous cosmetic surgery;

Momnesia:  the forgetfulness often experienced by a woman in the year after giving birth;

Doomer:  a pessimistic person;

Funt:  a financially untouchable person.

I could never be called a nonebrity.  After all, I’m the exact opposite: a person who is not famous for a very obvious reason.

Oh, go ahead, call me a doomer.

Posted on 09 December 2008 

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brothel

Of course, the trouble with the spellcheck facility on computers is that it can’t guarantee spelling mistakes won’t slip through.  If your misspelled word is a correct spelling of another word, the software won’t pick it up.

That’s presumably what happened with this gem which appeared on the Norwich Evening News site yesterday, in a story about a woman being found guilty of running a house of ill repute in the Thorpe area of the city:

‘Her partner Darren Blackmore had been charged with running a brother but denied it. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to proceed with the charge.’

No comments about Norfolk people keeping it in the family, thank you.

Posted on 03 December 2008

Figures, I guess

Now here’s something I didn’t know.  (Not that that’s a particularly unusual thing.)

It seems a key reason why children in Asia are better at maths than children in the UK and US is language.  The writer and thinker Malcolm Gladwell explains this in detail in his new book Outliers.

For one thing, number words in Chinese are much shorter (e.g. 7 is ‘qi’ in Chinese, ‘seven’ in English) and apparently this makes them easier to remember, particularly in a list of numbers.

There are also a number of anomalies in English number words.  We say eleven, twelve, thirteen, fifteen – not oneteen, twoteen, threeteen, fiveteen.  In China, meanwhile, they say ‘ten-one’, ‘ten-two’ and so on.  And ‘twenty-four’ is ‘two-tens-four’.

Gladwell quotes Karen Fuson, a Northwestern University psychologist who has closely studied Asian-Western differences:

‘The Asian system is transparent.   I think that it makes the whole attitude toward math different.  Instead of being a rote learning thing, there’s a pattern I can figure out.  There is an expectation that I can do this.  For fractions, we say three-fifths. The Chinese is literally ‘out of five parts, take three.’  That’s telling you conceptually what a fraction is.  It’s differentiating the denominator and the numerator.’

Having two young children, I’d obviously realised that the irregularities of the English language can cause them problems in everyday speech, but I hadn’t considered that it would also have an effect on their numeracy.  I think it must be true, though; Emily, who is nearly five, persists in saying ‘twenteen’ instead of twenty and can get a bit frustrated when she’s corrected.  In China, it seems that a confidence-denting mistake like this would simply not occur.

Posted on 19 November 2008 

Obama the orator

This week, Barack Obama became President-Elect of the United States.  It was a triumph for many things, but not least for the power of words.

By his own admission, Obama came out of nowhere to secure the Democratic nomination and to win the Presidential race, and he achieved this largely through his charisma and his skill as an orator.  (Obviously millions of dollars and a well-oiled party machine may have had something to do with it too.)  The Republicans could not deny that he is a fantastic speaker; all they could do was suggest that he was offering fine, fancy but empty words – but it didn’t work.

The acceptance speech Obama gave late on Tuesday evening was magnificent; you can watch it and read the transcript here.

It was celebratory yet humble; inspiring yet with a note of caution; forward-looking yet recognising that this victory was built on a long and often difficult history.  The passing reference to Martin Luther King was all the more powerful for being passing; Obama didn’t even have to mention him by name.  The speech was beautifully paced, structured and written.  And it was utterly engaging even though it contained no jokes (unless you count the sweet reference to the puppy he promised his daughters).

These days we generally seem to think that a good speech has to have loads of witty one-liners in it; this speech proves that the art of oratory – not a lost art, as I had begun to think – can grip the heart and mind far better than any throwaway gags.

Of course, there are holes you could pick in the speech.  You could argue that it was written mainly with an eye on the history books; perhaps it was, but I’m not sure there’s anything so terrible about that.  The technique of repeating his campaign slogan ‘Yes we can’ towards the end of the speech was perhaps a little obvious (though I’m sure Obama can’t be aware of the clunking TV ad for the car finance company Yes which featured a woman dressed in green saying ‘Yes you can’ again and again) – but it was an appropriate way to both round off the speech and the campaign, and look forward to the task of delivering on the optimism which his election promises.

Which, it has to be said, is some task.

Posted on 08 November 2008

Llost in translation

Mistranslations often produce unintentionally funny results, but there was a novel twist to this example – a bilingual road sign put up in Wales:

The Welsh part of the sign says: ‘I am not in the office at the moment.  Send any work to be translated’.  It turns out that the local authority sent the English wording for the sign to its in-house translation service, received the automated reply in Welsh and assumed that to be the translated text.

Posted on 04 November 2008 

How regular are your vowels?

A Canada man had a crazy and, many may say, banal plan.

The severe test he set: pen texts where we see merely (seven – three – three) e-type letter per segment – never the rest.

His writing is, I think, highly witty within its rigid stylistic limits – if slightly gimmicky.

Now (oh my word), stocks of Bok’s book now on show on floors of most of world’s bookshops.

But, trust us, such fluff must duly turn dull, dust-dry… um… unfunny.

Next week sees the publication of Eunoia, a book by Canadian poet Christian Bok in which each chapter uses only one vowel.  It apparently took him seven years to write – and having laboured to put together the first five lines of this post, I can well believe it.

Here’s a brief extract from Chapter A:

‘Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla. Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal – a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man’s bath and wash a man’s back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar – a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah.’

I can’t think of another book which uses this conceit – though in 1969 the French writer Georges Perec produced the 300-page work La Disparition in which the letter ‘e’ is not used once.

For all the ingenuity and originality of Eunoia, however, I don’t think I’ll be buying it.  From the brief extracts I’ve read, I think Eunoia is likely to annoy ya fairly quickly.  And writing should really be about something and have something to say, rather than being a technical exercise.

