Thursday, 5 August 2010

One's authorial voice, darling

Apparently I write like James Joyce. Impressive, eh? Or Daniel Defoe. Still pretty distinguished. Or H P Lovecraft. Or Ray Bradbury. Or (spare us) Dan Brown, even if my own style is slightly less… how can I put it… lucrative.

Basically the more samples you feed the gadget the less it can decide. One is such a profound literary enigma.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Midsomer Norton and Mumby Row

The places identified on the maps shown by TV weather forecasters can seem randomly chosen, but Richard Angwin of BBC Points West has a nice line in whimsical themes. Here he joins the ghosts of John Betjeman, Paul Jennings and Flanders and Swann in the fine tradition of revelling in quaint English placenames. Redmarley D’Abitot, Moreton Valence, Lydiard Millicent, Nempnett Thrubwell, Manningford Bohune, Hornblotton Green, Hatch Beauchamp, Gussage All Saints: quality toponymy. He did well to cram them onto the map.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The horror! The horror!

Writing a book is an undertaking far more horrific than I’d ever imagined. Not only must the writer come up with several tens of thousands of words, not all of them the same, but he or she must arrange them in an order that makes some kind of sense to the first-time reader.
—Armando Iannucci, “On writing a book”, Facts and Fancies

Friday, 11 June 2010

M and S pants

Radio 4 is, for many of us deskbound homeworkers, not so much something you listen to as something you hear: a human voice in the background to stave off cabin fever. The guest on today’s (repeated) Desert Island Discs is Sir Stuart Rose, executive chairman of Marks and Spencer and, so he claims, the only white elder of the Wagogo “tribe” of central Tanzania. He’s a little hazy on the details of that country’s birth, however. “My family and I left Africa in ’60, ’61 when Tanganyika, as it was, became independent Tanzania.”

Not quite. As those who love to flatter TV adverts with parody might say (cue soothing music and sumptuous visuals), “This is not just fact...” — or rather, this is just not fact. For the record, Tanganyika became independent in 1961 as Tanganyika. The island off its eastern seaboard, Zanzibar, gained independence two years later, and only in April 1964 did the two form a brand-new nation, the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, shortly afterwards renamed the United Republic of Tanzania.

So he plays a recording of some Wagogo traditional music and, without a hint of embarrassment or a flicker of irony, follows it up with a piece of hokum performed by a Lithuanian-born American Jew with burnt cork on his face. Yes, pop-pickers, it’s Al Jolson with “Mammy”. Rose remembers his parents “literally falling about laughing” when he would sing them this song as a young child in 1950s Africa.

What’s the one record he’ll cherish above all others? It’s a pop-style rendition by “crossover singer” Phillippa Giordana of “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma. Or as Kirsty Young calls it, “Costa Diva”. Plenty of them hanging around the high-street coffee shops and the Spanish seaside resorts, I expect.

Breakfast was not the best time to hear Kirsty Young flirt and slobber nauseatingly over this tedious plutocrat — “you’re very dashing, and you’re very urbane ... you’d be a bloody good catch for someone, Stuart!” Yes, the underwear rail at Marky’s will never be the same again for Kirsty.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Campbell’s Weather Compendium

Marge Simpson: If I write a book, will they tell me when it comes out?
Author: Well, they should.
Marge Simpson: Then I’ll do it!
Apologies for my truly lamentable neglect of this so-called blog recently. Part of the reason is that, after a delayed start, everyone here at the Campbell Fun Fact-ory has been working flat out to bring you the next fact-packed non-fiction page-turner, yes indeed. Both discretion and superstition have sealed my lips hitherto, but given that it has now appeared on Amazon and whatnot, it seems in order to fess up. Slightly embarrassingly, and I swear this wasn’t my idea, it’s called Campbell’s Weather Compendium.

And now I really must get on.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Whatever happened to the radio interview

Hey, I’m not going to be on the radio! The excellent Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth contacted me the other day to ask if I could say anything interesting about the way transliterations from languages such as Chinese might affect place name changes. After some serious thought I had to admit defeat. The only decent example I could think of that really fitted the bill was Beijing/Pekin(g), where the centuries-old English form comes to us through French, being replaced by the Hanyu Pinyin phonetic romanisation. Different ways of transliterating Russian have produced intriguingly inconsistent spellings of Russian names in English but I can’t think of any place names that have changed through that. If they’d asked about personal names I think we might have been on more fruitful ground, but hey.

Now doubtless someone will chip in with a huge list of good examples.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Score: Radio 4, nul points

Trailer for Radio 4’s Book of the Week, Chopin, Prince of the Romantics: “Throughout Europe the rise of the middle class led to the piano being turned into a kind of household altar at which culture was worshipped. And where there was a piano, there were scores of Chopin’s music.”

Except that neither the actor doing the reading, nor presumably the producer or the recording engineer or the tea-lady or the overqualified Polish cleaner mopping the floor, had ever heard of the word “score” in this context. Scores of something means lots of it, right? So, er, “where there was a piano, there were scores of Chopin’s music.”

