Occasional observations on the use (and misuse) of language


⇒ Post history

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 this 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:


 

F***ing h***

I knew this day would come, just not yet...

Last Thursday, at the end of the school day, our seven-year-old son's teacher gave me the finger.  No, not like that - I mean that she gave me that 'come here' gesture dreaded by all parents doing the school pick-up, accompanied by a mouthed 'Could I have a word?'

After I'd trudged into the classroom, as sheepishly as though I'd done something wrong myself, she told me that Harry was in big trouble for using the f-word at playtime.

'Where on earth has he learned language like that?' I exclaimed.

'He says he got it from you,' she said.  (Maybe I had done something wrong myself...)

'That's ridiculous,' I said - and though her expression suggested that she didn't believe me, I really couldn't think of an occasion when he might have heard me use the word.  I've been so careful; I never assemble flat-pack furniture or do any decorating when he's in the house.

As you can imagine, it wasn't a bundle of laughs in the car on the way home.  When we got back, Harry ran straight up to his room in floods of tears.

I was just about to text his mother to tell her what he'd done when the phone rang.  It was Harry's teacher again.

Apparently, after we'd left, she'd spoken to a couple of Harry's classmates about the incident - and they confirmed that he'd used 'one of the f-words'.

'One of'?

To her credit, she picked up on this and questioned them further.  It didn't take long to establish that what he'd actually said was 'flipping heck'.

Much relief all round - not least on my part, since I would no longer have to defend myself to my wife against Harry's claim that he'd picked up the 'other' f-word from me.

Mind you, she still told me that I shouldn't say 'flipping heck' in front of him, even though I think this is remarkably restrained.

And she's said worse in front of the kids.

A few weeks ago, our daughter kept trying to get Harry into trouble - and I finally told her not to be such a tell-tale tit.

'Mum, Mum, Dad said the t-word!' she said, now trying to get me into trouble.

'"Twat"?' said my wife.

 

Ad break

I guess most copywriters have an ad in their past which still haunts them; an ad which still makes them shudder when they think of it and which (if they're unlucky) is still used by others in the know to beat or blackmail them.

This is mine.

Years ago, I was working for an agency that was pitching for a chain of low-cost family restaurants.  I wasn't involved in the initial pitch, but eventually I was dragged into the process.

The situation was this: the prospective client liked the agency and wanted to give us the account, but felt unable to do so until they saw a TV script they could buy.  Different teams wrote different scripts over a two-week period, but all were turned down - largely because they didn't make a big enough hero of the large bear that was the brand character.  We reached a crucial moment; if a buyable script were not presented soon, the client would walk away.

The account director working on the pitch came and asked me to have a go.  'Just write whatever it takes to get the account,' he said.  'Something they can't turn down.  It doesn't have to be pretty.'

Helpful soul that I am, I had a go.  And the result was a script featuring a rapping bear, who delivered the brand strategy, key proposition and anything else on the brief that would fit into the rhyming lyrics.  The client couldn't not buy it.

The account duly secured, the agency celebrated and my stock rose considerably.  Hurrah!

But then things started to go wrong.  First my art director Mick returned from holiday and read the script I'd written.  He was horrified.  I explained the situation and the reasons I'd written what I'd written.  He considered my argument.  And was still horrified.

Then - and this was the worst thing - we had to make the ad.  The simplest way to convey the result would be to provide a link to the finished commercial, but (thank God) no one has yet posted it on YouTube and I don't have a copy.  Suffice to say that it was everything the script promised it would be - only more badly edited, thanks to the client's involvement.

Surprisingly (and this doesn't reflect well on the public either), the ad achieved a huge boost in brand awareness and custom went up.  The account director said whenever he looked at the figures, he wanted to punch the air.  Mick said whenever he looked at the ad, he wanted to punch me.

And to this day, whenever Mick goes on holiday, he still warns me that there had better be no scripts featuring rapping wildlife in existence when he gets back.

Why am I bringing all this up now?  Well, take a look at this new spot for Muller Rice...




I brought this up with Mick.  'Do you think it's possible we were ten years ahead of our time?' I suggested.

The short, expletive-free version of his response was 'no'.