I’m reminded of a party piece the late Bob Monkhouse used to perform at the end of some of his TV shows.  He would take two separate and apparently unconnectable things and – off the cuff – weave an elaborate tale connecting them with wordplay and jokes.  It was remarkably quick-witted stuff, yet I always found it rather cold and lacking in real humour.

The words ‘very clever’ can be as damning as they can be laudatory.

Posted on 31 October 2008

Well, it’s not a cube, is it?

According to the current TV ad for Muzzy, the foreign language course for young children:

‘Your kids will grow up in a global world.’

I’d have thought that was obviously obvious.

Posted on 16 October 2008

Say it with fingers

I’ve been taking our two-year-old son Harry to music sessions run by Singing Hands for the last few weeks, and he’s absolutely loved it.  I have to admit that I’ve struggled with the sessions a bit, though; there’s as much signing as singing, and I seem to be all fingers and thumbs (which I assume is the sign language equivalent of being tongue-tied).  It’s a bit embarrassing considering I’ve always thought of myself as a good linguist.

Some of the signs are easy to understand.   For example, the sign for milk turns out to be an udder-squeezing gesture, ‘time’ is a tap on the wrist , and for ‘red’ you move your finger along your bottom lip.  But most of the signs seem to go in one eye and out of the other.

And it turns out that signing is even more complicated than I thought.  Yesterday’s G2 section in the Guardian featured a number of articles about deafness, and it turns out that signing has regional variations just as spoken English does.  This can apparently cause very embarrassing misunderstandings:

‘…a Scotsman and an Englishwoman were having a chat using British Sign Language (BSL). During the conversation, the man wanted to know if the woman was embarrassed. So, by scratching his cheek with two fingers in a gesture evoking the rush of blood to the face (a BSL sign for embarrassed), he asked her. He thought it was a perfectly innocent question. She didn’t. Where she came from, the same gesture meant prostitute.’

The other thing I learned from the article was that guessing signs when you don’t know them can be dangerous too.  Apparently some inexperienced teachers at a signing class for babies recently made up a sign for ‘diamond’ when singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ – with the result that their version went ‘Like a vagina in the sky…’

Actually, I think I’ve just realised why I was getting funny looks in the session a couple of weeks ago.

Posted on 11 October 2008

But hey, what do I know?

At this point in the life of the blog, I think I should make it clear that I am not setting myself up as an omniscient authority on the use of the English language.  While (whilst?) I admit that there is often a tone of disdain in my observations, and that I have an undeniable inclination to nit-picking pedantry, I am well aware that I am far from infallible.

This became all the more apparent over the weekend when I finally got round to looking at The Guardian Book of English Language, which had been given away free with the paper the Saturday before.  An abridged version of Guardian Style, the guide to grammar and usage employed by their journalists, it offers a raft of useful advice.  Well, not a raft – that term is included in a list of clichés to be avoided, which we’ll consider presently.  (‘Presently’ means soon, not at present – p.87.)

I discovered a lot of things I didn’t know, or had forgotten.  The main one was that split infinitives are not terrible things after all.

I had always thought that the phrase ‘to boldly go’ (used at the start of every TV episode of Star Trek) was appalling grammar, but the Guardian reckons that this phrase is ‘elegant and effective’.  Nor is this attitude a recent development; here is what HW Fowler said in Modern English Usage (1926):

‘The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and distinguish.  Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are happy folk, to be envied.’

I had at least some idea that it was OK to end a sentence with a proposition, as I’d come across Churchill’s satirical remark that ‘this is the sort of English up with which I will not put’.  However, I didn’t know about HW Fowler’s invented question ‘What did you bring me that book to be read to out of for?’

I felt a sense of smugness on noting the distinction between ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ (the distinction between ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’ is another which I’m always keen to point out, though it doesn’t feature in the booklet).  I felt relief on reading that using ‘hopefully’ to indicate the writer’s view of events (e.g. ‘Hopefully I’ll see you then’) is fine.  But I felt chastened on seeing that the word ‘effectively’ is not a synonym for ‘in effect’.  I’m sure I make that mistake a lot.

What really made my face turn red, however, was the list of overused words and phrases to be avoided.  There are plenty here that I’ve used:

‘…back burner, boost (massive or otherwise), bouquets and brickbats, but hey…, count ’em, debt mountain, drop-dead gorgeous, elephant in the room, fit for purpose, insisted, key, major, massive, meanwhile, politically correct, raft of measures, special, to die for, upsurge…’

I think the unabridged version of the book will definitely have to go on the Christmas list.

And yes, that’s a hint.

Posted on 06 October 2008

New media, old skills

There was a special supplement in the Guardian on Monday about advertising in new media: internet ads and microsites; video games developed by large corporations such as Burger King and Pepsi; internet dramas funded largely by product placement; marketing by mobile phone.

The explosion of these new forms of advertising can seem daunting and bewildering, but it’s important to remember that they are just new platforms for conveying messages.  And while they open up new, exciting technical possibilities, the old, traditional basics of a good central thought and excellent execution are still essential.

After all, it’s all very well proposing the idea of a drama on the internet – but if it’s not well written, no one is going to carry on watching it.  It’s the same with microsites – they have to be entertaining and engaging, or those people who have bothered to access them will quickly click away to something else on the net.

The traditional skill of good writing is needed in new media just as much as in the old.  As an example of this, here is the copy from an ad for a secondhand pair of leather trousers which appeared on eBay in late 2005.  By the time the listing on the site expired, it had been viewed by over 4 million people – solely because of the writing, not because there was anything particularly desirable about the trousers…

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

You are bidding on a mistake. We all make mistakes. We date the wrong people for too long. We chew gum with our mouths open. We say inappropriate things in front of grandma.

