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).


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.

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 you 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:

{ 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:
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.




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…


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…
(Relevant to those who practise yoga.)

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

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

Vernalagnia: A romantic mood brought on by Spring…
(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.