Monthly Archives: November 2011


‘Izabellafollananna!’ screamed the old man. ‘Izabellafollananna!’
Was he yelling in Aztec, I wondered? Was he invoking Huitzilopochtl or Quetzalcoatl (or even Itzlacoliuhqui) outside Hertford Waitrose???
Then I saw an old lady in the distance, pursued by a small child ….. who was presumably Isabella.

Pin-Up of the Week

This week’s pin-up is a cute rabbit I met at the Van Hage garden centre near Hertford.

Bolly Has Migrated

As you can see, Boll has migrated to her upstairs bed. This is a groundhog-like portent, meaning winter has arrived.

Valentino Peacock

‘You’re lucky they didn’t call you Valentino,’ said the man at the bank.
I chortled politely, concealing my bewilderment and discombobulation. And then I twigged. He’d just looked at my date of birth and had it down as 14/02.
‘Have you got my date of birth down as Valentine’s Day?’ I asked.
Yes, he had.
He had me down as ten months older than I actually was. That was the worst bit.
‘Thank goodness you noticed,’ he said. ‘It would have stopped your new mortgage coming through if we’d got it wrong.’
So it’s now amended, I’m ten months younger and I’m not called Valentino. Result.

Not me – Rudolph Valentino

Not me – a Valentino model

50 Words For Snow ???

The excellent new Kate Bush album 50 Words For Snow has brought back memories of my first year at university, when we were told Eskimos had hundreds of words for the pesky stuff.

This is an urban myth of course, sparked off by Franz Boas in 1911 who decided they had four.

Then in 1940, amateur linguist Ben Whorf famously opted for seven. He argued we perceive the world through the nuances of language. So the Eskimos have piles of words for types of snow and shades of white in their Inuit and Yupik languages.

Not so. But they do have over 50 or so versions of the word. The Inuit language uses root words that can have almost limitless variations – a bit like calling a dog a dog, a doggy a doglet and so on. This is called polysynthesis.

The myth snowballed so ludicrously that one article in the 50s claimed there were 400 words for it. Four to 400 is quite a leap.

As linguist Geoffrey Pullum puts it in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax there were soon

hundreds of words for different grades and types of snow, a lexicographical winter wonderland, the quintessential demonstration of how primitive minds categorise the world so differently from us.

And he suggests Inuits probably don’t discuss snow very much anyway –

Snow in the traditional Eskimo hunter’s life must be a kind of constantly assumed background, like sand on the beach. And even beach bums have only one word for sand.

If you want a blizzard of snow words, I suggest you turn to the Sami. They have hundreds. That’s because they herd reindeer. And snow really makes a difference if you’re dragging a bunch of big old deers across the Arctic.

So they have vahca (loose snow), moarri (brittle snow), soavli (extremely wet snow), spoatvia (compacted snow), soatma (slush on the surface of a lake) and, well, you get the picture.

There are more in this scholarly paper on Sami words for snow and reindeer.

Here are Kate’s 50 words for snow. They’re a bit odd. But she is Kate Bush.

1 drifting
2 twisting
3 whiteout
4 blackbird braille
5 Wenceslasaire
6 avalanche
7 swans-a-melting
8 deamondi-pavlova
9 eiderfalls
10 Santanyeroofdikov
11 stellatundra
12 hunter’s dream
13 faloop’njoompoola
14 zebranivem
15 spangladasha
16 albadune
17 hironocrashka
18 hooded-wept
19 phlegm de neige
20 mountainsob
21 anklebreaker
22 erase-o-dust
23 shnamistoflopp’n
24 terrablizza
25 whirlissimo
26 vanilla swarm
27 icyskidski
28 robber’s veil
29 creaky-creaky
30 psychohail
31 whippoccino
32 shimmerglisten
33 Zhivagodamarbletash
34 sorbetdeluge
35 sleetspoot’n
36 melt-o-blast
37 slipperella
38 boomerangablanca
39 groundberry down
40 meringuerpeaks
41 crème-bouffant
42 peDtaH ‘ej chIS qo
43 deep’nhidden
44 bad for trains
45 shovelcrusted
46 anechoic
47 blown from polar fur
48 vanishing world
49 mistraldespair
50 snow

In Silly Archaic Grammar We Trust

I’ve just had a promotional email from Pizza Express, declaring

In Dough Balls We Believe

It’s clearly the latest thing – putting the verb at the end – as in Radio 1’s

In New Music We Trust

And it does have its advantages. It allows you to frontload the noun, the big idea, and gives the verb lots of oomph.

