Blog Archive 2014-15

Going dotty…

I’d never thought of myself as being nerdy enough to have a favourite piece of punctuation, but perhaps I am…

Because I do have a penchant for…

…the ellipsis.  (Or  ‘dot-dot-dot’, if you like.)

That said, I’m not enough of a fan to have written a book devoted to it, as Dr Anne Toner has done.  Nor, for that matter, am I prepared to pay the £60 cover price.  (Sixty pounds, I ask you…)

But there is a useful review of the book on the Cambridge University site, which reveals some interesting nuggets about the development of the device and the different ways in which it is used.

For example, many authors have used it to mark an interruption, like this…

Son:  My friend Billy’s got a ten-foot wi…

Dad:  Whoa, that’s enough of that, thank you.

They can be used to convey vagueness or an inability to express oneself…

“No, it’s not you… I mean… it’s just that… how can I put it… oh, I don’t know…”

Or they can hint at something rude, either out of suggestiveness or through censorship…

She:  Every day I do this stretching exercise and chant, “I must, I must, increase my bust”.

He:   Really?  I’ve got a similar routine.

She:  How does that go, then?

He:   “Hickory dickory dock…”

For my part, I use the ellipsis in all sorts of ways not mentioned in the article.  It’s become something of a replacement for the introductory colon, as you’ll already have spotted in this post.

Sometimes it can be the equivalent of a wobbly screen effect in film or on TV, marking a shift in chronology (either forwards or backwards).

“He hadn’t been quite so self-assured on the day they met thirty years before…”

Very often, it’s a rendition of the knowing look and raised eyebrows when relating an anecdote.

“The other kids reacted to his haircut with all the sympathy and restraint you would expect…”

And if I’m honest, I sometimes use the ellipsis where a simple full stop would work perfectly well – perhaps as a subconscious implication that I could say much more if I wished.

Perhaps I do overuse the device.  I’m sure my heavy reliance on it would be viewed with disapproval by the likes of Umberto Eco, who has referred to ‘the ghastliness of these dots’, and author Lynne Truss, who reportedly sees them as black holes.

But it’s so useful and so flexible that I can’t see myself using it any less in the future…

Posted on 30 December 2015

Google Translate: not always on the button

I’ve rarely used it, but I’ve always suspected that Google Translate isn’t entirely reliable – and this story has made me even more wary.

The small town of As Pontes in north-west Spain recently used the service when publicising its festival celebrating the grelo, a leafy green vegetable.  Since grelo is a local word, they turned to Google Translate to render it into Castilian Spanish – but the result was an invitation to attend a clitoris festival.

Cue lots of jokes in the comments section on the Guardian site about how difficult the place is to find.

Posted on 05 November 2015

Late again…

Even though we’re all being bombarded by a surfeit of information these days, it seems it is still possible for sizeable popular trends to completely pass you by.  OK, to pass me by.

I’ve experienced two examples of this recently.

First, I came across the phenomenon of literal music videos.  In case you’re unaware of these, they are reworked versions of music videos in which the song lyrics have been changed to describe what’s happening in the video.

Here’s the example which is generally accepted as the original of the genre: a new take on the A-ha track Take On Me.  It was posted on YouTube in 2008.

2008!  That’s seven years ago!  How could it have taken me so long to discover it?

(You can discover plenty more for yourself if you care to look – I particularly recommend the literal version of Total Eclipse of the Heart.)

My other belated discovery, of a more specifically linguistic nature, occurred when I found myself watching an episode of Dave Gorman’s Modern Life is Goodish.  The show included a lengthy section about phrases which people frequently get wrong.  For example:

‘doggy dog world’ (for ‘dog eat dog world’)

‘from the gecko’ (for ‘from the get-go’)

‘escape goat’ (for ‘scapegoat)

My interest piqued – or as some might say, ‘peaked’ – I looked into this further, and discovered that not only has this type of linguistic error been comprehensively examined and catalogued, it has a name.  As long ago as 2003, professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum coined the term ‘Eggcorn’ – based on the incorrect articulation of the word ‘acorn’.