_________________________________________________

While I'm talking about bad ads:

A while ago, I posted about a particular radio commercial for the payday lender Wonga.  I'm pleased to report that the Advertising Standards Authority agrees with me - even if it's taken them a year to come to that view.

 

From French accents to literary genitalia

Hello and welcome to the semiannual post on the 'Talking Scribble' blog. (OK, so the posts aren't supposed to be that far apart, but that's the way it seems to be going at the moment.)

My failure to update this blog regularly isn't down to a lack of things to highlight and discuss.   During the summer, for example, the latest additions to the Oxford English Dictionary were revealed.   I could and should have posted my suspicions that I am being individually targetted by the OED, given that 'dad dancing', 'geekery', 'hand-wringer' and 'knobhead' have now been included.

But I'm afraid my new media silence is down to a combination of sloth (still my deadly sin of choice), a heavy workload and moving house.   Apologies to both of my regular readers.

Anyway, here's a round-up of linguistic observations from the last few months:

●  Proof that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.   At a Center Parcs in France, I overheard a British woman trying to buy some ready salted crisps from a bar.   To her credit, she tried to do it in French and started off quite well...

Woman:   Er... des... er... chips?
Barman: Des chips, oui.

So far, so good (since the French word for crisps is indeed 'chips').   But then the barman asked what flavour she would like.

Woman:   Er... sales, s'il vous plaît.
Barman:   Salés, madame, des chips salés...

Instead of asking for salted crisps, she'd asked for dirty ones.   What a difference an accent can make.

●  Still in France, I found myself watching a TV show called 'The Best' one evening. It was a 'France's Got Talent' sort of show, except that most of the acts weren't French and a fair proportion had no talent.

Anyway, the final act on the programme was a French streetdance outfit who had evidently tried to come up with a gritty name in English.   Something like 'Wicked Crew', for example.

Unfortunately, this is what they'd chosen:



●  What's in a name?   Hmm...

It appears that the advertising media company Group M has a new Chief Operating Officer:   www.campaignlive.co.uk/news/1194483/Ruud-Wanck-promoted-Group-M

It will, I trust, be a hands-on role.

●   My wife's been complaining recently of a ringing sound in her ears.   'I hope this isn't the start of tinnitus,' she said.

I started sniggering, which not surprisingly didn't go down well.   But it wasn't out of meanness; I was remembering how my mother always used to get the word wrong.

More than once she told me that a friend of hers was suffering from tittiness.

●   I've noticed a number of misspelled posters and signs lately.   Some, like the Car Giant ad boasting of 'thousand's of cars' are presumably just slips caused by poor grammar and/or a lack of attention.

But I couldn't help wondering whether one was deliberate.   The route map I saw in a South West Trains carriage the other day featured 'Cystal Palace'.   Could a supporter of a rival club be responsible?

●   As mentioned, we moved house recently.   Not far away from our new home are the offices of a company called Schindler.

'What do they do?' asked our daughter.   'I don't know,' I replied, 'I'll look them up.'

And I did.   Turns out they make... lifts.

Yep.   Schindler's lift.

●  We're also quite close to the local leisure centre, and I went along to join up.  Apparently I'm old enough to join a swimming session called 'Young at Heart'.

How depressing is that?  How old does that phrase make me feel?

And besides, I have never, ever been young at heart.

●  Finally, the literary genitalia mentioned in the title of this post.

I was getting changed for swimming in a family cubicle with our (then) six-year-old son at Center Parcs when he suddenly burst out laughing.  'Dad,' he said, 'your willy looks like Mrs Twit in the Roald Dahl book!'

Here, for your reference, is what Mrs Twit looks like:


My wife says that if you squint at the picture a bit, you can see what he means.  Hmph.


And on that note, I think we'll bring this post to a quick end.  See you all again next March.  (OK, I'll try to update the blog before then...)

 

Newsflash: I'm not dead!

Right, now where was I?

It's been a very long time since my last post on this blog.  In fact, I only realised how long in our local Sainsbury's last Saturday.  I overheard two men discussing a third party:

'Yes, he's the top man there,' one of them said.  'He really rules the rooster.'

'Rules the rooster!' I thought with delight.  'I must mention that on the... oh, bloody hell.'

So here I am again.  But where to start?

