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I am a European

I am a European. A child of Europe and the European project. Europe was not (at least, not fully) my state but it was and is my country. And now, apparently it’s not. My state is divorcing me from my country. I don’t think I am alone in feeling like this. As I consider my friends, colleagues, my family – they are European. I am married to an Irish man with many Flemish relatives, many good friends are predominantly “Facebook” friends simply because they are dispersed in different European nations, often living with partners of different nationalities. As a teacher of languages, I have taught students from Italy, Germany, France, Slovakia, Lithuania, Spain…I have worked in Ireland with friends and colleagues from Germany, Holland, Austria, Switzerland and the UK and I have worked myself in France and Germany.

Being Irish, English, German, French and so on has always been incidental to our being together for work or pleasure because of the Europe my generation grew up with, which minimised the divisions of nationality, promoted international exchange, education and work.

To me, it feels as if 17 million people have carelessly exiled at least 16 million (and likely millions more) other people from their European homeland. And I want to understand why. My wanting to understand why is a function of my liberal European education. Perspective taking, finding points of commonality in difference – bridging the differences, speaking other languages, other discourses – this is the European identity. But in trying to understand the desires and needs of the Leave campaigners now, I am too late.

I learnt French and German at school when at least one language was still compulsory at GCSE level, I have lived and worked in France, Germany and Ireland. My Irish husband came to England within the safe backdrop of the European Union which had rendered a long-standing coloniser and enemy a place of opportunity and education. As I looked at my Irish son yesterday, I was glad he would still have the privilege of being European. As I felt my unborn Irish twins kick inside me, I felt the absurdity of renouncing Europe. Europe is inside me. In my family, I would be the only non-European citizen and yet, as a specialist in languages, the most firmly attached to Europe.

The opportunities that Europe has afforded me and many of my (yes, white middle-class urban cosmopolitan) generation are an enormous privilege.

Yesterday, I sat in a baby class I was teaching with two Hungarian women and one Swedish woman, united in our motherhood and enjoying the company of each other’s children. The day before with German and Japanese mothers. Without Europe and the values of Europe we would not have been sitting in that room together.

And yes, I see some irony in patriotically declaring myself a countrywoman of Europe, but it is, for me, an abstract country of values and ways of getting along with others. A place of peace and democracy, a place of inclusion, not a bounded nation of limits and borders. A state of the mind.

Now many millions of people have raised two fingers to the privileges that state of mind affords and some to the values, essentially French (now European) revolutionary values of liberty, fraternity, equality and are retreating into rhetoric of fear and prejudice, while others find themselves in simple disillusionment with the machinery of Europe.

It is clear there are people who have not been enjoying European freedoms and privileges and who feel disenfranchised, not empowered by Europe. Some were disenfranchised to the point that they thought even if they voted, it would not count! These are people who saw or were led to see in Europe a threat to their livelihoods and their communities – not mobility, opportunity and education. Europe has become the scapegoat for fears and insecurities about lack of power and control. The educational, social and political system has clearly not done enough to change these economic, social and psychological realities. The referendum has shocked so many of us, because we were happy in our economic and social freedoms, and blind to other perspectives around us. Has Europe been living up to its own ideals?

23rd June 2016 was in many ways a sad day for the project of liberal education. It is a sad day for our humanity and awareness of each other. But the answer is not to give up and turn away from the original ideals that formed Europe, but to reassess and reinvigorate them within the political and social institutions that make up the member states. To continue to invigorate them in our everyday interaction with one another. United in diversity. United in adversity.



