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 word 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.

“My darlings,…” : 12 hand-written letters from the desk of Nelson Mandela

I sincerely believe that sweet, heartfelt hand-written letters are the sign of a good soul. No chance to type and retype, to rearrange paragraphs, to embellish with lengthy hyperlinked asides.

This collection of Nelson Mandela’s hand-written letters is a permanent reminder of his gentle, earnest, good human spirit — not as a survivor or a politician, but simply as a person, when he could assume that no-one but the sole intended reader — his wife, his daughter, himself — would ever see it.

Vale.

Transcript:

23.6.69

My darlings,

Once again our beloved mummy has been arrested and now she and daddy are away in jail. My heart bleeds as I think of her sitting in some police cell far away from home, perhaps alone and without anybody to talk to, and with nothing to read. Twenty-four hours of the day longing for her little ones. It may be many months or even years before you see her again. For long you may live, like orphans, without your own home and parents, without the natural love, affection and protection mummy used to give you. Now you will get no birthday or Christmas parties, no presents or new dresses, no shoes or toys. Gone are the days when, after having a warm bath in the evening, you would sit at table with mummy and enjoy a her good and simple food. Gone are the comfortable beds, the warm blankets and clean linen she used to provide. She will not be there to arrange for friends to tak you to bioscopes, concerts and plays, or to tell you nice stories in the evening, help you read different books and to answer the many questions you would like to ask. She will be unable to give you the help and guidance you need as you grow older and as new problems arise. Perhaps never again will mummy and daddy join you in House no. 8115 Orlando West, the one place in the whole world that is so dear to our hearts.

This is not the first time mummy goes to jail. In October 1958, only four months after our wedding, she was arrested with 2,000 other women when they protested against passes in Johannesburg and spent two weeks in jail. Last year she served four days, but now she has gone back again and I cannot tell you how long she will be away this time. All that I wish you always to bear in mind is that we have a brave and determined mummy who loves her people with all her heart. She gave up pleasure and comfort in return for a life full of hardship and misery, because of the deep love she has for her people and country. When you become adults and think carefully of the unpleasant experiences mummy has gone through, and the stubborness with which she has held to her beliefs, you will begin to realise the importance of her contribution in the battle for truth and justice and the extent to which she has sacrificed her own personal interests and happiness…

Transcript:

Flock of ducks walks clumsily into the lounge and loiter about apparently unaware of my presence. Males with loud colours, but keeping their dignity and not behaving like playboys. Moments later they become aware of my presence. If they got a shock they endured it with grace. Nevertheless, I detect some invisible feeling of unease on their part. It seems as if their consciences are worrying them, and although I feared that very soon their droppings will decorate the expensive carpet, I derive some satisfaction when I notice that their consciences are worrying them. Suddenly they squawk repeatedly and then file out. I was relieved. They behave far better than my grandchildren. They always leave the house upside down.

[This and 10 others on ABC News online.]

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.

It’s NOT all just English to me

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As someone whose business it is to know (and recognise, and apply) the differences between US, UK and Australian English, I loved the  ‘Shop Talk’ Q&A on the Chicago Manual of Style Online.

Most people know that UK (and Australian) English use –our and –ise endings rather than the –ize and –or of US English*, but seldom appreciate (in both senses of the word**) the vague and nebulous differences that are so subtle and instinctive they’re almost impossible to list or categorise. 

This particular excerpt is very close to my heart:

…the word cookie is more and more common in the UK, but it would never refer to the hard, sweet biscuits that the British dunk in their tea (and Americans would call cookies). Cookie is used in the UK just for the kinds of cookies that have come over from America—the big, soft kind that are sold individually in shopping centers and coffee shops.

For almost infinitely more on the topic from Lynne Murphy, read her blog, Separated By a Common Language.

Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way is also heavenly. I suddenly have an urge to reread it. Again.

Not to mention colorize/colourise.

**

Appreciate - Google

{Thanks, Google}

@: The fulcrum of our digital identities

The Unlikely Evolution of  @ (@ Fast Company) 

Once a bookkeeper’s shorthand, @ has become the fulcrum of our digital identities. How did that happen?

“In Danish, the symbol is known as an “elephant’s trunk a”; the French call it an escargot. It’s a streudel in German, a monkey’s tail in Dutch, and a rose in Istanbul. In Italian, it’s named after a huge amphora of wine…

In 1971, a keyboard with a vestigial @ symbol inherited from its typewriter ancestors found itself hooked up to an ARPANET terminal manned by Ray Tomlinson…

“It’s difficult to imagine anyone in Tomlinson’s situation choosing anything other than the ‘@’ symbol, but his decision to do so at the time was inspired,” explains Houston on his blog. “Firstly, it was extremely unlikely to occur in any computer or user names; secondly, it had no other significant meaning for the operating system on which it would run, and lastly, it read intuitively–user ‘at’ host.”

