The Atlas of True Names: making the familiar seem strange

Did you know that Great Britain can also be called ‘Great Land of The Tattooed’?

Not because of the popularity of tattoos in this country. Rather, it’s the name you arrive at if you look deeper into the etymology of the words ‘Great Britain’. (Maybe this is why Cheryl Cole couldn’t help getting her infamous rose tattoo?)

This etymological approach to place names has been pursued by a company called Kalimedia and they’ve now produced a series of maps of The British Isles, Canada, The USA and Europe called The Atlas of True Names.

As Kalimedia says on its website:

Once the names have been taken back to their roots and translated into English, it is immediately apparent that our world has an extraordinary affinity with Middle Earth, the mythical continent where the events of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings are played out.

So, I can now say that I come from The Great Land of The Tattooed.  I was born in Northern Enclosed Farm (Northampton) but I now live in the capital city, Unfordable River Town (London). Or should that be Unaffordable River Town?

So – where are you from?

Atlas of True Names - section of SE England. Photo credit:


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We need to close the compound noun gap…

The English language comprises hundreds of thousands of words and is rich in phrases, idioms and other word combinations. And yet, sometimes even English struggles to convey exactly what you mean, despite numerous ‘borrowings’ of words from other languages.

Dinosaur Comics by Ryan North often captures the absurdities of language and linguistics by means of two talking dinosaurs. I urge you to visit Dinosaur Comics often – you won’t regret it.

Here’s a great example:



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Sorry seems to be the hardest word: or, the art of the non-apology

Im Sorry

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
― Benjamin Franklin

“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”
― John Wayne

Every once in a while, people in public life have to apologise for something they’ve said or done. While never an easy thing to get right, of late public apologies have ranged from the grudging to borderline rude.  Genuine contrition is rare.

When caught out, instead of simply holding their hands up and saying “I was wrong. I’m sorry” people often say: “I’m sorry if anyone has been offended by what I said/did…”, or “I misspoke…”, “People have misunderstood. What I meant to say was …”

The inference being that you’re not sorry for what you did – just sorry for being put in a rather awkward situation where you are forced to publicly apologise for saying or doing what you did.  When it comes to apologising, people are more like John Wayne (never apologise) than Benjamin Franklin (no excuses).

A classic recent example was given by motor racing legend Sir Stirling Moss who, in an interview, said he didn’t want a “poofter or anyone like that” to play him if a movie of his life was ever made. Inevitably, he had to issue an apology:

“I’m sorry I’ve caused offence, but I’m disappointed anyone could be so narrow-minded as to take offence. It was not meant to cause any.”

Do you see what he did there? He apologised then immediately insulted anyone that was offended by what he had said.

A far more tangled apology was attempted last week by US singer Michelle Shocked following some anti-gay remarks she made at a concert. Her rambling apology (read The Guardian’s account of it here), saying she had been misunderstood didn’t really stack up against the audio recording of the gig. Her apology therefore only served to dig the hole she’s in even deeper.

A more straightforward but no less puzzling apology was given last week by actor Bill Roache, better known as Ken Barlow, the character he has played in long-running soap Coronation Street for more than 50 years.

As told by the Daily Express online, he seemed to suggest in a television interview in New Zealand that he believed victims of sex abuse were paying the price for actions in “previous lives” and that it was easy for men in the public eye to be “trapped by young groupies.”

As the Express noted, he “quickly backtracked” and apologised:

“I would like to say I am very sorry for any offence caused. I would never say that victims of sexual offences are in any way responsible for the abuse they have suffered and I offer my deepest apologies if anything I have said has been misunderstood in this way.”

But this simply contradicts what he said in the interview – and then offers apologies if what he said had been misunderstood.

The list of high profile apologies is seemingly endless – Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, Kanye West … If you want a definitive catalogue of bad apologies, then I recommend a visit to one of my new favourite blogs – Sorry Watch.