And we buy leather pants.

I can explain these pants and why they are in my possession. I bought them many, many years ago under the spell of a woman whom I believed to have taste. She suggested I try them on. I did. She said they looked good. I wanted to have a relationship of sorts with her. I’m stupid and prone to impulsive decisions. I bought the pants.

The relationship, probably for better, never materialised. The girl, whose name I can’t even recall, is a distant memory. I think she was short.

Ultimately, the pants were placed in the closet where they have remained, unworn, for nearly a decade. I would like to emphasise that aside from trying these pants on, they have never, ever been worn. In public or private.

I have not worn these leather pants for the following reasons:

I am not a member of Queen.

I do not like motorcycles.

I am not Rod Stewart.

I am not French.

I do not cruise for transvestites in an expensive sports car.

These were not cheap leather pants. They are Donna Karan leather pants. They’re for men. Brave men, I would think.

Perhaps tattooed, pierced men. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say you either have to be very tough, very gay, or very famous to wear these pants and get away with it.

Again, they’re men’s pants, but they’d probably look great on the right lady. Ladies can get away with leather pants much more often than men can. It’s a sad fact that men who own leather pants will have to come to terms with.

They are size 34×34. I am no longer size 34×34, so even were I to suddenly decide I was a famous gay biker I would not be able to wear these pants. These pants are destined for someone else. For reasons unknown – perhaps to keep my options open, in case I wanted to become a pirate – I have shuffled these unworn pants from house to house, closet to closet. Alas, it is now time to part ways so that I may use the extra room for any rhinestone-studded jeans I may purchase in the future.

These pants are in excellent condition. They were never taken on pirate expeditions. They weren’t worn onstage. They didn’t straddle a Harley, or a guy named Harley. They just hung there, sad and ignored, for a few presidencies.

Someone, somewhere, will look great in these pants. I’m hoping that someone is you, or that you can be suckered into buying them by a girl you’re trying to bed. Please buy these leather pants.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

I don’t know whether the guy who wrote this was an advertising copywriter – but if not, he should have been.

Oh, and the ad worked.  Those old trousers sold for over $120.

Posted on 26 September 2008

r u avin a larf m8?

I hadn’t heard of the Spelling Society until a few days ago.  If I had, I’d have guessed it was an organisation made up of people devoted to maintaining good standards of spelling and protecting the English language as it stands.  A bit like an English version of the Académie Française, perhaps.

As it turns out, the aims of the SS (hmm – perhaps they don’t like being called that) are exactly the opposite; they want to modernise spelling by simplifying it and removing all the irregularities.  This, they claim, will make the language much easier to learn.

Last week, John Wells – a retired professor of phonetics at University College, London – addressed the Society, putting forward the view that spellings used in text messages (or txt msgs) and e-mails should be viewed as correct usage.  For example, ‘u’ and ‘ur’ should be as acceptable as ‘you’ and ‘you’re’.  ‘Whos’ should be a legitimate variant of ‘whose’.

Oh dear, where do I start?  My first objection to this would be that it looks plain ugly – but as this is a subjective and arguably reactionary view, let’s move swiftly on to Objection No.2.

If variants such as this were to be accepted, the language would become even more complicated.  Inconsistency would be rife (you can see this on the Society’s website, where ‘rime’ is used for ‘rhyme’ and ‘pamflit’ for ‘pamphlet’, but ‘constitution’ hasn’t been replaced by ‘constitooshun’) – and where there is inconsistency, confusion (or confoozhun) often follows.

Then there’s the problem that what may seem a reasonable variant to one person might well be incomprehensible to another.  (See the ‘wyrntn’ and ‘metantatipi’ examples I mentioned in an earlier post.)  And where do you redraw the line of acceptable usage once you’ve rubbed it out?  B4 u kno it, its outa h& + bcum 2 irrit8in 4 ne1 2 tel wot ur on abt.  Obv.

Simplifying spelling could also cut links with other languages, both ancient and modern.

When I was about 12, we had an oral vocabulary test in French every week.  Once I was asked the French for ‘knife’ and my mind went blank.  I couldn’t for the life of me recall that it’s ‘un couteau’.

In desperation, I opted for the last resort of pronouncing the English word with a strong French accent.  ‘Un… ker-niff?’

I suggested.

‘Oui, un canif, ça va,’ said the teacher.  ‘Un canif’ is a penknife rather than a table knife, but I got away with it.

If the silent ‘k’ at the start of ‘knife’ hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have got the mark.  And though this is only a trivial example, it does show how spelling can help to make linguistic connections.

To conclude this post, here are some other things I learned this week which may or may not meet with the Society’s approval:

–  Sainsbury’s lamb mince is, according to the label on the pack, ideal for making sheperd’s pie;

–  In Taiwan, say the tube cards advertising it, there’s a suprise round every corner;

–  Page 37 of the current Next Directory describes the ‘beautifull details and modern styling’ of the Signature range;

–  And if you’re thinking of listening to some jazz at the Park Hotel in Teddington on a Sunday, the large printed banner outside advises that you book early to avoid dissapointment.

Posted on 20 September 2008

Writing: how hard can it be?

‘Words don’t come easy to me,’ the scholar and critic F.R. Leavis once lamented.

Oh, all right.  It wasn’t him.  It was F.R. David in his song ‘Words’, which reached no.2 in the UK singles chart in 1983.

I don’t think he was kidding about his lexical difficulties.  Only one other single of his reached the top 75 (no.71 to be exact, for one week only) and that was called ‘Music’, which I’m guessing was an instrumental.  No doubt it was his struggle with language which prevented him from enjoying a career as long of some of his contemporaries such as Kajagoogoo and Tight Fit.