Going back to my earlier post on wordrunning and finding new words for as yet unlabelled concepts and events, I have just found out about a book called “Wordbirds” by Liesl Schillinger. It contains a host of neologisms for modern life and might be of interest. A wordbird is a “memorable neologism whose meaning can be effectively and whimsically enhanced by an accompanying bird drawing.” The book argues that dictionary makers have not kept up with our changing society and provided us with the words we need. Or maybe it is us who has not invented words for ourselves quickly enough. The book describes phenomena such as “cancellelation” – joy or relief experienced on cancelling a social engagement or given this blog’s colour obsession and my experience of this very thing when teaching a large group, I quite like “chromazone” or “the eerie phenomenon whereby an inexplicably high number of people turn out to have chosen to dress in the identical color on the same day – like puce, aqua, or lime green. That one’s a bit of a cheat though. I bet on any given day loads of people are dressed in white or black we just don’t notice it. Though it certainly is strange that more than one person would dress in lime green…these wordbirds are really ripe for wordrunning.

“Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war”

The quote is from the Russian Formalist, Viktor Shklovsky. So often, life seems repetitive. We know it’s really not, but it seems that way. In hindsight and if you narrate your day to someone else, the same old concepts come up: breakfast, walking the dog, coffee, laundry load, working at a computer etc. etc. I was feeling the weight of this seeming repetition recently so I decided to create a photo diary of my day and take a quick snapshot of every activity I engaged in.

To my surprise, not only did tidying the kitchen suddenly appear as a very visible achievement, I also noticed how each iteration of an activity was slightly different.

Different objects originally scattered about, different clothes to dress in, different people seen in the park. Bizarrely this even included two people, a man and a woman, walking puppy pug dogs. The man was dressed in a dog costume, the woman as a cat. No joke. Then, later that day, while unloading the dishwasher, I broke a mug. These unexpected occurrences interrupted more starkly the apparent repetition, but even minor changes were suddenly much clearer. I went to Tesco instead of Dunnes Stores. I went to this park instead of that one.

Narrated back to me in pictures rather than words, my life suddenly seemed more eventful and even more productive. Language’s excess abstraction away from the panorama of everyday life can be disappointingly reductive. This reductive nature of words became even clearer to me when I decided to move on from the photo diary project to creating a tailor-made picture book for my young son, on the verge of producing his first words. I started taking pictures of objects to include, but soon found myself bothered by the disparate nature of the objects that were to be given the same label and by the fact that many of the objects were in fact toy representations of the item in question. Is a toy rabbit also just a rabbit? And do all the weird and wonderful cartoon rabbits and stuffed varieties all go by the same name of rabbit? It seems impossible that my son could figure out what label to apply to what.

As an ardent linguist, I know about Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of the arbitrariness of the sign, or at least before now, I was intellectually aware of it, but this is the first time I have become emotionally aware of its implications. I have to say, I feel as if I have been betrayed by my best friend. Language has deceived and disappointed me. All this time, I have been seeking knowledge using a tool that is to all intents and purposes seemingly quite random in how it categorises aspects of reality. And, yes, I am also aware that this has been quite a central concern of twentieth century philosophy. This too, I could only understand intellectually before, but now I am quite shocked by it.

Chris Gunns [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

How can I tell my son that these are all rabbits? How absurd!

For the time being, I am happy that my son is crawling around squishing, rattling, smooshing and tearing objects without knowing what they are. He just senses them now, but eventually words will stop him seeing and feeling what’s really there. They will make all chairs appear objects merely for sitting in and make him think that every time he sits down to eat or has his nappy changed it is the same event in endless repetition. Perhaps he will have a long road until mindful meditation practices or even perhaps a Duchamp work of art bring him back from words and concepts to sensation once again.

When he does learn to talk, I hope I can teach him also to think carefully about the words he attributes to his world, so that, to paraphrase Viktor Shklovsky, he can keep his stones stony and be a true poet of existence.

Desperately Seeking Words

It seems that not only are there many concepts out there which are lacking words, there are many words out there lacking concepts. If anyone has been caught up in the recent Scrabble and Wordfeud crazes, you will know exactly what I mean by this. Very often you conjure together a euphonious set of letters only to discover that your newly invented “word” is meaningless and does not count for the bonus squares you had your eye on. This is all the more galling when you discover your opponent going into the lead with, say, 54 points for the word “xu”. Xu? That certainly didn’t come up in your childhood alphabet book as an alternative to xylophone.  But it is not without its own meaningful history. It in fact refers to a coin formerly minted in South Vietnam, roughly equivalent to a “cent”, and as the Merriam-Webster dictionary informs me, derives from the French “sou”, which in turn derives from Latin “nummus solidus” meaning a solid coin.

