Saturday, 31 December 2005

Happy Nouvelle Année!

When terseness is called for the French can be extremely, well, terse; there are examples HERE and HERE. But they can also express themselves in a way which would sound ridiculously flowery and over the top in English, but doesn’t, somehow, in French.
Here is part of an email received this week from a French friend called Claire. She apologised for sending it out to 62 addresses ("Bon, je sais, les mails communs, c'est pas très cool"), but excused this on the grounds that she was about to leave for three weeks in Vietnam and hadn’t packed and, besides, she thought it wasn't so wrong to package her good wishes "pour vous qui avez un point commun: moi!". Claire also confessed that she hadn’t composed it herself, but had received it from a friend last year.
Anyway, we loved it:
Je vous souhaite à tous, et à tous ceux qui vous sont chers, des bonheurs qui tiennent dans la poche, comme des grands qui nécessitent un A380 (plein de petits, ça fait un tas d'A380...); je vous souhaite la santé qui vous permette de marcher, de chanter, de courir et de profiter; je vous souhaite la prospérité pour rendre la vie un peu plus simple; je vous souhaite des amis, des vrais, des qui tiennent chaud l'hiver et sont toujours là l'été; je vous souhaite une famille, qu'on vous l'ait donnée ou que vous l'ayez choisie; je vous souhaite des rêves, des projets, des espoirs, avec plein de concrétisations derrière, et puis des rêves qu'on ne réalise pas forcément mais qui restent dans un coin de la tête, longtemps; je vous souhaite de vivre, de ne pas perdre de temps, de prendre et de donner, parce qu'on peut quitter le jeu n'importe quand; je vous souhaite des bonnes nouvelles, des sourires et des fous rires; je vous souhaite d'avoir toujours "assez de musique dans votre coeur pour faire danser votre vie".
Prenez soin de vous et que la vie vous soit douce.
Bonne année 2006 et plein de bisous, à chacun d'entre vous.

[A380 is the 555-seat Airbus]

I append a version in Babelfish English. As a translation this is fairly pathetic, but it does have a certain mystic charm and will serve as my own New Year message to everyone:
Wish you with all, and all those which are expensive to you, of happinesses which hold in the pocket, as the large ones which requires A380 (full with small, that made a heap of A380...); I wish you the health which enables you to go, to sing, run and profit; I wish you prosperity to make the life a little simpler; I wish you friends, truths, which hold hot the winter and are the summer always there; I wish you a family, that it be given to you or that you chose it; I wish you dreams, projects, hopes, with full with concretizations behind, and then dreams which one does not carry out inevitably but which remains in a corner of the head, a long time; I wish you food, not to waste time, to take and give, because one can leave the play any time; I wish you good news, smiles and insane laughter; I wish you to have always "enough music in your heart to make dance your life". Take care of you and that the life is soft for you. Good year 2006 and full with kisses, with each one among you.

Wednesday, 28 December 2005


There is a website devoted to the "Spenser" novels by the American author Robert B. Parker. Spenser is described as "the most attractive and resourceful private investigator since Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe" but for Los Angeles read Boston.
The site was created by Mike Loux many years ago and has been carried on by Bob Ames since 1999. It is vast in scope and includes an Annotated Gumshoe section in which the devoted authors have attempted to locate the source of every allusion—and there are a huge number—in the books.
There was one which they were unable to identify and for ten years they have been inviting visitors to the site to provide them with the answer; the reference occurs in three of the books and is clearly the punch line of a joke—but what was the joke? I haven't read any of the books but when I came across the website I realised that I actually knew the joke and was very happy to end their search. This is it.

Monday, 26 December 2005

Following her around

I am in general much less than fascinated by the world of nature and not an avid reader of Country Diaries and the like, but my interest was held by a note in the Guardian about a project for tracking a 2m long female leatherback turtle by means of a satellite device. I do hope she gets safely back to Dingle, Co Kerry, after her current migration to some tropical coast where she will lay eighty eggs every ten days for two months.

Saturday, 24 December 2005

Season's Greetings

"Look, if it means having to wear this stupid hat then I say the hell with Christmas."

And grandfathers don't have much choice either.
I do possess a rather spectacular false nose which I was urged to wear but I didn't because it made me look rather silly.

And forget the reindeer: it's a sign of the times that nowadays Father Christmas has to be preceded by three heavies.

Thursday, 22 December 2005

Ho ho ho, indeed

This crook was conned into dressing himself up like this, which took up time he would otherwise have spent sending out scam emails.
[419 Eater]

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Naming the relatives

I often reflect on the richness of our language compared with others, and enjoy irritating those who do not have it as their mother tongue by going on about it. Not only do we have vast numbers of synonyms which aren't really synonyms at all because they have subtly different connotations, but we have many words (nice, home...) the precise meanings of which simply cannot be conveyed in some world languages.

