Friday, 31 December 2010

Perplexing placenames

English placenames and surnames can sometimes be frustrating for the uninitiated, as Prof Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld discovered in the third book of the von Igelfeld trilogy, At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances, written by Alexander McCall Smith. Whilst working as a visiting fellow at Cambridge University, he is completely mystified when he is introduced to the Chairman of the Fellows’ Committee, Dr ‘Plank’:

“I should warn you that you will not find Dr Plank’s name in any college lists should you try to look for it,” remarked Dr Wood, “and that is not because he is not a member of the college.”

Then Plank spoke. “The reason why there’s no Plank in the lists is not because there’s no Plank – there is – but because Plank is not spelled ‘Plank’. That is why.

“You may be aware that there are various English surnames which are spelled and pronounced in quite different ways. One of the best-known examples is ‘Featherstonehaugh’, which is pronounced ‘Fanshawe’. Then there is ‘Cholmondley’, which is simply pronounced ‘Chumley’, and of course anybody called ‘Beauchamp’ is usually ‘Beecham’.

“So how do you spell ‘Plank’?” asked Mathew Gureswitch.

“Haughland,” said Plank.

Von Igelfeld could not conceal his astonishment. Haughland?’

Of course, this is preposterous. McCall Smith is simply highlighting one of the more interesting vagaries of the English language. Placenames can be just as problematic as surnames. Most people, for example, will know that Greenwich, known for its meridian, isn’t pronounced “Green Witch” but “Gren-itch”.

But what about Alnwick and Northwich? Here are some placenames in the United Kingdom which have non-intuitive pronunciations. Can you guess their pronunciations?


Answers below (approximate pronunciations):

Aldeburgh } Awl - bro
Happisburgh } Haze - burra
Hawarden } Har - den
Hereford } Herry - fud
Kingussie } Kin - youssy
Kirkcudbright } Ker – coo – bree
Leominster } Lemster
Milngavie } Mul - guy
Towcester } Toaster
Wymondham } Wind -um

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Home truths

I’d been putting it off for ages. Home improvements have always made me feel nervous and emotionally vulnerable. More to the point, major renovations invariably cost an arm and a leg, so there are the financial considerations as well. However, when my veranda roof started to leak in the summer, I knew it was time to take the plunge. When it comes to DIY, I’m all fingers and thumbs, and even from the modest heights of a veranda roof  I suffer from vertigo, so I got on to the builder straightaway.

When my joiner came to look over my veranda, I had a rough idea of how much I wanted to splash out. I listened carefully as he explained all the pros and cons and the various options available to ensure my roof would keep me dry for the next two decades. Even opting for the solution that most closely suited my pocket, that is, using cheaper materials and methods, would still add an extra 50% to my ballpark figure. At the back of my mind, I flirted with the idea of using someone cheaper, but of course, there’d be no guarantees about quality. In the end, I plumped for a more expensive alternative, not least because it was the most durable solution. More than anything, it would settle my shaky home-improvement nerves and give me peace of mind.

The same cost-benefit principles are not solely restricted to the world of home improvements of course, they are pretty well universal. The principle of cutting one’s coat to suit one’s cloth applies just as equally in the translation business too. I suppose it depends on how the principles are applied.

To reduce my costs to a bare minimum, I could have decided to embark on the roofing work myself, but the time and effort - not to mention the stress - would have precluded me from doing anything economically productive. I might know the basics of how to cut with a saw or wield a paintbrush, but it doesn’t mean I have the years of training and experience to use them effectively. And to be quite honest, I would have made a complete botch job of it. Ultimately, the best and cheapest solution would be to employ a professional who’s trained and qualified to do the job, even though it might seem expensive at the time. This division of labour is a basic economic truism: I buy bread from a baker because I'm pretty useless at baking and I employ an accountant because he's much better with figures than I am. 