Even the US satirical website The Onion had to apologise last month for an Oscar-night tweet about young actress Quvenzhané Wallis (and it wasn’t about misspelling her name).  I would urge you, however, to read The Onion’s merciless send up of Republican Senate nominee Todd Atkins’ non-apology for his ridiculous comments on abortion last year.

So, the question remains: is it possible to apologise well and salvage your reputation in the process?

One person who seems to have managed it is Jesse Jackson Jr who was accused of conspiracy and fraud earlier this year. In a post on the PRSA-NCC blog, Jonathan Rick deconstructs Jackson’s brilliant apology and offers five ways he (or his lawyer) got it right. My favourite is point number 3: “He doesn’t dance around the elephant. Instead, he walks straight up to it and apologizes, directly and earnestly.”

So, come on – no more dancing round the elephant, guys!





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Rapping the alphabet Bajan-style

The internet truly is full of wonders -you never know what little gems you are going to find.

While visiting the Facebook page Totally Barbados recently, I came across this great video clip of a Rastafarian who clearly loves the sound and feel of words as he raps through the alphabet in his Bajan lilt. Prompted by his sidekick he reels off a stream of words for each letter in an almost seamless performance.

I haven’t managed to find out who he is. If anyone knows, please let me know and I’ll be happy to give him a full credit.

The clip is called Brilliant Bajan Alliteration:

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Using words to paint pictures…

I love words. And I love certain typefaces (particularly Johnston sans – the font used by Transport for London), although I hate others (I’m looking at you, comic sans).

I also really like the combination of words and fonts, as seen in kinetic typography. So, it was a delight to stumble across this short clip called Word as Image made by Ji Lee. It’s an animated trailer for his book.

Lee’s description of his work is as follows:

Challenge: Create an image out of a word, using only the letters in the word itself.
Rule: Use only the graphic elements of the letters without adding outside elements.

It’s interesting to see how the letters that make up a word can be used to express and enhance it’s meaning.

See for yourself:

Word as Image (by Ji Lee) from jilee on Vimeo.



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Strewth: a treasure trove of Aussie lingo

I recently came across a wonderful treasure trove of YouTube video clips on the Australian Geographic website. They feature an Aussie bloke called Frank Povah talking about Aussie English – anything from Sheila to bung, chook, and furphy.

Anyone with an interest in Australian English (Strine) will delight in these clips. Frank has a typically laconic delivery and is a trusty guide. Although, sadly, I notice the most recent clip was uploaded in 2011. Let’s hope there will be more.

To give you a taste – here’s a clip about the word furphy, which means a rumour:




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Which hurts the most – sticks and stones or words?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” runs the old playground chant.

Children quickly learn that this is not true. Names (or words) can really hurt and cause psychological damage beyond the mere scratches and bruises caused by sticks and stones. The words you use in ‘the heat of the moment’ also reveal much about what you really think.

So, it’s not surprising that supposedly grown-up people, such as Conservative party chief whip Andrew Mitchell and a couple of metropolitan police officers can get embroiled in a name-calling row.

The incendiary word in question is “pleb”, defined in my Collins English Dictionary as:

pleb n 1 short for plebeian. 2 (Brit. informal, often derogatory) a common vulgar person.

In his public apology on Sunday, Andrew Mitchell didn’t seem to mind admitting that he swore at the officers as they prevented him from using the main gate in Downing Street. But he denies using the p word.

The BBC Radio 4 Today show had a discussion on the meaning of the word pleb and whether or not it is an insult. Interestingly, Edith Hall, professor of classics at King’s College London, believes Andrew Mitchell did use the word as it’s “just not the sort of thing a policeman would invent”.

Polly Toynbee in The Guardian agreed, saying the language used was “Flashman public school bully-speak of Mitchell’s generation …’Pleb’ says not just how Cameron and co think, but it defines with deadly accuracy who they govern for.”

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph published the full police log of the incident – what they refer to as Andrew Mitchell’s ‘pleb’ rant. It’s an amusing read, as it is written in what can only be described as police-ese.

