Warning: Parental Language


As the parent of a girl and a boy, both under five, and both Swedish-English, I’ve discovered at least one area where Swedish, despite its much tinier vocabulary, has the edge over English.

Swedish boys possess a snopp; girls, a snippa. That’s standard, pre-school appropriate terminology. English boys have a ‘willy’, though it sounds slightly silly. Or a ‘pee-pee’, though that strikes me as both twee and kinda American.

But for infant English girls? No, the options are all terrible: Mumsnet, surely the holy gospel and iron fisted authority on such matters, proves it. There are arcane, family-specific codewords. There’s the stuffy ‘fanny’, archaic-sounding and confusing to Americans to boot (I promise, I’ll leave American English out if it now).

Worst of all there are the prurient British circumlocutions, the ‘front bottoms’ and ‘lady bits’. FFS. Dreadful. Those seem to be common currency purely because there is nothing else on offer, but I can’t help but think that it’s a strange to set your child out unable to directly name their own anatomies, only approaching warily, through the sanitizing gauze of euphemism.

Sweden didn’t always have snippa to help out us poor struggling parents of girls. No, snopp for boys has been around since… oh, ages! (Note To Self: more research here plz.) Snippa was a relatively recent development, only popularised as recently as 2000, thanks to Anna Kosztovics, a social worker in Malmö. But it’s already established itself as firmly as its male counterpart. A word, fit for purpose, meeting a need that was introduced without much fuss and quickly established itself as the de facto term.

Sensible, practical, and equitable. About as Swedish as you can get.


Why Am I Reading Bond?


Not ‘why (you should) read Bond’, but ‘why (on earth) am I reading Bond’?

They’re as dated as you might expect. Bond is a terrible spy, mainly achieving his goals by stumbling into coincidences or being invited to work for the villain (at least once once in an admin role, of all things). Dei ex machina all over the place. The sexism and racism are indefensible, a product of another age maybe, but still appalling. So I should have a pretty solid reason for ploughing through the oeuvre, right? If only.

It’s the covers.

Vintage did a great job with these covers, IMHO – and despite what this guy sez – fulfilling their brief of emphasising the “cool and clever nature of Bond” (hmm but ok).  They work brilliantly as a set.

The designs are plain, the typography fantastically inventive – see the negative space jewel in Diamonds Are Forever or On Her Majesty’s “Secret” masked by “Service”. The influence of Saul Bass is clear.

Those covers had leapt out at me when trawling through Foyles, but I only picked up Casino Royale. But then I stumbled across For Your Eyes Only in a second-hand bookshop, and the damage was done. How could I have books 1 and 8 in a series and not fill in the gaps?

They are an easy enough read, a curious window into the post-war English psyche. They’re packed with lavish descriptions of quality clothing, food and drink. The phrase “and a round of hot buttered toast” will be uttered by Bond at least twice per book. God help me, whenever Fleming turns to driving action, I can’t help but hear the words in the golden tones of broadcaster, Alan Partridge.

The hard part is the attitudes of the time. The sexism is cast in that ancient mode of misogyny-masquerading-as-idolatry. The racism is jingoistic, imperialist, Bond looking indulgently down on black people, all Americans, and Italians alike. Fleming uses the fig leaf of tokenism, always an admirable exception, the worthy Turk who nonetheless slips willingly into sidekick-hood.

(There’s no explaining away these two issues, they do leave a bad taste in the mouth. And this shows me how far my completist nature will push me to a) complete a set and b) finish a book I’ve started. Can’t not be done.)

It’s interesting to note how different Fleming’s Bond is from the movie version, how fallible or human he is, crying with relief, getting drunk (his champagne/Benzedrine hangover seems the worst), even giving up and longing for death. To be fair, that last happens after a giant squid attack – so in *some* ways the movies are more realistic.

This is a cartoonish world where the gangsters are named Billy Ring, Jed Midnight, and “Mr Helmut Springer of the Detroit Purple Gang”. It’s baffling how little time separates these often corny tales of derring-do from the complex physiologies and intricate, all-too-plausible plotting of early Le Carré.

Anyways, gotta go, Penguin just dropped a dope set of classic sci-fi covers

Fun with Swedish Particle Verbs

It can be literally a living hell, having no-one to nerd out with, in my amateurish way, about grammar and linguistics. My girlfriend is helping me learn Swedish, which is great – far and away the best way to become fluent in a language, right?