Sadly, when it comes to translation work, some people in business seem to think they can defy these fundamental laws of economic interdependence and take it upon themselves to do the work themselves. 
Not long ago, I was asked to give a quote for a translation job. I sent them my normal, bog-standard industry rates, only to be told by the prospective client that they were “over the odds”. Some weeks later I was contacted by the same client asking if I could revise the text they’d had translated into English themselves using … wait for it … Google Translate.  Of course, it was completely unintelligible and the subsequent costs of the revision ended up being greater than the original quote!
Another imaginative enquirer who was intent on slashing their costs told me they were unwilling to pay for highly repetitive words like “the” and “and”. Okay, I said, no problem, I’ll just leave every word of three letters or less out of the final text and you can figure out where to put them in afterwards. That would be like telling my roofer not to bother with the 200 screws or so that held down the roof, I’ll fix that myself. It would be just my hard luck if the roof panels flew off in a sudden gust of wind....
Needless to say, I never took on the translation job.

I’m sure there are examples in other service industries where a cheapskate attitude to other professions prevails. Myself, I’ve seen enough shoddy translations to know that we translators are particularly susceptible to a downgrading of our professional appreciation.

Oh well,  whilst companies are losing valuable foreign business on account of their short-sighted vision, I can at least go to bed at night safe in the knowledge that my veranda will be dry for a long while to come.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Gedogen: he who pays the piper calls the tune

Together, the regeerakkoord and the gedoogakkoord make up the coalition pact drawn up by three parties in the newly formed Netherlands’ government. The ‘agreements’ have been struck between the Liberals (VVD), the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) after many months of bargaining and bartering. Whilst the concept of a regeerakkoord ( coalition agreement) is more easily grasped, the term gedoogakkoord is more difficult to fathom. The reason is that gedogen is one of those archetypal Dutch words which, at worst, is untranslatable and, at best, is open to an assortment of interpretations.

The Dutch-English Van Dale dictionary’s definition of the word is ‘to tolerate’, in context: een aantal kamerleden gedoogt deze regering, which it translates into English as ‘a number of members of the house are tolerating this government’, which just sounds a bit too clumsy. Nevertheless, depending on the situation, the word can express many moods, from positive to negative, though in Dutch usage it generally conveys the latter. A gedoogzone voor tippelprostitutie, for example, is an area where ‘streetwalking’ is permitted. Drugs policy in the Netherlands is one of passive tolerance: gedoogbeleid. In other words, the authorities turn a blind eye to an activity which - by the standards of the day - is generally unacceptable, but which is otherwise considered a necessary evil in the interests of law and order. 

The political gedoogakkoord is an agreement designed to keep a minority government in power, in this case the VVD-CDA coalition, which has the implicit support of the PVV: together the three parties have a one-seat majority in parliament. This means that Geert Wilders gives his blessing to bills tabled by the two government parties which meet his approval. As such, the gedoogakkoord can best be translated as a ‘policy of tacit support’. But who exactly is supporting who? Is the PVV simply propping up the government? An opposition party leader in this week’s debate on the new government’s declaration put it this way: de VVD-CDA coalitie regeert, maar de PVV regisseert. In other words, the tail is wagging the dog.

So does ‘tolerate’ mean the same as ‘support’? Some would say the term gedoogsteun – a combination of the words gedogen (tolerate) and steun (support) - is paradoxical. Jan Kluitenbrouwer, in his column in Onze Taal (the Dutch linguists’ magazine), refers to the term as an oxymoron (where words of a contradictory meaning are used in conjunction). Geert Wilders actually has to give his active support to keep the VVD-CDA coalition in power, so he can hardly be said to be ‘tolerating’ or ‘looking the other way’ when it comes to voting on something which he finds acceptable or not. And who exactly is tolerating and supporting who? It could be said that the two government parties are there to keep Geert Wilders in power, so the gedoogsteun actually works in his favour.  