It appears that there are hundreds of eggcorns in existence; certainly far more than I had realised.  Ones which I’ve come across fairly often, and which particularly irk me, are:

‘like a damp squid’ (for ‘damp squib’)

‘to all intensive purposes’ (for ‘intents and purposes’)

‘a shoe-in’ (for ‘shoo-in’)

‘towing the line’ (for ‘toeing the line’)

‘off his own back’ (for ‘bat’)

But the one that really annoys me is when an agency gets in touch and asks me to ‘flush out’ a creative idea they’ve had (rather than ‘fleshing it out’).  I’m not sure whether that’s because I often feel that flushing it out would be the best course of action…

Posted on 26 October 2015

Not happy.  Really not happy at all.

Now, anyone who knows me will be aware that the default setting for my general disposition is, well, frequently less than sunny.

(The picture on the right, drawn by our son when he was only four, is considered by the rest of the family to be a perfect encapsulation of my usual mood.)

But the ‘anti-happy’ comments which follow shouldn’t be interpreted as me having another grump.  Well, not entirely, anyway.

My criticisms are two-fold and specific. First, that the theme of happiness is becoming too common in advertising endlines.

And second, that this idea is often expressed in an annoyingly ungrammatical way.

The first bone of contention can be chewed very quickly.  Telling consumers that a particular product will make them happy smacks of sheer laziness on the part of the planners involved; rather than coming up with a new, interesting angle, they settle for a simplistic and obvious approach which neither engages nor convinces.

This doesn’t mean that no effort is involved; the suggested strategy is no doubt bolstered by the findings of a huge number of research groups and a PowerPoint presentation running to 100 slides or more.  But this doesn’t mask the paucity of insight and thinking which has gone into the central message.

It’s the poor grammar which really irks me, though.

The word ‘happy’ is an adjective.  Not a noun (I don’t have ‘a happy’).  Nor an adverb (I don’t ‘walk happy’ down the road).  But time and again, advertisers misuse the word – either oblivious to their mistake or deliberately making the endline jar in consumers’ heads and (supposedly) making it more likely to stick. Let’s name a few names.

The earliest example of ‘happy’ in an endline that I’ve found occurs in this American ad for Betty Crocker cake mix, dating from the early 1980s.

Though to be fair, there’s nothing too irritating about the line ‘Bake someone happy’ – it’s acceptable shorthand for ‘Make someone happy through baking’.

It’s the recent plethora of ‘happy’ lines which has got on my nerves…

In 2003, Norwich Union Direct (now Aviva) offered to ‘quote you happy’.

This sounded odd at the time, and still does – largely because having people in the ads saying ‘Quote me happy’ is so unrealistic. Has anyone in the real world ever said that to an insurance company?

Then we had Wall’s ice cream encouraging people to ‘share happy’.

Not ‘share happiness’, you notice.  (Even Coca-Cola is grammatically circumspect enough to invite us to ‘Open happiness’ rather than ‘Open happy’.)

Perhaps Wall’s has seen the error of its ways, altering its endline to ‘Goodbye Serious’ last year.  But there are plenty of other ‘happy’ companies around…

Carcraft, with ‘Drive happy’:

Nutella, with ‘Spread the happy’:

Rightmove, with ‘Find your happy’:

And Jacob’s – makers of Cream Crackers amongst other savoury snacks – have been urging us to both ‘snack happy’ and ‘lunch happy’…

I think you can see by now why I’m not happy.

Posted on 24 July 2015

Election talk

Several months ago on this blog (that’s to say, in the last piece I posted – sorry about the gap), I said that I’d keep an eye out for key words and phrases during the General Election campaign.

Well, here we are on polling day – and there’s been precious little of note to report.

There have been no stirring or memorable campaign slogans.  In fact, most of the messages have been so bland as to be interchangeable.

‘A Better Plan.  A Better Future.’
‘A Brighter, More Secure Future.’
‘Opportunity for Everyone’
‘For the Common Good.’
‘Believe in Britain.’