But what F.R. (still David, not Leavis) probably didn’t appreciate is that words don’t come easy to most people.  In fact, writing well is bloody difficult.

The aim, of course – as with juggling*, ice skating or synchronised swimming – is to make it seem easy to the observer.

(*I can do this one!)

Putting false modesty aside for a moment, I’m proud to say that I have managed this on occasions.  Here are some very kind words taken from a blog written by Rick Waghorn, who runs the football website I write for:

‘But in that lies his success as a web writer; there’s humour and humanity wrapped effortlessly together into a very engaging whole. He’s a writer that not only locks eyeballs in place, but he engages hearts… he writes like he’s your best mate; that we’ve known each other for donkey’s years.’

Note that word ‘effortlessly’.  Rick clearly has no idea of how much furniture gets kicked when I’m putting a column together.  In fact, I’d say ‘effortlessly’ is the most inappropriate term applied to me since Toby Young described me in a book review as ‘relentlessly chirpy’ (and not in a good way).  Mick, with whom I work, was sorely tempted to contact Mr Young to let him know what I’m really like.

However, I take comfort from knowing that other people find writing hard – particularly comic writers.  Here’s Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker introducing his 2007 collection Dawn of the Dumb:

‘Thanks for buying this book.  I hope you enjoy reading it more than I enjoyed writing it, because I hated every minute.  Well, almost.  It’s fair to say I don’t write for pleasure.  To me, writing is like methodically chewing through a handful of corks.’

P.J. O’Rourke expressed similar views in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2005:

‘Writing is agony.  I hate it…  It takes for ever. People think writing is easy, but just ask them to sit down and write a thank you note to their aunt, or something, and they turn purple. I like thinking about writing.  I like having written. But actually sitting down and doing it…’

Hugh Laurie suggested in his comment which featured on the cover of Stephen Fry’s first novel The Liar that Fry had produced it with annoying ease:

‘It’s very unfair.  It took Joseph Heller seven years to write Catch 22.  Stephen seems to have knocked this one off on a couple of wet Wednesday afternoons in Norfolk.’

But surely this has to be a disingenuous remark, even with Fry’s renowned way with words and general brilliance.

Doesn’t it?

Posted on 09 September 2008 

Inadvertent opposites

It was chucking it down again this morning.  Our daughter Emily, who is 4 and a very important ¾, looked out of her bedroom window and commented: ‘Dad, it’s raining hardly…’

She knows enough about adverbs to be aware that they usually end in -ly, but not enough to realise that she’d actually said the opposite of what she meant.  But hey, she is only 4¾.

I’ve been trying to think of another case where a simple change to the end of a word changes the sense completely.  The best I’ve been able to come up with is:

i)   I spotted your mother – as easily as anything.

ii)  I spotted your mother – as easy as anything.

This is an invented example, though – and while the meanings are different, they aren’t opposite.

On Sky Sports News last season, Paul Merson inadvertently expressed the opposite of what he meant – but that was simply through misusing a word rather than putting the wrong ending on it.  Describing a Norwich-Stoke match, he remarked that in Dion Dublin and Mamady Sidibe, both sides had ‘bashful’ centre-forwards on the pitch.

I assume he meant that they were both given to bashing defenders around, rather than being shy, simpering wallflowers:

‘Why, Mr Sidibe, I am most undeserving of your flattering attentions.’

‘Mr Dublin, see how your fanciful protestations of unworthiness cause me to blush…’

Still, anyone can use the wrong word, especially when there’s a camera pointing at you.  I once filmed an interview for TV during which I talked about a bizarre treatment for baldness tried by Anthony Hopkins – and then had to ring the production company afterwards to ask them not to use that bit as I should have said Anthony Perkins.

And using the wrong word is definitely understandable when you’re 4¾.  Here’s another Em gem from last weekend.

Having watched an athletics meeting on TV on Sunday afternoon, she decided to have a go at pole vaulting in the front room, using the sofa as a landing mat.  This came to an abrupt and tearful end when she hit her nose on the radiator and made it bleed.  (Her nose, not the radiator.)

The next morning, I asked how her nose was.  ‘It’s OK,’ she said. ‘But I will be more careful the next time I do pole dancing.’

Posted on 02 September 2008 

Every little helps

Good news for pedants.  Tesco has announced that it is getting rid of the grammatically incorrect ’10 items or less’ signs above the express checkouts in its stores.

It isn’t replacing them with ’10 items or fewer’ signs (which you can see in Waitrose, I think) but with ones that say ‘Up to 10 items’.  It’s conceivable that there will be some uncertainty over whether having exactly 10 items in your basket is OK or not, but since the Plain English Campaign suggested the wording, I guess we have to give Tesco credit for making the change.

Now, if they could just introduce strong sanctions against those bastards in the queue who have 11 items, we pedants would be happier still.

Posted on 01 September 2008

First feedback!

Hurrah!  I’ve had my first response to this blog, and it wasn’t even mildly abusive.

My friend Isabel has been in touch regarding the entry on neologisms and reports that she and a friend came up with ‘anachronym’, meaning an acronym that is no longer in use.  (Like ITMA or SWALK, I guess.)

Isabel goes on to lament the fact that she hardly ever gets to use the word.  Perhaps the thing to do is to hang around with someone who has a nerdy obsession with the past.  An anachnorak, in other words.

Unless, of course, you have an irrational fear of nerds.

Or anoraknophobia.

OK, I’ll stop now.

Posted on 28 August 2008

Nouns and verbs: know your place!

More lingo arising from the Olympics.  The following letter, from a Barry Norman of Drighlington, West Yorkshire (the Barry Norman?) appeared in the Guardian on Saturday:

Never mind when did “medal” (as in “to medal”) become a verb (Letter, August 21); when did “ask” become a noun (as in “this is a big ask”)?