It’s all very confusing and all very Dutch. Whilst a minority administration in Scotland, for example, run by the Scottish Nationalists seems to get by on a bill-by-bill basis - without the need for the tacit support of any one particular party - the Dutch Liberal and Christian Democrat parties have made a conscious decision to seek out the ‘toleration’ of the controversial Geert Wilders and his right-wing PVV party to stay in power.
Toleration or support, who knows where this new Dutch government is going?

My guess is it will all end in tears.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Botch job

On the ferry home from the UK last week, I picked up a brochure published by a Dutch quango* called De Verkeersonderneming. It provided information on height restrictions for heavy goods vehicles on certain roads in the Netherlands, particularly those with low-clearance bridges and tunnels. Important information you would think for foreign drivers and freight forwarders using the motorway network in the country. The text had been written in Dutch and English, but was specifically targeted at an international audience. is a slick website and the agency has likewise gone to great lengths working on the design, layout and printing of the brochure. So you would have thought that the very least they would do was arrange for a professional English translation, written in clear and concise language. Instead they seem to have found someone within their ranks whose translating skills are inferior even to Google Translate. Just take a look [my comments in square brackets] ...

Stop! You have been detected and are too high! You cannot proceed!

Frequently (international) trucks are too high for the tunnels and viaducts in the Netherlands
[a comma after frequently would make all the difference]. According to the European and Dutch rules and regulations, the maximum height for trucks is 4 meters (13,12 ft.) including load [basic error of not using a decimal point here, and the use of inches would have been even better!]. If necessary, it is possible to receive exemption for higher transportation [why not just 'vehicles'?]

When a too high vehicle a vehicle approaches a tunnel
[‘too high’ must go in front of the indefinite article], the traffic light [plural better] will immediately give a red sign [signal not sign]. The truck, as well as the traffic behind the truck, are being put to a stop [just clumsy English]. This causes unnecessary congestions [plural not possible] and avoidable disadvantages for the district and the transportation sector [what they are trying to convey here is that damage to the infrastructure will have negative repercussions for the regional economy and the transport industry, but this is just bad English]. Also consider: trucks with “clapping sails” [this is just funny: what they mean is flapping tarpaulin] are potential causers of damage in tunnels.
Damage in tunnels and viaducts caused by trucks that are too high can add up to an amount of more than € 150.000
[use of decimal point instead of comma to separate thousands: this is almost unforgivable]. Satisfaction for the damage is to be sustained from the responsible party [Perhaps by satisfaction they mean schadenfreude??]. Additional fines (up to € 750,00) [not again!] can be applied for trucks that are too high [and they don’t mean ‘Additional fines’, but ‘Additionally, fines ....’].

The text, the full and original version of which can be found here, continues in much the same vein. It’s a real shame when an organisation makes an effort for its end-product to look good, only to be let down in this case by sloppy language. The text is ambiguous at the best of times even for native-English readers, leave alone the many Eastern European drivers who ply the continent these days. What makes it worse here is that it is a information brochure published by a government-sponsored agency who should know better than to produce such an amateurish translation. There's a lesson here for others.
* quango = quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation  

Saturday, 24 July 2010


I've just arrived back from a 3-week holiday in Japan (more of which can be read about here). One thing that struck me on my travels was the curious relationship that the country has with the English language. The bookshops have metres and metres of shelves devoted to English-language learning, yet English seems to be an enigma to most of its population. Just some examples of the bizarre use of English I spotted en route were Jolly Pasta (an Italian restaurant); Stationery Life (an office equipment store - good job it wasn't stationary); and Human & Heart (a dating agency). Another oddball phrase I saw on an advertising hoarding was “Now, life is living you”. Grammatically correct, but what’s it supposed to mean?

I spent another day T-shirt spotting and espied various bizarre texts emblazoned across the wearers' fronts. How about Eat More Buck, Never Ending Estate or Keep Frying Sail? My absolute favourite however, was a t-shirt worn by an attractive, well-endowed woman in her twenties with the words Busty Magic (sorry, no photos).

