Monday 21 December 2009

Scarcity value

Too late, at least too late for Christmas, the world is waking up the true value of the woefully underpriced Whatever Happened to Tanganyika?. Doubtless by some clerical error, the thing was published at only £10! Not surprising then that it has sold out on Amazon. Back in the summer, second-hand copies were going for as little £23.99 – but now it’s Christmas and you’ll have to pay a proper price. $119.24.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Amazon horribilis

It hardly needs to be said that 2009 has been a woeful year in publishing. Some light relief, and some good news for one small-time non-fiction author, might be found buried in the gossip columns. Or rather, spread across the front pages of the mainstream serious press, as is the way with celebrity trivia nowadays. When Tiger Woods had his famous contretemps with various inconsiderately-located items of street furniture, he had a copy of a 1999 book called Get a Grip on Physics lying around in the car, clearly visible in the police photo of the crash. Cue much heavy-handed hilarity among Amazon reviewers and ludicrous prices for second-hand copies (£151.48, seriously?). The book’s author, John Gribbin, “just wish[es] it was … still in print”. (It might be flippant to suggest that an inadequate knowledge of physics was not first among a certain golfer’s problems at the moment and that he should perhaps concentrate on the first three words of the title.)

And what of Whatever Happened to Tanganyika?, that soaraway phenomenon of the popular history/humour sections, or travel in the case of shops where they don’t waste too much time looking at the stock before filling the shelves? Do I have the police of 50 states on retainer, armed with copies of my distinctive crimson volume to slip into shot at any high-profile celeb RTAs? Well no. A spike like the Eiffel Tower would do it little enough good at the moment, since both American and British Amazon seem to have run out of stock — just in time for Christmas, hoorah. No-one seems to know why or what can be done about it. Publishers have heard nothing from their Amazon sales manager: there “should be” stock…

By a charmingly nostalgic coincidence this is exactly what happened when this would-be Christmas bestseller first came out. Interview on Today prog, 6.6 million listeners: good. Amazon ranking goes through the roof: good, surely? Twenty minutes later, Amazon sells out with no hope of restocking before Christmas and spike does its impression of Eddie the Eagle with a bus to catch. Hey ho ho ho.

PS: You can still get a paperback copy. Paperbacks are nice too.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

State for hire

One of the first places I knew I wanted to write about in my smash-hit non-fiction sensation Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? (now storming the charts in paperback) was the Republic of Nauru, once known as Pleasant Island. With phosphate reserves more or less exhausted and (forgive me Nauru) a tradition of government more hapless and inept than anything our own dear PM could be accused of, it has had to turn to more and more wacky ways to raise income. Nowadays it seems have resorted to (forgive me again) prostituting its sovereign status to the highest — or just the latest — bidder, becoming a pawn in superpower propaganda battles by conferring its official recognition on disputed nations like Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhasia. According to the Guardian, and indeed the Telegraph (or rather some anonymous stringer whose words were presumably copied and pasted by both papers), “In July 2002, Nauru accepted $130m from China to de-recognise Taiwan only to re-recognise it in 2005 after apparently receiving another, better offer.” Forgive me one last time, Nauru, but does “obscure microstate agrees to recognise obscure disputed territory, for money” really bring any kudos to either party? Then again who cares, it’s among the more harmless ways they’ve found of raising some much-needed cash.

(On the more mysterious question of how Nauru could remind even the most desperate and deadline-addled journalist of “a small dinner plate dropped into the gleaming South Pacific”, I have nothing to offer.)

Monday 14 December 2009

Bench press

Seagull, seagull, how do you float?
Upon the water without a boat?
He thought to himself and then he frowned
Turned on his side and slowly drowned.
– Leslie Noaks, 1914–2000

Inscription on a park bench, according to The Oldie.

Monday 30 November 2009


This evening I was at a strange but rather entertaining event, an attempt to break the record for the number of languages in which the well-known Scots song Auld Lang Syne has simultaneously been sung. I think the organisers of this wacky happening at Glasgow University were hoping for 100 languages. They got nowhere near that number, but given that the standing record is apparently nine, success never seemed in doubt.

The BBC, true to its preference for speed over accuracy, and for reporting as news things that haven’t actually happened yet, was quick off the mark. Three minutes before the event even began, their website was reporting that languages sung had included “Persian, Arabic, Malay, Vietnamese, Frisian, Hindi, Urdu, Irish Gaelic, Romanian, Scots, Welsh, Ukrainian, Yoruba, Swahili, Catalan, Bangla, Maori, Chichewa, Georgian, and Igbo”. Given that the words of the song are in Scots, it would be surprising if that had not been on the list, but I can personally vouch for the regrettable fact that Yoruba and Welsh were not involved.

In the end the total was apparently 41 languages, sung by perhaps 200 people. An easy victory, but surely, in a university and city as large as Glasgow, there could have been more? Leaving aside the issue of putting the word about effectively, the limiting factor may well be the availability of translations. I had been hoping to sing in Welsh, and apparently several other Welsh speakers had volunteered themselves, but I for one had been unable to find a translation on the Web, and there wasn’t nearly enough time to write a serviceable one (even if I didn’t have other things to do). So I ended up being recruited to sing in Latin and felt very academical.

I had naively expected to find an Auld Lang Syne website somewhere with translations in dozens of languages, but no luck. My theory, for what it’s worth (and I think this was confirmed by tonight’s event), is that while in the world at large, especially perhaps Eastern Europe and the Far East it is felt to be as international as Happy Birthday To You, in the UK it is seen as an emblem of Scottish culture. Hence to translate it into Welsh would be rather like putting Gaelic words to Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner. Only one person showed up to sing in Hungarian, but she had two versions of the text to choose between. However, several admirable people had brought along their own specially-crafted translations, and perhaps these will find their way onto the web for future occasions.

So what do 41 languages sound like, sung together? I would have loved the chance to move around the hall between different groups of singers, actively experiencing the effect, but the main impression from the midst of it (just between the Japanese and the Lithuanians — wot no Kurdish?) was of rhythmic sibilants. Presumably with that many languages going on someone or other will be singing an s sound on almost every syllable, and that’s what really penetrates the general wash of sound.

There was something very fine about seeing languages bravely represented by a single individual. I was delighted to be singing near to a native speaker of Sami (the language of what we used to call the Lapps), and later to chat to the only Georgian speaker. But my heart went out even more to a small contingent singing a language of which no-one (probably) is a genuine native speaker: Esperanto. The Latin of the twentieth century? One of them, a splendidly geeky-looking girl, told me as she left that next time she would do it in binary.

Sunday 29 November 2009

More mince(d)meat

Seasonal specialities tend to have a way of spreading throughout the year. Is the Cadbury’s Creme Egg even associated with Easter any more? One year I actually found an example of Christmas and Easter meeting in the middle, in the form of a table in a supermarket bearing both hot cross buns and mince pies. This photo was taken one April and shows mince pies on special offer. Not just any small mincemeat tartlets, these had little Christmas trees on and everything. With still well over 200 shopping days till Christmas, they had already been reduced. Or are we talking a particularly large and resilient stock left over from four months earlier, refusing to shift? Oh all right then, just a wrong code typed into the central bakery’s computer system?