Perhaps with a recommendation for some of the best writing I've come across in ages: The Heist by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

Yes - I, a 52-year-old man living in a quiet, leafy suburb of London, am recommending an American rap album.  I wouldn't have thought it likely either - but the lyrics are some of the cleverest, funniest, most intelligent and moving I've heard in a long time.

 

Thrift Shop is currently their best-known track in the UK, and the one that brought them to my attention.  How can you not love a song which starts with the hilarious swagger of:

Walk up to the club, like 'What up, I got a big c*ck!'

Same Love, a track in support of gay marriage (which immediately distances it from the homophobia often associated with the genre), highlights the misguidedness of those who think that homosexuality is a condition which can be 'cured':

The right wing conservatives think it's a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion,
Man-made rewiring of a predisposition.
Playing God, oh no, here we go:
America the Brave still fears what we don't know.
And 'God loves all his children' is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five hundred years ago…

 

And Jimmy Iovine captures perfectly the vacuous flattery of a record company executive:

 

He said: 'We've been watching you, so glad you could make it.
Your music, it's so impressive in this whole brand you created
You're one hell of a band, we here think you're destined for greatness
And with that right song we all know that you're next to be famous.
Now I'm sorry, I've had a long day - remind me now what your name is?'

There's similar verbal dexterity throughout the whole album.  My only regret is that the frequent use of expletives makes it unsuitable for playing when our two young children are around.  That's not a criticism of the lyrics, you understand - the kids just aren't ready for that language yet.  When they're a bit older, I'll have no hesitation in urging them to give the album a listen, though a recommendation from their untrendy dad is probably more likely to put them off.

 

In any case, I'm currently trying to tackle other language issues with our six-year-old son Harry.  Although very articulate, he uses nonsense words in conversation a lot.  For example, when asked what he'd like for breakfast, he's as likely to say 'Shred-shred pleeeedd!' as 'Shreddies please'.  Asked if he'd like some waffles as well, the answer is as likely to be 'cooty-coo' as 'two'.

 

Occasionally he'll stumble unknowingly upon a rude word.  The other day, instead of expressing a desire to go the the park, he said he wanted to go to the 'wank'.  Ahem.

 

I don't know why he's doing this.  It may be a silly stage he's going through.  He may be experimenting with words and sounds for fun.  One reason is certainly that he's discovered that it winds me up and it entertains him to see steam emerge from my ears.

 

I just hope it doesn't last; I once worked with someone who was still talking nonsense in his forties.  One day he came into the office complaining that the traffic had been particularly heavy in the vicinity of Blackstock Road - though he expressed this as: 'Blimey, it was chock-a-blocky round Blacky'.

 

Still, Harry did make my day recently with just one simple two-letter word.  Read this to find out what it was.

 

Right, that'll do for now, I think.  I'll try not to leave it so long before the next post.  Byesy-byesy.

 

(Damn, I'm doing it now.)

 

Exasperating indeed

The weather's been terrible this week.  Unfortunately, so has the use of English by one of the BBC weathermen.

"The rain is likely to exasperate the flooding situation," he said on two separate occasions one day.  (Not that I hold him solely responsible for this clanger; someone should have quietly told him that the word is 'exacerbate' before he repeated it.)

However, this wasn't the most embarrassing mistake of the week by a long way.  Susan Boyle's record company promoted the launch party for her new album with the hashtag:

#susanalbumparty

...which was widely interpreted as 'Su's anal bum party'.  Wrong in so many ways.

This sent me off in search of unfortunate website names, which I seem to recall were once featured on an old series of the Graham Norton show.  Here are a few I found:

An Italian power generating company:
www.powergenitalia.com

A website to help you locate a therapist:
www.therapistfinder.com

A knowledge hub where computer experts can exchange information:
www.expertsexchange.com

A Dutch music events company:
www.hollandshitfestival.nl

A database of agents in the entertainment world:
www.whorepresents.com
Plus, of course, any domain based in the Cook Islands with the suffix '.co.ck'...

 

Wronga.com

Advertising isn't the best environment in which to retain a moral compass, it has to be said.  It's very easy to allow yourself to be persuaded to take on assignments you really shouldn't.