Along the way, I read a highly insightful travelogue of Japan by Will Ferguson, a Canadian writer who is best known for his humorous critique of Canadian history and culture. Before he became a successful writer he spent several years in Japan as an English teacher. In Hokkaido Highway Blues, he details his experiences hitchhiking across Japan, with many amusing asides on Japanese culture and society. One chapter is given over to his observations on Englese - this is the Japanese version of Dunglish - which explains the fascinating love-affair they have with the English language much more succintly than I could ever do:

[In Niigata] the weather was markedly cooler than it had been, and I found that even layering myself in T-shirts was not enough to stave off the creeping dank and cold. In search of warmer garb, I threaded my way into the rabbit hutch of retail shops that spread in tunneled corridors beneath Niigata Station. It took a while just to find something that fit, and even then I had to settle for a hooded pullover with arms that were five inches too short, giving me that long-limbed gorilla look that women find so endearing. Fortunately, as a sort of bonus, the pullover had a bold message across the back, written in Japanese-English, or "Englese" as it is sometimes known. The message had a definite rap-music rhythm to it and over the course of the next few weeks, whenever I was alone in front of a mirror, I took to rappin' it out loudly (with the proper angry, urban-street-gang scowly face and postures of course). It went like this:
Piece by Piece
We Can't be Born Special
by my power present international!
Produce Selection Since 1976
Hit It!

This is one of the most surreal aspects of life in Japan: seeing your language reduced to decoration, removed from any context or meaning, rendered into LSD musings. The Japanese approach to language—and most everything else, now that I think about it—is relentlessly deconstructionist. Everything is reduced to the bare elements and then reconstructed. It is less a form of mimicry and more one of reinterpretation. This works great with cars, cameras, and clocks, but is less effective with something as organic as language.
My students in Japan were determined to reduce English to mathematical dictums that could then be reassembled. One student, who was a diligent pupil but refused to speak English with me in class, said with perfect sincerity, "It's just that I hate to make mistakes. So, first I will become fluent in English and
then I will speak it." When I tried to explain to him that learning a language was a process and that making mistakes was a necessary, even desirable aspect of it, he politely dismissed my suggestions as being eccentric. Learn by making mistakes? Ridiculous.
The result is a nation of grammar-sharp, language-shy people. And the primary victim in all of this is the English language itself. When I ran into one of my high school students in a T-shirt that read ENJOY MY BROTHER! I challenged him to explain the phrase. It was a wager, really, because I promised him ten thousand yen if he could do it. This young man was our top student, destined for one of Japan's finest universities, and he took up the challenge with confidence. "
Enjoy is the verb," he said, "my is a possessive pronoun and brother is the object. The subject is understood to be you, which makes the sentence a command phrase. The exclamation mark adds urgency." He then held out his hand for the money. "But what does it mean?" I said. He looked at me, utterly baffled, and said "Enjoy is the verb, my is a possessive pronoun, brother is the—" Needless to say, I didn't pay him the ten thousand yen and he is still bitter about it. In his mind, he did explain it and all I did was welsh on a bet.
The idea that a sentence can have a meaning that is greater than the sum of its parts is hard to get across in Japan. My neighbor's wife had a favorite shirt that said LUSTY TOY, which I could never bring myself to explain to her.
(For all I knew it was true. Maybe she
was a lusty toy and proud of it. Who knows?)
Corporate Japan, with millions of dollars in resources at its fingertips, still can't come up with brand names that make any sense. English has a definite cachet in Japan, much like French once did in America, hence the irresistible urge to add a sprinkling of English on everything, from pop cans to political posters. Some of the most celebrated examples of Japanese brand names include a sports drinks named
Sweat; powdered coffee cream called Creap; round, chocolate plugs labeled, disturbingly, Colon; and a soft drink dubbed Calpis, a name that always suggests bovine urine to me. (I sent a package of Calpis to my friend Calvin Climie, an Ottawa-based animator, along with the note: "What a brilliant move, Call Marketing your own urine! You'll make a fortune. As long as you have access to tap water, the supply will never dry up.")
A lady friend of mine from Britain once showed me the tiny instruction pamphlet that came with a box of Japanese feminine hygiene products. The instructions were in Japanese, but even here the company had thought it necessary to jazz things up a bit with a display of English. At the top of the page was the stirring motto:
Let's All Enjoy Tampon Life!
Harder to understand are the bizarre English slogans of American companies operating in Japan:
I feel Coke! Speak Lark! (a cigarette company) and I am Slims! (Virginia Slims). I was bothered by this—after all, you'd think that if anyone would get it right it would be American companies—but then, one day, I realized that these slogans were not aimed at me, but at Japanese consumers. And Japanese consumers have all studied basic English and they can remember and recognize beginner phrases such as "I feel______," "I speak______" and "I am______" That the actual slogans used make little sense is not important. They instill a sense of cool cosmopolitan awareness in the consumer and in the product. Once I realized what they were doing, these oddball phrases seemed less like a joke and more like a brilliant marketing ploy. This is also why so many mottoes use the command phrase "Let's all enjoy______" and variations of it. This is not because it is common English (how often do you ever use the phrase "let's all enjoy" in a normal English conversation?), but because it is common textbook English, in much the same way that "This is a pen!" is such a popular English greeting in Japan.
Entire books have been written about Japanese-English. Some of it is bizarre, some of it is almost logical in a nonlinear, Japanese sort of way, and a few are even poetic. I met an American fellow once whose greatest treasure was a small antique tea box. On the back, in English, was a list of the benefits to be gained from a cup. The list was as follows:
The Advantage of Tea
(A)  on auxiliary the memory of writingses-say
(B)  in increasing the prevailness of poetry
(C)  For lossing the fret of mind
(D)  By Assisting the discourse of gentility.
(E)  With refreshing the spirit of heart
(F)  On Digesting the prevention of stomach
(G)  To growing the sperm of body
(H)  In exempting the sadness of lone,
(I)   For Driving the evilness of lone