Minced pies

It’s that time of year again and Morrisons are selling “minced pies”. Presumably some kind of convenience food aimed at the time-poor shopper, like pre-mashed potatoes. And yet as far as I could see these were completely intact. Most puzzling.

Friday 27 November 2009

“The final tweet”

...from Chambers on Twitter. “sorry for recent silence - due to office closure about ½ our staff leaving today. this is probably the final tweet. thanks for following!”

Sunday 22 November 2009

“A real gem”

“It’s a great feeling to stumble upon a real gem. While browsing through a London bookshop last summer, it was chance that my eyes fell on a slim book, Whatever happened to Tanganyika? It turned out to be [a] quirky page-turner on what its author¹ called “nostalgic geography” — an A-Z of long-forgotten names of places and countries that interest a handful of dotty stamp collectors today. Yet, behind the trivia about Bechuanaland, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and why national borders in Africa are often straight lines and right angles, there was a larger story: the tale of venerable statesmen meeting in Berlin, Versailles and Yalta to divide the world into colonies, protectorates and spheres of influence. ” (Swapan Dasgupta, Times of India)

¹ Actually no, for the record that was the coinage of Alexander McCall Smith, who wrote the foreword

Saturday 21 November 2009

Tripe-hounds and ink-slingers

The other week I was at the launch party of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, finally published after some 44 years in the making at Glasgow University’s Department of English Language. It is easily the world’s largest thesaurus, covering some 800,000 meanings in 236,000 categories and subcategories, and the first historical thesaurus of any language. It weighs a ton and costs £250.

It sold out in a matter of days and is now reprinting in time for Christmas.

The story of such an extraordinary book proved irresistible to the press, and its editor was inundated with requests for interviews from around the world. The editor in question is Honorary Professorial Research Fellow Christian Kay, who despite the, er, Christian name, is female. She writes very entertainingly on the OUP blog this week about the sort of questions she was asked, and needless to say, they were often not exactly the most intelligent of questions. I think her piece contributes some nice evidence to my own musings on the strange ideas journalists seem to have about dictionaries and the people that make them (see “Mad professors and lollipop ladies”, etc).

We all know how much the meejah love their heavy-handed clichés, but what also emerges here is a distinctly unappealing kind of ageism. Professor Kay is an unmarried woman around retirement age, a soft-spoken individual of kindly appearance and big owlish specs — if not quite one of the “cardiganed duffers” beloved of The Times, then perhaps the chintzy librarian stereotype might answer. As she points out, it does seem incredible that in 2009 journalists consider it all right to refer to a “lingo-loving spinster” who “coyly confessed” to celebrating with a glass of champagne, and ask whether she is looking foward to getting back to her garden or perhaps a “big piece of knitting”. If she’d been, say, a sexy twenty-nine-year-old in a miniskirt, I do think they would hesitate to suggest she was looking forward to getting her hair done, painting her toenails and putting in some time on the sunbed, and I feel pretty sure that if the thesaurus had been edited by a West Indian with a taste for colourful shirts they would not have asked whether he was planning to celebrate by chillin’ to some jungle beats with a bottle of rum and maybe a large hand-rolled cigarette. But to revert to the most moronic and patronising stereotypes is still OK where a woman over a certain age is concerned.

In time, HTOED will be available on the Web in conjunction with the online OED, but for now it takes the form of two handsome blue slipcased volumes, and this brings us back to another recent subject of this blog. In Prof Kay’s position, I for one would have been tempted to make a practical demonstration to the gentlemen of the press one of the advantages of the printed reference book over the electronic version. I speak of course of the weighty purposes the holy Koran was put to in that Bangladeshi restaurant

¹ Well, perhaps not if they were filming me for the telly.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

“Browse our food” (a second helping)

So why do we call it browsing when we look through books or visit webpages, rather than grazing? I reached out, heaved the relevant volume of my trusty copy of OED off its shelf and laboriously flicked through to the right page. No of course I didn’t, I dialled it up on the computer and scrolled down the screen. One surprise is that the figurative sense of browse seems rather recent — at least, the first citation on offer is from 1870. In 1823 Charles Lamb the essayist wrote of someone in library who “browsed at will upon that fair and wholesome pasturage”, but that doesn’t seem to convey unambiguously the idea of picking at bits here and there, just feeding, and “graze” would seem to work just as well if not better. Two centuries earlier, Shakespeare had used it much in the same sense: “There is cold meat i’ th’ Caue, we’l brouz on that” (Cymbeline).

In theory, of course, grazing refers to the action of animals such as sheep which eat grass, while browsing is pulling leaves and twigs off trees as goats and deer do. I suspect this is one of those nice distinctions that in casual use has been blurred for centuries. OED seemed to be hinting at that with the remark that browse is “sometimes carelessly used for graze, but properly implying the cropping of scanty vegetation”, though in fact that seems to be a slightly different distinction, where graze is more about hoovering up the lush sward rather than casting about here and there for edible bits.

Nowadays it’s the continuous nature of herbivorous grazing that we focus on, in contrast with the feast-and-fast pattern of a carnivore that might eat once a day, once a week or even less often in some cases. “Grazing” is basically eating between meals, a little and often. OED doesn’t trouble to suggest an explanation of the browsing metaphor, perhaps it seems too obvious, but it took me a moment to realise that the visual image of browsing is surely plucking books from different shelves here and there at more or less eye level. “The perfect browser must have one possession ... a ladder; a library ladder” (1937). By the time we make the figurative leap to browsing web pages that image is pretty well concealed, even more so now that browsing a website often seems to mean no more than reading it: you can browse a single page. After all a browser is just a tool for looking at web pages, not sifting through them.

So what did a browser do before Internet Explorer, Netscape and so on? You might guess it was someone or something that browses, but apparently (and counter-intuitively) it meant someone whose job was to supply fodder to animals when their grazing was unavailable.

On the question of vetting things versus doctoring them, I have nothing to offer.

Monday 16 November 2009

“Browse our food”

I love it when a new figurative sense of a word becomes so much more important than its original meaning that an unconscious pun becomes possible. Interestingly, to graze has also taken on a new sense and is still much on our lips¹ today, but still refers to feeding the body rather than the mind. Why did browsing, instead of grazing, come to mean looking through books and now webpages?²

¹ Yes yes, I know
² And why is it good to vet something, but bad to doctor it?

Saturday 14 November 2009

Expert advice

There’s been much talk recently of governments disregarding expert advice. What a shame the police didn’t listen to their expert adviser, the distinguished and much-admired phonetician Stanley Ellis when he told them the infamous Yorkshire Ripper tape was a hoax. At least, he pinned down the hoaxer’s accent to the very village he came from, over 100 miles from where the crimes were committed, and was proved right when the hoaxer was finally arrested in 2005. But this failed to dissuade the police from diverting the enquiry to completely the wrong part of the country, even ruling out the real murderer because he did not fit the profile of the hoaxer.

