List: Untranslation.

“A foot brushes your ankle on a peak-hour bus
Someone’s hand on the small of your back as they pass
A shopkeeper’s fingers while handing your change
Can lightly brush yours without feeling too strange.

But why I felt so alive I can’t quite determine
There could be a world to explain it in German…”

Elbows, Darren Hanlon.

I feel I’m forever hearing that non-English languages are much better at describing profoundly complex, delicately nuanced concepts with simple, single words and phrases.

The example that comes to mind is the Japanese phrase mono no aware, which I first heard described as “the bittersweet impermanence of all things, as epitomised by the beautifully brief cherry-blossom season”.*

{ from Wordstuck, which you should definitely be following }

Such an astonishingly complex description of a profoundly human condition. To encapsulate so much meaning in six syllables is a truly adept feat of human language. In a word, deft.

The internet, often visually, alerts me to other lovely and/or gigglesome examples:


{ by Maptia, via amandaonwriting.tumblr.com }


{ vague and nebulous }


{ via weheartit }





{ more from Wordstuck }

Not-so-plain English

The thing is, English is also riddled with magical words that somehow pinpoint un-pin-downable ideas. One need only read one of Mark Forsyth’s books (or just his blog, actually) to realise that. If you’ve thought “there should be a word for that” it’s quite likely there is a word in English for it. But it’s also quite likely that word has fallen into disuse — from lack of utility, or despite its seemingly timeless utility.

This, of course, is my cue to again poke you in the ribs and encourage a reading (or rereading) of Reading the OED. Having done so, I’d include apricity (the pleasant warmth of the sun in winter) in my active vocabulary for at least half of the year if it was fashionable to do so.** Living in any city, you would think there are plenty of occasions to use peristeronic (adj., suggestive of pigeons), solivagant (n., one who wanders about alone) and fornale (v., to spend all one’s money before it has been earned). But nobody does. And then we muse wistfully about the rambling-cottage-garden–like magnanimity of other languages, when it seems we’ve wilfully whittled our own language into something simpler and less eloquent, in some sort of 1984-ish search for efficiency.

Humbly untranslatable

Where things really get interesting is at the subtler, simpler level — the different between different varieties of regular, everyday English. On her blog Separated By A Common Language, M. Lynne Murphy has a semi-regular (annual) summary of “untranslatables”: UK English words that have no apparent natural analogue in US English — and vice versa. Many aren’t even as endemic as slang — think punter (UK) and trailer trash (US) rather than ma’m and rad.

The most fascinating realisation, as an Australian proofreader: although AU English often seems terribly akin to UK English while sharing traits that some would call “super American”, most of these untranslatables seem completely native to me — and I’m astounded to think that any native English speaker wouldn’t feel the same. Only Americans eyeball things rather than measuring them accurately? Americans don’t fancy other people in the romantic sense?

Then again, most of the 2012 untranslatables I’d never heard of at all (crunchy-earthy? GUBBINS?) so perhaps I just need to get out more. Who’d like to sponsor my extended transatlantic holida– …erm, research trip?*** I might have a touch of the old wanderlust. Itchy feet. Fernweh.

*Japanese also gives us kintsukuroi:
tumblr_mvhzylzYaE1qfvq9bo1_500
My mother is a potter, and as a little girl I was quite enamoured with those seemingly organic veins of gold winding through otherwise stony ceramics.

**Okay, so I do anyway.

***I might have said vacati– here, to the same effect. But Australia favours the British option here, and so must I.

An A–Z of Unusual Words.

I have noticed that other people are also noticing — and illustrating — the obscure, almost-forgotten corners of our language. Wallflower words, if you will. So rather than wax lyrical I’ll just share visuals, from The Project Twins A–Z of Unusual Words.

These images explore the meaning behind the words, which are sometimes even more strange or unusual. This project explores the synthesis between form and content, and words and images with the aim of producing work that is both visually interesting and informative.

Dactylion: An anatomical landmark located at the tip of the middle finger…Dactylion.jpg
(Relevant to those who practise yoga.)

Montivagant: Wandering over hills and mountains…
Montivagant.jpg
(Relevant to those afflicted with bucolic wanderlust.)

Pogonotrophy: The act of cultivating, or growing and grooming, a moustache, beard, sideburns or other facial hair…
Pogonotrophy.jpg
(Relevant in this charitably hairy month.)

Vernalagnia: A romantic mood brought on by Spring…
Vernalagnia.jpg
(Seasonally relevant, depending on your hemisphere.)

PS. The Project Twins also did a completely charming piece — “Do You Want To Know A Secret?” — for the completely charming Illustrated Beatles collection.

#$*&^! = Grawlix

>> A word for that: Grawlix

Until its OED entry is solemnized, we’ll have to settle for this definition on Wiktionary: “grawlixn. A string of typographical symbols used (especially in comic strips) to represent an obscenity or swear word.” I don’t think I’ll ever look at a character set quite the same way again.

%^&*@ing glorious!