There are all kinds of intriguing two-letter words which it is worth knowing if you get involved in any of these wordly past-times and the definitions can all be found at this link from the Australian scrabble players association. My favourites would be “ai”, a three-toed South American sloth; “ba”, the eternal spirit in Egyptian mythology; and “ee” Scots dialect for “eye”.  Are they joking when they give “et” as the past tense for “eat”? And what is with “za” being a short form for “pizza”?! “zas” is the plural. No, it is true, as this article from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette attests. Along with “qi”, the Chinese life force and over 3000 other words “za” as an abbreviation for “pizza” made it into the fourth edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.

So “za” is no longer a syllable without a concept, but there are plenty of meaningless “words” out there looking to pitch a home on that triple word score: “kano”, “aviar” “pentent”, “stip”, “slet”, “carigon” and so on and so on. I think the only right and proper thing to do would be to set up a match-making service: “Seeking Meaning”. One of the ads might read:

Short word seeking relationship with meaning and some capital fun. Stylish, flexible and usually right up front. Previous relationship with “acknowledge” and “acrobat” unsuccessful, so striking out alone and trying out new things. If you are a spunky quick-fire kind of meaning with a hint of Germanic despair about you please contact “ac”.

Dear readers, please direct any lonely words or meanings you find to this web address and we can resolve this unnecessary linguistic distress. Before you think that such a match-making service is utter nonsense, lamentation over language is nothing new and at certain times has been taken very seriously indeed. In fact, this brings me somewhat neatly to a preview of a future planned post…language woes and the creation of artificial languages.

An Irishman's Difficulties with the Dutch Language

The title of this post is in fact the title of a short humorous book first published in 1908 and reprinted several times since then. The copy I was lucky enough to read was printed in 2000. It is an account of precisely what the title suggests, though it is not clear if it is an exaggerated autobiography or entirely fictional, but either way it offers a very enjoyable insight into the complexities of translation and above all a warning about the dangers of viewing language as a scientific object of study which can be fully understood from a dictionary. And translated accordingly. The pragmatic aspect of language, or how it is used in context, does not enter the entrepid protagonist’s understanding of the language learning process in the slightest. In fact, he favours linguistic over communicative prowess to an almost pathological degree.

The learner in question is presented as a professor at Trinity College Dublin who takes a few months out in Holland to master Dutch. He begins convinced it that it should not take him more than a couple of weeks. What follows is the highly entertaining narrative of his misadventures in miscommunication as he infuriates and insults the local population and confuses and frustrates himself. Anyone who has battled their way with a small dash of a foreign tongue while abroad or who has laboured through the ‘phrase book stage’ of any language course will readily identify with his befuddlement. At times this book had me in tears of laughter. Clinging to his dictionary as a biblical talisman and inventing his own rules for its use to provide himself with an illusion of confidence and security, he creates some glorious linguistic and social gaffes. Sticking to his general rule of using only one translation (chosen more or less at random) from the dictionary entry for one word of English, he creates a list of items for the laundry woman (this is 1908, remember!) including among other things: Six “dog collars” (collars), seven “handcuffs” (shirt cuffs), and six “see below” (handkerchiefs). For the latter translation he ignored his initial misgivings about the phrase indicating a possible footnote and so revealing that too much knowledge without scientific method can be a dangerous thing he drew on his vast imagination and wisdom as a professor and came up with the following explanation:

The mystery seemed to clear little when I remembered that a ‘handkerchief’ was a ‘kerchief’ for the hand; and that in the Tudor age ‘kerchiefs’ used to be worn round the neck. In fine old historical portraits that I had seen of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, their Majesties were always represented with elaborate cambric things about their shoulders. It was quite a feature of the period. Thus ‘zie beneden’ was no doubt the original word corresponding to ‘kerchief’, and it would take its name from the fact that when the wearer in ancient times glanced down, he could see it on his chest. He would call it a ‘look below’ quite naturally. Then the name would remain unaltered, while the article would become first a kerchief for the hand, then finally a pocket handkerchief.
As there were plenty of analogies in English for that sort of word-formation, I became quite sure of my ground, and at the end of my list wrote with the pride of a philologist, ‘7 zie-benedens’.  (pp.46-47).