Naturally, I immediately tried to buy the tea box from the American, but he wouldn't relent, no matter how much yen I waved in his face. It was a beautiful box as well, decorated in dragons and faded gold kanji and elaborate patterns. It still had the faint scent of tea. And who among us, in drinking a cup of Japanese tea, has not felt an increase in the prevailness of poetry? Or the prevention of stomach? And who, in turn, has not sensed the sadness of lone being exempted?

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

One of the lads

Judging by the unsightly orange flags and bunting that keep appearing round these parts, it's obvious a lot of people are busy gearing up to the Booze-athon that is the World Cup. In the Netherlands there is the small matter of the general election to get out of the way first. Nevertheless, it's quite touching to see the Dutch Prime Minister getting into the spirit of things, taking time out with the lads and enjoying a can of beer.
But of course, it's the T-shirt that catches the eye. If anyone else had been wearing it, nobody in the Netherlands would have given it a second thought, but this is none other than clean-living leader of the Christian Democrats, defender of "normen en waarden", Jan-Peter Balkenende.
Now let's not cast stones, I'm not one to shirk from using industrial language when it's called for. If the situation arises, the odd expletive might be necessary, but it's this gratitious, misplaced use of the F-word that I just can't understand. At the best of times, the Dutch are not averse to the use of foul language. I once tried disciplining secondary school pupils for using abusive language in the classroom and got laughed at - by my fellow teachers. Kids at my son's primary school would never be admonished for using the K-word: their parents would simply shrug it off as if it were some rite of passage. Yes, people grow up with it - it's not confined to adulthood - swearing is part and parcel of mainstream Dutch culture. And if their own swear words won't suffice - and believe me there's enough of them to warrant a dictionary of their own - they have this strange fascination with Anglo-Saxon profanities too. Using English is the mode in the Netherlands and using English swear words is the height of fashion, as Balkenende is clearly demonstrating. It seems a pity that no one quite realises different cultures go about their swearing in different ways. Balkenende might look quite jolly and fashionable here, but if he'd been caught walking down the average high street in England donning such a T-shirt he'd probably be given short shrift and issued with an ASBO.