I know where he’s coming from, and I don’t mean Drighlington, West Yorkshire.  This sort of thing happens a lot in advertising too.  The example that gets me every time is the use of the word ‘hero’ as a verb, as in: ‘The client wants the ad to hero the new packaging’.

It really is a big irritate.

Posted on 26 August 2008 

Citius altius… winnius?

Major media organisations in the US – including ABCNBC and ESPN – have been describing the swimmer Michael Phelps (winner of 8 gold medals in Beijing) as the ‘winningest’ athlete in Olympic history.

Presumably he achieved this by being gooder than everybody else.

Posted on 22 August 2008

Shop horrors and bout-eeks!

The Christmas before last, I was given an amusing book called Shop Horror: The Best of the Worst in British Shop Names.  As the title suggests, it’s a collection of shop names which are so puntastic, they’re fantastic.  Names like ‘Floral and Hardy’ (a florist’s), ‘The Vinyl Resting Place’ (a record shop) and ‘Kumquat Mae’ (a vegetarian restaurant).  There were even a couple of places included which I’ve seen myself – the fireplace shop ‘Amazing Grates’ in East Finchley, and Teddington’s Chinese takeaway ‘Wok This Way’.  (Regrettably, the book didn’t include the Highgate launderette called ‘Wishee Washee Splishee Sploshee Cleanee Knickee Vellee Quickee’, perhaps because the lack of a pun in the name disqualified it.)

You might think that this is a peculiarly British phenomenon; in fact, it isn’t.  The French go in for this sort of thing as well.  There’s a chain of stores like Mothercare called ‘Bébé 9’ – the word ‘neuf’ can mean ‘brand new’ as well as ‘nine’ – and I’ve seen a hairdressing salon in Carcassonne called ‘Jennif’hair’.  Ouch.

French hairdressers seem to be just as fond of punny names as their British counterparts.  Our streets feature examples like ‘Curl Up and Dye’, ‘Right Hair Right Now’ and ‘Blonde Dye Beach’; a quick search on Google soon reveals establishments in France called ‘Coiff Hair’ and ‘Coupe du Monde’ (the latter can mean both ‘World Cup’ and ‘World Cut’).

I was hoping to return from last week’s holiday in France with more examples of cringeworthy shop names (I’m desperately hoping to find a gentleman’s outfitters called ‘Suit Alors’), but the only one I saw was a food stall called ‘100 D’Wich’ (‘cent d’wich’ = ‘sandwich’).  This is largely because most of our holiday was spent in Disneyland, where there may be no lack of shops (as my empty wallet can testify) but they’re not exactly typical French ones.

However, when we visited a small town on the bay of the Somme called Le Crotoy, I did notice a fashion store called ‘Cotton Beach’.  Not a name based on a pun, it’s true, but it is representative of another naming trend in France.  That is, the use of English to convey a sense of style and sophistication.  I know it sounds unlikely, but it’s true.

Clothes shops and shoe brands go in for this in a big way.  Two that spring to mind are a menswear store called ‘Petrol’ (presumably based on the clothing brand Diesel) and ‘Fun Street’ footwear, but you can find other examples in any town across the Channel.  But whether the intention is to make the locals think that these names are big, famous brands in Britain, or whether just using English is meant to make them seem cool, I don’t know.

Sometimes, of course, this approach can go a bit wrong.  In Prague earlier this year, I couldn’t help noticing a chain of sex shops called ‘Moody’.  (Look, they were on virtually every street, all right?)  What an inappropriate name.  If my wife or I, or both of us, are feeling moody, you can pretty much guarantee there’ll be no hot loving action that night.

Posted on 20 August 2008

No-ologism (noun): a new word which deserves to be rejected

I heard about a dreadful new word at work yesterday, which had been used by one of the agency’s account directors.  The word: ‘staycation’.

This supposedly refers to a holiday (or vacation) during which one stays at home.  Frankly, anyone who uses the word seriously shouldn’t be allowed out of their home to mix with the general public.

Words which are hybrids of two separate words are, with few exceptions (so few, in fact, that I can’t think of any off the top of my head), ugly mutants.  ‘Globesity’ – the worldwide problem of being overweight – is another example.

And just this evening, Saira Khan (former runner-up in The Apprentice) was on BBC2 talking about ‘mumpreneurs’, or mothers who start their own businesses.

I have to admit that one of these hybrid words came to me the other day.  It was ‘threedium’ – denoting a long, soul-destroying period of time spent in Waterstone’s looking for a third book worth buying in one of their ‘3 for 2’ offers.  But I don’t intend to inflict this new word on other people in everyday conversation.

If you’re going to invent a new word by adapting an existing word, it’s probably only acceptable if you do it with a sense of humour.  A few years ago, the Washington Post invited readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting or changing a letter, and give a new definition.  Here are some of the responses they received:

Reintarnation: coming back to life as a hillbilly.

Inoculatte: to take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

Giraffiti: vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

Hipatitis: terminal coolness.

Intaxication: euphoria at getting a refund from the Inland Revenue, which lasts until you realise it was your money to start with.

Sarchasm: the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the recipient who doesn’t get it.

[Note: this will probably be the last blog entry for a few days, as we’re off to France for a week.  We’ll be spending three days at Disneyland Paris; I’m hoping that I won’t come back thinking that a staycation would have been a better idea…]

Posted on 08 August 2008

The words on the Street

Perhaps I should start watching Coronation Street again.  Up until about three years ago I watched it religiously (apart from the wine, wafers and kneeling down) but then drifted away when the emphasis shifted from the older characters to the less interesting younger ones.

