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Scrabbling Around For The Apposite Word

Anyone who’s played Scrabble will know the feeling. You’ve got seven letters to play with and you’re convinced they should make a word in some language.

Just not English.

Which – unless you’re playing some alternative version of the game – can be so frustrating. (Particularly if you pride yourself on having a good vocabulary and still can’t make sense of what’s in front of you.)

So it’s always good to have a store of obscure letter combinations to trot out when under stress. (And to impress your opponents.) I find short ones like ka and id often come in handy.

And I’ve just found some new oddities, courtesy of a list of weird and wonderful words from the Oxford Dictionaries website.

Got too many vowels? Try aa – a kind of frothy lava! Or an etui – apparently an ornamental case for needles, cosmetics etc. Or there’s a gaita – a kind of bagpipe played in northern Spain and Portugal.

Want something a bit longer? What about gallux – which is the anatomical term for the big toe. Or while we’re in that area, try flews – the pendulous lip of a bloodhound.

Some words are way to long to ever appear on a Scrabble board. To absquatulate means to leave abruptly. Want to go and see an ecdysiast? That’s the posh term for a stripper! But don’t worry if you’ve got a humdudgeon – it’s just an imaginary illness.

I’ve always loved words. Hope you enjoy these ones – there are many, many more on the list.

We Have Not Seen Him…

There have been so many tributes to Nelson Mandela but this has got to be one of the most touching.

The Soweto Gospel Choir teamed up with the Woolworths supermarket in Johannesburg for a flash mob-style performance of Asimbonga – a song written while Mandela was in prison.

Asimbonanga [we have not seen him]
Asimbonang’ uMandela thina [we have not seen Mandela]
Laph’ekhona [in the place where he is]
Laph’ehleli khona [in the place where he is kept]

Asimbonang ‘umfowethu thina [we have not seen our brother]
Laph’ekhona [in the place where he is]
Laph’wafela khona [in the place where he died]
Sithi: Hey, wena [We say: hey, you]
Hey, wena nawe [Hey, you and you]
Siyofika nini la’ siyakhona [when will we arrive at our destination]

Just listen… and remember what the man achieved and stood for:

Thou Art A Cottage Cheese, Fustilarian Bounder!

Ahh. You can’t beat a good insult. Shakespeare was definitely the master.

InsultsSome Shakespearean insults are short and to the point: Thou art like a toad; ugly and venemous. (As You Like It)

Others more of a rant: A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition. (King Lear)

Even when we don’t understand the exact meaning, we get the message from the general tone.

Of course, there have been other famous ‘insulters’ over the years. Winston Churchill was famous for his acid comebacks, as was Groucho Marx with lines like: “She got her good looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.”

But while some insults depend on wit, others are to do with the words used. And, like other parts of the language, insults go out of fashion.

There was a feature on the BBC website a couple of days ago after former international footballer turned TV presenter Gary Lineker referred to a thief who stole his mum’s car as a ‘rotter’.

The word is a bit of a throwback to the earlier part of the previous century and the BBC feature looked at some other insults that have fallen out of fashion.

Some insults also depend on where you come from. I was re-watching series two of The Wire recently and had to blink when drug gang hard man Cheese yelled out at a rival: “You cottage cheese chest ass motherf***er!”

I’m sorry? What! I mean, ‘Cheese’ is a bit of an odd name for a hard man but surely he could have said something a bit less… bizarre?

Anyone got any explanations? Or examples of other inspiring or weird insults?

As an aside, for anyone else who believes The Wire to be the best TV drama ever made – they could run degree courses based on the writing in this series – here’s a treat. A 10-minute compilation of some of its (many) best lines. Enjoy:

A Lullaby For Pain

Listening to the radio this morning there was an item about whether the sound of a lullaby can actually take away a child’s pain.

A study at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital has showed that playing music to children waiting for heart transplants can actually reduce pain, slow heart rates and improve moods.