My own history isn't spotless; in the past, I've worked on tobacco accounts, on 'green' ads for a large oil company (which never ran, thank goodness) and - even worse - on Greene King beer.  (The latter being reprehensible, not because it's alcohol but because the company sponsored Ipswich Town at the time.)

But perhaps I'm seeing things more clearly these days.  I recently turned down work for a pro-tobacco lobby.  For a baldness-disguising treatment.  And for an escort who wanted me to write her online profile for her.

I'm also more sensitive to the dangerously seductive messages of potentially damaging products and services out there.  One which comes to mind at the moment is the current radio campaign for Wonga.com - a company which loans money at the astronomical APR of 4214%.

This spot in particular is so catchy that our two kids know the words off by heart.

Yes, you can admire the clever, slick rewriting of the lyrics to 'Mr Sandman'.  But only in the narrow way that you can admire the technical brilliance of Leni Riefenstahl while being horrified at the message she was conveying.

 

Is you is or is you ain't grammatical?

For ages, I've been meaning to compile a list of pop songs containing bad grammar.  There's no shortage of them, after all - or perhaps I should say there ain't no shortage.

However, a quick trawl of the internet reveals that there's no shortage of people who have already done this.  There's the AmIRight site, for example.  And apparently there's a Facebook group called 'I Mentally Correct Ungrammatical Song Lyrics', though since I'm still resisting the lure of Facebook, I can't confirm this.

Still, as someone who has worked in advertising for many years, I have long since ceased to be bothered by the unoriginality of an idea.  So here are some of my favourite examples, together with the correct versions of the grammar being used:

'I can't get no satisfaction' (Rolling Stones)
I can't get any satisfaction

'We don't need no education' (Pink Floyd - 'Another Brick in the Wall')
We don't need any education*

'She's got a ticket to ride / But she don't care' (The Beatles)
...but she doesn't care
'Love don't live here any more' (Rose Royce)
Love doesn't live here any more

'My buddies and me are gettin' real well known' (Beach Boys - 'I Get Around')
My buddies and I are getting really well known

'I never thought through love we'd be / Making one as lovely as she' (Stevie Wonder - 'Isn't She Lovely')
...as lovely as her

'Lay lady lay' (Bob Dylan)
Lie, lady, lie

'Ain't no sunshine when she's gone' (Bill Withers)
There isn't any sunshine when she's gone

'Ain't nobody' (Chaka Khan)
There isn't anybody'

'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain' (America - 'Horse With No Name')
Because there isn't anyone to give you any pain

'My love does it good' (Paul McCartney and Wings)
My love does it well

'Whip it good' (Devo)
Whip it well

'Baby I'm a want you / Baby I'm a need you' (Bread)
Baby I want you / Baby I need you

'What if God was one of us?' (Joan Osborne)
What if God were one of us?

'Everything she do just turns me on' (The Police - 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic')
Everything she does...

'I thought that you was trying to hide' (Roxy Music / John Lennon - 'Jealous Guy')
I thought that you were trying to hide
'They said you was high class' (Elvis Presley - 'Hound Dog')

'All this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me' (Elvis again - 'A Little Less Conversation')
None of this aggravation is giving me any satisfaction

'Since many years I haven't seen a rifle in your hand' (Abba - 'Fernando')
For many years...

'Tie me kangaroo down, sport' (Rolf Harris)
Tie my kangaroo down, sport

'But that'd change if she ever found out about you and I' (Bryan Adams - 'Run to You')
...about you and me

'When you cheated, girl / My heart bleeded, girl' (Justin Timberlake - 'What Goes Around')
...my heart bled, girl

'Concrete jungle where dreams are made of' (Jay-Z and Alicia Keys - 'Empire State of Mind')
...made

'How does it feel like...' (Chemical Brothers with Noel Gallagher - 'Let Forever Be')
How does it feel... (or) What does it feel like...

'Can you handle me the way I are?' (Timbaland)
...AM!!!

'I'm feeling twice as older' (Madness - 'Embarrassment)
...twice as old

'Another somebody done somebody wrong song' (B.J. Thomas)
Another somebody did somebody wrong song

'Me and you and a dog named Boo' (Lobo)
You and I and a dog named Boo

'Get off of my cloud' (Rolling Stones again)
Get off my cloud

'Since U been gone' (Kelly Clarkson)
Since you've been gone

'Me like the way that you touch my body' (Nicole Scherzinger - 'Right There')
I like the way...


