Monday, April 21, 2008

Shakespeare on a plane.

Sitting on the third floor of my bungalow, which overlooks a magnificent natural harbour on the spectacular Buckinghamshire coastline, I am struck by the delightful realisation, while reading a Chinese biography of William Shakespeare (the celebrated Welsh pole-vaulter, and inventor of the first commercially successful flushing television), that it's not entirely necessary to be 'correct' in order to be considered amongst the greatest proponents of one's chosen field.

Mr Wm Shaksp himself, for example, has been known to sign his name in up-to eleven different ways (there is some conjecture as to whether all of the known signatures are genuine) proving, or at the very least suggesting, that he either couldn't spell consistently, or frankly didn't care to. Consensus has it that he was also an indifferent typist (a trait which he and I share).

The biography to which I have referred is written by the most excellent Bill Bryson[1], of whom I have been a dedicated fan for absolutely ages - some several years, in fact, before I'd ever heard of him.

Having read approximately three quarters of this book I am much gruntled by the fact that Shaky (as his friends almost certainly didn't refer to him) steadfastly refused to allow such trivial issues as geographical inaccuracy to bother him. Bryson points out that, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Bard of Avon has Prospero and Valentine set sail from Milan and Verona, even though both cities were a good few hours train journey from salt water in the 1600s.

Anachronisms probably didn't bother him either - given how easy it would have been for him to look things up on the internet to establish their temporal veracity. (For example, he seemed particularly unfazed by the presence of a 1960's police telephone box in his room during a recent episode of the BBC's Dr Who.)

And he positively revelled in neologism, an art in which he was clearly a master.

This is all most excellent news to me, and there's hope for me yet, it would seem. Why? Well...

I've a tendency to tell porkies - sometimes under artistic licence, but more often simply because I'm fundamentally dishonest. This is not a laudable trait and its particularly annoying to me that, while obdurate in their refusal to follow any good example I try and set them, my kids have picked up on the art of lying pointlessly with what is evidently some gusto.

I'm also a lazy fellow. For example, despite having only a sketchy appreciation of European Geography, I have taken Mr Bryson's assertions as to the landlocked nature of those two (Italian?) cities on faith. Mind you, it's not easy for me to check the facts because I am currently on an aeroplane (I lied about being upstairs in a bungalow - see the earlier reference to dishonesty) and the stewardess I just asked doesn't know either.

Finally, I have (as recorded elsewhere in this blog) been an accidental neologist myself for some time - and a very enjoyable practice it is, too. Pausing for a moment of introspection, I must now abandon my dislike of the word 'updation' (coined, according to urban legend, in the burgeoning technical industries of India). If I don't, then I'll be guilty of hypocrisy in the extreme by using words like 'confustion', and indeed going on to invent more new ones. Like this, for example: Fallacio: The unfortunately mistaken act of orally stimulating the wrong gentleman's wedding tackle.

Right, well, I appear to have been rabbiting on for a considerable time, and I want to get back to the book now‚ there's only a couple of hours until we land, and I wanna find out how it ends before we get to San Fransisco.

Time and weather permitting, I shall commit further offences against the written word whilst on my Californian odyssey. I'll bet you just can't wait, can you?

[1] Bill Bryson: Shakespeare. Wonder how long it took him to think THAT title up?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


I love words. Primarily in English, although other languages are fun too.

I like to write as well - although typing, it really has to be said, isn't my forte. Actually, what I originally typed there was that 'typing isn't my frote' which has an entirely different, although not entirely incorrect, meaning. This sort of proves my point.

Sometimes, my poor typing, when compounded by a lack of spell-checker, can get me into serious trouble. Imagine, if you will, the repercussions of missing the final 'o' from the sentence: I tried to talk to her but she was out for the count. Actually, even the linguistic airbag and seatbelt combo of the spell checker failed to save me on that one.

Happily, however, the results of my mistyping are frequently creative and sometimes informative. The best typos are those which look like they should mean something, but really aren't 'genuine' words. For example, it was in this way that I 'invented'[1] the word 'confustion' a good few years ago. At the time it didn't show up on any web searches but, more recently, it has appeared in the urban dictionary. Happily, the first definition attributed to it is pretty much exactly what I thought it should mean: a cross between confusion and frustration. (In which respect it adequately describes my day job.)

Some time later, a similar happy accident resulted in the apparent birth of the word 'scrobble'. Obviously, before 'laying claim' to it and giving it a meaning I had to Google it to see if it was already in use, but I thought it sounded like a friendly sort of word. The name of a over sized but amicable ginger cat, for example. Or maybe it should be a verb - some kind of well meaning, bumbling searching activity. As in, "She scrobbled in the depths of her handbag and managed to extract a mint humbug - miraculously still protected from the pocket-fluff that lived there by its rustling cellophane wrapper." You can imagine, then, my disappointed horror when the Google search threw this up:

Urban Dictionary: Scrobble
To scrobble is the action of shaving ones testicles with a rusty blade.