I guess that’s why Latin often defaults to that word order, even though any old order will do. As I’m sure you know, Canis puerum mordet (Dog boy bites – ie. the dog bites the boy) has exactly the same meaning as Mordet canis puerum or Puerum mordet canis.

Quite a few languages do use the subject-object-verb (SOV) or object-subject-verb (OSV) order. We even do it in conversational English, when we’re contrasting two things – I hate tea, but coffee I’ll drink (verb at the end for emphasis). It does sound a bit mannered, as in With this ring, I thee wed. But I’m sorely tempted to use more OSVs –

In Hertford I live
In cats I believe
In coffee I trust

My motto that is. This ridiculousness shall I now stop.

Breaking News – Kermit Ousted

Thanks for your concern about the Kermit kitchen kerfuffle. You’ll be pleased to know it’s now restored to tasteful olive green.

My Kitchen Looks Like Kermit

As you know, I have an olive-coloured kitchen. And I decided I’d give it an extra coat today. So I bought some matt Olive paint, which had an olive-coloured tin with an olive-coloured sample on it.
But was it olive-coloured? No. Hideous lime green. The colour of a deranged tree frog. I thought it would turn olivesque, but it didn’t. So I’ve now stopped half way and am having an aesthetic panic attack.

Pin-Up of the Week

This week’s pin-up is the lovely PC who lives with Michael in Cardiff. She was originally going to be named ZX81 until pressure was placed on her human.
PC is the current sleep marathon record holder of the South Wales cat district.
Despite being over five, she’s only just recovering from her first experiences of both fire (curiously unsinterested) and catnip (profound psychotic effects).
She’s hoping to lose weight after Christmas and is eagerly awaiting her first chance to set to work on the neighbour’s troublesome ginger moggy as she makes her first steps outside.

There’s A Varmint on my Counterpane – Elizabethan Americanisms

I heard the word faucet on American TV the other day and thought how old-fashioned it sounded. So I looked it up … and it’s a 14th century English word which we ditched in favour of tap.

It’s not the only old English word used in the USA. Fall (autumn) is another one they kept but we trashed. Trash is an old English word by the way. So is gotten.

It’s an urban myth that people in the Appalachians and the Ozarks speak pure Shakespearean English, but the southern backwoods do have Elizabethan influences in their culture. Some folk tunes and dances can be traced back to Elizabethan courtly music. The Virginia Reel is derived from the English formal dance Sir Roger de Coverley.

Appalachian grammar certainly has a few old English touches. I know because I was a-studying it. The Appalachian folk certainly aren’t a-feared to use archaic-sounding verb forms such as a-going. I also rather like the possessive forms his’nour’n, and your’n (his, ours, yours) which we no longer use, although an old man in Oxford did once say your’n to me. And me is often used with verbs – I bought me a dog.

The spellings can be pretty Olde Worlde too. Appalachian Waspes live in nestes. And cucumbers are cowcumbers.

They’ve preserved some older English pronunciations as well, such as obleeged.

Some other old English words which still survive in the Appalachians but became extinct over here –

Poke – sack (as in a ‘pig in a poke’)
Skillet – frying pan (recently revived here, in the form of the ‘sizzling skillet’)
Varmint – small animal
Victuals – food
Yonder – in the distance
And …
gallusses – an Appalachian term for ‘braces holding up trousers’.

That’s actually an old Geordie word. Wherever you gan, you’re sure to find a Geordie, as they say in the Ozarks y’all.