Monday 9 November 2009

“Minister to meet publishers in bid to save dictionary jobs”

Today’s Scotsman reports that “Enterprise minister Jim Mather is set to call publishing companies to a round-table meeting in a bid to save Edinburgh dictionary firm Chambers.”

Cardigans versus anoraks (one more blast)

One more thought on the subject of the printed dictionary versus its electronic challenger.

As one comment on that Guardian article pointed out, “How the good people who create dictionaries will get paid is an entirely different problem from whether we need this information printed on a page.” However, our expert on faith, philosophy, controversy and understanding appears to be groping towards something relevant when he says that “the very bulk of the book somehow contributes to the effort”. It’s true that a printed volume gives a very immediate and comprehensible idea of the amount of data and work that go into even a medium-sized dictionary. With his much-hated search box, you have no idea of the size of what you’re looking through. The blink of the cursor may seem lazy to him but in fact it searches the text at unimaginable speed. I wonder how many people who use the OED online realise that if they were using the printed edition the first task would be identify which of twenty volumes to heave off the shelf and leaf through.

With a printed dictionary you have some idea of scale, and hence price. Anyone can see that just manufacturing such an object would cost a certain amount, whatever it cost you to compile the text. In the case of an electronic product, the production cost is very small, in fact adding a subscriber to an online dictionary must represent almost no extra cost to the producer, so the fee you charge is going to be very arbitrary. How do you put a price on the lexicographical labour it represents?

Which brings us back to the fascinating question the newspapers seem to be showing so little interest in. Who can say what will happen to the printed dictionary over the next few years? Is it an endangered species, as some people even seem to think those printed newspapers are? Certainly, paper has its limitations when it comes to reference works. But it would be very sad never to pick up a convincingly hefty chunk of well-inked cellulose, riffle through the pages and actually get that physical impression of scale, not only of the richness of the language itself but of the sheer labour and dedication that goes into a making a dictionary.

'The Everlasting Miracle' by ~crystalina~And the hefty tome does have occasional other uses too. I once read a nice anecdote in a newspaper restaurant column whose author had visited a Bangladeshi restaurant and noticed a large copy of the Koran on top of a fridge. How interesting, he immediately thought in his Guardian-journalist way, to see the way religion is an inherent part of the daily life of these fine people. “Well yes,” they agreed when he mentioned it, “but it also comes in very handy if anyone tries to get out of paying the bill. You can’t keep a baseball bat behind the till these days, that’s an offensive weapon, but a Koran…”

Friday 6 November 2009

“The Ultimate Hardcover Book”

So, is free text on the internet putting the published book out of business? And are all hardbacks today so shoddily manufactured?

A firm called Kirkham Motorsports have built a bespoke sports car for a millionaire, made almost entirely of aluminium and so shiny it must be a hazard to other road users on a sunny day. For extra rigidity, the chassis is machined from solid metal known as billet aluminium. As a finishing touch they decided to manufacture (“write” doesn’t seem quite the word) a special commemorative book about the project. The book is of course a very special item too, being made of the same materials as the car: the cover uses 25 pounds of precision-engineered aluminium plate which took 26 hours to machine, tan leather of the sort used in the interior, and the same heat-treated stainless steel screws and bolts used to hold the chassis together. It is, in the old sense of the word, a masterpiece, a virtuoso exemplar of the metalworker’s art. They describe it, and who can blame them, as “the ultimate hardcover book”. You can buy a (very) limited-edition copy for $4,500.

Or you can go to the website and download it free as a PDF file.

I mean, have publishers learned nothing?

Thursday 5 November 2009

Cardigans versus anoraks (round two)

Broadsheet journalists, moved to print by the Chambers closure, have been demonstrating a sometimes comical ignorance of where dictionaries come from. (Apparently they’re left under gooseberry bushes by cardiganed old duffers, which is OK because the duffers who write printed dictionaries are like lollipop ladies, we know and trust them, unlike those faceless geeks in Silicon Valley who are responsible for the electronic sort.)

In a Guardian Online article bemoaning the rumoured “demise of the paper product”, the editor of the Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs & Religions (“Faith, philosophy, controversy and understanding from the ancient world to the present day”) sings the praises of the printed book as “a superb browsing device”. He informs us that
Computers proceed by gathering facts, along with the links between those facts, and then run them through algorithms to try to make sense of the world — or more often than not, to fail to make sense of the world, as they get lost in an infinite tangle.
This stuff goes right over my head I’m afraid. Either it’s so highly metaphorical as to be more or less meaningless, or it’s just, well, nonsense.

He’s presumably trying to put into words the feelgood factor he gets from handling a printed book. Nothing wrong with that of course, speaking for myself I take as much pleasure in a weighty tome as the next man, although in the work context juggling six of them at a crowded desk can be less than convenient. Many people enjoy flicking through the pages of a dictionary, exploring a garden of words, tempted down this path or that by the exotic blooms they happen to spot. But the claim that the printed dictionary beats the electronic sort as a “browsing device” is a pretty tough one to defend.

“Compare the richness of that experience with a spell check facility.” Why, since we’re talking about dictionaries, not spell-checkers, which are mere lists of acceptable words? “An empty box on the screen stares vacantly back at you. The cursor blinks lazily. It offers no help at all. It conveys nothing of the world of words that, with a dictionary, you can hold in your hands.” Curse that lazy cursor!

The second strand of the argument, if you can call it that, is that printed dictionaries are somehow more real than electronic ones.
We humans are embodied creatures. As philosophers put it, we are extended in space and time. That’s no humdrum observation.
Well, if you say so, squire. How a computer screen can be said to be less a part of the “embodied” world, or less conducive to learning, than a piece of paper, I have no idea. A wittier blogger than me would insert here a drole skit featuring a luddite of the ancient world deprecating the soulless invention of writing when knowledge can be passed on so much more pleasantly and interactively by word of mouth — which might actually be a more credible theory than this one. As for me, I’m as lazy as a blinking cursor, so I’ll save time by stealing a cameo instead.

“Books do furnish a room” according to Anthony Powell’s epic A Dance to the Music of Time. I’m inclined to agree, as long as they all fit on the shelves without overflowing onto the floor, but Stephen Fry’s creation, Professor Donald Trefusis, would not. Here is the description of his “librarinth” in The Liar:
Barely a square inch of wood or wall or floor was visible. Walking was only allowed by pathways cut between the piles of books. Treading these pathways with books waist-high either side was like negotiating a maze. […] Trefusis himself was highly dismissive of them. ‘Waste of trees,’ he had once said. ‘Stupid, ugly, clumsy, heavy things. The sooner technology comes up with a reliable alternative the better.’

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Radio 4 Factoid of the Day

The long-running Radio 4 series A History of Private Life by Professor Amanda Vickery finishes this week. Today, describing the rigours of a passage to India, she comments
No wonder the affluent tried to book cabins on the shadier side of the steamer. “Port out starboard home” — “posh”, of course.
Of course! “How interesting,” I could just picture thousands of well-meaning listeners up and down Radio4-land saying to themselves, “I must tell all my friends about that” — and so the misinformation virus propagates itself. But how strange that no-one has ever managed to produce one of the fabled P&O steamship tickets stamped “POSH”. This corny backronym serves as the title of the excellent Michael Quinion’s debunking of language myths, Port Out Starboard Home (Penguin Books 2004, ISBN 0140515348). By the way I also warmly recommend his weekly “e-magazine” and website World Wide Words.