But the sociologist and columnist Anne Karpf, in an essay entitled "What do you call your step-grandson's ex?" reminds us that some languages of less than world stature are, in one field at least, ahead of us:
[People] talk of the nuclear or minimal family...but our sphere of connectivity has widened rather than contracted with the increase in divorce and second marriage. Even if the bonds are mainly dutiful (the guilt-tripping great-aunt, the first cousin's sulky teenage daughter) or even negative, in some sense they're how we position ourselves in the world.
The trouble is that, compared with other cultures, we lack the words to describe them. [The Sudanese have] eight different terms for "cousin" depending on how you're related. Nor will plain old "uncle" do. Instead, they distinguish linguistically between the father's brother and the mother's brother...
... Latin has a word for living with a mother's brother (which translates clumsily as avunculocality), and another for living with a father's sister (amitalocality). In India your husband's brother's wife is charmingly called your co-sister...
...To my mind the most serious absence is a word describing the relationship between two sets of in-laws... Here Yiddish comes into its own with mekhuteneste... It's no accident that the cultures that have a term for your son or daughter's in-laws (the Greeks call them symbetheros, in Spanish consuegros) are those that recognise this as a significant relationship extending beyond an annually shared sherry trifle.
So when I next complain about the length of my Christmas shopping list I shall remind myself that it expresses bonds and affinities without which I would be the poorer (although, at this time of year, obviously also the richer). Yiddish, naturally, has a word for it, one that expresses both affection and resigned irritation. Mishpokhe means family, including the most remote kin.

Anna McColl, in a piece on the Random House website covers similar ground in more detail, saying that English is notoriously poor in kinship terms:
...In English, the sex of nearer kinfolk is important: mother/father; sister/brother; aunt/uncle. In Malay, however, the age is the primary distinction; there are different terms for elder (brother/sister/cousin) and younger (brother/sister/cousin), but there's just one generic word for a sibling or cousin. Likewise, until the nineteenth century Hungarian had terms for older sibling or younger sibling but no word for 'brother' or 'sister'... ...Latin had separate terms for 'father's brother', 'father's sister', 'mother's brother', and 'mother's sister', but modern Romance languages have reduced this to two terms for 'aunt' and 'uncle'. In Njamal, an Australian Aboriginal language, a man can use the same term for 'father's father' and 'daughter's son's wife's sister', the important distinction being that both are two generations away. Some Native American languages have different words for 'sister (of a man)' and 'sister (of a woman)'

[And in Japanese, men's speech is different from young women's speech, while in Greek, the sister of the father of Carlos is the translation of what they called their production of "Charlie's Aunt". However, I'm not at all sure that these footnotes are relevant to this topic. Or to anything, really]

Monday, 19 December 2005

Who the hell are Betty and Fred?

Christmas cards are such a lovely way of renewing old friendships!

Sunday, 18 December 2005

Goodwill to all men, for four weeks only

At this time of year, if you repel chuggers they may hit you with: "But it's Christmas!"

From an essay by Nicholas Fearn in The Guardian...the plight of the poor and needy is no worse at Christmas than at any other time...There is something profoundly mistaken in our acceptance that morality can take the form of a holiday. After all, the real holiday here is the 11 months of the year when it is more or less acceptable to look after number one, yet no-one talks of an extended "season of selfishness"...
...If there is such a thing as a season of goodwill that begins officially on a certain day, ushered in by a wave of televised celebrity appeals for charity, there must of necessity be another day, some time between Christmas Day and New Year, when all this comes to an official end. We wait in vain for newsreaders to announce the relaxation of festive requirements and a return to our default stinginess...
...Christmas is not the only manifestation of our irrational observance of "seasons": for example, you shouldn't make someone cry on their birthday; you should be especially kind to your partner on Valentine's Day; annoying people is fine on April Fools' Day, as is terrorising them at Halloween...
...The Season of Goodwill does more than merely highlight the lack of fellow feeling that is the norm throughout the rest of the year, it also works to make it permissible. The question of how much we should give to those less fortunate than ourselves does not have an easy answer, but as to whether we should make December a special time of giving, the answer is certainly "no".

Friday, 16 December 2005

419 Eater

Last February I posted a note about the now famous website of a man who works hard—and has a lot of fun—in wasting the time of the crooks who are still making millions from internet scams. It is extraordinary that there are so many people with money who are stupid and greedy enough to believe that the widow of a Nigerian cabinet minister only needs a bit of help from them to get hold of her $120 million inheritance and that she will let them keep 20% of it for their trouble.

