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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Putting Yourself in the Picture

I was fascinated to watch songwriter Guy Chambers collaborate with singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright on the creation of a new song World War III in Secrets of the Pop Song on BBC4. Together they produced a really soaring melody, a great mood and Wainwright's voice is one in a million. But the lyrics - no! One of the things that turns me right off in songs, books, films - just about anything really - is the creator putting themselves right in amongst it all and telling us they're having problems making it work. In this song, the guys were wanting to move on to something catchy and 'hooky', so Wainright sang 'Don't bore us, get to the chorus' and, contrary to Chambers's instinct, it stayed in. No, no and again no!
When I'm listening/watching/reading something, I don't want to know about its creation. I want to be transported by it; it should be a window onto something else, not onto itself. Take the song 'True' by Spandau Ballet - 'Why do I find it hard to write the next line?' - Why do I care? I don't!
My friend Ellie and I once collected novels in which the protagonist was an author who caught other people reading his work. One, I think, was Jonathan Coe's fantastic 'What a Carve-Up!', another was a Martin Amis, I seem to remember. It can be fun, but it can also be damaging to the whole fantasy that it built up in a work of art. Even Rembrandt's painting of himself painting, though brilliant, does annoy me just a little for that reason.
Is it just me?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Ahoy, ahoy, sailors!

I've been musing about the names people give their boats and wondering what it says about them. In sailing superstition, it is unlucky to change the name of a boat. If you simply must (and it's not too hard to see why you might feel obliged), you are required to keep the original name carved in wood in the bow of the boat to avert disaster. Sailors really are more superstitious than your granny, honestly.
Boats are all female (she handles like a dream), (she's happiest when I really let her out) perhaps so the captains can chat in those terms over a harbour-side gin and tonic.
There are those cheerful names like Optimist and Sunny Daze, the names that evoke the sea, the river and the local wildlife, such as Osprey, Pelican, Porpoise, and a final category that perhaps sums it all up. There's Last Fling and Still Got It that I've seen; I've no doubt there's a boat out there called Nil Desperandum and another called Keep it Up. It's all a bit of a give-away when you think about it...

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ain't Nothing Like a Dame

To return to the subject of song lyrics, I must admit that I am fascinated by the way the use of the double negative always sounds so much rockier, so much cooler and - dare I say it? - younger than the 'correct' English. Picture if you will Tina Tuner in her tiny leather mini-skirt and patent high heels singing about how there isn't any mountain high enough to keep her from her beloved. Or Mick Jagger telling us how he can't get any satisfaction. It just won't do.
Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that the word 'any', which would make the statement grammatically correct, has two syllables and would ruin the scansion or rhythm of the line. 'We don't need any education' for example, simply wouldn't fit the music, even though the poor grammar does suggest that a bit of education wouldn't go amiss!
The double negative is the screenwriter's way of telling us that somebody is working class, a villain (I ain't done nothing, honest!) or ill-educated. It places the speaker in society straight away: an immediate pointer to their background. Unless of course they write pop songs, in which case Public schoolboys and University graduates take to it naturally, for reasons of their own.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Oh, Mr Porter!

This afternoon, by a lucky chance, I happened to switch on the radio in time to hear Ella Fitzgerald's glorious voice singing We'll Take Manhattan. Nobody sings it like her. Nobody sings anything like her - and I write this as a fan of the Foo Fighters and others. I always used to think that this song, like so many of Cole Porter's other songs, was a light, delicate bubble of romance; straight-faced and conventional, if one can use such a drab word about such a masterpiece.
Yet in recent years, I attended more closely to the lyrics and found it wry, witty, sarcastic and yet still utterly romantic. Those immaculate lines 'And tell me what street, compares with Mott Street in July?' can perhaps be best appreciated when you have struggled to find a table for dim sum in  the centre of New York's Chinatown in the sweltering summer heat. But once you get the joke, you never hear the song in the same way. You probably knew all this already - pardon me for being a late developer in some matters. If you didn't know, I beseech you to call up Ella singing Porter on Spotify or wherever you can and listen out for the humour. It's there not only in the words but in the way they are put together. Now that's really style!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Cliche - use it or lose it?

A good friend, whose first language is not English, recently asked me what was the difference between a cliche and an idiom. What a good question. After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that an idiom is a phrase whose meaning is not evident in its words. Kicking the bucket, buying the farm, peg out, pop one's clogs etc; all of them mean to die, but unless you knew that, you wouldn't know that.
A cliche, on the other hand, is a well-worn phrase that comes pre-packaged like a frozen meal. It has its uses, it's quick and convenient, but nobody is going to be bowled over by its style or originality. Over the moon, high as a kite, singing from the same hymn-sheet; these are all well-worn, familiar phrases. If you are writing to impress, leave them in the deep-freeze, and create something tasty out of fresh ingredients.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Everyday English, innit?

