Space mission patches are the best.

Valentina Tereshkova patch

The history of Soviet mission patches begins with one of space travel’s most significant achievements. In 1963, Valentina Teresknova made history as the first woman in space. Her call sign was Chayka—Seagull—and under it, she completed 48 orbits of Earth. As she did so, hidden from view, sewn onto the thermal garment under her orange space suit, was the first mission emblem. It depicted a dove of peace flying in the sun’s rays, and underneath, in blocky red text, the letters CCCP. Teresknova called it a seagull, after her call sign.

Atlas Obscura

A few months ago I met an astronaut at the Intrepid Museum. He was extremely extremely cool — patient, friendly, relaxed in front of a crowd, excited about his work and the bigger picture of doing science in space. And he had the coolest collection of patches (including one for 100 days in space).

They’re a bit like grown-up Boy Scouts/Girl Guides patches — or a more child-like, illustrated version of standard military ribbons/medals. Either way, I’ve always found the visual symbolism — narrative, yet independent of spoken or written language — fascinating and delightful.

Apollo 11 Patch

In other words, I really want this book.

Typeset in the Future

AKA My New Favourite Place On The Internet

There’s not much I can say about Typeset in the Future except that as soon as I found it I knew, completely and absolutely, that it was the most relevant-to-my-niche-interests place on the internet. It was like… mmmmagic.

There is even a Venn diagram to describe the target audience, and we know how much I love Venn diagrams*.


That overlap is my niche. It’s escapist and utopian, and the kerning is always perfect.

To illustrate, an excerpt from the end of the 2001: A Space Odyssey analysis:

This final part of the film is visually eclectic, aurally stunning and philosophically challenging. Many thousands of words have been penned over the decades to try and fathom the meaning of the monolith, and the genesis and future of the space-baby. However, none of this act contains typography, and it is therefore of no concern to us. Let’s skip to the end credits.


It’s Futura again, with an M borrowed from Gill Sans, and a W that I don’t recognize from anywhere. Goodnight!

*Remind me to update those images some time. Yeesh.

Aviation English and the “high romance of flight”.

Flying highThe language of the skies is a special one, and commercial air travel is my favourite thing on (above?) earth. Have you ever listened in on the in-seat cockpit-to-air-traffic-control radio channel? Try it some time. But also read this lovely piece about the parlance of pilots.

“I like how different the language of the sky is from everyday English – indeed, we might give it its own name, Aeroese (though it’s also sometimes, and less aspirationally, called Aviation English). Above all, I love how Aeroese can somehow manage, in its technical, obscuring precision, to capture the high romance of flight – an aspect of my job, no matter how much I love it, that in the cockpit we rarely have reason to consider directly.

…Imagine a plane that flies from London to Bangkok. The pilots speak first to British air-traffic controllers but, just a few minutes after takeoff, the British controllers hand them over to Belgian or Dutch ones, who soon pass them to German controllers, and then to Czech, to Hungarian, to Romanian, to Turkish, to Iranian ones, and so on. It’s hard to imagine a system more in need of a common language. And that language is English (or English-derived Aeroese). When a Venezuelan pilot speaks to a New York air-traffic controller, or when a pilot from Brooklyn speaks to a controller in Caracas, they speak in English. It’s something to marvel at, the first time you fly to Tokyo, say, and you hear an exchange between a Japanese pilot and a Japanese air-traffic controller, both speaking carefully in Japanese-accented English. It’s standardisation and globalisation by force of bare necessity, by force of speed.

Though Aeroese has predominantly English roots, a handful of common meteorological abbreviations have French origins (as do the words fuselage and aileron, of course). BR is Mist (brouillard) GR is Hail (grêle); HN is Sunset to Sunrise (horaire de nuit). MI is Shallow (a usage derived from mince) and BC is Patches (from bancs).

In a heavens-transiting industry, angels are ‘an echo caused by physical phenomena not discernible to the eye… sometimes attributed to insects or birds flying in the radar beam’… Dry snow ‘can be blown if loose, or, if compacted by hand, will fall apart on release’, while Wet snow, ‘if compacted by hand, will stick together and tend to form a snowball; specific gravity: 0.35 up to but not including 0.5’.”

