One of the great beauties and freedoms of the Internet Age (and there are precious few) is that we are free to publish things and make sweeping assertions without bothering to cite our sources. Our collective knowledge is a hazy sphere, of half-remembered facts and unverifiable data. It is a pleasant and easy land, not of milk and honey, perhaps, but of bits and pieces.

I say all this by way of apology for the unverifiable and frankly indefensible ‘study’ I am about to quote, which has assembled a list of the most ‘untranslatable’ English words. The list runs as follows:

  1. Plenipotentiary †
  2. Gobbledegook †
  3. Serendipity †
  4. Poppycock †
  5. Googly †
  6. Spam †
  7. Whimsy †
  8. Bumf †
  9. Chuffed †
  10. Kitsch †

Sharp linguistic eyes will note a few utterly forgivable errors here. Kitsch, for example, is not an English word. You would assume, therefore, that in some languages, at least, a rough equivalent could be found. Also, plenipotentiary has perfect mirrors in Romance languages (plénipotentiaire, for example, would probably get close to the nub of it in French). Serendipity has been imported into various languages wholesale, and spam is pretty international (unless, of course, you’re translating Monty Python).

All that said, the idea that a language – even that most international of languages, English – has some irreducible cultural core simply not available to the non-native speaker, is an attractive one. Do I teach English, in fact, or international English? International English (aka bad English) is to the English I know what Esperanto is to Latin – washed out, denuded, softened around the edges; good enough for selling a few bolts of cloth in Hong Kong, perhaps, but hardly a polyvalent cultural vessel.

Which probably makes me sound a bit Brexity and little-Englander, what with my Monty Python and my warm beer; but that would be poppycock.

Squirrel Scam

This morning – Brexit morning – I was cycling to work when a squirrel crossed my path, carrying another squirrel in its mouth. I assumed it was some sort of omen, something about Britain cannibalising itself. But it seems the second squirrel might have been the baby of the first, and that carrying one’s young in one’s mouth is an emblem not of a cannibalistic Britain but of a warm and furry and nurturing Britain struggling to get across a busy road and a bit wild-eyed in consequence.

The world is a dangerous place, as I fear we are about to find out. Yesterday evening I was on the wrong end of a phishing email, purportedly from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Here is the mail:


In a spirit of hands-across-the-ocean co-operation and fair-play, I was moved to reply, as follows:

May I suggest ‘You have’ for ‘You’ve’ and ‘We have recalculated’ for ‘We have recalculate’. Also ‘If you want’ is very direct and informal. You should try something a little more polished, such as ‘Should you wish to’. ‘Determinated’ should, as I am sure you are aware, read ‘determined’ (an easy mistake to make, over-generalising from ‘determination’). Further, ‘If you will…’ is grammatically incorrect in this case. You also insert a stray space before a comma, on two occasions. Oh, and the day the tax office addresses me as ‘Hi ferrisjt’ is the day I declare myself an independent state and dig a moat around my house and get myself a little cannon.

HMRC does many things wrong, but it writes OK English, in the main.

Good luck with your otherwise first-rate scam.

I think there is probably a good opening for an editor of scam emails in our Brave New Brexuent World, and I advertise my services accordingly.

Bashers and Swoopers

Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Time Quake

When George V died, on the night of January 20th 1936, the German composer Paul Hindemith happened to be in London. Spotting an opportunity, I suppose, he wrote an elegy – the Trauermusik, for viola and string orchestra – the following day, between 11am and 5pm (in an office made available to him by the BBC), and it was given its premiere by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, with the composer as soloist, that evening.

Hindemith must have had something on the go, you would think; either that, or he gave the piece – a full eight minutes of music – some remarkably condensed thought. By contrast, when Anton Webern came to compose his String Quartet op. 28, he spent nine months over the first movement alone, at a rate of sixteen bars of music a month, or a bar every two days. Most of the bars have no more than two notes in them. He wrote therefore at the rate of a single note per day, or thereabouts. Any slower and he simply would not have been composing (and in fairness he went a little quicker with the second and third movements, completing each in a matter of three or four months).

Webern’s music operates at an extreme of condensation (a complete performance is only a few minutes long), and in fairness he most certainly did not take it a note at a time, since the whole principle of the work, as of all his work, is of an extreme structural integration. But I would imagine he was pretty handy with the eraser.

I do not know that Webern was a basher and Hindemith a swooper, but I would lay odds. I see the same pattern with my students. Every Monday they settle to do a bit of writing. They have half an hour and a choice of subjects. Some get their heads down and proceed steadily using the eraser copiously; others dash down whatever and then scratch emendations over the top. The former tend to have neat handwriting, the latter less so. I doubt whether there is a correlation between good writing and one approach or the other; good writers tend to read back over longer portions of text more frequently, which might be a characteristic of the basher rather than the swooper; to judge from their manuscripts, both James Joyce and Charles Dickens were swoopers; and so on. Both get there in the end.


Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

Edward Thomas

Cambridge has finally thawed. When the wind blows now it does not bring ice and perishing cold. It might blow you off your bicycle, but you will be warm enough.

And so the birds are nesting. In the garden at OISE Cambridge we have nesting pair of long-tailed tits. The nest is neat and small, with a suitably tiny aperture, and an elongated for to accommodate the birds’ absurd tails.