Catching up with the papers over the weekend, though, I read this in a TV review by the wonderful Nancy Banks-Smith in the Guardian:

‘A thing that sets Coronation Street (ITV1) apart from the others is its relish for language. Last night the corner-shop owner and his daughter were batting “pretentious”, “facetious” and “ameliorate” back and forth across the counter. Then Kirk and Julie strolled down the street. Now, if Kirk had another brain cell he could be a plant, but Julie is confidently proposing to teach him to spell: “I’ve never been intimidated by a lengthy lexicon, me.” Intimidated by a lengthy lexicon. That is just juggling dictionaries for fun. I bet someone used to do that in the music halls.’

A programme that doesn’t talk down to its audience and isn’t afraid to use words of longer than one syllable deserves to be supported – especially when there is often pressure from the people who run the networks to dumb things down.  Paul Abbott – the writer of Shameless and State of Play, who cut his teeth writing for Corrie – railed against this tendency in a recent interview in the Guardian weekend magazine:

‘Channel commissioners frequently want Abbott to spell out his scripts, filling in every gap as if the audience were stupid. It drives him mad. “The distance between what we think and what we think the audience thinks is the biggest problem in the industry. If you make stuff for the audience like you’d make it for you, you won’t make many mistakes. But if you wouldn’t watch it, then you shouldn’t f***ing make it.”‘

In a previous post on this blog, I mentioned the pressure often exerted by clients in advertising to join all the dots in their TV scripts for the benefit of the hard of thinking.  (On that occasion, I praised the people at Orange for not doing so in their current campaign.)  They don’t seem to realise that this approach impoverishes us all.

Posted on 04 August 2008

You’ll love our piles…

Mick, my art director, has just got back from a shoot in New York and reports that he’s seen another off-beat slogan for a carpet store.

I say ‘another’, because there are a few of them about.  In Newcastle, a carpet emporium called Frank’s Factory Flooring uses the line ‘I love carpets, me’.  Apparently there was a showroom in York whose cinema ads always ended with the inviting words ‘Just next to the prison’.  And though it may well be an apocryphal story, there was a store which ran bus side ads featuring a woman lying on a carpet with the headline ‘The best shag in town’.

Anyway, here’s the slogan from the carpet shop in Brooklyn:

‘Say no to drugs.  Say yes to rugs.’

Actually, I wonder if it was a wig shop Mick saw…

Posted on 31 July 2008 

The curse (and cursing) of pedantry

Can you ever be right and wrong at the same time?

The answer, of course, is of course.  (Anyone who is married will be well aware that this is not only possible, but a very common state of affairs.)

Here are two examples from yesterday:

It was our daughter Emily’s last day at nursery, and she came home with a large goodbye card.  Inside was a message wishing her well for the future – but my eye was drawn straight to the grammatical mistakes which littered it.  (I should point out that the card was produced by the staff rather than the other children at the nursery.)

It said: ‘Good luck at you new school… we hope you make lot’s of new friends… goodbye from all your friend’s…’

It felt wrong to dwell mentally on these mistakes.  After all, the main thing was that the staff had taken the time and trouble to make the card for Emily; a few grammatical errors were relatively trivial.  And yet I was right.

Perhaps the errors irked me because the nursery has previous form.  Walk in the front door and you will see the words ‘Two butterflys’ on the wall as part of a counting aid.  Another notice mentions lessons in ‘computer technolgy’.  And it’s only recently that the monthly newsletter stopped mentioning ‘fourth coming events’.

As an educational establishment, the nursery really should be a bit more careful about these things.

The other example of being simultaneously wrong and right came not from me, but from the food critic Giles Coren.  The Guardian published an e-mail he sent to the Times, complaining about the sub-editing of one of his restaurant reviews.  I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t very happy…

‘This is someone thinking “I’ll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate c*** and i know best”.  Well, you f***ing don’t. This was s***, s*** sub-editing for three reasons…’

He goes on to outline those reasons with more rich, fruity and satisfying language before concluding:

‘I am sorry if this looks petty (last time i mailed a Times sub about the change of a single word i got in all sorts of trouble) but i care deeply about my work and i hate to have it f***ed up by shit subbing. I have been away, you’ve been subbing joe and hugo and maybe they just file and f*** off and think “hey ho, it’s tomorrow’s fish and chips” – well, not me. I woke up at three in the morning on sunday and f***ing lay there, furious, for two hours. weird, maybe. but that’s how it is.’

What had riled him was the omission of the word ‘a’ from the final line of his review; the phrase ‘wondering where to go for a nosh’ was changed to ‘wondering where to go for nosh’.

Such an outpouring of anger over the deletion of a single word – a single letter, in fact – could be considered excessive.  Wrong, even.  Giles Coren doesn’t end up looking good by the time he’s finished ranting.  And yet, he’s in the right.

A joke was intended in the phrase ‘a nosh’ – there’s a double meaning, since it can mean oral sex as well as food – but the joke disappears when the indefinite article disappears.  And even if you find the joke less than hilarious, the point is that the joke was what Coren intended; he had shaped the rest of his column to end on that punchline.

It’s very frustrating when your words are changed by people who don’t understand them.  It happened to me at work the other day, and while it wasn’t a big deal on that occasion, it was still irritating.

I’d written some copy for a client, which an account handler brought back to me with a request for a change.  ‘It’s the last line,’ she said. ‘The client doesn’t like the word “exploit”, as it has connotations of exploitation.’

I looked at the copy and realised that the copy wasn’t as it had been when it had left my desk a few days before.  I’d written something like ‘Opportunities may occur in the most unexpected places; we’ll help to ensure they don’t go unexploited.’  You can see what I intended; the words ‘unexpected’ and ‘unexploited’ play against each other.

