Category Archives: Language

Ounce Dice Trice

For some time now New York Review Books has been re-publishing books which have been out of print for a while. This seems to me to be an excellent idea. In fact, it might be good to have a one week moratorium on new books once a year, call it Reprint Week, and dedicate it solely to old books which have been needlessly forgotten.

A while ago they brought out a book I had been waiting for. It is OUNCE DICE TRICE by Alastair Reid and Ben Shahn (first edition 1958). It is a book for children and word-lovers. It is only fifty-seven pages long but the words are meant to be read aloud, one at a time, and they are so unpredictable and interact so well with the drawings that if you belong to one of the two categories above, you will find you go back to it again and again.  On the back cover Marianne Moore is quoted as having written when the book first appeared: “Reading Ounce Dice Trice aloud is the best way of separating the bores from
their airs and the squares from their snores
.”) Read more…

Thirty-seven ways of looking at a dervish

 A secret turning in us450px-Mevlevi-Derwisch
makes the universe turn.
Head unaware of feet,
and feet head. Neither cares.
They keep turning.

– Rumi

As everybody knows, the Mevlevi are an  order of dervishes founded  in Konya in the 12th Century  by the followers of the great mystical poet Rumi and who are best known for their practice of whirling as a form of “dhikr” (remembrance of God).

If you go to Turkey, people at home, before you  leave, might say that you ought to see dervishes and that if  you were to see dervishes you ought to take a picture. Perhaps you don’t give this much thought in the beginning, you don’t really keep an eye out for dervishes. But then one day you realise that time is running out and that you must see dervishes and you ask someone where you can see them. Read more…

How to say “extinction” in Chumyl: “The Linguists”, a film.


If you are interested in language and languages you might like to see the film “The Linguists”.
The film, presented as “a very foreign language film”,  is about David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, two researchers who travel the world to document vanishing languages. Most of the action takes place in Siberia, India and Bolivia and focuses on the Chulym, Sora and Kallawaya languages. In one of the first scenes one of the linguists says that one reason to study language is to “figure out the possible ways the human mind can make sense of the world around it”.  Read more…

Wee Klinks 3

Wee klinks It’s raining today where I live and it rained so much yesterday that when you ask someone for the time water pours out of their sleeve when they look at their watch. There are glum expressions all around me, but I am actually fond of rain. I think the reason must be my childhood memories from South-East Asia. The way the earth suddenly surrendered up its smells, but even more than that the sound of the rain falling on the bamboo umbrellas everybody had. Being under your own umbrella and listening to the rain beating down was like having your own wonderful sky-drum.

Because of this I was very much attracted to this set of pictures on Flickr all about umbrellas. If you are not lucky enough to have rain falling where you are today, you can always watch the pictures to the accompaniment of this soundtrackLotsumbrellas

Read more…

The Meaning of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in One Sentence

“Look, listen, love – and try not to get run over by  history.”

There it is for those who have an assignment to complete in the next five minutes or who are generally in a hurry to wrap things up. If you have a little more time to spare, read on.

Sometimes people ask me whether I can see who lands on my website. The answer is no, although I do get reports on countries and cities where people have come from, so if you are a friend of mine and happen to live in Nauru I assume that it is you when I see that flag. (Certainly the most attractive small-country flag and probably also the best new-country flag with the way it neatly sidesteps symmetry and avoids too many details, staying sleek and memorable.) Nauru_mw
More interesting is the fact that I also receive reports on the searches which cause people to land on the website. I have spent a number of days trying to find a way to proceed in a seemingly logical way through the various kinds of searches I have noticed but I have found it impossible and therefore I am going to dump them into a few very ramshackle categories.  (I’ll put the searches in italics so you can distinguish between my spelling mistakes and other people’s spelling mistakes).
Category 1 – Searches which mystify me:
  • Hands and positions of ballroom dancing with meaning – There is a secret meaning ? were those films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers full of messages ?)
  • Holes in socks potato – Potatoes prevent holes in socks ? Potatoes are remedies for holes in socks ? Potatoes cause holes in socks ?)
  • Balkan haiku war – Was there one ? Or maybe this is the answer to the next search, which is –
  • what is the most important thing to know about croatia
  • what is a sloths favourite – Are you one of those people who leave all their sentences hanging ? What is a sloth’s favourite what ?)
  • flowery chinese signs for olympic deportment – Which leaves me dumbfounded.

Read more…

Say it in Terpreting

signalling instructor

(This piece first appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Communicate!a webzine for conference interpreters and the conference industry: Those who aren’t acquainted with the ins and outs of conference interpreting might be baffled by some of the details of the job but will surely be able to empathise with the general feeling of bewilderment.)

Perhaps something like this has happened to you. Say it’s Tuesday and you are comfortably ensconced in your booth. You have absorbed all the vocabulary you need and the meeting is so routine that most of your mental effort is directed towards using words which are anagrams of the Chairman’s name.