For the record, those were the offerings of (in order) the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, the Green party and UKIP.

The Lib Dems did use another line in their party political broadcasts which at least made it clear that they intended to occupy a centrist position (‘Look left, look right, then cross’), but this had the disadvantage of being, well, just a bit lame.

It was left to a UKIP supporter to come up with the only eye-catching, if grammar-wrecking, slogan of the campaign.  (Actually it’s been around for a while, but it’s really done the rounds on social media in the last few weeks…)

There have been a few buzzwords around, largely coming from the Conservative Party.  They’ve talked a lot about ‘hardworking families’ – as opposed to lazy, coasting ones, presumably.  They’ve referred constantly to the prospect of Labour and the SNP working together as the ‘coalition of chaos’.  (Why not ‘chaolition’?)

And they’ve really gone to town with the word ‘strong’.  Signs prominently bearing the word have been held up by supporters standing behind David Cameron whenever he’s made a speech.  And after the televised leaders’ debate, a host of Tories took to Twitter to acclaim his performance as ‘strong’ and ‘commanding’ – as the Huffington Post, among others, quickly realised.

Strangely, Nick Clegg – a known lover of the buzzword (who can forget the time when he kept going on about ‘alarm clock Britain‘?) – has held himself in check in the lead-up to the election.   He’s repeated a Wizard of Oz-inspired line about giving the Tories a heart and Labour a brain in the event of a coalition with either of them, but that’s about the limit of it.  Perhaps someone in the party has finally told him that his little phrases and jokes really annoy people.

If anything, it’s visual language which has dominated the campaign.  George Osborne has rarely been seen without a hi-vis jacket on his back, presumably to show how in touch he is with working people.  (Sorry, with ‘hardworking families’.)  And David Cameron hasn’t rolled down his shirt sleeves since some Tory backers complained that the campaign lacked passion and fight.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has looked directly into the TV cameras at every opportunity; he’s evidently been told that this is the best way to connect with the electorate.  And he’s had his election pledges engraved on a huge piece of stone, quickly and disparagingly tagged the ‘EdStone’.

As far as the written word is concerned, the focus during this campaign has been on badly-written election leaflets.  An error-strewn effort from the local Lib Dems landed on our mat, and so appalled my wife that any minute chance of her voting for them evaporated immediately.  But it turns out that there have been howlers all over the country.

Like the one from a Conservative candidate called – hmm, is that really his name?

Or the Labour candidate who couldn’t be bothered to spell out all his policies (picture from the Cambridge News):

But the best example of all has to be this UKIP leaflet which an English teacher decided to ‘mark’ with a red pen.  Her corrections were posted online and quickly went viral.

Do these spelling and grammar mistakes really matter?  Inasmuch as they suggest a slapdash attitude and an inattention to detail on the part of the candidate, I’d say they do.

Just a few hours now until we find out what the nation has to say about everyone’s campaigns…

Posted on 07 May 2015

New Year, old stuff

This is probably going to be a bit of a bitty post, but hey ho…

First, a couple of new misheard lyrics to add to our collection (see the 2011 archive).  Our son Harry recently gave a new twist to the Eurythmics’ song There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart).  He thought it was There Must Be A Ninja – and sang along particularly enthusiastically to the part which he thought was:

Must be talkin’ to a ninja,
Must be talkin’ to a ninja…

It’s a plausible misinterpretation; after all, love could justifiably be compared to a stealthy, unseen force which takes you by surprise and flattens you.

Then we have Can’t Fight the Moonlight by Leann Rimes, with a chorus which appears to begin:

You can try to resist,
Try to hide from my kids…

It’s actually ‘kiss’ rather than ‘kids’, of course, but our misheard version does conjure up a vivid picture of a single mother with an unruly brood.