However, someone (and to date no one has admitted to this) had rewritten the sentence without consulting me – losing the ‘unexpected/unexploited’ wordplay and leaving the word ‘exploit’ sitting there awkwardly and clumsily.

It didn’t cause me to wake up at three in the morning and lie there angrily for two hours, but I did tut with some force.  And I was 100% right to do so.

Posted on 26 July 2008 

Whitwhits, Doughies and Billabix

Our son Harry is now 22 months old, and his talking is coming along very well.  It’s fascinating to observe how young children pick up and assemble the building blocks of language, starting with single words, then gradually learning to put two, three, four and more together to express what they want more clearly.

That said, much of Harry’s language is probably clear only to the rest of us in the house.  It’s full of words which no one else would understand – and to be honest, we’re probably not helping matters by using his words instead of the correct words when we talk to him.  It’s difficult not to use his words, though, as they sound so cute and funny.

Our daughter Emily (now 4½) had plenty of her own words at that age, but we’ve forgotten most of them apart from ‘Dubber’ (her name for Winnie the Pooh) and ‘Pickpea’ (Pooh’s mate Piglet).  We really should have kept a record of them.

Still, it’s not too late to do it for Harry.  Here’s a handy glossary of terms for any visitors (all subject to change at any time, obviously):

yok: milk

Billabix: Weetabix

Alla-alla-ah-flakes: Crunchy Nut Cornflakes

whitwhit: biscuit

locklat: chocolate

lolly: lorry

kakkoo: thank you

it suck: it’s stuck

dandles: sandals

Hump Diddly Wall: the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty

Poopert: Rupert the Bear

pumpit: crumpet

wheee: a playground slide

ullawah: the other one

BoobooBeebee: Boogie Beebies

doughy: dummy (which he’s still too fond of, making it even harder to understand him sometimes)

neenaw: any emergency service vehicle (for a while, anything red too – such as postboxes – but we seem to have put him straight on this)

fa’ off: kindly turn the fan off (and not what I thought I heard the first time he said it)

Posted on 22 July 2008

End of an endline

The new campaign for Orange has been running for a couple of weeks now, and after due consideration I think I kind of like it.

If that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, it’s because I’m not wild about any of the individual executions, but the campaign thought ‘I am who I am because of everyone’ is a good piece of thinking.  Having worked a lot on Vodafone, I know how hard it is to find an interesting and insightful angle when all the mobile networks are offering much the same thing.

What I particularly like is the fact that the ads don’t connect all the dots in the argument for the consumer.  Most clients would have insisted on there being a clumsy line like ‘…and because everyone makes you who you are, keep in touch with them more often with…’  It’s very rare these days to find a client who believes that their customers are bright enough to make the connection themselves; they don’t seem to realise that when a customer makes their own connection instead of having it spelled out to them, they respond to the advertising much more.  Credit to Orange for that.

According to an article in last week’s Marketing, though, the people at Orange don’t consider ‘I am who I am because of everyone’ to be an endline.  The words ‘I am…’ are apparently a prefix, while the endline is simply the word ‘Orange’.  (The endline ‘The future’s bright, the future’s Orange’ hasn’t been used for two years now; it feels like less to me, but that’s probably because versions of the phrase are always being used by others.  For example, the Crystal Palace fans held a day in honour of their perma-tanned chairman Simon Jordan with the slogan ‘The future’s bright, the chairman’s orange’.)

The Orange brand director stated: ‘As an iconic brand, if we need a strapline, we’ve failed’.  He also dismissed O2’s ‘We’re better, connected’ and T-Mobile’s ‘Life’s for sharing’ as clichés.

He’s got a point, up to a point.  Those other lines are indeed bland and serve little purpose.  And it’s true that many endlines are just corporate trouser-fumbling.

I think the point is that if you don’t have a really great line, you’re better off not having a line at all.  But if you do have a great line – particularly one which is taken up and becomes part of the language like ‘The future’s bright’ – you have pure gold in your hands.

These days, Nike is such a famous brand that it can simply run the swoosh logo on its ads without the line ‘Just Do It’ – yet that line played a huge role in establishing the brand and helping it reach the point where it didn’t need to say anything next to its logo.

Sometimes the endline is needed to provide the premise on which the advertising is based; without it, the ads wouldn’t make much sense.  (The old ‘Reassuringly Expensive’ line for Stella Artois would be an example of this.)  And sometimes the endline is used to underline the message; it’s the final clout with the hammer that drives the nail home.

I’ve written my fair share of endlines over the years.  My recent favourite is ‘Put Knorr in, get more out’.  Others that come to mind are two for Pork Farms, written at different agencies, ten years apart: ‘The buntiest chompers in the clundy’ (used on ads which featured rustic characters using a made-up rural dialect) and ‘Proper food when you’re proper famished’.  There was also ‘Information ad infinitum’, written for the internet service provider CompuServe during the early days of the web.

Whatever you think of these lines, they cannot be as bad as the extraordinarily terrible endline which Fiat are now using: ‘You are, we car’.  How this was even scribbled down on a piece of paper in the first place, let alone bought by a large international company, is a mystery to me.  Unless, of course, the line was supposed to be ‘You are, we care’ and the last ‘e’ went missing somewhere.

I can’t see any other companies following Fiat down that particular road.  ‘You are, we bra’ for Playtex?  ‘Vous êtes, nous bêtes’ for a French zoo?  ‘Sie sind, wir Lindt’ for a certain Swiss chocolate maker?

No, non and nein.

Posted on 17 July 2008

More misspelt sines

Further to my last post, I was driving through Teddington on Saturday when I saw a stand advertising the work of the St John Ambulance.  It bore the slogan:

‘Not amatures – professionals.’

True, their professionalism lies in looking after the ill and injured rather than orthography, but this inattention to detail still made them look amateurish.