Me think that's plenty to be going on with for starters.  If you can think of any other examples, do pass them on via the comments button.

*They probably do.

 

Words in music

 

Now sitting through a musical's
Not something I would choose at all;
I'd need strong pharmaceuticals
To make me go along.

Oh, you can call me cynical
Or even hypercritical;
But I am just inimical
To drama laced with song.

Or was, anyway…

For now I am confessing
That my views need reassessing,
Since I've just had quite a lesson
Not to judge a thing too soon.

We've just been to Matilda
And I came out quite bewildered
At the wit and all the skill to
Fill each line in every tune.

The lexical dexterity,
Linguistical legerity
And lyrical complexity
I couldn't but admire.

My prejudice is shattered
And I never thought that that'd
Happen when I went last Saturday,
But that is what transpired.

My favourite song from the show - certainly from the point of cleverness - was the School Song.  It was powerful enough the first time it was sung, but the staging revealed on the second rendition that all the letters of the alphabet are hidden (in order) within the lyrics.

The following YouTube film isn't brilliant - some lines and phrases are wrongly transcribed, such as 'phiz ed' for 'Phys Ed' - but it will give you an idea of how intricately constructed the song is:


The words and music are the work of Tim Minchin, of whom I had heard without knowing any of his songs.  I've started to rectify this, again with the help of YouTube, and soon found this gem:


I think I'll soon be investing in a few performance DVDs.

In the meantime, if you get the chance to see Matilda, do so - even if, like me, you believe you hate musicals.

 

Moist disconcerting

I nearly spat my mouthful of tea over the floor the other evening when I heard the endline of the new Plenty kitchen towels commercial.  (If repeated nationwide, this effect could substantially increase the use of Plenty to mop up the mess, so perhaps it's a particularly effective ad.)

The line, delivered by the brand's character Juan Sheet with a knowing grin (or is it a lascivious leer?) is: 'Have you got Plenty wet?'

No, honestly, that's what he says.  See for yourself:





How on earth did the creative team get that past the creative director, the client and the BACC (the body which has to approve all TV commercial scripts)?  Fair play to them, though.

I've been trying to think of another endline which matches it for innuendo, but all I've been able to find is this story about a furniture store called Sofa King having their slogan banned.  (They claimed their prices were 'Sofa King Low'.)

I wonder whether this Plenty ad will set a new trend for suggestive endlines, though.

'Are you standing to attention?' for UniformDating.com, perhaps.

Or 'Can you manage four fingers?' for Kit Kat.

Maybe not.

 

The drums don't work

Many years ago, I wrote an ad for Epson printers which featured loads of funny misprints from newspapers and magazines.  (It's on the 'Positively Prehistoric' page of my advertising work on this site if you want to look for it.)

I suspect it would be harder to put together such an ad these days, since manual typesetting has long since been replaced by digital type with its autocorrect facility to highlight most errors before they make it to print.

But it seems that the odd misprint can still make it onto the page.  I love this correction:


























 

Some linguistic errors, of course, can be caused by ignorance rather than by accident.  Some people can find this irritating; this chap, however, is absolutely infuriated:


(warning: contains what my Mum would have called 'a bit of language')




Of course, the message would be better communicated if he slowed down enough to let us (OK, me) understand what he's saying.

I'm not telling him, though. 

 

That's a bit off

It's not just about the words you use; it's about where you position them.

Take a look at this label from a bottle of milk I bought this week:

















 

 

Did you read it as 'Less than fresh semi-skimmed'?  Or is it just me?


I think it stinks.

 

Best acronym ever?

I found out when reading the Guardian today that the professional body of doctors who carry out breast enlargement procedures is called the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons.

Or BAAPS for short.

 

Now where are my glasses?

It's almost two years now since I was first prescribed reading glasses.  I think it may be time for me to go back to the optician's and get my eyes tested again.

When I saw this headline in today's Guardian, I thought it said 'bum', not 'burn'...


 

Remember, boys and grils...

...always check your speling.



 

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