The tits are on to something. Leaving aside for a moment whether the tail can be said to be efficient or not, an efficient form will ultimately follow function in some way. With language, for instance, the brain will not let you learn what is not relevant to you. The language you have at your command will, in the end, accurately map the use you have for it. You will not spend resources which your brain does not think necessary.

This partly explains the plateau – the tendency of language learners to stop learning at a given level of competence, suitable to their needs. It also explains why some learners can make sudden dramatic progress, if their needs change. If all your meetings and telephone calls are, overnight, in English, with native speakers, you will sweat profusely for a few months, and then settle at a new, much higher, but still adaptive, level.

Creating that need in the classroom is part of the expertise of teachers – forcing students not to be content with what they can currently accomplish. But it is a tricky business. Humans are easily scared. They resist. Their brains are out of their conscious control. Half the time they’re looking out of the window, thinking about something completely different (which is of course another well-worn survival technique), such as why a long-tailed tit wants such a long tail in the first place.

Stage of Fools

Last week I taught my students everything they need to know about phrasal verbs. Here is the gist of it:

…a small subset of 20 lexical verbs combines with eight adverbial particles (160 combinations) to account for more than one half of the 518,923 phrasal verb occurrences identified in the megacorpus. A more specific analysis indicates that only 25 phrasal verbs account for nearly one-third of all phrasal-verb occurrences in the British National Corpus, and 100 phrasal verbs account for more than one half of all such items. Subsequent semantic analyses show that these 100 high-frequency phrasal verb forms have potentially 559 variant meaning senses.

Gardner and Davies

That’s it, in a nutshell. 20 lexical verbs (set, get, be, put, pick, point etc.) and 8 particles (off, on, up etc.) are all you need, pretty much, to speak English (the purist might want to add a few pronouns and perhaps a few nouns, but if you have mastered the art of pointing with your finger (in shops, at menus etc.) you probably don’t need to bother much with nouns either).

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 19.31.48

Of course, the sting is in the tail. That handful of phrasal verbs generates a vast array of meanings and idioms. Today in class we found ourselves being drawn into the vortex of put off, which, at a lowly 82 on the list of most frequently used phrasal verbs, resolves into a fragrant soup of polysemy on even cursory inspection (put off a meeting, put you off your dinner, put me off my stroke; and so on); not long before that we had steered deftly around the reef of set up (no.3 on the most frequent phrasal verbs list), during which I made the mistake of mentioning that set has more definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary than any other headword, and yet we rarely teach it.

When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools, says old King Lear. So must our students feel, sometimes, when we lift the lid of the chaos of language for them.

Ides of March

Soothsayer: Beware the Ides of March
Caesar: He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.

Today is the Ides of March, by reputation a fateful day.


While I am not particuoarly concerned about the Ides of March this year (it is sunny; my students are pleasant enough, I get to knock off a bit early etc.), I do have reason to be worried that this year is not going to be a good one for me. A Chinese soothsayer of my acquaintance (all right, a Chinese student of my acquaintance) informed me a month or so ago that this year being my Chinese animal year, I stand to suffer more than my fair share of slings and arrows. Even though I’m not Chinese.

I put no store in it, needless to say, but I do find myself collecting instances of good fortune in order to refute my soothsayer’s belief system when I next see her. Which would argue if nothing else that my own irrational belief system is in good working order. We like prognosticates. Bioluminescence on the Tasman Sea warns of climate change; cows lying down speak of the weather; a grumbling in our bones tells us what sort of morning we can expect if we bother to get out of bed. Prognosticates, then: some rational, some irrational, all answering to our need to know what the coming weeks and years will bring.

So too with an English course. An English course can start auspiciously or inauspiciously (jet-lagged students underperforming on entry-tests, for instance); early student indicators will set our benchmarks and anchor points for a given student, and presumably the same thing happens in reverse: it is hard to come back from bewildering a student in the first five minutes. If we could only wait and see, and not feel the need to draw a full conclusion from a sliver of evidence, life would be, if nothing else, a bit more balanced, and there would be no reason to fear the Ides of March, or the year of the Cock.

Madonnas and Miracles

Yesterday, for one very good reason or another, my mid-morning student and I found occasion to pop over to the Fitzwilliam Museum for a spot of intensive culture, with a focus on the somewhat niche language for linear perspective (orthogonals, vanishing point, volumetric, and so on). 

Leaving aside the irrelevance that it was sparkling early-spring day, and a crying shame to be sitting in a classroom, we made a profitable trip. We had a look at the gallery of Italian art, and got about as far as the Titian and Veronese; then we wound around to the new exhibition they have on, Madonnas and Miracles, and pogoed rapidly but happily through that. To repeat, all very intensive and instructive.

We had spent a portion of the first lesson looking at a video on Khan Academy about Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective, and the exhibition provided a series of counter-examples to those we found in the permanent collection: any number of meditative devotional panels, their madonnas and children floating in abstract volumes of dark space, very unlike the coordinate location system of linear perspective. And very appropriate too, for icon-like works designed for private contemplation.

The exhibition focusses on religious imagery in domestic spaces, and comprises not just works of high culture (Filippo Lippi, workshop of Botticelli, etc.), but a good deal of demotic or low-grade devotional art, whether sculpture, illumination, painting, drawing or print. More of historical-sociological interest, then, than strictly aesthetic appeal.