— Mark Vanhoenacker, The Parlance of Pilots

Other highlights:

  • On approaching touchdown, a disembodied voice tells pilots to “DECIDE” whether to proceed or back out.
  • “Speedbird” is cockpit shorthand for a British Airways flight. The maintenance office is “Speedbird Library”.
  • There are set pronunciation rules, especially for numbers, to avoid confusion.
  • Waypoints are identified by five-letter abbreviations, some very wry. “Many waypoint names are gibberish, but others are more colourful – DRAKE in the English Channel (for Sir Francis); BARBQ near Kansas City; WHALE in the Mediterranean, off Benghazi. When descending to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, fans of the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons will enjoy this sequence: ITAWT ITAWA PUDYE TTATT (followed by IDEED).”
  • The on-board satellite phone is actually called the Batphone.
  • The pilot-to-pilot ‘chat’ frequency is 123.45Hz.

“Is Australian English even a thing?”

YES. It is. Trust me. 

Dr. Lynne Murphy recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of her (wonderful, intelligent and impressively well-researched) blog Separated by a Common Language by sharing a list of her most-visited posts from 2010 to present. And what really struck me,  as often does when reading her blog, is that Australian English is so different yet again — we might use the US English word for one thing and the UK English word for another, or we might have a completely different word for it altogether.

The following isn’t an exhaustive demonstration by any means, but based on Lynne’s blogiversary list:

  • Bed sizes. As Lynne points out, the Australian system differs from both the US and UK alternatives. (I have never heard the term small double, and the Australian dimensions for single, double, queen and king are all different from the US/UK ones anyway.)
  • “Do you have…?” vs. “Have you got…?”. In Australia I’m quite sure nobody would notice if you said one or the other.
  • Valet and filet. In Australia we pronounce valet as “val-AY” like Americans, not “val-let” like the Brits. But fillet is pronounced and spelled the British way: we use a FIL-leting knife to FIL-let a fish, with two Ls and a hard T. Aussies only use the US/French “fil-LAY” pronunciation for Francophone/meat-related specificities like filet mignon. (In the same post, Lynne discusses schedule with a “sk–” (US) versus a “sh–” (UK). This one can go either way in Australia, although at some point in your life someone will probably tell you that your way is wrong and theirs is right.)
  • Australians grew up hitting pound — # — on a phone (US English), as opposed to hash (UK).* Hash is mostly reserved for hashtag.
  • And I grew up throwing slumber parties (US) not pyjama parties (UK)**
  • … but the Macquarie Dictionary, the standard reference for Australian English, has woah (UK) not whoa (US), and we definitely say maths (UK) not math (US).

Lynne’s big list of vegetables is probably the best proof that Australian English isn’t the same as UK English or US English. We eat eggplant, zucchini, endive and snow peas (US) – not aubergine, courgette, chicory and mange tout (UK) … but we also have rocket, beetroot, spring onion and cos (UK) – not arugula, beet, scallion and romaine (US). Not to mention that what US and UK English both call a pepper is a capsicum in Australia — where pepper is the thing that goes with salt — and pretty much all gourds count as pumpkins — squash refers only to pattypan (US) or summer (UK) squash.

From the untranslatables list — words that exist in either UK or US English but not both — Australian English does actually have some translations.

  • Lie-in (n., UK English only) = sleep-in — as in “I had a great sleep-in on the weekend”.
  • For kitty-corner (US only), we just say “diagonally across from”.
  • Builder’s tea (UK) sounds like Australian camp tea, bush tea or billy tea.
  • AU English does have the US poster child (UK does not), but like UK English does not have the US crunchy (as in hippie-ish).
  • Like US English we do not have a word for the UK overegging (overdoing) or the US tailgating (partying in the parking lot at a sporting event) but do have the US word antsy (anxious and jumpy) and the UK locum (a temporary replacement doctor).