But whenever I realise something fascinating about English phrasal verbs and launch into an extended monologue about the equivalent Swedish particle verbs, her eyes glaze over, and then I realise she stopped listening to me before I even got onto how my current fave Swedish PV is the elaborate att ifrågasätta, to doubt/question – literally “to in-question-set”. Ace!

Dutch is littered with verbs like that, and they’re usually separable. The preposition part and the verb part of the infinitive come right apart. (She knows all about this too, so at this point she’ll usually turn up the volume on the TV.) For example, aangeven, to indicate (lit. “to on-give”) gives you:
Vergeet niet om aan te geven (Don’t forget to indicate)
Zij gaf aan dat ze klaar was (She indicated that she was ready)

That made a lot of sense to me, as an English speaker, and the way those Dutch verbs separated felt natural. Now of course, I keep trying to do the same thing to Swedish verbs, and guess what? They don’t do the separating. Not so much. Att påpeka, to point at (lit. “to at-point”) gives you jag påpekar huset (“I point at the house”) or han påpekade det (“he pointed at it”) but trying to separate the verb creates an entirely different meaning. (Jag pekar huset på = I point out the house.)

Anyways, the fun of these phrasal verbs – and I’ll often have to shout this above the whirr of her electric toothbrush – is working out how that combo of preposition + simple verbs combines. Sometimes it’s similar to the English sense, but others you really have to reach for. Now I can keep them separate when the meaning seems clear or logical:

  • att pågå = to go on (lit. “to on-go”)
  • att påstå = to claim/state (“to on-stand”)
  • att uppstå = to arise/result (“to up-stand”)
  • att uppleva = to experience (“to upp-live”)

By this point, she might be reading a book in bed, but it will be clear that it’s not really holding her attention, so I’ll explain exactly why I keep getting confused between avgöra and anföra. Why would “off-do” mean determine, and why’s that so similar to “on-bring”, which means command or quote?

Then when the light goes out, I’ll reassure her that no doubt these things will come with practice. And I’ll soothingly recite all the Swedish particle verbs I can think of, and their English meaning and literal translations, until she drifts off to sleep.


EDIT 14-08-10: As my GF was good enough to point out, påpeka means “point at” and not “point out”…

Death to the Comma (Dath to _)

Barker_The Forbidden

So it’s been doing the rounds over the past week or so, Prof John McWhorter’s contention that the humble comma could sling its hook and perish, without any of us feeling any adverse effects. After all, some people don’t use commas when they tweet. (People skip a lot of stuff in tweets. Things they don’t always use include: full stops; spaces between words; the letters “aughing y ss ff” w.r.t. the phrase LMAO; and basic common decency when addressing other human beings. But let’s gloss over that for the moment.)

Of course it’s a wonderful idea to do away with the comma. It’s elegant effective and definitely doesn’t make you sound like you’re talking in a manic rush but why stop there?

The letter E is so omnipresent in English that you have to wonder how many humanity hours could be saved by eliminating its use from the language. Yes some words would look “strang” at least at first but if you’re struggling to make sense of a word all you have to do is reinsert letter Es at every point where your comprehension breaks down.

It’s rally a marvllous ida and on that I could nvr hv arrivd at myslf without having bn shown th way by th prcptiv and groundbraking work of Profssor McWhortr.

Infinite Jest: You’re Not Kidding

Currently ploughing my way through the aptly-titled “Infinite Jest”, by the late and ever so lamented David Foster Wallace. The book was published in 1996, when Wallace was 33, and it does seem a fittingly superhuman effort for such a talented writer’s “Jesus year”.

At over a thousand pages, it’s an absolute beast, but – at 33% of the way through, at least – even though descriptions of tennis matches and rehab procedures go on for scores of pages at a time, it’s consistently entertaining and flat out funny. No mean feat.

The dramatis personae, if there were one, would rival any installment of “A Song of Ice and Fire”. And it’s riddled with footnotes, many of which have footnotes of their own, and some of which would be chapters in their own right in a lesser work.

And so but then that’s why I’m so glad to be reading the thing on a Kindle. Say what you will, but the ability to hop back and forth between footnotes, manage multiple bookmarks, and look up definitions, is a fricken godsend. Wallace littered the work with highly technical physiological, pharmacological, and architectural terms, plus archaicisms and neologisms (dictionary of limited help there).