He frequently perverts professional logic to come up with justifications for translations utterly devoid of common sense. It is very much an old-style grammar translation approach to the language in which you can be talking utter nonsense as long as the words are in the correct language and use the correct syntax. Frequently there are situations in which common sense would suggest that people would more naturally resort to body language and avoid linguistic conundrums altogether, but this professor’s aim is not to communicate, but to speak Dutch. This may be more so the fault of the author’s depiction of human interaction than the narrator’s communicative inadequacies, but the fault is there all the same.

What is also somewhat surprising is that the Dutch people are depicted as not being particularly understanding of the Irishman’s potential, as a language learner, for accidental impoliteness in his second language attempts. Again, humorous effect or a more believable situation in the early 1900s when multilingual contacts and contacts with second-language speakers would have been less common. This might explain why when he went into the pharmacy and mistakenly asked for sorrel water for his headache the horrified assistants’ first thought was not, ‘ah, he is not native Dutch, perhaps he has used the wrong word’ but ‘oh, my goodness, this gentleman wishes to kill himself’. Credible or not, the conflict between actual behaviour and expected social norms produces a great deal of amusement.

It may be a humorous text but it offers some solemn lessons on the risks of learning language in isolation from the context in which it is to be used and also on the dangers of translating without full understanding of the value and utility of your translation methods and procedures. The text highlights how far our understanding of the processes of language learning and translation have come in recent decades. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it should be required reading for all beginning language learners and translators insofar as it offers an extremely entertaining and memorable example of what NOT to do.



Going back to the Eskimos from a couple of posts ago, there are certain situations in life you really feel could do with a word that simply has not been invented yet. Recently suggested to me was the situation where you are waiting for a bus, but the wind is blowing so fiercely that you have to turn and look in the opposite direction. Lo’ and behold, you see a bus coming towards you – the wrong way, of course, but you automatically turn and look to see if your bus might also be coming. This goes by the well-known law that buses, being so large, have their own force of gravity which draws them towards each other.

Of course the other challenge, having invented a word, is to get it into the dictionary. Alas, it seems that the story about ‘quiz’ having been invented by a Dublin theatre manager, James Daly who got urchins (!) to chalk it up on walls all around the city, is apocryphal. But I think here myth defeats reality in terms of interest. It is tempting to replicate this. The latest fashions in neologism, particularly in the computing field, seem to involve inventing Spike Milliganesque words that follow English phonological rules, but sound like a cute toddler’s babblings with their first syllables: Bing, Ning, ping-back, Google, Doodle….and so on. On the ning nang nong where the cows go bong…How about it? I was bonging at the bus-stop yesterday.

Do you know of any other situations that are desperate for words?  Here are a few suggestions to get started:

  • Lishing – the act of plucking a piece of lint or other small item off a piece of clothing. This one follows English phonological rules but uses a sequence not yet in the lexicon with this kind of meaning. A quick Google search shows that it is a surname and is also apparently short for Linode Shell – a computing term again.
  • Door-stopping – when you notice someone through the glass pane of a fire door just in time to avoid both attempting to push through it at once from opposite directions. This converts a noun into a verb.
  • Synchroversation – the act of saying the same sentence at the same time as your conversation partner after an extended pause. Usually followed with embarrassed laughter. This one’s a blend (or ‘portmanteau’) made up of two longer words spliced together. This type is also very popular in modern neologism. In the Rivista di Linguistica, 15.2 (2003), pp.371-384 (available as ‘Understanding Trendy Neologisms’ online) Adrienne Lehrer gives some interesting examples of these such as ‘squangle’ (square + angle) and ‘narcoma’ (narcotic + coma). She also notes that while requiring fewer sounds, these can be harder to process and require more effort to interpret. This perhaps explains why coinages such as ‘cattitude’ and ‘swacket’ (sweater + jacket) can be mildly irritating until you get used to them. The example of ‘swacket’ reminds me of all those blends for the indeterminate trousers that are now in fashion: ‘jeggings’ and ‘treggings’. I’m sure these will soon make as much sense to us as ‘smog’ and ‘Spanglish’.