These tall tales about language are incredibly persistent. You hear them retailed on Radio 4 all the time, and often by people who frankly should know better, in this case an academic historian, who you might think would try to avoid making foolish assertions without a shred of evidence. It didn’t take the Apollo missions to convince the general population that the Earth was not flat and that there was no Man in the Moon, but when it comes to language, for some strange reason, even the most intelligent and erudite people simply switch off their brains.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

The definition of erudition

Dictionaries and other reference books are a well-worn not to say clichéd symbol of knowledge, so it is no great surprise that whoever designed the “Listen Again” web graphic for Radio 4’s quiz programme Brain of Britain chose a photo of a shelf of chunky non-fiction tomes (below).
What is slightly odd is that the image should show a shelf of five books no less than 40% of which is made up of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. This is, as the title implies, a publication aimed at learners of English as a foreign language. Yes, two copies of the same title, one a slightly more modern edition than the other — and it’s the old edition that the listener’s hand is reaching for. Of the five works available, that one must surely be the least useful in, well, almost any context really.

Monday 2 November 2009

Cardigans versus anoraks

Me, trying to be positive for once? It couldn’t last. As I opined the other day, one of the most interesting things about dictionaries is the attitudes of the general public to them, and I can’t resist taking up some of the frankly odd ideas aired in the English broadsheets recently.

It is truly sobering to see how little clue the people that write for these newspapers have about dictionaries and where they come from, as we can see from this bizarre remark in that Times article I mentioned:
It seems curious at a time when provenance and traceability are gaining in stature, from the food we eat to the wood we build with, that language is allowed to travel in the opposite direction, with its semantic history and the defining of its meanings outsourced to anonymous, unaccountable parties in Silicon Valley or whoever else elects to throw up a dictionary site.
If writing a dictionary were no more than part of the process of “throwing up a dictionary site”, what would all the fuss be about? We could all dash one off in a weekend, whereas in reality a new dictionary often demands centuries of person labour. So where do these online dictionaries come from? Could it be that they too are the work of lexicographers, whether or not it ends up on paper between hard covers? But computers and search engines come from Silicon Valley, so that must be where online dictionaries come from too, and the Gatesian geek stereotype hardly matches up with that of those familiar old cardiganed duffers we know to be the authors of proper dictionaries, so something’s not right.

Is it important to know the names of the people who drafted the text? It’s only recently the contributors started to get a mention in the front of “their” dictionaries. Do we know these people from Adam, and how exactly are they accountable? If “provenance and traceability” are important in a reference work, perhaps what you want is actually a wiki. On the much despised Wikipedia, every fact is (supposed to be) tied down with a reference to a reliable external source, and every single change to every single one of millions of articles there and on sister sites such as Wiktionary can be viewed and traced to its author (admittedly in the form of a screen name or sometimes an IP address) by simply clicking on the “History” tab.

Most striking of all, to me, is the way this shows yet again the enduring iconic power of the book as an object. Even in this electronic era when journalists spend their whole day in front of a screen, some of them still seem to feel proper information is only found stamped on a piece of dead tree.

And more on that in a bit.

Sunday 1 November 2009

“The demise of the paper product”

It was Robert McCrum in the Observer, tipped off by commenters on his blog, who finally broke the deafening silence south of the border on the subject of the Chambers closure and its implications. Now the Observer’s sister paper the Guardian has finally weighed in. An actual opinion piece about dictionaries, would you believe, not specifically about the Chambers closure but prompted by it. And it’s by someone who, if not quite a lexicographer in the normal sense, has at least worked on a reference publishing project so will have met some dictionary people. It may not exactly be expert comment or analysis, that’s still too much to hope for, in fact it’s really just a vague, ill-informed rant about how electronic dictionaries are no fun and should not be allowed to replace printed ones. But at least it’s people (journalist and commenters) discussing dictionaries, however subjectively and irrationally, in the light of the shocking news of the closure of one’s Britain’s oldest and best-loved reference publishers.

As you can see, I’m trying hard to be positive for once.

PS: The petition to “Keep Chambers in Edinburgh” is still available at

Saturday 31 October 2009

Mad professors and lollipop ladies

One of the most interesting things about dictionaries is how they, and their creators, are perceived by the general public. I’m grateful¹ to The Times for the information that
The classic lexicographers of yore, meanwhile, those whitehaired, cardiganed index-carded old duffers in Edinburgh, are types we’re taught to trust, as homely and familiar as lollipop ladies. They’re boffinish, pedantic and obsessed; for them the words disinterested and uninterested are as distinct as lions and tigers.
Where do they get this stuff? Seriously, that’s not (just) an expression of exasperation² but a genuine enquiry. Where do we get our images of lexicographers, when very few people can ever have met one? We might well imagine they would be pedantic and obsessive, certainly, since after all that’s part of the job. You wouldn’t want an air traffic controller to tell your plane to “descend to, I dunno, a bit lower than you are, and land sort of over there somewhere whenever you get the chance”, and you don’t consult a dictionary to be told that a tiger is “kind of a bit like a lion but with stripes, I think it lives in India though.”

But what’s all the nonsense about “whitehaired, cardiganed … old duffers” (and did he mean “old buffers”)? Is it a sort of amalgam of the absent-minded professor cliché with the prim, fussy, dowdy librarian stereotype — “boffins”³ with a vast knowledge of arcane trivia and a pedantic obsession with ordering it? And apparently these people are as “familiar as lollipop ladies”?

It’s interesting that one of Simon Winchester’s books on the history of the OED, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, was re-titled The Professor and the Madman for the American market, where they presumably like their stereotypes nice and bold. One of the characters in the story (W. C. Minor) was indeed a paranoid schizophrenic, or a “madman” if you want to be brutal and sensationalist about it, but the editor of the dictionary, J. A. H. Murray, never came closer to being a professor than the years he spent teaching at Mill Hill School. But hey, he had a long white beard and a donnish appearance, that’s good enough. Who knows what a lexicographer looks like? How many people assume that the front cover of the book (above) shows the “professor”, when in fact it’s the “madman”?

¹ No, not really
² I don’t actually set to out to be bitchy about the people who churn out the acres of ignorant, trivial and frequently infantile rubbish that bloat our broadsheet newspapers, but you have to wonder how anyone can come up with stuff like this, glance back through what they’ve written and not think “I can’t send that in, it’s embarrassing!”
³ A rather childish word that should probably be banned from the newspapers for a few years

Thursday 29 October 2009

Scottish Unenlightenment

By now there’s been a fair bit of comment in the press, north of the border at least, on the Chambers Harrap closure in Edinburgh. It all runs along the lines of “how sad to see such a historic firm fall victim to the internet, shows how times are changing, shouldn’t be allowed”. Some writers even claim a certain quintessentially Scottish quality for Chambers dictionaries (sometimes appearing to forget that Collins is just as Scottish), recruit the heroes of the Scottish Enlightenment to their cause, or cite Edinburgh’s status as UNESCO City of Literature. While I’m not sure I quite follow that, I can’t disagree with the general drift.