Read more…

Wordle Quiz

wordle obs car You can’t get away from word clouds by now. Tags, authors and names get pasted into swirls and displayed in patterns everywhere. The presidential and vice-presidential debates were followed immediately by a pictorial analysis of the words most frequently used by each contender. So my subject is not a particularly original thing to write about.
But some time ago I came upon a page called Wordle where you can generate word clouds by pasting in text or linking to a website with an RSS feed.
I thought it would be interesting to learn something about the way I wrote myself and so I pasted in the English text from my book The Observation Car. The result is here on the left.  For those who are new to word clouds it might be worth pointing out that the higher the frequency of a word in a given text the bigger it will appear in the word cloud. “One” seems to be my favourite word, though it is so common and can be used in so many ways that I think it could have been filtered out along with “and”, “a”, “the”, “which”, etc.  “Two” and “three” also get a fair share of hits, but then my numbers peter out, though “five” puts up a shy hand.
I should obviously put up a sign on the wall behind my computer to remind me how prone I am to using “just” and “like”.
I find it interesting that going through the arrangement of words as you would pick up nails or beans scattered on a floor, it seems to come natural to put together clumps of pidgin haiku fragments.

Stare sounds, glass city

Rain made three go away, another keep shoes. Klaxx ! Bang !

Umbrellas stand behind waiting

Door faces seem oh !

Sit like air.

Read more…

Improvisation on improvisation in desperation

After a few months of amazed bewilderment, I have finally worked out how to represent the way the recent Republican Vice-Presidential nominee’s thought processes and verbiage generation function. Think of a car at speed trying to negotiate a twisting track covered with thick ice. That’s it.

This was brought home to me by the following video which features a piano accompaniment which hangs onto the tail of her slithering progress as she explains (perhaps there is need here for a word which is the
opposite of explains: – “implains” perhaps or “expalins”) the pros and cons and perhapses and whoopihooes of the bail-out of the financial industry. You can hear clearly illustrated the wheel-slipping, tyre-skidding and tail-spinning going on.

The accompaniment is performed and I suppose devised by the very talented pianist Henry Hey. I have appended a transcript of the lyrics so that you can sing along.


Intro (Couric)

…allow them to spend more and put more into the economy instead of helping these

big financial institutions that played a,

a role in creating this mess.


That’s why I say I, like

every American I’m speaking with, were ill

about this position that we have been

put in where it is the tax-payers looking to bail out.


what the bail-out does is

help those

who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed

to help shore up our economy…um…

helping the

it’s got to be all about job creation too, shoring up our economy and

putting it back on the right track

so health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to

accompany tax reductions and tax relief

for Americans.
And trade –

we’ve got to see trade as opportunity and not as
a, a competitive, um, scary thing,
but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today,

we’ve got to look at that as more opportunity.

All those things under the umbrella of

job creation –

this bail-out is a part of



(Listen to the poem here)

They thought it was a good idea
to put the Nile Perch into Lake Victoria.
Such a convenient and clever thing
to have so many fish steaks
quickly growing at the bottom of the road.
The way it grew so quick, they found, was by
devouring everything in sight and in mouth’s way.
Two hundred species used to live
inside the lake, and now they’ve gone,
mostly by means of being nileperch lunches.
Read more…



There are lots of things you can do with a real handkerchief which you can’t do with tissue. I remember that people used them to wave from trains when passing houses of people they knew. Actually you just stuck the handkerchief out of the window and it would wave itself. Of course, now you can’t even open train windows at all. I also have recollections of people in hot weather tying knots in the corners, soaking the hankie in cold water and wearing it on their heads.

And surely to be handed a freshly ironed, neatly folded, soft handkerchief to wipe one’s tears must be a consolation in itself. Thinking of that use, I believe that I have a whole class of new words to suggest. I do this with some apprehension, because though new words are amusing and sometimes mesmerising, they are a bit like unknown animals you bring back to your own house; some of them turn out to be bad guests and there are a few hundred words which in my opinion we desperately need to get rid of.

Despite this, in the single-volume dictionary I have to hand I am busy trying to push handiwork one way and handknit the other, so that I can make room to fit in a whole new pageful.

Let us suppose some bad news has blown in through the window or that something which never was supposed to happen has just knocked on your door. You are sad and distressed. What do you do to console yourself if no one hands you a handkerchief ? A handkerwalk makes me feel better sometimes, my footsteps stretch my cares out in all directions  around the town until they’re too thin to notice any more. Or perhaps you prefer to pick up the phone and have a handkertalk about it all. If there is someone you always call when you need to do this then that is your handkerfriend.

At night or in times of stress you might of course be seen opening the fridge in search of handkerfood. But there may be something specific you may find more comforting (and I want to point out that none of the following examples apply to me),
for example, a handkersausage, handkerchocs, or handkerchup (a thick layer of ketchup spread over what is pretty bad food to start with) There may be some people, though I find this difficult to believe, who turn to handkerporridge.

How about handkercraft ? A word which straight from its coinage rolls wobbling on its edge into ambiguity. Is this some hobby like woodwork or brick-laying which you turn to in dark times ? Or is it the motorcycle you tear down the road on while howling ? Or is it a car or even a boat ?

You may have a favourite handkerchair, perhaps there is only one handkerplace that makes you feel better, or you could be compelled to buy some handkershoes. Some people have handkerchildren. In Autralia there probably are handkeroos, but I don’t know what they are. Neither do I know what a handkernaut is, but I’ll know one when one turns up and I will know what to call  it/ her/him.