There are lots more delectable and not so delectable neologisms to be found on the web. The Urban Dictionary is a huge resource of these. Traditional dictionaries struggle to keep up, but the OED is now embracing online updates. The latest additions include popular initialisms like LOL and TMI, wag, lumpenintelligentsia, happy camper and cream-crackered!

With social media and click-of-a-button publication possibilities times have moved on considerably from when Dr Johnson set about his painstaking and subjective compilation of an English-language dictionary published in 1755. Many of his definitions are worthy of being revived:

crapulous – drunken, intemperate, sick with intemperance. Oh, I’m fierce crapulous today. Where’s the paracetamol?

to craunch – to crush in the mouth. There were a lot of bones in that fish. I couldn’t find them all and kept craunching down on them.

to intercommon – to feed at the same table. Families are increasingly making efforts to intercommon.

Curiously there is also a word porret meaning a scallion (a spring onion!). It seems this poor vegetable was having an identity crisis long before the scallion-spring onion confusion of modern times. A Google search reveals many more names for it, including green onion, salad onion, green shallots, bunching onion, Chinese onion, stone leek and onion sticks…porret seems like a suitably affectionate word for this confused and confusing vegetable.


From The Cook's Thesaurus at www.foodsubs.com


That brings us to the end of this neologistic tour. These days a word probably just needs a few retweets to be on everybody’s lips by the next day. Anyone up for some wordrunning?



Curiosity Killed by Banality?

Coming across a code or a language that you do not understand, there is always a sense of excitement, a sense of mystery, a sense that you might be about to discover a recipe detailing a panacea for all the world’s ills. Then it turns out that the person is simply writing about what they had for breakfast that morning. Ah well. The thrill lies in the decryption, not necessarily in what is decrypted, after all.  A lovely example of this decryption has kindly been passed onto me by Rych Mills who has conducted extensive research into the local history of Kitchener, Waterloo in Canada. This example involves the decoding of a little known script used in Germany during the early part of the twentieth century. I will say no more, because I do not want to ruin the surprise! The intriguing extract from the August 2008 newsletter of the Kitchener Waterloo Cambridge Region Post Card Club can be found in full below:

Find of the Summer

Through the magic of the internet, another Berlin, Ontario card has found its way home. KWCR PCC director John Glass, like a number of our members, is constantly trolling various websites looking for items from good old Busy Berlin days. John has come up with this issue’s Find of the Summer. Again, as in earlier FOTS, this one takes us on a merry and informative trail.

Some initial points to consider include:

(a) it’s an undivided-back photo card which means it is a very very early card for our area and a check of the postmark confirms it.

(b) it’s a bizarre photograph, well beyond the usual stock photo of a couple of people or a farmhouse that so many early photo cards seem to be. The card exudes a sense of humor along with a sense of mystery: just WHAT is going on?

(c) The site of the photograph is identifiable because of  the background building.

(d) The card is written in German and it might seem simple to get someone to translate. But then the question arises—just what kind of German is this?

In light of these points, let’s examine John Glass’ Find of The Summer post card:

The two-cent King Edward VII red stamp took this card from Berlin, Ontario, on December 7, 1905 to its destination in Beierstedt, Braunschweig, Germany in12 days, arriving at Pastor E Perl’s local post office on December 19, 1905. Thank goodness for nice clear post marks. 1905 is well within the first two years of known image post cards for Berlin, Ontario.