But I’m still naive enough to be disappointed by the lack of any actual analysis of what’s facing reference publishing, indeed any comment from anyone who actually knows anything about it. The press have treated this as mainly a matter of sentimental pride in Scotland’s publishing history, plus the little local matter of the loss of a couple of dozen jobs, but while these are relevant, there are surely other far-reaching implications. The future of reference publishing in our information-driven society could hardly be a more relevant subject for discussion in what passes for the serious press in this country, but all we get is waffle, hand-wringing and silly puns.

Pauline McLean, blogging on The South Bank — of the Clyde that is, “every bit as lively in cultural terms as its namesake” we are told — drops in the following intriguingly casual remark, as if it were so obvious as to be hardly worth wasting keystrokes on. “Of course, reference publishing has been in trouble for decades, and not just because of the decline in sales or the increasing appeal of online editions.” Perhaps I’m being dense or pedantic, perhaps she’s writing in a hurry, but I wonder what this other malaise is, the one that has nothing to do with sales. I don’t even know how far back the current life-threatening decline in sales goes, but I would be surprised if it’s literally decades. Dictionaries were still doing OK even a decade ago, as far as I could see; two decades ago they were taking on staff. There was serious money being invested in exciting new techniques and technology for researching, editing and typesetting their products.

“Decades” ago, a computer was a huge, mysterious machine in an air-conditioned room that got your utility bills comically wrong, or maybe a little educational toy for geeky schoolboys to plug into the family telly when no-one else wanted to watch one of the three available channels. And this was before it became fashionable to describe oneself self-deprecatingly as “geeky”, in fact before we in Britain had even heard of that American word. Portable electronic gadgets of the sort we all carry now were pretty much non-existent and there was simply no alternative to paper dictionaries.

So what exactly has been happening to reference publishing over the last few years, or decades if you like? I don’t expect detailed breakdowns of sales figures, but I would like to know just how serious and recent this phenomenon is, and what will actually happen to dictionaries over the next few years. What about the all-important schools market, is it in free-fall? No commentator on the Chambers affair has mentioned this, and they show no interest in the plight of Chambers’s bilingual stablemate, Harrap. What about tourists, surely we’re not yet at the point where all of them are looking up vocab on their iPhones or even those feeble little pocket translator gadgets you used to see in the Innovations catalogue? I’d go for a cheap phrasebook or pocket dictionary any time, you can scribble in it, smear sunblock on it and swat flies with it; it won’t run out of battery and it’s not a disaster if it gets lost or stolen.

The “content” for all those electronic gadgets has to come from somewhere: have dictionary firms underpriced the goods or is there some other way in which electronic sales have failed to bring home the bacon? Those currently offering their vague valedictions don’t know (nor do I), and those who know aren’t telling.

PS: It’s not too late to sign the “Keep Chambers in Edinburgh” petition at

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Dentists? Tooth burglars, I call ’em

Remember everyone: lock your jaws.

Sunday 25 October 2009

“The hegemony of the south”

At last, the chattering classes of South Britain have woken up to the incipient Scottish tragedy looming over Chambers Dictionaries in Edinburgh. Good on Robert McCrum of the Observer for breaking the silence with a blazing indictment of “cultural vandalism” that, as he notes, “has not troubled the cultural conscience of the south”.

However, it seems “the south” is still a little hazy about what comes from where. Those of us who have spent years writing dictionaries in Scotland for the old Glasgow firm of Collins, which became part of HarperCollins in 1990 or so, might be a little miffed to see it lumped together with the likes of OUP and Penguin as part of the “hegemony of the south”. William Collins, a Glasgow mill-worker-turned-schoolmaster, founded the company in 1819 (the very year Chambers brothers published their first title, The Songs of Robert Burns), and like Chambers, Collins was a family firm until quite recently. HarperCollins’s British HQ may be in London, just as the parent company of Chambers is based in Paris, but their dictionaries are still Clyde-built, by the way.

Putting on the style

Those of us who have worked with style guides may enjoy the Twitter parody FakeAPStylebook. An enquirer asks “is it preferable to refer to the country as "Burma" or as "Myanmar"?” Back comes the answer:

If accuracy / Is what you crave / Then you should call it / Myanmar Shave.


Friday 23 October 2009

The feelgood factor

Hostage to fortune, these bullish statements on corporate websites.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

“The gold standard for dictionaries”

glimmer n. some small gleam or flicker, as in hope or intelligence
[Campbell, in the style of The Chambers Dictionary]

Fingers are still crossed for Chambers Harrap, the embattled dictionary firm in Edinburgh. An emergency works committee has been held at the level of the parent company Lagardère and the consultation period extended. A online petition to keep Chambers in Edinburgh is available to sign at Tell your friends.

David Crystal
considers the proposed closure “especially ironic, in the case of Chambers, when we think that Edinburgh has been made the first UNESCO City of Literature.” Robert McCrum, blogging in the Guardian, considers that “Chambers sets the gold standard for dictionaries” (see the response of McDrudge in the comments) but it’s revealing that when he wrote those words neither he nor Crystal had yet heard of the closure announced two weeks earlier — and not surprising given the disgraceful lack of interest in the story shown by the “national” press south of the border. My friend Caroline of the Publishing Cupboard points out that what we need is to get the King of Twitter, Stephen Fry, on board. An article in one of the English broadsheets from one of these luminaries would surely do no harm at all.

And in an unorthodox but thought-provoking move, MEP David Martin has even launched a campaign to give the Chambers brand protected geographical status, like Scotch whisky or Stilton cheese. Can it be true that a product’s unique qualities are sometimes due not just to the soil or water or climate of its place of origin but to the accumulated intellectual expertise of its makers, who can only be found in that place? It might seem a stretch in this case, given the relative geographical mobility of such workers and the publishing industry’s dependence on “outsourcing” to freelances all over Europe, but it’s certainly an interesting idea. Terroir intellectuel?

Monday 19 October 2009

Days I’ll remember all my life

In the light of the regrettable tradition that seems to be establishing itself on this blog whereby “Days” are acknowledged only after they have passed, I would like the following to be taken into consideration.
26 September: European Day of Languages
13 October: English Language Day
16 October: National Dictionary Day, also known as Noah Webster’s Birthday — how about a British equivalent to celebrate James Murray? Sam Johnson has had enough commemorating recently.Another American institution, National Grammar Day, is not till 4 March. It is the creation of the rather scary-sounding “SPOGG” or Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. If this blog is still going I may take a quick look to see how the American SPOGGers compare with our own dear British nutters.

Sunday 18 October 2009

Fail! (round two)

It seems that the Portuguese translators of The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency are not the only ones to take liberties with Prof McCall Smith’s title. In French it comes out as L’Agence No 1 des Dames Détectives, though this is not used as the title of the book, which is the distinctly lame Mma Ramotswe Détective.

It’s perfectly in order to reject a slavishly literal translation, but why are the free translations of book titles often so banal? In this case, given that French is widely spoken in Africa, surely it would have been possible to find something with the same charmingly quaint flavour?