The BBC report included the following explanation:

One of the study’s authors, David Hargreaves, of Roehampton University, is a jazz pianist as well as professor of music psychology.

As he sits playing a jazz interpretation of My Funny Valentine, he says the piece calms him down and makes him happy.

He says that kind of connection with music is shared even by young children: “Lullabies are something that children are familiar with. They’re intended by parents to be used with their children to create relaxation and remove tension.”

It’s the kind of thing that intuitively makes sense but now researchers have some hard facts to back up the idea. (For the full BBC report, go here – apparently lullabies date back to Babylonian times).

Listening to the report, my mind went off on a bit of a tangent (as it’s prone to do) and I wondered if that ‘dealing with pain’ is another of the (many) reasons why teenagers spend so long listening to music.

Growing up can be traumatic and I certainly spent many, many, many hours shut away listing to ‘my’ music. I wasn’t in physical pain but angst and emotional confusion also need treatment and music played a big role in mine.

Music certainly affects mood. I used to love listening to dark, tormented tunes when I was feeling low – knowing other people felt the same way helped me deal my own emotions. Equally, there are some tunes that just make me feel good the moment I hear the first notes.

LouReed03PA090112On a sadder note, there’s been lots of coverage of the passing of Lou Reed. Now, there’s a man who’s music I’ve spent a lot of time listening to.

Though I do get a little bit annoyed by all the radio stations who play Perfect Day and Walk On The Wild Side – okay they were his biggest commercial hits but to my mind they’re not the important songs.

This is Reed and David Bowie performing the Velvet Underground’s White Light, White Heat – important to note that although Bowie went on to become (and remain) the global mega-star, in the beginning it was Reed that influenced Bowie:

If you want something a bit closer to the knuckle, here’s I Wanna Be Black from 1978. Recorded in Cleveland, there aren’t many people who could get away with these lyrics:

I love most of Lou Reed’s work but one of my favourite albums – and one that I was lucky enough to see him perform – remains Magic & Loss. This is Sword Of Damocles:


The Pace Of Change – Part II

So, fancy a new car for less than £1,000 or a television for under £60? Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not a trick – just how much these things were being advertised for back in 1963.

The newspaper where I work two days a week runs a ’50 Years Ago Today’ column and today I had the job of going through the old archives to find some suitable stories.

Tito and queenThe news was interesting – in part for the historical details. There was mention of President Tito of Yugoslavia driving through the area on his way back from a UN meeting and local rows about whether fluoride should be added to the Hampshire’s water supplies.

What was also interesting was how similar much of the news was to what goes in the paper today. Some people have a rose-tinted view of life in the past but judging by the stories in the paper it wasn’t that different.

Okay, no mention of drugs but otherwise still plenty of the usual local newspaper staples – theft, drink-driving and petty squabbles.

Even at a national level I found familiar themes. The New Forest’s Conservative Member of Parliament warning that the Government needed to take action to keep mortgage costs down because young couples were being priced out of the property market. (We certainly haven’t solved that one!)

Singer VogueWhat I found just as fascinating, though, were the adverts. Back in November last year, I wrote a post called The Pace Of Change, mostly talking about how technology had changed in my lifetime.

Looking through the newspaper adverts from 1963 was weird. This was two years before I was born but it was like a world out of a book or film.

The new Singer Vogue – yours for £685 plus tax – boasted ‘fully adjustable front seats’ and even came ‘now with front disc brakes’. The ad also highlighted the fact: ‘greasing points now completely eliminated’.

What! Did people have to grease their cars before 1963?

austinYou could also buy the new Austin A60 for £720 or rent the latest Philips 19″ TV for just 9/6 per week (that’s 47.5 pence in decimal coinage).

Alternatively, buying the new telly would set you back £59.85. But that was without legs. They were another £2.10.

Looking at the ads for electrical goods was like staring into the technological dark ages. One advert offered a deal encouraging you to buy two televisions – ‘be a two TV man and get the best of both channels!’