Monday, 22 February 2010

Whatever happened to the Persian Gulf?

It appears that the thought-provoking non-fiction smasharoo Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? is read in all the best radio production offices, and when they think geographical name-changes, they think Campbell. It seems I am going to be on the BBC World Service discussion programme World Have Your Say between about 6 and7pm tonight. Which is to say in less than an hour. Sorry you missed it!

Saturday, 20 February 2010


In response to my musings on the English word Nigerien, meaning “of or from Niger”, a friend suggests “Nigerois”. This would indeed be less confusing than Nigerien, and is fairly well attested on the Web, though not in any dictionary I can find apart from Merriam Webster Online.

A blogger “siphoning off a few thoughts” has a nice take-down of what s/he calls this “tricky English fake word of the day” here. “Nigerois is tricky because not only do we not refer to people as they refer to themselves [Nigérien], we went to the trouble of creating a word that sounds to an English speaker as if it were French.” A very good point: the tendency to deliberately foreignise English words, sometimes in order to show off an over-confident and sadly incomplete linguistic awareness, can lead to some grotesque results.

Two pet hates of mine are “Galician”, when pronounced with an affected lisp to seem more Spanish, and even worse the nonsense word “Andalucian” (again with the lisp that paradoxically isn’t even characteristic of the Spanish of that area). The adjective Galician (in Spanish, gallego, in Galician, galego), referring to Galicia in northwest Spain, is pronounced “ga-LISS-ian”; to add the lisp is like missing off the s in Parisian — “pa-REE-an” — in order to show off the fact you know the s is silent in French in the word Paris (“pa-REE”), although the French word is of course parisien.¹ Meanwhile we have a perfectly good English word for the region known in Spanish as Andalucía: it’s Andalusia (“anda-LOOSE-ia”²), and the adjective is Andalusian (“anda-LOOSE-ian”). But as so often, a little learning is a dangerous thing. The Spanish adjective is andaluz (“anda-LOOTH”). The ridiculous invention “Andalucian”, or even “Andalucían” (“anda-looth-EE-an”), is neither English nor Spanish, but gets hundreds of thousands of hits on Google.

It makes you think. Maybe there is a role for properly-compiled dictionaries after all? Maybe we can’t always rely on muddling through with Google, the lexicographical equivalent of “ask the audience”.

¹ And in the same vein we might add Munich, when pronounced with an affected German-style fricative “ch”, forgetting the fact that in German it’s not Munich anyway but (as you know, gentle reader) München.
²I gather it comes out in US English as “anda-LOOZH-a”. Yuck.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Dictionary fail

There are certain nationalities we don’t really have a proper word for in English, or at least feel pretty uncertain about. I’m talking demonyms, or gentilics if you prefer. What’s the name for someone from Afghanistan? An Afghan surely, but we often hear Afghani, presumably on the model of Pakistani. There is also of course the afghani, the unit of currency of Afghanistan, but dictionaries do not tend to recognise it as an adjective or a nationality.

Especially problematic are Francophone ex-colonies where English just uses the French word; there’s a pattern of sorts with Senegalese, Congolese, Togolese,¹ but there are many other possibilities. Seychellois, but Chadian and Burundian. Benin — Beninese or Beninois? Comoros? — Comorian, but I had to look it up; I could have believed Comorese, and there’s some evidence for that idea on Google if not in dictionaries.² Madagascar? — Malagasy (not to be confused with Monegasque which means from Monaco). Burkina Faso? “Burkina Fasan” gets over 1000 Google hits, but looks ridiculous; Burkinabé seems to be the word even in English. Côte d’Ivoire? — Ivorian, but how do you pronounce it, “eye-VORE-ian” or “ee-VWAR-ian”?

Zaire/Zaïre no longer exists (read all about it in that seminal work of “nostalgic geography”, Whatever Happened to Tanganyika?, if you can still find a copy), and perhaps linguistically speaking we should be glad of that, but what was the adjective: Zairean? Zairian? Zairese? Zairois? All with or without dots above the i, of course. The Central African Republic, perhaps the world’s most soulless and inconvenient country name, is a puzzle. Surely not “Central African Republican”; Wikipedia says it’s just “Central African” but that’s hopelessly ambiguous. We can only hope they revert one day to Oubangui-Chari/Ubangi-Shari, or perhaps Ubangi, or even just Bangui after the capital — presumably that works for Mexico and Panama and Guatemala. And/or Andorra.

But I digress, as ever. It’s often when a country is thrust from obscurity, and seemingly always for bad reasons, into the spotlight of the news that we become aware of these uncertainties. Niger has always been an odd one. The river is the Niger (“NIE-dger”) but the country is Niger (“nee-ZHAIR”, à la française). But what on earth do you call an inhabitant of the place? Not a Nigerian, that’s someone from Nigeria. The word is Nigerien, or even Nigérien “nee-ZHAIR-ian”, a strange mixture of French and English sounds. Again, with no disrespect to either nation, it’s an inconvenient confusion. You’d certainly want to double-check your travel doocuments; I once saw a travel agent confess on national television to booking someone onto a flight to Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, when they wanted to go to the Caucasian republic of Azerbaijan.