Things are even worse in Spanish, where La 1a Agencia de Mujeres Detectives (“The First Agency of Women Detectives”) surely destroys the very point of the title. Not only is there an endearing swagger about the “Number One” bit, there’s also the gentle humour characteristic of McCall Smith. Mma Ramotswe’s is not just the first or best, but the only ladies’ detective agency in Botswana, so there’s no denying it’s Number One.

Some years ago, in the line of duty, I had reason to read several popular works of light fiction line by line against their translated French-language editions, and it was an eye-opener. You would think a bestselling title might deserve a decent translator, who is probably not much more expensive than a semi-competent one, but no. It was usually as much as the poor sap could do to puzzle out the literal meaning more or less intact, without any attempt to convey the humour or tone of the original. Many a time you could picture hands thrown up in despair at something the poor translator couldn’t make head or tail of — mais c’est vrai ce qu’on dit, les Anglais sont fous ! — and see the whole mess being swept under the carpet. Just make something up, no-one will notice and we’ve all got bills to pay (which is true enough).

One book, much in the Bridget Jones genre of the carefree 1990s, was set among idle rich types who host American-style “pool parties” in the summer, the kind of people who think it amusing to refer to champagne as shampoo, or “poo” for short. The translator, perhaps picturing the country house parties of a century ago, took this to refer to endless games of billiards — more Brideshead than Beverly Hills. How horrified those trendy socialites would be by the confusion with the low-down white-trash game of American pool!

“More ’poo, anyone?” brays one of the toffs. The translator is stumped at first. She knows English food is de la merde, obviously, but surely this person cannot be literally offering his guests helpings of excrement. Then suddenly light dawns: it’s a misprint! Ah, ces Anglais — the irresistible urge to knock coloured balls around a green baize table-top is still not sated. “Anyone for another game of pool?”

Thursday 15 October 2009

Mama loshn

And talking of radio, David Schneider presents “My Yiddisher Mother Tongue”, an interesting programme on Radio 4 about his experience of the Yiddish language. It’s actually not his mother tongue but he did study it for a doctorate at Oxford in the 1980s under Dovid Katz, in the then Oxford Programme in Yiddish, now relocated to the University of Vilnius (or should I say Vilna). The programme is available to listen “again” for another few days, and I recommend it if only for a wholly unexpected revelation about General Colin Powell.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

“Global perspectives for an American audience”

Here at the Campbell Word Factory we pride ourselves on our rapid response service. Almost within the hour, we can get a highly-skilled word-wrangler onto your talk radio programme, spouting away like nobody’s business about the subject of your choosing — obsolete placenames a speciality, of course. And thus it was that today, precisely ninety minutes after getting a call on my mobile (in the library!) from the thoroughly charming people at Public Radio International/BBC America, I found myself talking down the line to Marco Werman, presenter of PRI’s The World in Boston. Producer David Leveille (right) had spotted that the theme of my little anecdotes and musings was right up the street of his daily Geo Quiz, and a fuller version of that 15-minute interview will soon be appearing in Patrick Cox’s excellent podcast The World in Words.

I’ve often commented on the quality of such Public Radio programmes in America, which sometimes make dear old Radio 4 look a bit feeble, and now that — thanks to the internet — tuning in to them is no harder than switching on the Archers, I warmly recommend taking a look at these links.

Thursday 8 October 2009

The curse of the 140-character limit

If it’s true that the appalling Berlusconi has immunity from prose, then the political role of the poet has surely never been more important.

Happy National Poetry Day.

Friday 2 October 2009

Fail! (as the young people say)

I’m intrigued to see that the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, meaning a detective agency aimed at lady customers, seems to have become an agency of women detectives in the Brazilian edition. I wonder what Mma Ramotswe, sole proprietor and operative, indeed the “first and only lady detective in the whole of Botswana”, would make of that?

Wednesday 30 September 2009

At words poetic, I’m so pathetic

Peter Mandelson was interviewed on Radio 4 today about changing the law on what happens to the tip you leave for your waiter in a restaurant — the controversy over management stealing the money or using it to bring the pay of their exploited staff up to minimum wage, which shockingly is not (yet) illegal.

Of course they couldn’t resist dragging up the old apocryphal tale of Mandy calling in at a chip shop while campaigning in his Hartlepool constituency, seeing some mushy peas and ordering “some of that guacamole”. He denied it, of course, but pronounced it... guacamale. To rhyme with hot tamale. Seriously. Or, and I only add this comparison because I enjoy the thought of how unpalatable the word would be for him, Internationale.

The seeming inability of this quintessentially middle-class cosmopolitan socialite to pronounce the name of a well-known Mexican speciality turns the old anecdote on its head in a rather interesting way. It was supposed to illustrate the cultural gulf between him, smooth and oily as puréed avocado, and his working-class constituents. But now that (thanks again Radio 4) Mexican food is apparently going to be the Next Big Thing, just as posh eaters are embracing the British culinary classics it was once de rigeur to despise, perhaps “guacamale” is already too common for the likes of the Deputy PM? Perhaps in five years’ time the joke will be about him going into McDonalds, seeing some McGuac and asking for a serving of mushy peas?

National Petty Obsession Day

Last Thursday was National Punctuation Day in America. I apologise for not telling you about this at the time, so that you could try to join in the fun, albeit at a distance, but I was, ironically, too busy copy-editing at the time.

So what happens on National Punctuation Day? The website suggests you go for a stroll round town, “paying close attention to store signs with incorrectly punctuated words. Stop in those stores to correct the owners. If the owners are not there, leave notes. Visit a bookstore and purchase a copy of [God help us all] Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.” Leaving notes is perhaps less confrontational than the direct action espoused by radicalised British punctuationistas of the Trussite tendency, who often pack heat — heavy-duty felt-tipped marker pens, that kind of thing — but the mention of the egregious Strunk and White nails the colours to the mast.

Yet again, any debate over punctuation is the province of linguistically uninformed zealots, which is a pity. The sheer power of their anger is quite startling, as a glance at the comments on the Daily Mail website will confirm, and, previously denied an outlet in mainstream publishing, this anger has made a rich woman of La Truss. I personally don’t begrudge her that, it’s a pleasure to see such an unlikely publishing prospect (as everyone thought) become a genuine word-of-mouth hit. Even if it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of language and has become the bible of tedious fanatics.

The tone of the National Punctuation Day website seems calm and good-humoured, however. There’s a photograph of Mr NPD pointing gleefully at an apostrophe “mistake” (above). He presumably thinks it should be “members’ testimonials”. I’d say that’s debatable. And frankly not worth getting het up about.

Well, each to his own petty obsession. The thing that shocks me about that notice is the fact that they couldn’t use a proper apostrophe instead of that horrible vertical line thing. That just looks nasty.

No-one can deny that effective use of punctuation is a good thing, though whether it helps to go round leaving notes for small traders critiquing their shop-fronts is another matter. But, now that many of us write with keyboards more often than pens, are we entering an era when people don’t even know what punctuation marks actually look like?