Yes. That’s right. In 1963 British viewers had the choice of BBC or ITV. The BBC2 channel didn’t come along until 1964 and Channel 4 was a very, very long way off.

There was also the ad for the Bush auto-player. This marvel could play both 10 and 12″ records – and was ‘wired for adapting to stereo’.

An advert for bathrooms highlighted the fact there was a ‘wonderful choice of colours’, while the National Coal Board was plugging (coal-fired) free-standing cookers that could not only heat the kitchen but provide ‘the luxury of instant hot water’.

If that much can change in 50 years, it makes you wonder what they’re going to be advertising in 2063!

Blast From The Past

I had a different kind of blast from the past last night. I went to see the Boomtown Rats at Boscombe Academy.

For those of you poor people not familiar with the Boomtown Rats, they’re the Irish new wave band led by Bob Geldof that had a string of hits in the late 1970s – and reformed this year. Their best known song – in the UK at least – is probably I Don’t Like Mondays:

Back when this came out, I was still at school and – like so many others – could totally relate to the sentiment of the title.

But the story behind this song is much darker than just wanting to get out of school. In January 1979, the Boomtown Rats were on tour in the US and Geldof was giving a radio interview in Atlanta when the telex machine (?!) next to him started printing out a report on a school shooting in San Diego.

A 16-year-old girl called Brenda Ann Spencer had picked up the semi-automatic rifle her father gave her for Christmas (she later claimed she had asked for a radio). Spencer started firing across the street into the local elementary school, killing the headteacher and the school custodian, and injuring eight children.

At the time, Spencer’s explanation was “I don’t like Mondays”. Geldof adds that at the time a journalist was asking her “tell me why” – which became part of the refrain.

I’m not going to comment on the link between the first part of this post and that story. Except to say that it’s sad how some things don’t change and perhaps the world would be a better place if we worried more about people than having the latest ‘things’.

Nuff said. I’ve got to finish rewriting the ending of a book.

Unthinkable Exclusion

Walking up through the small Portuguese town of Odemira yesterday, I noticed a line of jaunty purple and grey umbrellas hanging from the trees in the park.

umb02Suspended from each umbrella were various cards with short pieces of text on them.

Now my Portuguese isn’t brilliant but I got the gist of the messages. They were all to do with social exclusion and included statistics on the number of adults in the area who are illiterate, the number of children who fail basic exams etc.

Made me think. I worry about editing my books, inspiration for the next novel and how to get my message across in the most effective fashion.

It’s hard to imagine that there are still people for whom the written word is a total no-go area. I realise that oral storytelling predates literature by a long way but I really couldn’t imagine a world without books. It seems so unfair. Unthinkable.

Cobbled Together

Sometimes a collection of individual parts can create a remarkable new whole:

cobbler1cobbler2I came across this statue – about 20ft high – on a roundabout in the small town of Almodovar in Portugal’s Alentejo region. The town used to be know as ‘cobbler land’ because of the high number of shoemakers.

The statue is made of all kinds of miscellaneous metal items. The straps of the cobbler’s apron are made from the chains off some type of tracked vehicle (I think!) and the top of the apron is formed from two old sewing machines and the rest out of circular saw blades.

One of the many things I love about Portugal is the amount – and variety – of public art on roundabouts.

Avoiding Hooptedoodle

Elmore Leonard – who died last month – was known for taking liberties with grammar and famed for a gritty, succinct style that won him many admirers, including both readers and fellow authors.Elmore-Leonard-006

As an author, Leonard was renowned in particular for his authentic-sounding dialogue. He got his first break writing Western pulp fiction novels in the 1950s – a number of which were later turned into films, including Valdez Is Coming and 3.10 To Yuma.

But as well as breaking the rules he didn’t like, Leonard came up with a suitably succinct top ten of tips for other writers.

In a 2001 essay for the New York Times, he explained: “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.”