The photograph, likely a snapshot taken with one of those new Kodak Brownie #2s which were becoming so popular, makes you smile just looking at it. At the right, an older man who fits into the stereotype of a portly Germanic burgher serves a bottle of schnapps to a family trio. He wears what is either a real chef’s hat or an ordinary paper bag pretending to be a chef’s hat. Hanging from his left arm is a large cloth bag out of which, one assumes, the schnapps appeared. Is he also wearing an overly long light coat with some sort of lengthy pant leg hanging out? Sitting on a rug is a middle-aged woman with her hair tightly-bunned who has a “what-in-heck-is-going-on” smile on her face. A baby in a carriage is beside her and just peeking out from behind a large umbrella is a young man wearing what might be a sailor’s hat. Perched on top of the umbrella, or being held by the young man, is a typical straw boater hat of the era. Another boater is in the grass to the left.

Written on top of the image is “Auf der Farm”—“From the Farm” which we must assume is a bit of light-hearted banter. Perhaps the pastor had earlier teased his not-very-farmerish-looking friend about going out to Canada “…to farm.” What is going on in this tableau? There is obviously at least one more person taking part in the picnic-skit—the photographer. My guess is that the older man and woman are husband and wife, the younger man is their son and the baby is their grandchild. Probably taking the picture is the daughter-in-law, wife to the young man. The post card is being sent to relatives or close friends of the older couple who’d want to show off themselves, their son and grandchild. The joke in the scene is perhaps a family yarn harkening back to earlier years and activities which the addressee would understand. The family’s outing has taken them to the banks of the Grand River just downstream from Bridgeport and we know this because sitting in the background is a recognizable industrial building. From 1902 until World War One, Berlin had a huge sugar beet processing factory located halfway between Berlin and Bridgeport. It was one of Berlin’s largest single structures and the firm operated under two names—The Ontario Sugar Company and The Dominion Sugar Company.

About one-third of this huge complex remains standing at the end of Union Street in Kitchener. For many years it was Brown Steel Company but, following recent extensive and expensive renovations, it is now a high-end reception, entertainment, conference and business center called Hacienda Sarria. But that is not the building shown here!

Sugar beet processing required lots of water and that was the job of the pump house seen behind our picnicking party. Along the banks of the Grand the sugar factory’s owners erected a water pumping station. Coal-powered steam engines propelled water from the river up the embankment in large pipes to the factory where it helped turn sugar beet plants into refined sugar.

Happily, some of this pump house remains today. People on the Walter Bean Trail can easily see the foundations and interior layout of the first level of the pump house. (The nearby huge concrete caissons sitting in the river today have no connection with this plant—they were part of a later abortive railway scheme.) So, knowing of this unique structure (of which other post cards exist) allows us to place exactly the happy family’s amusing post card. This portion of river flats about 1.5 kilometers downstream from Bridgeport was a popular summer picnicking and camping spot for Berlin and Waterloo families well into the 1930s.

Now, the hope is to find some explanation in the post card’s message and that is where German-speaking friends come in handy. But a close examination of the text shows this is not ordinary German writing nor is it just someone’s fancy hand. I approached Dr Ulrich Frisse of Wilfrid Laurier University for some help. At first he was a bit puzzled then he uttered the word: “Suetterlin”. It, of course, meant nothing to me.

Suetterlin script, he explained, was a particularly fancy form of writing German which has mostly died out now. The following description is from the main Suetterlin website:

Suetterlin script: a script, created by the Berlin graphic artist Ludwig Sütterlin (1865-1917), which was taught from 1915 to 1941 in German schools. It is also called the “the German handwriting”. The writing is a standard form of the earlier and very different chancery writing which was mainly used by government officials.People of an older generation often cannot write any other way and yet both the postman and the grandchildren have trouble reading their envelopes and letters written in this script. When old family documents are taken out or church books are to be read, the knowledge of this writing is absolutely necessary.