Friday 25 September 2009

The Town Hotel

It was reported last month that an unidentified British tourist in a small French town got locked in when she assumed the sign outside the Hôtel de Ville (town hall, at least in some places, Mairie in others) meant it was a hotel. Probably not such a stupid mistake as all that, it must happen from time to time. She wrote the following message asking for help:

Je suis fermer ici
( Toilettes).
Est ce possible
moi la porte en ouvrir ?

You have to be cautious about tall tales and urban myths retailed with a straight face in our careless and credulous media, but here’s one for which there seems to be some tantalising photographic evidence. The BBC still managed to misquote the tourist’s message, but hey what’s new.

The story has even spawned its own little website, whence I lift this intriguing pic (right), perhaps a screenshot from television news?? It comes complete with an amusing piece of machine “translation” (“The tourist for its continuous, but think of other clients of the institution ... Time passes and people seem to sulk the square in front of City Hall ... A shot of fear for some poor woman who has certainly enriched his vocabulary” etc).

I’m still not 100% convinced though. There’s something about the handwriting that just isn’t quite what you’d expect from a Brit in her early thirties. And I wonder why an English speaker whose French was not great would think to chuck in that en (presumably “to open the door of it”). And what on earth is the verb doing at the end like that? Was this tourist actually German or Dutch, by any chance?

Thursday 24 September 2009

Ya dubber!

In a now familiar pattern, as they say, a young northern bottlenosed whale has spent the week hanging around the Clyde after losing its way while migrating, and is not long for this world.

The quality of newspaper wordplay has been as desperate as the puir wee beastie’s chances of survival: “Some-fin fishy doon the watter” (Evening Times) would require the animal to be way out in the Clyde estuary rather than in the heart of Glasgow, which was rather the point of the story — but you can’t not have a pun in a headline, can you? Also there’s complete disagreement about when the critter was first spotted or identified, the Herald and BBC reports contradicting themseves within a few lines. Situation normal basically.

A sort of tradition has grown up of giving names to these forlorn creatures, a symptom of the massive public sympathy they evoke. When the whale that came up the Thames in 2006 died, it was like the Blessed Diana of Harrods all over again. It had been variously named, sorry “dubbed” (which does make you wonder how the Queen got close enough with her sword, but it’s probably better than “christened” in the circumstances), Willy (Daily Mail), Wally (Sun), Whaley (Daily Mirror, or was it someone’s three-year-old?) and Gonzo “because it was a Bottle Nosed Whale and Gonzo is a Muppet with a large nose”.

It would be interesting to know the process behind this, especially when nothing particularly obvious or witty springs to anyone’s mind. Who does the dubbing? Do the newspapers each invent their own nickname and may the best one win?

A Risso’s dolphin that wandered into the Clyde last year was nicknamed Disco Dave “after a discarded packet of Discos crisps got caught on his fin”. There is indeed a certain tragic pathos to that image, the noble beast robbed of its dignity by a piece of squalid detritus (presumably an empty crisp packet rather than a packet of crisps as the Daily Record has it). Note: “his fin”, not “its fin”. I wonder what they would have said if it had been a shark.

In the case of the current Glasgow whale, the Evening Times and the Glaswegian agree on Bobby (why?), but I prefer, although I can’t remember where I saw it, Bucky the Bottlenose. It may be slightly Glaswegianist stereotyping but at least it makes sense — bottle, Buckfast, geddit? The Zeitgeist, in the form of Twitter, adds Whally (which seems like a blend of Whaley and the almost generic Wally), Bubba and (go figure) Timothy. Mind you it also contributes the following gem: “so sad a baby strayed from it’s parents, they say, or is it because we are overfishing ??”

I prefer the following comment on the Scotsman website, a brutal summary of Glasgow’s riverine socio-topography. “If it carries on upriver it’s kebab meat, if it hangs a left up the Kelvin it’s sushi.”

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Update on Chambers Harrap

The Financial Times seems to be the first non-Scottish newspaper to get round to reporting the Chambers closure announced last week. The BBC website reports on the NUJ’s fight to save the company’s Edinburgh HQ. Messages of support can be sent to the Chambers Harrap NUJ chapel [union branch] care of the NUJ Scottish Office at; messages of protest to Chambers Harrap can be directed to

From the Scotsman, 24 September 2009:
Dictionary staff spell out case for keeping Capital base open

Monday 21 September 2009

Pimp your vocab, chaps

New from Anova Books, publishers of the smash-hit non-fiction blockbuster Whatever Happened to Tanganyika?, comes Pimp Your Vocab by Lucy Tobin, a “terrifying dictionary for adults”. It’s a sort phrasebook of the yoof slang of today. Er, cool beans and all that sort of thing. The Guardian offers some sample items and even a test-yourself quiz.

These things are always good for debunking any self-deluding idea that you might sort of vaguely understand young people’s, er, jive talk, even if you don’t actually speak it yourself. It is, as promised, a little scary.

Strangely, one of the items quoted by the Guardian is snap, an old old dialect word meaning a snack or packed lunch. It’s tempting to think it must be the same word as snack, though apparently much older; from OED: 3. A small piece or portion; a scrap, fragment, or morsel. 4. A slight or hasty meal or mouthful; a snack. Now dial. or spec. Also in Comb., as snap-time, -tin. [...] 1935 A. J. CRONIN Stars look Down I. ix. 67 ‘Come on, ye old beggor, and have yer snap,’ Tom called out with his mouth full of bread and cheese.

Is da yoot really sayin dis bro? (Gosh, I’m good at this. Innit, tho? Or should that be “is it tho”? Oh dear.) Coincidence, shome mishtake, or has an old local word somehow been generalised and revived?

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Everyone’s an expert

The Herald and the Scotsman have their say on the ChambersHarrap closure today. Surprise surprise, not one news source anywhere seems to have quoted a real live lexicographer on the subject, or indeed anyone that works in dictionaries.

The culture minister, Michael Russell, a former television producer and author, feels that “it does, to a certain extent, reflect the changing patterns of how research and reference are now undertaken.” No doubt he’s right, but why couldn’t we hear from someone who actually knows about how all that affects dictionary sales?

Philip Jones of the Bookseller magazine claims that “so much is available faster and for free online. It doesn’t have the credibility that a print book has, but mostly people would tend to look online rather than buy a book for £10 that might go out of date in six months.” Again, no doubt true, though a tenner doesn’t go far these days, it’s the price of a round of drinks or couple of glossy magazines at an airport, and less than the tourist guide to the place you’re flying to, and those things date a fair sight faster than dictionaries. In my experience people see a dictionary as about as ephemeral as a bible, and buy a new one about as often.

Marion Sinclair of Publishing Scotland (formerly the Scottish Publishers Association) says “dictionaries have migrated online and a lot of people have the attitude that it doesn’t matter about the brand name. But often it doesn’t have the wealth of lexicography behind it. That is a real specialist skill and that is what we are in danger of losing.” Very good point, but one that would perhaps have been better made by a lexicographer. And, pace Ms Sinclair, actually it doesn’t matter much about the brand name. What matters is that the thing is properly written by someone who knows what they’re doing and then regularly updated, something that is indeed under threat.