His 10 rules were:

  1. Never open with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues
  3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the said ‘said’.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  6. Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’.
  7. Use regional dialect – patois – sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places or things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Now, obviously, reading is a very subjective affair. Elmore Leonard’s novels won’t be to everybody’s taste. I also freely admit to breaking quite a few of Leonard’s rules in my own books.

But there’s a lot of sense in what he says. I might come back to some of them in more detail in another post but there’s also a crucial ’11th’ rule that Leonard said summarised the other 10:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

“Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)”

If you want to read Leonard’s piece for the NY Times in full then click here. I’ve also got an alternative take on his rules that I would summarise as:

  • Don’t state the obvious – let readers work out emotions etc from what your characters do and say.
  • Leave plenty to the imagination – just give readers a few pointers to guide them.

Any thoughts on Leonard’s rules? Any you’d strongly disagree with (as a reader or a writer) or any you’d like to add?

NB. ‘Hooptedoodle’ is what Leonard described as a writer breaking loose with a bunch of pretty words that, while nice, don’t add anything to the story.

There’s A Bear Tap-Dancing

I love the English language. Partly for all those wonderful words we’ve got – ones like ‘rambunctious’, ‘disgruntled’, ‘fractious’ and ‘bellicose’.

But individual words are only part of it. Then there are all those marvellous idioms – some of which make sense (kind of) and some of which seem just plain mad.

It’s only since I started teaching English to foreigners that I’ve realised how confusing our language can be. Not only do my students have to cope with all those inconsistencies and weird spellings, they’ve also got to get their heads around phrases such as ‘like water off a duck’s back‘ and ‘as sick as a parrot‘.

Some idioms are fairly obvious – ‘it’s just a drop in the ocean‘ or ‘to get a taste of your own medicine‘ don’t take that much working out.

But what about ‘having a chip on your shoulder‘? Or ‘a back of a fag packet calculation‘? (You’ve also got to know the difference between British and American English for that one!)

With stronger students, I like trying to teach them plenty of idioms. A couple that always get a smile are ‘to kick the bucket‘ and ‘he’s pushing up the daisies‘.

But it’s not just us English speakers who pepper our language with strange sayings. There’s a post on the Oxford Dictionaries blog all about German idioms. Apparently, if you want to encourage someone to come along to a party, you tell them there’s going to be a tap-dancing bear there. Logical really. Who wouldn’t want to see a tap-dancing bear.

As for the video below, it’s got nothing to do with idioms but it appealed to my sense of humour!

I Told You I Was Ill

So, how would you like to be remembered? What words of wisdom – or wit – will pass your lips as you breathe your last?

SpikeYou’d think that writers, being people who work with words all the time, would have  the best last lines but it ain’t necessarily so.

Musicians, criminals, politicians – you name it – all kinds of people have had their approach to departing this world go down in history. And they show considerable range:

American boxer Max Baer’s final utterance could suggest fear or excitement: “Oh God! Here I go.”

By contrast, Winston Churchill’s last words are said to have been: “I’m so bored with it all.”

For a selflessly practical approach, Lewis Carroll went out with: “Take away those pillows. I shall need them no more.”

Unfortunately for some, their last words prove to be ones they might have regretted. Such as John Sedgwick, an American Civil War general, who – shortly before being killed by a sniper – announced: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

However, one of the pithiest responses to the Grim Reaper’s approach came from Alexander Graham Bell who just said: “No.”

Although not last words as such, I’ve always liked the epitaph on Spike Milligan’s gravestone, which reads: “I told you I was ill.”

It’s a bit of a morbid subject – hopefully none of us will have to worry about how we’re remembered for a while yet – but this post was prompted by a short quiz about famous last words on the BBC’s website.

The quiz was written in response to the last words of Irish poet Seamus Heaney who died very recently. I think I scored four out of seven. See if you can do better – click here.

I’m not sure what my last words would be. Probably, something along the lines of: “I can’t go yet, I’ve got a book to finish.”