In fact, the vast majority of my dictionary highlights are now courtesy of IJ. So here are some of the best… thus far:

adit n. a horizontal passage leading into a mine for the purposes of access or drainage. Origin: early 17th century: from Latin aditus ‘approach, entrance’. [WB – no, he wasn’t describing a mine.]

aetiologic (US etiologic) pertaining to sense 2: the investigation or attribution of the cause or reason for something, often expressed in terms of historical or mythical explanation. Origin: mid 16th century: via medieval Latin from Greek aitiologia, from atia ‘a cause’ + -logia

afflatus n. FORMAL a divine creative impulse or inspiration. Origin: mid 17th century: from Latin, from the verb afflare, from ad- ‘to’ + flare ‘to blow’.

apotropaic adj. supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck. Origin: late 19th century: from Greek apotropaios ‘averting evil’, from apotrepein ‘turn away from’ + -IC

bazoo n. (pl. bazoos) US INFORMAL 1 a person’s mouth. 2 a person’s bottom. Origin: late 19th century: of unknown origin; compare with Dutch bazuin ‘trombone, trumpet’. [WB – I don’t quite recall whether this was sense 1 or 2.]

doit n. [in sing.] ARCHAIC a very small amount of money. Origin: late 16th century: from Middle Low German doyt, Middle Dutch duit, or unknown origin.

[WB – or was it the following?]

doited adj. SCOTTISH ARCHAIC having the faculties impaired, especially by age. Origin: late Middle English: perhaps an alteration of doted.

ephebe n. (in Ancient Greece) a young man of 18-10 years undergoing military training. Origin: via Latin from Greek ephēbos, from epi ‘near to’ + hēbē ‘early manhood’.

And that’s just A-E! I tells ya, looking up so many words makes me feel like a doited ephebe. But I’m armed and ready for a few games of Words With Friends. Just imagine, dropping some afflatus over a double double word score…

Decisions, Decisions

So in editing the 96 Girls stories (which BTW I’m thinking now maybe should probably be 96 Women) I’m past halfway, and have just come to the story written in Dutch, Het Meisje van de Windmolen (“The Girl from the Windmill”).

The quandary is, when I put these stories together, do I include the translation, just below the original? Or do I leave the translation posted online, so that you have to come out of the book to work out what the flip the Dutch story is about? (Unless you’re one of the very few people, globally-speaking, that speaks Dutch.)

The nice thing about translating from Dutch to English? Easy to do without screwing up the wordcount.

Here’s the English translation, FWIW:

Once upon a time there was a girl who lived in a windmill. She was tall with long blonde hair.

But she had a problem: there was no wind!

She asked the fieldmice for help. But they didn’t understand and they ate up all her cheese.

She asked the farmer’s son for help, but he only wanted to kiss the girl.

“Silly boy,” she said (but she fucked him anyway).

Finally she wound her hair around the blades and pulled and pulled and pulled, until – success! – the blades span again. And she lived happily ever after.

Speech vs. Talk

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, said Dr Johnson, and I’ve always agreed with the harmless old drudge. The one thing that does make me somewhat (guarded, reservedly, apologetically) proud of my nationality, however, is the English language.

It’s a mongrel tongue that spliced its Germanic roots with Norman French, topped up with Latin and Greek derivatives, and then seasoned liberally with imports from languages as far apart as Hebrew and Hindi.

One of its strengths is the elasticity of its syntax, something that lends it immense poetic flexibility. Or flexibly immense poetry. Something along those lines.

But the best thing about English, to my mind, is its vast vocabulary. Folk like to claim that it has the largest vocabulary of any world language – that might not be the whole picture, but let’s roll with it for a moment. I mean, c’mon, the OED lists over 250,000 words (compare to 100,000 in French).

It’s this extensive lexemic repository that means an attractive girl could be beautiful, cute, fine, fit, foxy, gorgeous, lovely, pretty, pulchritudinous, sexy, smokin’, and/or voluptuous – or that she could be described in some of those terms yet somehow not in the others.

And how to delineate the boundaries between two seemingly identical words? Talk and speak, say. One can talk or speak a language, one can speak or talk to or with friends, and of course one is equally capable of giving a talk or a speech.

How about this:

SPEECH is impassioned, emotive, declamatory, rousing, heartfelt.
TALK is informative, reasoned, intimate, enlightening, intelligent.

One is performance, the other conversation. You speak someone’s language, but an idiom is the way that you talk…

These are arbitrary distinctions, becoming more arbitrary as I type, and the more I attempt to define these terms, the more you will disagree. Words are anchors of meaning, and the sense of how they should be deployed cuts to the core of our understanding of everything… no?