I had another look at the website the other day and it is still going strong. The scam-baiter who publishes it has stopped using his skill to con money from the con-men because although they richly deserve to be cheated there are legal risks even if you are giving the money to charity. He has developed a variety of approaches by email and telephone which give the scammers hope that their appeal is going to be successful and then leads them on to make expensive phone calls and compose long emails before they realise—or he tells them—that they have been fooled.

In a recent example, the scambaiter didn’t really want to be bothered with one scammer so he just replied to the first email by telling him that he was a liar. However this scammer wasn’t put off and returned with further lies, which has led to a very lengthy and enjoyable correspondence. The scammer was persuaded to have himself tattooed and to send a photograph with the promise of a large grant from a fictional charitable foundation.
This all began early in October and in mid-November he was still making every effort to carry out the increasingly difficult tasks being set him.

The account of all this is illustrated with the photos sent in by the scammer, in which he looks a harmless lad, but do not feel sorry for him. The scammers browbeat others into having their photos used; they themselves are evil and sometimes violent men. One particularly despicable trick they pull is to appeal for funds to aid victims of some major disaster.

When they spend time responding to spoofs that means that they are distracted from other attempts to rob gullible people, so tricking them is a praiseworthy activity. However, this salutary website warns that it can be a dangerous game and calls for great care to avoid getting into a nasty situation.

Wednesday, 14 December 2005


I used to think this was a silly word, but after glancing through some current glossy supplements I realise that is a necessary one as it accurately describes a modern phenomenon. The parallelism of food and sex, of course, has always been obvious, but nowadays they have become comparable also in the sense that the depiction of both is a major source of obscene material for the media and the internet.

This was not always the case; food writing often used to be of literary as well as practical value, but since Elizabeth David's day illustration has taken over, as if a full-page colour picture of an avocado is interesting or informative.

And the accompanying text is always profoundly depressing. Last weekend one food supplement alone featured the gratuitous information that stripper Dita Von Teese likes asparagus and lobster after she's done her show at the Café de Paris (and did you know that nipple covers are known as pasties in the trade?), that pomegranates are the latest thrilling wonderfood from Beverly Hills to Brighton, that sheeps' lungs, boiled and inflated, are a big thing with the Uyghurs of Kashgar (Xinjiang) and that one supermarket this Christmas is offering a Four-Bird Roast—a deboned goose stuffed with deboned turkey, guinea fowl and the breasts from two ducks. A snip at £200, as it serves fifteen and is a doddle to carve.

Those who can't afford this, as they have already joined with a friend to pool their Pensioner's Winter Heating Allowances and share a £400 bottle of the Glenlivet Cellar Collection 1972, can make their own multi-bird roast by following the recipe given in the same supplement by some double-barrelled fool: you start with a goose stuffed into a turkey then, he says re-assuringly, you don't need all the smaller birds to be different: you can use, say, three pheasants and five pigeons.

All that is crude and vulgar pornography.

There was once a Persian imam who ordered his cooks to stuff an olive inside a lark, that inside a chicken, that inside a peacock, that inside a sheep, and finally that inside a camel.. The whole was rubbed with rare herbs and spices by sloe-eyed virgins and then cooked for five days on a cedar-wood fire while classical dastgâh music was played by two hundred musicians.Then the imam fed the flesh to his dogs and ate the olive.

Now that was style.

Monday, 12 December 2005

I meant "generous"

I mentioned some time ago that comments on anything written in Other Men's Flowers are welcome, especially those that consist entirely of fulsome praise, but I have now discovered that this was the wrong word to use.
According to The Guardian stylebook, the word means "cloying, excessive, disgusting by excess..., so fulsome praise should not be used in a complimentary sense". The OED gives six obsolete meanings and only one which is not: "Now chiefly used in reference to gross or excessive flattery, over-demonstrative affection, or the like", and a modern Collins dictionary has "Excessive or insincere, esp in an offensive or distasteful way".
That is not at all what I had in mind.

I noticed that on the same page in the stylebook is the entry for fuck. This merely covers a rather piffling aspect by advising "Do not describe this as a good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon word, because, first, there is no such thing as an Anglo-Saxon word (they spoke Old English) and, more important, its first recorded use dates from 1278".
Elsewhere in the stylebook, under swearwords, there is a typically laid-back piece recommending caution, while noting that The Guardian is more liberal in this matter than any other newspaper, and that asterisks are a cop-out and should not be used.
I am rather proud that I contributed part of one of the entries in this stylebook (not an entry referring to the above).