Some lyric changes are deliberate, though.  Over Christmas, Harry devised an updated version of Wham’s Last Christmas:

Last Christmas I gave you my heart,
But the very next day, you sold it on eBay…

Perhaps I should offer his lyrical services to, responsible for the Worst Writing in a Song in 2014.  (That’s an opinion rather than an official award, but it still deserves capital letters.)  In It’s My Birthday, he suggests that:

The world don’t matter,
Your problem don’t matter…

What could it be that makes the weighty concerns of existence seem as nothing?  Don’t get too excited, because you’re likely to be underwhelmed by the answer:

‘Cause we gon’ get dum-de-dum-de-datta.

We could also add the lyrics to our list of ungrammatical lyrics (see 2012 archive), since they should read ‘The world doesn’t matter’.  And while we’re at it, let’s add the following from Deacon Blue:

I’ll do what I should have did
‘Cause you’re a real gone kid…

And this from Usher’s Good Kisser:

Don’t nobody kiss it like you,
Don’t nobody kiss it like you…

Don’t nobody write ’em like they used to.

“Was that the sound of a lark?” he wondered.  “Or perhaps a thrush?”
He strode on past the bluebells and buttercups in bloom, brushing aside the ferns and brambles along the way.  He was in search of conkers, but all he had found so far were acorns.
His father would have known how to spot a horse chestnut tree, but he was away on his allotment, tending his rhubarb and digging up turnips with his ox-strong arms.
He crossed a brook – and there they were, lying everywhere on the ground.  Like a young colt slipping its bridle, he dashed forward to pick them up.  They were no minnows; some were the size of apricots.
They were without doubt the finest conkers in the county…

Now, we’ve looked before at words disappearing from the dictionary, but this time the lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries seem to have gone too far.

It’s just been revealed that a lot of common (and largely nature-related) words have been quietly dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary since 2007.  So any young person reading the above passage and wishing to look up lark, thrush, bluebell, buttercup, bloom, fern, bramble, conker, acorn, horse chestnut, allotment, rhubarb, turnip, ox, brook, colt, bridle, minnow, apricot or county would be disappointed.

These, and many other common words, have been replaced by modern ones such as blog, broadband, MP3, cut and paste, voicemail, database, attachment and chatroom.  This is meant to reflect the fact that children today spend less time outside and more time on computers.

Clearly, dictionaries need to evolve all the time to reflect changes in language and society.  But surely there’s an argument that if children are spending less time in contact with nature, it’s all the more important to inform them about it.

Besides, many of the words which have been removed play a wider role in language in similes, metaphors and idioms, which even young children are likely to encounter.  As prickly as a porcupine, he ferreted around, great oaks from little acorns grow, for example.

But many better writers than me have made the case.  Here is a letter signed by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo and Sir Andrew Motion.

That phrase ‘in a generation’ (covered on this blog as long ago as 2011) shows no sign of declining in use, unfortunately.  If anything, it’s increasing – and things are likely to get worse with the impending General Election, which Ed Miliband has already described as being ‘the most important in a generation’.

I’ll try to keep an eye on this, and other repeated phrases and slogans, as we near voting day.

Posted on 16 January 2015

Cheerio to cheerio?

Once again (which I say because this happened not so long ago), a list of words deemed to be old-fashioned and moribund has been published.  This time, it’s a study by Lancaster University and the Cambridge University Press.  And whereas I was left unmoved by the removal of kench, quagswagging and drysalter from the Collins English Dictionary a couple of years ago, I’m now slightly alarmed to see that a number of words I use are on the list.

‘Marvellous’ is something I say a lot, though admittedly it’s generally muttered under my breath in an ironic way.  Then we have cheerio, fortnight, fetch and catalogue.

My wife thinks this is yet another sign that I’m old and out of touch, but I reckon the study is fundamentally flawed.  The researchers clearly didn’t speak to enough football fans.

You can hear thousands of supporters chanting ‘cheerio, cheerio’ whenever one of the opposing team is sent off.  The fact that home matches are usually two weeks apart means that fans are very likely to say ‘See you in a fortnight’ to each other at the final whistle.