From that same website here is a sample of lower case lettering in Suetterlin:

But it isn’t just a simple matter of substituting for letters. There are many other little rules and exceptions. And of course individualistic handwriting patterns can lead to further difficulties. For our purposes it suffices to say that a trained and patient eye must be used:a trained and patient eye that can also read German once it is translated from Suetterlin-ese!!.

You likely caught the anomaly in the website’s description above: “…taught from 1915 to 1941 in German schools…” but here it is captured and preserved on a 1905 post card written in Canada so it is obvious that before Suetterlin achieved academic recognition in the homeland it was in significant usage amongst ordinary Germans around the world. After Dr Frisse explained his much earlier exposure to Suetterlin, I explored the website noted above. About five minutes of trying to accommodate my eyes and brain to the handwriting and the Suetterlin script proved frustrating and my experiment ended quickly. But on the same site was a service offered by Margarete Ritzkowsky of Tutzing in Germany by which she makes Suetterlin script into modern German.

Dear Sch. and. Sch. / I send you a German / Newspaper from here, so / that youcan see how many / different beliefs / there are here. / Best regards, M. and W.

It turns out to be a fairly mundane message about another piece of mail that was being sent to the pastor. Likely the newspaper being referred to is the German-language weekly Berliner Journal which was published in Berlin by Rittinger and Motz. One of the most successful German-language newspapers in Canada, it had a run from 1859 until 1917.

The “Dear Sch. and Sch.” piqued my curiosity and I pestered my new friend, Margarete, about what the “Sch” might be a short form for. It turns out that in modern German it “…might perhaps mean: Lieber Schwiegervater und Schwiegermutter

(Dear father-in-law and mother-in-law) or Liebe Schwester und Schwager

(Dear sister and brother-in-law).”

That thought from Margarete provides a great possibility that the card is going to the photo family’s-in-laws in Germany. I suspect (because of the mutual Suetterlin writing abilities and the wish to share news from Ontario via the newspaper) that the Berliners and Beierstedters have not been too many years separated.  Then again there may be a whole different ‘truth’ to John Glass’.

Rych Mills


From beautiful mistranslations to untranslatables. This post comes courtesy of a link posted by a friend on Facebook. Here are all the concepts you always knew you were somehow lacking. One of my favourites is ‘tartle’ – to hesitate while introducing someone because you have forgotten their name, but I think top of the list for me comes ‘iktsuarpok’ from inuit – meaning to go outside and check if someone is coming. That really would warrant a whole word of its own if it involved five layers of clothing, heading out into the blizzard, only to see that alas, no-one is back yet from the hunt. It’s like opening the fridge door a couple more times, just to make absolutely sure that you can’t somehow magic a carton of milk back into it, so that you won’t have to go to the shop, or wandering round a shop for the third time, sure that that thing you were looking for is really there somewhere, you just haven’t spotted it yet. There is a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein, which defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  How many times do you have to layer up and get a blast of icy wind in your face popping your head out of the igloo to look out for your mate in order for this to become a key concept for you? For me this word represents the triumph of  hope over adversity against all probability, all in the name of fellow feeling. How very mad! How very human!

Iglu 1999-04-02

Beautiful (Mis)translations

Translations are often cited because they are simply so poor they are funny. Alphadictionary.com provides many examples to smirk at like the sign over an information booth in a Chinese railway station which was marked ‘QUESTION AUTHORITY’. Some of these mistranslations acquire almost mythic status. I’m sure this one quoted on the site said to be from a hotel in Yugoslavia has been floating around for a while: THE FLATTENING OF UNDERWEAR WITH PLEASURE IS THE JOB OF THE CHAMBERMAID. For my own part I think it something of a shame to mock these efforts at communication in a second language. Sometimes what seems to be a mistranslation is actually an adoption from a regional dialect. In the manner that someone only too steeped in language learning can, I laughed a bit too heartily at Germans talking about ‘wellness’ before realising that it was an actual Anglo-American industry. Then again, at the bottom of a skyscraper in Shanghai you can find a couple of people waiting to check your credentials before you ascend the lift. They are standing at the:

Yes, the ticket wicket. Funnily ‘ticket wicket’ does not seem to be entirely the idiosyncratic invention of a translator driven mad. At the Standard Portable website you can find ‘ski ticket wickets’ , which can be used for holding a ski pass. It also seems to be used on various other websites in English referring to Japan and Asia for a similar kind of thing as above. There is even a Canadian travel company called ‘Ticket Wicket Travel’. My curiosity is now verily piqued. Is this simply a case of being divided by a common language? If any Canadian, American or maybe Australian can confirm that this term exists in more than Chinglish, that would be greatly appreciated – it is a word that Hiberno-English and British English seems to be sorely lacking. Tickets at the ready. Ticket wicket coming up…

Naming the Wordless

Cheap Carabiners - Hang your Keys off These, but Climb at Your Peril!

Or names for things you did not know had names.  Recently, a friend of mine lost their keys. I asked if it was the set with the silver carabiner. My friend was surprised to learn that the silver hook carried around all these years had a name. If I am honest, I had similarly been searching all these years for an excuse to use the word carabiner. Writing it here in this post I did not even know how to spell it, because I had only ever heard it said once, on a school holiday learning to climb and abseil. I just associated it in my mind with the Caribbean and thought it was a funny word to use for something so functional that could potentially save your life.  I am disappointed now to see that it is spelt nothing like Caribbean, or caribeena, carrebeena, or whatever else might come to mind. Of course, having written all those down, I have now successfully ensured that I will never be able to spell it correctly again either. My Collins dictionary informs me that the word can also in fact be spelt ‘karabiner’. It comes from a German word ‘Karabinerhaken’ or carbine hook, which is a type of hook used to attach a carbine to a belt – a carbine being a type of light rifle. Strangely, the word ‘carbine’ comes from Old French ‘carabin’ which may be a variant form of ‘escarrabin’ or one who prepares corpses for burial. That in turn comes from Latin ‘scarabaeus’, a kind of beetle, it seems. From beetles, to corpses to rifles and life-saving hooks…

However, the interesting thing is not so much the spelling or etymology as the delight my friend had in discovering that an object they had been innocently carrying around nameless and blameless in their pocket for years, had a name. The name makes it functional, socially useful and somehow different from the intriguing clippy piece of metal. I am still pondering the effects of naming something. It obviously tidies something up mentally, but is this at the risk of making it more banal? I thought it might be interesting to explore this empirically, so I have gone on a quest to find names for other things that often go nameless.

It seems that there are quite a number of websites which introduce all the ‘names of things you didn’t know had names’, like this one. Reading the lists I experience a mixture of surprise and indignation that anyone would bother to give such a thing a name or attempt to force me to learn it. On the other hand, some of the names are so enchanting that you wonder why they have been so long neglected. Here are a couple more to ponder:


The small sheath at the end of a shoelace from Old French aiguillette meaning ‘little needle’. Now that makes sense and is also quite endearing methinks. How useful it could be: ‘This lace has no aglet!’ ‘My aglet is broken!’ ‘The lace poking out of the end of the aglet has frayed’.

By Ian W. Fieggen


This is a good one. It means to move unsteadily, feel nausea or to have one’s stomach growl. Particularly useful on a ship if you are going hungry from sea sickness. According to the Collins English Dictionary it’s from the C14 wamelen ‘to feel ill’, which appears to be related to Norwegian vamla meaning ‘to stagger’. It makes me think of the wombles in a new light. Wambling free.  Oh boundless borborygmus! In fact, it seems there is no direct connection between wombles and wambling (wombling aside).  So legend has it, the author of the series of Womble books was walking with her children on Wimbledon Common when one of them referred to it as Wombledon Common. There you have it.

And finally…there is a lovely list of unusual words here and a page of humorous attempts to make use of them here.  But for now, I must leave further inaniloquence to another day.