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.