Update: the video clip is even MORE bizarre. 

Friday, 14 May 2010

Speaking in tongues

In the Netherlands people are used to hearing their national politicians taking press conferences and interviews in English for the benefit of a wider international audience. Whenever they are required to do so, foreign secretaries, finance ministers and the like are generally able to put across their message in English albeit with varying degrees of dexterity. Take Jan Pronk for example, perhaps best known for his time as Dutch Minister of Development Aid. Whilst his command of English is terrific, his crabbed guttural pronunciation lets him down. Begrudgingly, I would also add Geert Wilders – he with the Mozart coiffure and anti-Islamist views – to the list of competent English speakers. There are others too, including Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former secretary-general of NATO, whose main claim to fame, linguistically at least, was that English TV and radio presenters could never pronounce his name correctly.

British politicians who speak a foreign language on the other hand are a rarity, so when you hear them doing so, it makes you sit up and notice. When they do it well, it’s quite extraordinary. Imagine my surprise then when I was alerted to a YouTube clip of Nick Clegg - this week instated as Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom - being interviewed on the election stumps by a Dutch TV crew. His Dutch is well-nigh impeccable. Of course, it has to be said that Clegg has a Dutch mother and spent several years living in Flanders working as a Eurocrat and MEP. Nevertheless, pretty amazing stuff. The truth is though, if the roles were reversed (i.e. a Dutch politician speaking flawless English), nobody would bat an eyelid.

Not so long ago, the UK had a prime minister who could speak French, but in general, polyglots amongst the Westminster political fraternity are few and far between. Denis MacShane, who was the Minister for Europe under the Blair regime, speaks French, Spanish and German fluently and has a working knowledge of a smattering of other languages. James Purnell, a former Labour cabinet member, speaks fluent French (he grew up in France) and Ben Bradshaw, another former minister who was ousted from government at the 2010 election, studied German at university and worked as an award-winning radio correspondent for the BBC in Berlin when the Wall came down. But that seems to be as far as it gets.     

The reality is that too few British politicians speak a foreign language. Many believe this leads to a blinkered, Anglo-Saxon view of the world. However, even though you can point the finger of blame in their direction, it’s not just the politicians: their lack of foreign-language skills reflects a wider unwillingness on the part of Britons to embrace multilingualism. Despite having joined the Common Market in 1973, time seems to have stood still. When I was studying French and German A-level in the 1970s, language students in the UK were considered somewhat quirky, but today things actually seem worse: language learning, according to experts, is rapidly becoming a “twilight” subject in state schools. In 2004, the Labour government even decided to take compulsory language learning off the GCSE (exam) curriculum. Nowadays, language students are evidently even quirkier. And sooner, rather than later, there will be no teachers left to teach languages. Contrast this with the Netherlands (and other European countries), where language learning is a mainstream element of the curriculum. Of course, it’s a myth that the British lack the genes for it: the British ineptitude to speak foreign languages cannot simply be shrugged off by quoting the old chestnut, “Sorry, we’re just no good at it!”

Yes, English is a global language, but consider where the UK’s trade markets lie. Culturally, the benefits of learning a foreign language would appear to be self-evident, but economically, they should be even more obvious. The EU, collectively, is by far and away the UK’s biggest trading partner, yet native English-speakers only account for 13% of the overall EU population, against 18% who are German-speakers, 13% Italian, 12% French and 9% Spanish. Of course, many people on the continent speak English as a second language, but if UK business hopes to break into these potentially prosperous markets, they will have to learn to communicate more effectively with them, that is, by speaking their own language. 