Read the whole thing at Hoefler & Frere-Jones (via @GrammarMonkeys and @mental_floss)

Better than alphagetti*: edible gelatin typography

{ via Colossal }

Current distraction: wondering about the mouthfeel. Chewy? Sticky? Sans-serifs-y? Alphagetti?*

(Subsequent distraction: the curious difference between American “jelly”, which is Australian “jam”, and Australian “jelly”, which is American “jello”.)

 

*If it’s named after what it clearly IS named after, shouldn’t there be an H after that G?

The Oxford comma: dead at the hands of serial killers

I give a #%*^ about the Oxford comma.  I’m known for giving a #%*^ about the Oxford comma. But sadly, this sudden palaver over its threatened extinction (at the hands of its eponymous university, no less) is just a bureaucratic nail in an already-long-buried coffin. As a proofreader in Australia, I must (at least during working hours) adhere to the ‘current trends’ in Australian writing style, and that means NO SERIAL COMMAS EVER (except if absolutely needed for the sake of clarity, which isn’t any fun at all).

So as far as I’m (professionally) concerned, the Oxford comma has already been eradicated, or is at least seriously endangered, teetering on the brink of extinction. It lingers only as a ghost, destroyed by a gradual succession of serial killers*: style guides in ruthless pursuit of minimalist punctuation.

R, I, P.

Over at Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams has already said almost everything else I would say on the topic. Most importantly, she a) clarifies the extent to which Oxford University is eliminating its eponymous comma (that is, no more than most institutions already have); and b) embedded the obvious Vampire Weekend video clip.

Now, two things about this video clip: Firstly, its total number of hits must have jumped phenomenally in the past 24 hours. Secondly, IT WAS DIRECTED BY THE WONDERFUL RICHARD AYOADE (of The IT Crowd, of course). And if that isn’t a joyful note on which to end a sombre post, I don’t know what is.

*Yes, I went there.

Read (v.): This article is cooler than a frappawhatsit

The Joy of Indefinite Words: Is a Spillion More than a Metric Buttload?

As a fan of “it’s eleventy bagillion hot outside”*, I adore this image and the accompanying article in equal measures.

Here’s an excerpt, if you need convincing:

“The Oxford English Dictionary traces “zillion” back to a 1944 quote: “I love him a zillion dollars’ worth.”…

These words are just the tip of the whatsit-berg. The lexical banquet of the web has produced more than a smattering of creative, bonkers words, many playing on “thingamajig.” Some are specific, like “tupperware-thingy-majigger,” “blog-site-location-amajig,” “twittermajiggy,” and “frappawhatsit”…”

See? It’s eleventy awesome.

*No really, it is. Sydney has become trapped in the (fierce, sweaty) grip of a late-Summer heatwave. We’re dying. Send ice-cream**.

** Prompted by the recent acquisition of an ice-cream machine, I’ve been pondering whether it’s correct to hyphenate “ice-cream” even in its noun form (noting that hyphenation is a given when it’s used as a compound adjective). My eyePhone does so automatically, and I tend not to trust such ‘corrections’… but I’ve just checked the OED, and it too hyphenates “ice-cream (n.)”. I’m sold (though not cold).

Escape from Comic Sans: would you, if you could?

{ Design Work Life via FFFFOUND! }*

IF ONLY.

Online publishing prefers sans serifs fonts for legibility and general easiness on the eyes. So if one, for some reason, determined (or was forced) to operate solely in the digital realm, the risk of encountering Comic Sans would always exist. That most aesthetically base typeface would always hover in the infinitely nearby ether, waiting to leap out and insult one’s intelligence and sense of sincerity.

If, however, one decided (or, in fairness, was forced) to remain solely in the world of tangible readables, maintaining daily contact with printed matter**, excluding all online readables, one MIGHT, in theory, achieve said escape.

Personally, I’d rather risk potential exposure to abominable web-friendly fonts than miss out on all the glory of the interwebs. Who in their right mind would intentionally shelter from that font of caustic, truthful wit The Oatmeal; NASA’s always-humbling Astronomy Picture of the Day; or, at the more frivolous end of the online gamut, Women Laughing Alone With Salad?

The enjoyment of these wonders might render impossible a guaranteed escape from Comic Sans, but it’s worth it.

* Also, how BRILLIANT is this faux-retro image‽

** (Proper printed matter like books and newspapers and magazines, not printouts of documents typed in Comic Sans.)

Because QWERTYUIOP isn’t a real word

{ Learn Something Every Day, via imgfav }

This is pretty fabulous. But I still think QWERTYUIOP should be a real word.

Unrelatedly*, I have returned to the tumblr fold, that I might post links to all the pretty things I find scattered throughout the ether. My tumblog is vague and nebulous**, in name and in purpose. Drop by if you wish to look upon naught but nice and/or pretty things.


 

*Also not a real word.

** “Vague and nebulous” is one of my favourite phrases, though I know not its origins.  I frequently encountered it while reading law reports and parliamentary records at university, in reference to concepts so abstract that to define them would be like nailing jelly to a wall. Incidentally, “like nailing jelly to a wall” is another of my favourite law-school judicial phrases.