READ THIS POST because it’s wonderful. I especially love the identification of @ as the fulcrum of an email address. Because it IS one!

And then if you can resist pre-ordering Keith Houston’s upcoming book you’re a stronger person than I. (Come on. It’s called Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation. How could I/you resist?) 

In defence of proofreading

I am a proofreader.

I would be even if it wasn’t on my business card. (It is.)

I wake up a proofreader. I go to sleep a proofreader. It’s possible my dreams are pedantic.

I adore abstract art, and messy hair, and long-form improvised jazz, and unplanned weekends. But the methodical neural sequences are always running — as subtle, pervasive and persistent as those that maintain subconscious respiration and the miraculous auto-focus of my blessedly functional human eyes. I don’t switch this part of me on and off as I approach and depart the office each day.

As a proofreader, that’s the way things work, and it’s the way I work (even when I’m not at work). Just as an artist sees the world through creative eyes even in the non-painting, non-sculpting, non-drawing moments. Just as the curiosity that drives a scientist, deep-sea explorer or astronomer isn’t silenced the moment they step away from the microscope, periscope or telescope.


{image via PowerScore}

People are afraid of the red pen.

They fear seeing their writing covered in proofreading glyphs, and they resent the person who made it so.

Some editors use green or purple ink because red is ‘too aggressive’.

But red is also the colour of love, and of passion.

I do not proofread in anger. I proofread with passion. When I scrawl all over the page, I am sharing the writer’s devotion to the words they have coaxed forth. It is with love that I — as gently as possible — nurture and nudge those words just a little bit more, hoping to make them as perfect as we both desire them to be.

So writers? Don’t hate the red pen. Your proofreader actually loves your writing.

Proofreaders, don’t be ashamed to be called a persnickety, pedantic perfectionist. Wear that badge with pride (especially if you couldn’t take it off if you wanted to).

And everyone: go to as many Sydney Writers’ Festival events as you can between now and Sunday (26 May 2013). Let your brain be caressed and your thoughts provoked.

Unsavoury weather?

When the weather contradicts what the season should dictate — for example, by delivering Summer-like warmth on an April day (unexpected in either hemisphere) — we say the weather is “unseasonably warm”.

When savoury food isn’t salt-and-peppery enough, we say it’s unseasoned (and probably unsavoury).

So why “unseasonably warm”?

Hint: it’s not because we can’t improve the weather with salt and pepper.

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The OED lists season (n.) as “any one of the periods, longer or shorter, into which the year is naturally divided by the earth’s changing position in regard to the sun” (and so on). That’s all based on an early version of the verb to sow (thus “sowing time” , from Latin and Vulgar Latin via Old French and Middle English, with variations in Modern French, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian). Humans have been talking about seasons since about 1340.

The concept of seasoning (v.) — “to render more palatable by the addition of some savoury ingredient” — turned up in around 1400, and is based on the same Old French concept: we leave fruit to ripen fully with the seasons, becoming as delicious as possible before we devour it or bake it into a pie.*

So unseasonal weather makes sense to me. But why unseasonable and unseasonably? Unable to be seasoned?

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The construction is literally just season + the able suffix.

Season+able (adj.) means “occuring at the right time or season”.*

Season+ably (adv.) means “in a fitting time; at the right moment; in due season”.

But if you ask me, the real answer comes back to a noun: seasonableness.

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 8.19.30 PM

So if something is unseasonable it’s unsuitable or unreasonable.

When I comfortably wear a sundress in April — or am forced to wear a woollen scarf in December** — I do so because of weather that is unreasonably warm or cold (within the context of the season). I am unable to provide a reason for such inexplicable weather …Except to say that we should consume less, recycle more, and look for alternative sources of low-impact, renewable, sustainable energy.

And all this still has very little to do with salt and pepper, other than the fact that a cold day in Summer is generally thought to be unsavoury.

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As opposed to seasonal (adj.), which means “depending on or happening with the seasons”. In Japan, cherry blossoms appear seasonally; if they flowered all through the year they would be unseasonal — unrelated to or unaffected by the prevailing season. Which means you could talk about an “unseasonally warm day” and still technically be correct, but you lose the element of unreasonableness and incongruity.

** That one is hemisphere-specific.