So, does a multilingual Lib-Dem deputy prime minister offer hope, or does the inherent antipathy towards all things European on the part of his new coalition partners presage a further watering down of language learning in the UK?

Friday, 30 April 2010

What's in a name?

The main character in Alexander McCall Smith’s academic satire, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, is a larger-than-life figure with a larger-than-life name: Prof Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. The absurdity of his name lies not in the fact that his name in English means Hedgehog Field (=Igelfeld), but in the use of his ‘double-barrelled’ academic title, for in English it’s just not possible to call yourself Professor and Doctor at the same time…
Surprisingly perhaps, for a society which is allegedly class-ridden, the British are rather timid about using official titles. The only ones we ever use as academic titles are Professor (Prof) and Doctor (Dr) – and NEVER together for the same person! We use these, and other references to academic and business qualifications, almost exclusively for professional purposes. In fact, someone who goes around flashing their academic title in everyday situations is considered slightly pompous. We like to be modest about our achievements. You might put a MSc or a BEd against your name on a business card, but you might risk being mocked as pretentious if you band it around in private circles. In fact, over the last few decades there has been a tendency to dumb down whenever it comes to titles and surnames, even in the business world, with most people slipping into first-name terms on the first meeting – almost to the extent that you are left second guessing their occupational background and qualifications.
On the continent however, non-English persons are often unhappy about relinquishing their academic titles, especially in English-language texts intended for professional purposes - where one might reasonably expect this reluctance - but equally so in everyday situations. Supposedly, it helps them single themselves out from the rest. However, the fact is Dutch titles - at least those of a lower academic standing than Professor or Doctor - such as Drs, Ir, Ing and Mr (a potentially very confusing one!), are completely unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world. So far from adding any value to their status, they probably detract, and will actually leave the average English speaker pretty nonplussed.
An English friend of mine who’d just moved to the Netherlands once told me his next door neighbours had a nameplate on the front door with the words “Drs L. Smit-Janssen”. He automatically assumed, of course, that he was living next door to a medical practice run by a Dr Smit and a Dr Janssen…

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Word of the month: bully

I, for one, was glad when stories started appearing in the papers last week about Gordon Brown’s alleged bullying. I’m surprised the media made such a big deal of it. After all, you’d think nothing of it if Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher had ever been charged with the same thing. As it happened, my relief was that Brown hadn’t wrongly been accused of mobbing.
The other week I came up against another bully, this time a German one. Now before you start thinking I’m going to make disparaging remarks about my eastern neighbours, I ought to explain that this particular bully is quite a helpful beast. Pistenbully is the German name for a Snocat or snow groomer and it is responsible for moving, manipulating and compacting snow on ski slopes and trails, the latter on which grooves or tracks are laid. Quite useful if you fancy a bit of cross-country skiing.
The PistenBully is the trademark of a make of snow groomer produced by the German-based Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug AG, but it has become the generic (German) name for anything that pushes around snow on a piste. But why Bully? It was the Volkswagen Bus that was first unofficially dubbed the Bully (or Bulli) when it came out in 1950, though its derivation is unclear. One theory is that it came as a combination of the first syllables of the words Bus and Lieferwagen (van). Another version postulates that workers at the VW factory gave the prototype the nickname from the adjective “bullig” because of its bull-like appearance. Apparently the name Bully never caught on in the UK because, as the German wikipedia site for the VW Bus quite rightly points out, „Bullying“ bedeutet Mobbing.