It reminded me that for a while, there was a similar clanger on the hoardings around the large development next door to where I work in Knightsbridge.  The hoardings featured the following quotation, attributed to the American writer John W. Gardner (no, I hadn’t heard of him either):

“Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinary well.”

It didn’t take long for someone (regrettably not me) to add an insert symbol and the letters ‘il’ to amend ‘extraordinary’ to ‘extraordinarily’.  The correct version of the quotation was eventually put up to cover the erroneous one.


Posted on 13 July 2008 

The art of signwritting

I noticed a new sign in Knightsbridge post office today.  It was positioned near the main queue, informing customers that they could go straight to window 9 to pay for stationary (sic).

The sign was printed, not handwritten.  And in any case, you would expect sellers of stationery to know how to spell it.  (Ironically, the main queue in the post office was stationary.)

This is far from an isolated mistake, of course.  I’ve considered compiling a photographic collection of such errors, concentrating on those errors made by professional signwriters, but there are so many around that I wouldn’t have time for the rest of my life.

Favourites include a hardware shop in Sevenoaks offering ‘NALES’ for sale, a furniture store in Isleworth with a wide selection of ‘dinning tables’ and a van owned by a musical group whose talents are ‘suitable for all occassions’.

Close to home in Teddington, there’s a cafe with ‘backed beans’ on the menu (backed with what?), another cafe with ‘herbal tea’s’ etched on the glass in the main window – and the cafe at Strawberry Hill rail station up the road will be happy to sell you a ‘large hot doge’.  It always makes me think of the ruler of Venice sweltering in his thick robes on a warm day.

Of course, you may take the view that I should not be so hung up by poor grammar and spelling.  It makes me sound like an intellectual snob – and besides, isn’t language a constantly evolving thing, often evolving precisely because enough people break the rules to make the mistakes acceptable?

Well, perhaps.  But it’s a slippery slope.  Once people feel they can spell words however they like, it’s not hard to envisage a situation where another person’s spelling can become as impenetrable as a heavy accent.

My German master at school once told us a possibly apocryphal tale about a teacher working in the North-East of England who was utterly baffled by two words he came across in essays written by his pupils.  The words were ‘wyrntn’ and ‘metantatipi’.  Any ideas what they meant?  No, I couldn’t guess either.

‘Wyrntn’ was ‘wire netting’; ‘metantatipi’ was ‘meat and tatie [i.e. potato] pie’.

Posted on 07 July 2008

Et il habite un bungalow!

There was a cracking howler in the French homework my wife Alison was marking last night.  One of the pupils had written:

‘Elle m’a donné un ascenseur.’

Presumably he meant ‘she gave me a lift’… except that ‘un ascenseur’ is an elevator-type lift.  I suppose you could give a lift in that way by paying to have a Stannah stairlift installed in someone else’s house, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case here.

Je me suis pissé de rire!

Posted on 03 July 2008

How was your journey?

Over the last two or three years, it seems everyone has been on a journey.

Political candidates and their audience (‘…we can be one people, reaching for what’s possible, building that more perfect union.  That’s the journey we’re on today.’ – Barack Obama, Feb 2007).

X Factor contestants (‘It’s been an amazing journey’, ‘Let’s take a look back at your journey’ etc etc – not to mention the execrable Journey South).

Big Brother participants (Betfair website headline from 18 June: ‘Big Brother Winner’s Market: The Winner Needs a Journey’).

Sir Bobby Robson, picking up a lifetime achievement award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show: ‘All in all, it’s been an incredible journey’.

Even advertisers have seized on the trend; Lloyds TSB is now positioning itself as being ‘for the journey’.

Funny how most people overlook the fact that journeys are generally mundane, tedious affairs that are likely to leave you feeling nauseous.  (Hmm – perhaps the journey reference is appropriate for Big Brother after all.)

But now even foodstuffs are boasting about their journey.  This week I came across a packet of Tilda rice with this instruction on the back: ‘To complete the Basmati journey, hand-tend your pouch by squeezing it gently…’

I’m not averse to hand-tending my pouch by squeezing it gently, but I thought it better to do it at home with the curtains closed rather than in the middle of the supermarket.

Posted on 25 June 2008 

‘Shut that jiggupy door, you simmy-dimmy’

There was an entertaining discussion on Radio Five Live yesterday morning about words which are used within families but are not in common use.  (This follows the announcement by the English Project of their initiative to compile what they call ‘Kitchen Table Lingo’.)

For example, one person texted in to say that chips are called ‘fuffs’ in their family because one of the children used to call them that, after the sound made by blowing on them to cool them down.

We’ve several of these words in our family; I don’t know whether my Mum invented them all, but I remember her using them frequently.  Here are six which immediately spring to mind – if any more occur to me, I’ll list them in another post.

jiggupy (adj.) – of a door, describing its continual bumping against the doorframe, caused by a draught

gruntees (n.) – a baby’s poo, sometimes produced after grunting!

bloomfer (n.) – a hand-held pneumatic machine used by workmen to flatten tarmac.  The word is onomatopoeic; ‘bloomfer’ is the sound made by the machine

luggy (adj.) – hard of hearing

simmy-dimmy (n.) – an unintelligent person, perhaps with minor learning difficulties.  Derives from ‘simple-minded’ and ‘dim’

worrygutting (n.) – the act of fretting anxiously.  A derivation of ‘worryguts’

Posted on 16 June 2008

New colour discovered

Yes, really.  And I discovered it in Halfords of all places.

I went to buy some car mats last Sunday and soon found just the ones for our car.  The colour, according to the label, was ‘greige’.

Greige, indeed.  Presumably this is halfway between grey and beige.

I never thought to check the green items in the shop to see if the labels described them as ‘blellow’.

Posted on 13 June 2008