In the light of recent news events, Collins Dictionaries might want to think about revising the entry in their online French dictionary (right). The French for Nigerian is not nigérien, that means from Niger. As the French-to-English entry shows. In this electronic age, it’s all too easy to catch dictionaries out like this.

¹ Oddly perhaps, we also have cases like Marshallese, though the Marshall Islands have no French influence that I know of. There’s also Ceylonese, presumably connected with Sinhalese, and OED records various oddities and archaisms such as Tyrolese and Bengalese, and even Swahilese for Swahili.
² In Dictionarese?

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Fake your booty

The comedian Alex Horne (who hopes to do the same himself) claims that “Beyoncé got a word in the dictionary”. Ah, the dream of every slightly deranged word-fanatic, to “get a word in ‘The’ Dictionary”. The word in question is “bootylicious”, and it’s all the more impressive an achievement considering that la Beyoncé was still at primary school at the time of the first recorded citation of “bootylicious” in OED. She may have popularised the word, but she certainly didn’t invent it, and if the credit is hers, the OED entry doesn’t get round to namechecking Destiny’s Child until its third citation.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Tits and teeth

Wireless, now there’s a word that’s had a comeback. Everything seems to be wireless these days. Even clothes: I see you can even buy a wireless bra.

(I see this from clicking in aid of free mammograms at, you understand, something I recommend you do as well, and not from perusing underwear catalogues or anything like that, obviously.)

Nowadays gadgets often talk to each other using something called Bluetooth, apparently named after the tenth-century Scandinavian king. So the obvious name for this amazing wireless technology would be, what, Bluetit?

Saturday, 13 February 2010

London, or was it Liverpool? Somewhere round there

Here’s one I missed at the time, from the Guardian of 2 November 2009:
These are uncertain times for The Chambers Dictionary and for The Observer.¹ I have been told that the publishers Chambers Harrap will be wound up, its Glasgow staff made redundant, and its reference list transferred to Hodder Educational in London.
Of course, redundancies among Chambers’ Glasgow staff would have been a small price to pay, considering, er, there weren’t any, what with the company being based in Edinburgh, and all that. But hey, it’s all the same, it’s just Scotland, or is it Ireland, whatever, I dunno, somewhere a long way off on the Celtic fringe anyway.

¹This being the Guardian² (or as they would say The Guardian), italics in the titles of books and newspapers are taboo — can anyone explain this perverse and obscurantist aspect of their house style?
² OK, I know you’re supposed to write “The Guardian” not “the Guardian”, but I just don’t like that for some reason and I feel at liberty to define my own quirky house style for my own blog. Even if I don’t see why a famous national newspaper should be allowed to.³
³ I say “national” but of course it used to be the Manchester Guardian. Or was it the Newcastle Guardian, I dunno. Somewhere round there.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Nobody’s business but the Turks’

For a little stocking-filler aimed at the UK market two Christmases ago, “Tanganyika” has really been getting a pretty good international audience. Thanks to the University of Toronto bookstore for a nice review on their blog: “a light-hearted but informative book that is a lot of fun to read … Campbell has added a few new examples to my corpus of useless knowledge”. Here at Campbell’s Fun Factoids we know no higher goal.

I’m also grateful for the information that “Berlin, Ontario became Kitchener during the First World War for patriotic reasons” — another one for the bulging file of name-changes that never made it first time round but would have gone into the sequel that my publishers came so close to commissioning for Christmas 09 before succumbing to a sudden and devastating attack of cold feet (and we’ll say no more about that). And yes, I know, I should have covered Istanbul/Stamboul/Constantinople/Byzantium, as so many have since pointed out. That was one of the first places I planned to include but it just narrowly fell off the list as the submission deadline approached — like seeing the exam invigilator approaching your desk as you furiously scribble down the last few precious words. Sorry Constantinople, you were on the tip of my pen.

Photo: © Oberazzi (Tim O’Brien)

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


The latest edition (5 January) of the excellent Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth is about artificial languages, especially Esperanto. There is mention of Amikeyo, supposedly the world’s only official Esperanto-speaking state, which existed in the vicinity of a little village on the borders of Belgium, Prussia and the Netherlands. In the programme they refer to it as Kelmis, which is its name in Limburgish, the local form of Dutch. As Neutral Moresnet, the crazy sliver of a jointly-administered microstate that existed between 1816 and 1919, it gets the full nine yards in the compulsive geographical page-turner that is Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? — over a thousand words if I remember rightly. (I must admit it amused me that the tiniest territories, in this case about a square mile, should get the longest writeups.)

The equally excellent Strange Maps blog has a page on the subject, including not only a very nice map of the place but a historical timeline and some discussion of whether it was (and whether there has ever truly been such a thing as) a quadripoint, where the borders of four sovereign states meet precisely.

Stamp: Annie McFadden