Saturday, 10 December 2005

Paper chase

Sunday newspapers nowadays are substantial affairs, and only a very devoted reader (or an extremely idle person) can make more than a token effort to read a high proportion of their content.
We take two, and the following is a typical load, weighing 4½ lb, that comes through our letterbox with a thump:
Two main sections (broadsheet, totalling 62 pages)
Two sports sections (broadsheet, totalling 46 pages)
Two travel sections (tabloid, totalling 56 pages)
Two review sections (broadsheet, totalling 36 pages)
Music Monthly (glossy tabloid, 86 pages)
Two business sections (broadsheet, totalling 26 pages)
Comic (tabloid, 12 pages)
Two colour supplements (glossy tabloids, totalling 230 pages)
Money (1 broadsheet, 1 tabloid, totalling 30 pages)
Home (tabloid, 48 pages)
Driving (tabloid, 32 pages)
Books, films, theatre, TV (tabloid, 88 pages)
Appointments (broadsheet, 14 pages)
Style (glossy tabloid, 100 pages)
…and another 40 or so pages of advertising supplements

For me, the Sunday task is lightened somewhat by the fact that I have no interest at all in sport, jobs, property, gardening, mortgages, cars, pop music, fashion or the funnies, so that of the 906 pages listed above about 400 can go straight into the recycling box without even being unfolded. And of course much of the text of the remaining sections need not be read as it is of little interest, being written only to fill the spaces between the advertisements.
Even so, it is usually Wednesday or Thursday before the chore is finished. This leaves little time to get to grips with our daily paper, the Saturday edition of which has also now become a pile of print almost as monstrous.The only weeks I can really keep up with the newspapers are those when I go to London: the train takes an hour and forty minutes each way.

Thursday, 8 December 2005

Stand by for combat

Last Tuesday I spent half an hour in the Strangers Gallery of the House of Commons behind the new glass screen which has been fitted to discourage the throwing into the chamber of paper darts, toilet rolls, bombs, etc., and listened to some less than thrilling replies to questions about about the new quangos being set up to reduce the number and cost of quangos (or something like that).
I had to be in the Palace of Westminster on that day for a reason quite unconnected with parliament, and of course everyone is telling me that I was unlucky not to have been there yesterday when the new Leader of the Opposition faced the PM for the first time.
I must say that I am unable to share the feeling of happy anticipation (among the media) about the prospect of exciting exchanges at Prime Minister’s Question Time now that (they say) TB’s new opponent is fractionally less dreary than any of those he has had in recent years. This may well be true, though hardly likely to fill us with a resolve not to miss anything these two repellent characters may say to each other.
We may well merely feel, as we did at the time of the Al Fayed/Hamilton legal battle, that it's such a pity that they can’t both lose.

Tuesday, 6 December 2005

The height of sybaritism

Our house is comfortable enough, but outstandingly so in only one respect. We have a luxury, particularly valuable during cold spells, which is rarely to be found, I imagine, even in the homes of the most privileged: by chance rather than by design, a loo roll holder is mounted immediately over a radiator, so that the paper that comes off it is warm.

Sunday, 4 December 2005

Must 'ave civil words, Bill

"Civil words!" cried the girl, whose passion was frightful to see. "Civil words, you villain! Yes, you deserve 'em from me. I thieved for you when I was a child not half as old as this!" pointing to Oliver. "I have been in the same trade, and in the same service, for twelve years since. Don't you know it? Speak out! Don't you know it?"

Fagin was right, of course, we must have them. English is rich in civil words for uncivil things: there is a list here of “minced oaths” (words or phrases used to avoid swearing: Blimey!). There are also lists of phrases in other sub-groups, including: Popular Fallacies, Biblical, Shakespeare, Misheard Song Lyrics and Made in the USA (e.g. Full as an Alabama tick). You can look up euphemisms generally in a Phrase Dictionary which provides an A-Z index. All these riches and many more are to be found in The Phrase Finder, one of those websites where you drop in for a quick browse and then realise after a bit that it’s 3am.

Friday, 2 December 2005

A fondly remembered name

You can tell just by looking at the photo that here is a boring, conceited, talentless prat, can’t you?
His name is Nicholas Parsons. He hasn’t been on television for a while and I was surprised, though not wildly excited, to see that he is still around; in an interview for one of the colour supplements the other day he revealed that he is having 35 of his suits sold on eBay for charity and “with my name on them they go for more”. He takes the Tube sometimes and “I’m not self-conscious, even when people start nudging each other and talking about me”. I suppose he imagines they’re saying “Look! There’s Nicholas Parsons, the famous actor and star of radio and TV!”, whereas of course they’re actually saying “Look! There’s that boring, conceited, talentless prat who used to be on the telly”.
But thanks to the Two Ronnies, his name will not be forgotten. They claimed to have found one of his admirers, and the joint opening announcement of one of their shows was:

Good evening, it’s great to be back again, isn’t it?

Yes indeed, and in a packed programme tonight I interview a lady who likes Nicholas Parsons…

…and I interview a parson who likes knickerless ladies…