My nice friendly word has been hijacked to describe a bizarrely unpleasant activity. What would the neighbours have thought If I'd stood on the back doorstep of an evening calling in the cat... 'Scrobble! Scrobble! Din-dins!' Doesn't bear thinking about. I didn't bother to search any further, and certainly didn't click on the link.

Fast forward a couple of years to the point where the Grumbler is now a podcaster as well as a blogger and interested in all things to do with music. A friend recommended to me that I should check out as a source of legitimate music and inspiration. And indeed it is, but I nearly had heart failure when it advised me to download a piece of code which, it said, would scrobble my music collection! It brought to mind quite horrific images which I have spent weeks trying to forget, and frankly I don't think many of the artists would have reacted well to the prospect. Its doubtful that Ian Dury, for one, would have reacted positively to the idea that he attempt to deforest his family jewels with the aid of a tetanus encrusted pen-knife, and I really don't think its something Melissa Etheridge would take lying down. I'm not prepared to guess how Iggy Pop would view it, but there's always one dum-dum boy.

There are two possible morals to this story.
  • Either should have been more careful with the naming of this practice,
  • or it really doesn't matter what someone else thinks a word means, as long as you know what you mean when you use it.

I strongly suspect that latter approach is how a lot of the people in the company I work for treat language - they will clumsily raid the craftsman's toolbox of language, and happily use an expensive chisel to undo a two cent screw. Bloody Philistines.

Still, if you cant beat 'em, join 'em. So you can hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles, Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon, See if I don't![2] Know what I mean?

[1] No, of course I didn't invent it. But I hadn't seen it before, and I couldn't find any use of it on Google at the time.
[2] With apologies to the great Douglas Adams who, being dead, probably doesn't give a toss.

Friday, April 11, 2008

ATM - A Telling Moment

I recently had an unpleasant experience with an ATM. Not an awful experience, you understand, but neither pleasant nor, indeed, fruitful.

I'd stopped off on my way to work to collect some cash, stuck the card in, pressed all the right buttons and requested a few purple pictures of our dear Queen when, right out of the blue (or in this case, green) the machine displayed this message:

Your bank has not authorised this transaction

before going on to vigorously spit my card out with the sort of disgust that one might normally associate with, say, finding a short, course, curly, ginger hair in an otherwise inoffensive cream eclair.

Once I'd retrieved the card - which had been propelled past my ear at a phenomenal speed (I swear it was accompanied by a very small "sonic boom") I resolved to call my bank manager, almost immediately.

Fortunately, by scrambling under the seats of the car and sorting through the two years of debris that have collected there I had been able to salvage enough loose change to buy my breakfast (although I admit one of the coins was a funny green colour). Actually, I found half a Big Mac too, but it was cold. So, soon, I had settled down in the office with the regulatory pint of coffee and bacon buttie, and was on the phone to my bank manager.

Bank managers, eh? They're invariably portly, balding, bespectacled little men, with names like "Mainwaring", or "Grimsdale", trying to overcompensate for their lack of stature by nagging you ceaselessly about your overdraft; or they're pale grey shades who look half dead, exhibit no personality whatsoever, and smell of mothballs. Right?

Wrong actually. My bank manager is a very pleasant lady whom, for the sake of anonymity, we shall call Heather. Well, I say pleasant, but what I really mean, in the nicest possible way, is that she's a bit of a nutter. I'm sorry, Heather, if you're reading this, but it's true.

Allowing for a certain amount (quite a lot actually) of artistic license, the conversation went a bit like this.

"Look, its kind of embarrassing, I mean, I think I did everything right, but, well, nothing happened."
"That's OK, don't worry, let me have a look... There shouldn't be any problem, everything looks quite healthy really. Perhaps you should just try again?"

"I did. I waited a couple of minutes to calm down, because, well, I was upset. You see this hasn't ever happened to me before. Honestly. And then I tried again, and I was really careful in case I'd done it wrong somehow the first time, but, well, nothing happened. Again!"
"Hmmm, was there anything odd about the situation? There weren't any odd attachments?"

"Attachments?!? No..."

"Anyone watching you?"

"Oh come on! No! There's no way I'd do it when someone was watching!"
"Well, it was probably just a glitch, you know, one of those things... It happens to lots of guys. Try again and everything should be fine."

"Yes, but its never happened to me before, and what it it happens again?"
"Well, try not to worry about it, that wont help at all."

"That's easy for you to say. You're not the one it didn't happen to!"
"Well, maybe next time you could try a different one?"

"Isn't that a bit, well, promiscuous?"
"Nonsense! Thats what they're there for! Relax, have a glass of wine, try again. Even if you try two or three different ones, we'll still respect you in the morning."

"OK, I'll give it a go, and, if it happens again I suppose I'll just have to go into the branch and do it the old fashioned way..."
"That's the spirit! If all else fails you can always write a cheque!"

Well, if thats how much fun a conversation can be after a cash machine refuses me a hundred pounds, I cant wait 'till I'm turned down for a mortgage!