So the next time someone says “Isn’t Australian English just the same as British English?” or “What exactly do you do for a living?”, maybe I’ll direct them to this blog post (hello, reader). I might even invite them to read Speaking Our Language — a fantastic book on how Australian English came to be, which does much to dispel the prejudice against Australian English as a bastardised version of the original “pure” English.

What I won’t do is provide an exhaustive itemised list of the differences between the three, or a statistical breakdown, in percentages, of how much AU English is like or unlike UK and US English. That is an impossibility, even for me.


*See this TRULY DELIGHTFUL explanation of the hash/pound/octothorpe, including some zombie-related typographical art.

**But we do spell pyjama the British way (as opposed to the US pajama).


Rules vs guidelines. Perfection vs style.

Most copy editors conceive of themselves as something between traffic cops and U.N. peacekeepers, and adverbs are not illegal. They are not war crimes. Which is just as well, because I don’t think immersion in either rules or theory can do much for style, and the question of adverbs is, in the end, a question of style… Whether you venerate or violate prescriptions, it’s diction that really matters, diction and word order. We are first of all slaves to our eyes and our ears, not to that wondrous document The Chicago Manual of Style.

– Christian Lorentzen, Can We Just Lose the Adverb (Already)?

As I’ve said before over on the Editor Group blog, I feel the same way about proofreading (and editing and writing) as I do about baking. (Or maybe it’s the other way around. Whatever.)

Yes, there are rules, and it’s important to learn the rules — mostly so that you know which ones are unimpeachable, and which ones are more like guidelines.

A piece of writing riddled with errors is one kind of horrible.

Even worse*: writing that’s technically perfect but completely devoid of any spirit — any echo of the human mind that created it.

Now that’s a nightmare.


*Okay, maybe it’s not worse, but it’s definitely more disappointing than you’d think.

Tree alphabets: from Alpine Larch to Zelkova Serrata.

Despite Atlas Obscura reporting on both of these “arborbets”, it seems the latter was not informed by the much, much earlier iteration. How do you spell “convergent evolution” in tree?


An ancient Celtic tree alphabet:

“Each of its 20 characters, or ‘trees’ is made out of a reference line, or ‘stem’ crossed by one or more slashes, or ‘twigs.’ Depending on the number and direction of these twigs, the letter codes for a particular sound. To aid in memorization, each letter also has a name—often, though not always, a tree that starts with the sound the letter represents. The ‘B’ sound, for example, has one twig sticking out on the right, and is called ‘Beithe,’ or birch tree.”

– Cara Giaimo, Atlas Obscura


And a modern arborbet:

“For the Trees font, which was created especially for the book, Holten delved into her archive of New York City tree drawings, created 10 years earlier. ‘I wrote out the alphabet, A through Z, and then realized I could match a tree that had the same latter: A for apple, B for beech, C for cedar,’ she says. (V and X were a bit trickier, but Latin names came in handy.)

The numbers are represented as twigs, while the punctuation marks are shoots, leaves, and, in the case of the period, an acorn.”

– Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura


Perqs of the job.

Guess what? It’s not “perks” of the job. It’s perqs! Short for “perquisites”.*

Not to be confused with “prerequisites” … Although the two do share the same Latin root: perquisite = perquīsītum and prerequisite = prerequīsītus, both modified past participles of “sought for”.

See also: “request” (requarere: to seek) and “require” (requīrer: to search for). Which explains why we ask questions  (request) when we seek (require) answers, and when we’re searching for something, we go on a “quest” (quaesītus).**

In other words, there is a definite connection between what you ask for and the perqs you get.

So thank you, StarTalk, for delivering this enlightenment straight to my inbox. And to think, if I’d only heard it in the podcast and never seen it written, I’d be none the wiser.

And the moral to that story is: read your emails.


*Who knew? My computer even tried to autocorrect the title of this post.
**Disclaimer: My knowledge of Latin is close to nil, informed only by etymological investigations, so feel free to challenge me on any of this.