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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A celebration of oddness – the 2012 Diagram Prize

One of the quirkiest literary prizes on the publishing scene is the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year, run by The Bookseller since 1978.

I don’t think the prize was run last year but in 2010 the winner was the wonderfully-titled Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way.

Other favourite past winners include 2005′s People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It and 2007′s If You Want Closure In Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs.

Last week, the shortlist for the 2012 Diagram Prize was announced and contains seven titles published in 2011, culled from a total of 64 book titles submitted from around the world.

As Philip Stone, the prize administrator, says on the Bookseller’s website: “Despite the global economic turmoil, publishers continue to invest in imaginative, diverse and niche publications, and this award wonderfully reflects that.”

The shortlist comprises:

  • A Century of Sand Dredging in the Bristol Channel: Volume Two by Peter Gosson (Amberley).
  • Cooking with Poo by Saiyuud Diwong (Urban Neighbours of Hope).
  • Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World by Aino Praakli (Kirjastus Elmatar).
  • The Great Singapore Penis Panic: And the Future of American Mass Hysteria by Scott D Mendelson (Createspace).
  • Mr Andoh’s Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge by Stephen Curry and Takayoshi Andoh (Royd Press).
  • A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares (Phaidon).
  • The Mushroom in Christian Art by John A Rush (North Atlantic Books).

My favourite this year is The Great Singapore Penis Panic: And the Future of American Mass Hysteria.

Diagram Prize 2012 shortlisted title

This prize deserves to be supported and celebrated and I urge you to vote for the title you think deserves the 2012 prize here – the winner will be announced on 30 March.

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Aussie words of the year – the ones that got away

Bringing up the rear in the Word of the Year announcements, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary revealed its choices for 2011 last week.

As mentioned in a previous post, the Oxford Dictionaries WOTY was squeezed middle, while in the US the American Dialect Society went with occupy and for Merriam-Webster, the word pragmatic topped the list. All these WOTY seem to reflect the general economic uncertainty felt in Europe and North America.

So, what did Australia – which hasn’t been as badly affected by the economic downturn – choose? Well, perhaps appropriately, the Macquarie Dictionary Committee chose burqini (n. a swimsuit designed for Muslim women) – brought famously to our attention by Nigella Lawson on Bondi Beach last year.

As Susan Butler, Editor of Macquarie Dictionary, said:

“Burqini seemed to be a very cute and successful coinage and what lay behind it was a fusion of culture, in an area of life which is so Australian… life on the beach.”

The Committee gave honourable mentions to three more words:

  • patchwork economy (n. an economy characterised by areas of growth as well as areas of decline)
  • dairyness (n. the productivity of a cow in terms of the quality and quantity of its milk)
  • announceable (n. an item made public by a government, usually in a media release, as good publicity for the government or as a distraction from bad publicity)

The Macquarie also has a People’s Choice Award. The word that garnered most votes for 2011 was fracking (n. a process whereby rock is fractured to gain access to oil and gas). This word also won the Environment category – the Macquarie WOTY has 16 categories ranging from Agriculture to Technology.

I was disappointed that my personal favourite – thongage (n. a charge to a patron of a restaurant incurred by wearing thongs into the restaurant) – didn’t win the Eating and Drinking category. You need to be aware that in Australia thongs are not skimpy underwear but what we call flip-flops.

This category also included selmelier (n. a waiter who assists diners in choosing the appropriate salt with which to season their meals); and japas (n. tapas-style servings of Japanese food).

The Aussie words of the year are distinctly playful – rather like Australian English generally. You should take a squiz at Aussie slang sometime…

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What Words of the Year can tell us

As the end of the year approaches, lexicographers and word nerds start to compile their Word of the Year (WOTY) lists.

The WOTY is usually selected to reflect the ethos of the year. Often they are words that have been around for years and are given a new lease of life. Sometimes words and phrases emerge that are not yet listed in any dictionary.

Last week, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the year 2011 was revealed to be Squeezed Middle. Unusually, it was announced in the UK and the US as the OED’s global WOTY.

The OED’s press release stated:

While squeezed middle is British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s term for those seen as bearing the brunt of government tax burdens while having the least with which to relieve it, the Word of the Year committee in the US felt it had good resonance in the US, as well. Susie Dent, spokesperson for Oxford Dictionaries, said: “The speed with which squeezed middle has taken root, and the likelihood of its endurance while anxieties deepen, made it a good global candidate for Word of the Year.”

Other words on the shortlist included:

  • Arab spring
  • Bunga bunga
  • Clicktivism
  • Crowdfunding
  • Fracking
  • Gamification
  • Occupy
  • The 99 percent
  • Tiger mother
  • Sifi  [An acronym: systemically important financial institution.  Rhymes with "jiffy".]

‘Squeezed Middle’ attracted some debate, mainly as it seems to lack a precise definition.  You can hear an interview from Radio 4′s Today programme with the OED’s Susie Dent here. Time will tell if the phrase has the ‘legs’ to hang around long enough to be included in the dictionary.

In early November, Global Language Monitor announced its Top Words of 2011. GLM tracks trends in English language usage worldwide and has selected its Top Ten Words, Phrases and Names of the Year since 2000.  The top three words for 2011 were: occupy, deficit and fracking.

Later this month the American dictionary-publishing company Merriam-Webster Dictionary will reveal its Top Ten WOTY – something it has done since 2003.  Last year austerity topped the list, followed by pragmatic and moratorium. In 2008 the WOTY was bailout.

Interestingly, ebullient was ranked number eight on the list. As Merriam-Webster points out:

Although a number of words on this year’s list reflect a somber national mood, one notable exception is ebullient – “having or showing liveliness and enthusiasm” – which leaped to the top of the searches as the world watched the rescue of the Chilean miners.

The American Dialect Society has been announcing its WOTY since 1991.  It will reveal the winning word for 2011 in January. The last three WOTY were:

  • 2008: subprime
  • 2009: tweet
  • 2010: app.

The WOTY lists provide a fascinating snapshot of our concerns and culture. Whether they are old words with new meanings, or brand new words and phrases that capture a social phenomenon or a new piece of technology, the WOTY nominations prove that language is constantly on the move.

One of my favourite words from 2011 is ‘sodcasting’ which perfectly describes the rather selfish act of playing music from a mobile phone in public. The OED looked at it but it never made the final top 10. For my money this is a word that will last.







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Halloween typography

Now my children are teenagers, I’m beginning to get a bit grumpy about Halloween. When I was young we had parties where we would bob for apples. Today, we’ve imported an American version of Halloween in which children are encouraged to dress-up (sometimes) and go door to door begging for sweets. It’s become a huge commercial venture to which I find myself saying “Bah, humbug!”

But there is one part of Halloween that I like – pumpkin carving. So I fully approve of today’s Google doodle which is a lovely time lapse of six enormous pumpkins being carved to spell out ‘Google’.

That got me wondering about Halloween typography and I found a site called which offers 35 creepy Halloween fonts for free download. Fonts include PostCrypt, Gorestep, Zombie Holocaust, Kreepy Krawly and Midnight Hour. People really do take this Halloween business seriously.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people out there carving pumpkins with a sense of humour combined with a love of typography. I found these on a site called






And, the scariest of them all:







A (grumpy) Halloween to you all!





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