Oh and by the way, assuming Google News is to be trusted, not one lousy English newspaper has even mentioned the story yet.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Chambers Harrap to close

Appalling news today of the closure of Chambers Harrap in Edinburgh, my first dictionary employers. As BBC news points out, this “marks the end of a 200 year association with Scotland for the dictionary”; of course they mean the Chambers Dictionary/ies, rather than The Dictionary — there are still dictionaries published north of the border — but it shows just how bad things are in reference publishing. I was going to entitle this “Hachette job” after the parent company, but it doesn’t really seem like a laughing matter, least of all for the 27 people who are apparently going to lose their jobs.

Classy picture there from the BBC (right). I love the way that, in order to illustrate the piece, someone has just heaved their office copy of Chambers off the shelf, plonked it down on a clean area of carpet and pointed their cameraphone at it. Is this the photographic equivalent of what’s happening to reference works? It’s become so easy to lay your hands on some recycled content you nicked from somewhere (just as I do right), or knock up something yourself which can then propagate itself all over the internet. In one way that’s liberating and democratic, but surely it must be accompanied by an awareness of when something, like that excuse for a photo, is so embarrassingly rubbish as to be unprofessional. Is this casual lack of discrimination, amid a plethora of unmediated information, actually part of the disaster that’s happening to dictionaries?

Sunday 6 September 2009

Seventeenth-century bankers apostrophe’s

The other day I happened to be looking at the founding charter of the Bank of Scotland, which is an act of the (old) Scottish Parliament dated 17 July 1695. It “allow’s a Joint stock” of so many thousands of pounds, blah blah blah, “and farder Statut’s and ordain’s...” and so on and so forth. Poor Lynne Truss, I wonder if she has spent the last six years having her nose rubbed in things like this. Or perhaps she still fondly imagines the reviled “greengrocer’s” apostrophe was invented in the late twentieth century. Luckily the document was in a glass case, so the Punctuation Taliban couldn’t get to it with their Tipp-Ex.

Friday 4 September 2009


I met a man, I can’t think where
Who said that he was Tony Blair.
But what was really very odd
He also said that he was God.

[Kyffin Williams, quoted by Derec Llwyd Morgan in Radio 4's Great Lives]

I can’t quite work out why this is funny. It’s not particularly clever or witty, but it just makes you laugh. Something to do with the rhyme possibly.

Monday 31 August 2009

Good as new — in fact, better

I see from Amazon that a good second-hand copy of the well-received work of popular nostalgic geography Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? is now a valuable “collectible” worth two and a half times the new price — and it’s not even out of print yet. Now that’s class.

Monday 24 August 2009

Illuminated phosphor

“…morose expressions laminated by a thin sheen of grime and sweat; hangdog mugs smeared with London…”

Charlie Brooker is, lest any doubt remain, The Man

¹ Just to clarify, I don’t mean in the sense of the personification of an overbearing globalised corporate plutocracy, as in “sticking it to the Man”, or any suchlike hated authority figure. No, my aim is simply to praise his prose, and point up his point. Perhaps I should have sacrificed punchy transatlantic brevity and coolth for the sake of clarity. But, well, I hope I’ve done my best to put things right with this little footnote, albeit at the expense of brevity. It only remains for me to thank you for your patience, and wish you a good day.

Friday 21 August 2009


No sun — no moon!
No morn — no noon
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member —
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! —
[Thomas Hood, Whimsicalities (1844), ‘No!’]

Except that it’s supposed to be August.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, and “The Black Guy with the Funny Name”

Not to trivialise a serious and tragic subject (honest), but al-Megrahi sounds surprisingly unforeign in a Scottish context. I keep hearing it as Al McGrachy. A kind of reverse of Barak Obama, the Westerner with the Islamic-sounding moniker.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Strange name for a ship

How odd for someone to be “aboard the Arctic Sea”, as opposed to abroad, or adrift, or whatever, on it.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Pop till you drop

Another nice American review. Among other things it points out that Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? is “small enough to pop in your bag”. And who should know better about that than

Sunday 2 August 2009

“From breathless historical recaps to miniaturist elegies”

Got back from a week abroad to find this very nice review in something called the Wall Street Journal (I think it’s American). Not one British newspaper bothered to give the thing a proper full-length review, as opposed to a cordial mention (with the possible exception of the Stroud News and Journal). Hoorah for the American quality press.

Friday 29 May 2009

Milking the gravy train

Two more bloated trough-snufflers are herded into the spotlight. Their names are, wait for it, Bill Cash and Sir John Butterfill.
“Tory grandee Sir John Butterfill is the latest to come under scrutiny after avoiding capital gains tax on £600,000 profit from selling a taxpayer-funded property. He claimed nearly £17,000 just for servants’ quarters, where his housekeeper and odd-job man lived.” (ITN)
The greedy grandee (left), who actually bears a certain physical resemblance to a pig, was knighted (or as he puts it “appointed a Knight Batchelor” [sic]) for, ironically enough, “services to Parliament”. Perhaps in the light of how he’s served the reputation of that institution it would serve him right if they took his K back.

But seriously (by which of course I mean but frivolously), what names! What names for people embroiled in an expenses scandal. You couldn’t make it up. Not even if your creative instincts had been honed by years of making up reasons for helping yourself from the public purse. Sheridan himself couldn’t do better. You know the kind of thing:

Dramatis Personae:
Lord Fillmeboots, an Embezzler from the Public Purse
Mr Cheapwords, his Spokesman to the Press
Whingemore, a troublesome Journalist
Divers scrutineers and petty officials of the House, accused of Complicity
The common people of England
, outraged
Sundry Commentators upon the parlous state of Democracy, self-appointed

And of course:
Dame Esther Rantsman, an upstart Opportunist

I mean come on, we might as well get some amusement for our money. No-one can say they’re cheap laughs.

This entry has been sponsored by “Wadges” O’Moolah, your friendly and informal supplier of building and gardening services, tree inspections, duck islands etc. No tedious paperwork, cash welcome, no questions asked in Parliament. Top prices charged — you can't get a good job done for nothing! (Well
you can obviously sir, you’re an MP.)

Thursday 28 May 2009

Family growth

What does it mean if someone refers to their “growing family”? Here’s ITN on Julie Kirkbride MP:
According to the Daily Telegraph, Ms Kirkbride last year told Parliamentary authorities she needed an extra bedroom to house her ‘growing family’ and increased her mortgage at an extra cost £250 a month to the taxpayer.

Her family has not increased in size in the last nine years, but her brother Ian moved into her constituency home to help with childcare and lived there rent-free.
An interesting (ab)use of a linguistic ambiguity to cast aspersions. Who says a “growing” family is one which is increasing in size, in the sense of numbers? It could just as easily refer to the fact that its young members are themselves growing. Where one might put several small children into the same room, after a certain age it’s generally considered better for them to have separate rooms. Or in Ms Kirkbride’s case, there comes a time when one’s son should perhaps no longer ideally be sharing a bedroom with his uncle.

Come on, isn’t there enough evidence to skewer these greedy and unscrupulous MPs on the facts, without resorting to twisting their words?

(Answer: yes. Oh dear me yes.)