Here’s the crux of the matter:

There were several members of public present as is the norm opposite the pedestrian gate and as we neared it, Mr MITCHELL said: “Best you learn your f—— place…you don’t run this f—— government…You’re f—— plebs.” The members of public looked visibly shocked and I was somewhat taken aback by the language used and the view expressed by a senior government official. I can not say if this statement was aimed at me individually, or the officers present or the police service as a whole.

Cartoon ©Martin Shovel*

Of course, the story has been picked up with relish by all the news media and today’s piece in The Sun is worth reading, if only for the made-up posh Indian nosh that Mr Mitchell may have eaten at an upmarket Indian restaurant hours before the incident – including Argy Bhajis, Beef Phall-temper and Pleb-fried rice.

But back to that police log. My favourite section is:

I warned Mr MITCHELL that he should not swear, and if he continued to do so I would have no option but to arrest him under the Public Order Act, saying “Please don’t swear at me Sir. If you continue to I will have no option but to arrest you under the public order act”.

Mr MITCHELL was then silent and left saying “you haven’t heard the last of this” as he cycled off.

How prophetic. Within hours the incident had become pleb-gate.

Right now, it’s Andrew Mitchell’s word against those of the police. But which word?

*Many thanks to writer and cartoonist @MartinShovel (Creativity Works) for letting me use his great cartoon.




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The politics of grammar

By describing himself as a grammar fascist recently, the British Conservative MP Alan Duncan may have had his tongue firmly in his cheek but it’s striking how people who get worked up over English usage, grammar, style, and punctuation will often refer to themselves as grammar fascists or grammar Nazis with pride.

Mr Duncan has challenged staff at the Department for International Development to be more careful in their use of English, to avoid verbing nouns, and to elimate jargon. (For more detail, read Tom Chivers’ recent piece in The Daily Telegraph.)

We all have pet peeves about language usage and punctuation but I wonder what happens when the line is crossed and feeling peevish about a misplaced apostrophe becomes something more intense?

The demise of The Queen’s English Society - which struggled to champion “good” English for four decades – suggests that trying to impose rules on a living language doesn’t work. (The QES says people just don’t want to join committees anymore.)

In the USA, Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson have decided to take direct action against typographical errors they find in public signs and their book detailing their travels, The Great Typo Hunt, has been pretty successful.

I enjoy a funny typo – who doesn’t? – but would I go as far as these guys? (No. But I might take a photo and tweet about it.)

The question is, if some prescriptivists are happy to call themselves grammar Nazis, are there any descriptivists who define themselves as grammar socialists? Somehow, I think not. It always ends badly  …

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The joy of parentheses (in song titles)

Punctuation, or rather bad punctuation, is something that many people get peevish about. For some it’s the so-called grocer’s apostrophe, for others it’s commas, or the overuse of exclamation marks.

The use and misuse of parentheses (or brackets, as we tend to call them in the UK) doesn’t get talked about as much but there is one publishing category where parentheses seem to be used in a playful and wilfully arbitrary way – in song titles.

I can think of no other category where parentheses are sprinkled like confetti. They don’t tend to get used in book or play titles, where a subtitle will follow a comma, colon or semicolon.

Twelfth Night, Or What You Will (no parentheses)

And you don’t see film titles with parentheses either. Although, they might have come in handy for the 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

In writing, parentheses are used to enclose extra information or explanations which would otherwise interrupt the flow of a sentence.

And, sometimes, the use of parentheses in song titles sort of follows this rule, especially when the first line of a chorus is the bit put in brackets, such as The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher, and more recently Florence and The Machine’s Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up).

Parentheses are also used in print to enclose acronyms that will then be used to avoid writing out the full name of an organisation every time it’s mentioned (e.g. NASA). So  Michael Jackson’s PTY (Pretty Young Thing) – neatly subverts this ‘rule’.

Noel Gallagher once cheerfully admitted to the NME that he didn’t know why people used brackets in song titles but he was inspired to use them liberally – e.g. (What’s The Story?) Morning Glory and (Get Off Your) High Horse Lady.