Saturday, 9 January 2010


My year hasn’t started tremendously auspiciously. After spending two weeks in the UK, on the way back across the North Sea, I must have picked up an ear infection which has rendered me temporarily hearing-impaired. I’ve never worn a diving helmet before, but I’m slowly beginning to realise what it might be like to don one: the voices I hear just seem to reverberate unintelligibly off an invisible shield around my head. So last week, there seemed little point giving my normal English lessons at the Volksuniversiteit and having students’ questions literally fall on deaf ears. The next morning there was an envelope jammed in the letterbox addressed personally to me. The heading on the photocopy it contained said ‘Pleurisy’. Oh dear I thought, not another illness I’d been diagnosed with. But reading on, I found the following:

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of mouse should never be meese,
You may find a lone mouse or a whole nest of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?
The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But a bow if repeated is never called bine,

And the plural of vow is vows, never vine.
If I speak of a foot and you show me your feet,
And I give you a boot would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth, and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular’s this and the plural is these,
Should the plural of kiss ever be nicknamed keese?
Then one may be that and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren,
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis and shim,
So the English, I think, you all will agree,
Is the queerest language you ever did see.

The note had been sent by a concerned colleague, who had signed off with a Get Better Soon. And even though it didn’t manage to clear up my aural orifices, it did cheer me up. A kind gesture indeed!
So, if and when I’m able to doff my imaginary diving helmet, I will at least have something in store for my students next time …

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Thursday, 7 January 2010

Belgian travel games

To alleviate the boredom of a long car journey in the nineteen-sixties, my brother and I would be encouraged to play games in the back of the car, supposedly to stop us quarrelling. One popular way of passing the time was the inn-sign game, where for each pub the car passed - depending on the number of legs in the name - points could be scored. So, the Red Lion would give you 4 points and the Horse & Jockey 6 points, but the Royal Oak would provide you with none. My brother would take the right-hand side of the road and I the left. The winner at the end of the journey was the one with the highest number of points (or legs). The four-hour journey from home to Scarborough on the Yorkshire Coast, where we sometimes spent our holidays, went through Manchester city-centre, Oldham, Huddersfield, Leeds and York, so it was rewarding territory. Of course, in the intervening years, these towns and cities have all been by-passed by motorways and dual-carriageways and it is unlikely that any pubs will appear along the roadsides these days.

Nowadays, (motorway) travel can be quite mind-numbing and I have to admit that car-driving and I are not natural bedfellows. So I have to think of other ways of breaking the monotony on a long drive. A fortnight ago, I was driving to the port of Zeebrugge on a stretch of road that I quite often travel for North Sea crossings and I was reminded of why travelling in Belgium (even on its motorways) can be such fun. 
You could, for example, try spotting French place-names when circumventing Brussels - one of the largest Francophone metropolises in the world - on the northern section of its outer ring road (R0). Well, guess what? There aren’t any. The R0 doesn’t actually enter bi-lingual Greater Brussels, so if you don’t know the Flemish names for Liège and Mons, you’d better check up on them beforehand.

Jodoigne: now you see it, now you don’t. Driving the Belgian motorways can be a baffling experience. If you travel the E40 from Liège to Brussels, keep your wits about you if you have an appointment in French-speaking Jodoigne. One minute you’re in Wallonia, the next you’re in Flanders, so don’t miss exit 25 for Geldenaken (that’s French for Jodoigne – as if they even look or sound the same!)
When you peel off E40 onto the E314 just west of Leuven and see signs to Aken (followed by the German name Aachen), you might be forgiven for thinking that the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking communities would show some fraternity when it came to providing road signs in two languages, at least on their national routes where place names differ, but – apart from in Brussels and local authorities with so-called language facilities - this is taboo.

However, my favourite game on Belgian motorways, like the inn-sign game, is beer-related and is called Spot-the-Brewery: on my recent drive to the Belgian coast, I passed junctions signposting Hoegaarden, Grimbergen, Affligem and Brugge (and if you take the southern route through Wallonia to Calais, there are motorway exits to Jupille, Floreffe and (possibly) Watou). Now if that doesn’t work up an appetite, I don’t know what will.