A goal is often said to result from a catalogue of errors by the defending team, as I know from watching Norwich on a regular basis.  And now that City are enjoying a good start to the new season, I’m much more likely to say ‘I’m going to fetch a paper’ to read the match report.

The study claims that these words are being replaced by ones from digital technology and from American culture.  But am I going to start saying ‘awesome’ instead of ‘marvellous’?  #fatchance

The road painters who can’t spell have been at it again.  Remember the fire station with the road markings telling people to ‘Keep Klear’?  Here’s where you can get a bus in Bristol…

And more picture news.  I recently received this email from Tesco.

‘Stationary’?  With an ‘a’?  Someone definitely needs to go back to school.

And one more picture while I’m at it.  It’s not a spelling mistake, but it seems wrong all the same.

England’s Glory, made in Sweden?  About as likely as the England football team achieving glory under Sven-Goran Eriksson.

And finally for now:

With Kate Bush performing on stage again after a 35-year break, my wife has been playing her music in the house a lot lately.  Not that this has been popular with everyone.

‘Oh no,’ said our son as he came into the living room the other day.  ‘Not Warbling Heights again.’

Posted on 11 September 2014

Yes reader, I’m back!

Good grief, has it really been that long since I wrote a blog post?  I should really make amends by writing a lengthy piece of depth and substance, but I’m afraid I only have a few light titbits for you…

First, an alarming comment made by our son Harry during this summer’s World Cup.  During a kickabout in the garden one afternoon, I’d shielded the ball from him by exaggeratedly sticking out my ample backside in his direction.  I didn’t think anything more of it until we were watching a game on TV a couple of days later and a defender used the same method to ward off a striker.

“Look, Dad!” Harry exclaimed loudly.  “He’s bumming him off like you did to me in the garden!”

Thank goodness we weren’t in a public place watching the game.

In the same anatomical area, I think the prize for the best competitor’s name at the Commonwealth Games has to go to India’s Sushila Likmabam.

Not that I would dare snigger about it to her face, though.  She won a silver in the judo competition.

And still at that end of the body, here’s a notice which recently appeared in the window of a Tesco store in East London.  Best malapropism I’ve seen for a long while:

A brief family visit to Amsterdam last week revealed almost as many amusing local names as we generally see in France.
We saw an ad for a theme park called Plopsaland, which will have to change its name if the owners ever decide to set up another one in Britain.  Plopsaland just sounds a bit, well, you know.

We noticed a clothing store called Sissy-Boy and a clothing range called Acne (also available in London, I’ve since discovered).  I assume the latter must be targeting the teenage market.

And during a canal trip, a large neon sign reading ‘Top Koks’ was spotted.  Turns out it’s not advertising a male escort service, but an employment agency for cooks.

More soon, promise…

Posted on 04 August 2014

And the winner isn’t…

Another awards ceremony, another chance to practise my magnanimous smile when someone else wins.  (Not that the EDF Energy East of England Media Awards were being broadcast live on TV, but I didn’t want to appear a bad loser in front of the other people at my table.)

I was shortlisted in the Columnist of the Year category for the articles I write for the MyFootballWriter site.

Still, at least I got a free meal out of it.  (Though it did cost me £32 on the train to get there to eat it.)  And it was worth turning up to hear the representative from the sponsoring company introduce the guest of honour as a ‘Paralympic gold mentalist’.

I do enjoy a good malapropism.  Recently a colleague of my wife was talking to a visitor about the local area; yes, it is largely affluent, she remarked – but there are ‘pockets of depravity’…

Similarly, I couldn’t help laughing when testing our 10-year-old daughter on new vocabulary the other day.  “What does ‘besom’ mean?” I asked.  “Is it something to do with a naked lady?” she replied.

It didn’t help when she asked me to give her a sentence using the word in context and I came up with:
‘The witch went to the cupboard and got her besoms out.’

Back in January 2011, I wrote a blog entry about hilariously incorrect subtitles on TV.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a great new example to add to the list.  BBC News announced at the Chinese New Year that this is the year of the horse:

Posted on 28 February 2014