In the end, you have to assume that songwriters use parentheses either for fun or because they can’t help being pretentious.

Some ‘fun’ examples:

You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything (Even Take the Dog for a Walk, Mend a Fuse, Fold Away the Ironing Board, or Any Other Domestic Short Comings) – The Faces

Winker’s Song (Misprint) – Ivor Biggun and the Red-Nosed Burglars

(Get a) Grip (on Yourself) -The Stranglers

(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea – Elvis Costello

Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t've) – Buzzcocks

I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That) – Meat Loaf

(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) – Beastie Boys

Some ‘pretentious’ examples:

A track from The Flaming Lips’ album The Soft Bulletin -

What is the Light? (An untested hypothesis suggesting that the chemical [in our brains] by which we are able to experience the sensation of being in love is the same chemical that caused the “Big Bang” that was the birth of the accelerating universe)

Then there’s Frank Zappa’s album Apostrophe (‘) – the brackets here helpfully illustrating what an apostrophe looks like.

Perhaps the prize for the most pretentious use of parentheses should be awarded to the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, for their 2002 album ( ). As described in Wikipedia, the album comprises eight untitled tracks, separated by a 36-second silence.

Sigur Ros: album titled ()

Although Radiohead’s 2003 album Hail To The Thief (The Gloaming) should also be mentioned here as each track comprises a title with parenthetical subtitles, including  2+2=5 (The Lukewarm).

Of course, the line between fun and pretentious is all a matter of individual taste. However, of all the musical genres, surely Country & Western is the king of the glorious song title (with parentheses):

Mama Get The Hammer (There’s A Fly On Papa’s Head)

If You Keep Checking Up on Me (I’m Checking Out on You)

Curiously, there are some titles that you’d assume were crying out for brackets but they didn’t get used:

Get Your Tongue Outta My Mouth ‘Cause I’m Kissing You Goodbye

Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through The Goalposts Of Life

I’m Just A Bug On The Windshield Of Life

And that goes for other musical genres too. I reckon Arctic Monkeys’ Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair would look better with everything after the first three words contained in parentheses.

Brackets are still being used in song titles but not to the same extent.  Most often brackets are used to show the track is a (Remix). A quick look at the most recent Official UK singles chart (for 8 April 2012) shows that 13 of the top 40 titles included guest artists in brackets – e.g.  Goyte with the song Somebody That I Used To Know (feat. Kimbra). I guess it could get complicated if there were brackets within brackets.

Whether you deem the use of parentheses as witty or pointless, there’s no denying that they do lend an extra dimension to a song title.

So what’s your (favourite)?

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Less ‘wonga’, more sense

I don’t hate many things but I’m beginning to loathe the word ‘wonga’.

It’s everywhere, thanks largely to the ubiquitous and nauseating commercials, in which a trio of geriatric rubber puppets induce people to take out dubious pay-day loans with eye-watering interest rates.


The trouble is, they seem to have spawned an advertising industry love affair with the dreaded w-word.  It crops up in the latest toe-curling Go Compare TV ad (about the big bad wolf) “…so why wait longer to save your wonga?” And as you exit the M1 at Junction 2 you cannot miss the giant Virgin Active billboard with the ambiguous line: “More Zumba. Less Wonga.” (Presumably they mean you get more exercise for your money at Virgin Active gyms. Call me a cynic but I can’t help reading it as “the more Zumba classes you take, the less money you’ll have.”)

It seems ‘wonga’ comes from the Romany ‘vonga’, meaning money. But English has many other perfectly good terms for money – including cash, dough, dosh and moolah. So how did it muscle its way into our vocabulary? reckons no one really used ‘wonga’ before June 2009 when the dreaded Envirophone TV commercials, featuring ‘wongaman’ began invading our homes.  Envirophone should clearly shoulder much of the blame for the increased usage of the w-word.

I can only hope that like other fads, this one will die out. Then maybe it’ll be a case of: “Less wonga. More sense.”




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