It's not often that my jaw drops open with shock or surprise, so it must have come as something of a jolt to discover that the word 'innit' is now permissible in Scrabble. Innit is a word (sort of) that asks for confirmation of a statement - or at least it used to. When Britain was a class-ridden place, the lower orders would have said 'ain't it' while the aristocracy would have asked 'don't you know'.
The thing that annoys me most about 'innit' is that is never changes: not tense, not person, nothing, never. Whereas correct English would be 'they ran down the street, didn't they?', street talk says 'they run down the street, innit?' Correct English in the future tense would be 'We'll go to that pub next week, shall we?' while 'innit' users will say 'We'll go to that pub next week, innit?'
'Innit' is not a word, it is an annoying tick that people who don't understand or care how English works add to the end of every expression or grunt in the hope of seeming cool, street-wise and fashionable. Not at all the people you'd expect to find settling down to a nice, quiet game of Scrabble...

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Everyday English are you out there?

Well, my slaved-over project, in which I tried to give a history, overview, in-depth study and generally amusing and accessible guide to the English language, hit the shops last week. At least that is what publishing used to mean. I know it's early days but, yes, I am a sad person with nothing better to do in life and I did spend time in W.H.Smiths and Waterstones looking for it.
Luckily, it has an eye-catching yellow cover and red spine, so it took no time at all to see that - wait for it - every single copy had been bought! There wasn't one solitary copy anywhere to be found. When I had a look on Amazon, there it was in all its gorgeous primary colours announcing that there is only one copy left. You see! People can't get their hands on it fast enough.
As an aside, earlier in the week I watched (again) Julie and Julia, the film about a New York charity worker who cooks and blogs her way through all of Julia Child's French recipes. She sets herself the project to be completed within a year. At the end of that she is famous! She becomes the doyenne of the Fourth Estate and, at the risk of repeating myself, she has a film made about her starring Meryl Streep (as Julia Child).
 It took me back to the first time I watched it. It made me desperate for a project of my own. Then I was asked to write Everyday English and I had 3 months of intense reading, writing, frustration, joy and creativity. I now feel the same need again. Perhaps I should begin telling you of the terrible schizophrenia induced by trying to cook some of the superb cakes in the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook and not end up looking like a Sumo wrestler...
Watch this space!

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Rhyming slang - who doesn't get it?

Advertisers, those arbiters of taste and discernment in Berkeley Square or Madison Avenue, simply don't understand cockney rhyming slang. While telling us which soap powder washes whitest and which juices we'll love because it doesn't have 'bits' in, they make their ignorance too obvious to ignore.
The way rhyming slang works is to use an article that comes as part of a pair or a set phrase - plates of meat, for example, then just say 'plates'. The word you mean will rhyme with the missing part. Plates of meat = feet.
China plate = mate, apples and pears = stairs, Adam and Eve = believe.
It's much easier to understand than it is to explain.
So how come all of these overpaid masters of the language use 'you're having a giraffe'? on an advert for soap powder? If giraffe were used in rhyming slang it would be something like 'giraffe's neck' for 'peck'. Londoners everywhere would be saying 'give me a giraffe on the cheek'. Sorry, chaps, but you just don't get it, do you? Perhaps we should bring back Minder and Only Fools and Horses to teach you young whippersnappers a thing or two?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Stolen words...

It has been said that the English language has borrowed from some 350 other languages. If in doubt, think of your local high street with all of its multi-cultural restaurants, bars and cafes and ask yourself where words like chilli, chutney, couscous, sushi and risotto come from. Even the humble ketchup has exotic origins, coming as it does, from China. But food is just one example of our cosmopolitan language.
Originally, the Celts inhabited Britain but were forced to flee to its distant corners by the arrival of the Romans. They spoke a sort of vernacular, more colloquial, version of Latin than the one we learnt at school called Vulgar Latin. Because many of them stayed behind and married into the new invading tribes - the Anglo-Saxons - we were left with a blend of Celtic, Latin and Anglo-Saxon, which was derived from Old German.
As if this was not enough of a linguistic cocktail, the Normans arrived in 1066 and, well the rest is history. English is based on a rare concoction of old Norman French, Old German, Latin and a tiny smattering of Celtic.
Latin was revived in Britain when Saint Augustine converted many of the islanders to Christianity, because if they wanted to read the Christian texts, they had to understand Latin.
Today, we can see that in many situations, we have a choice of words available to us. If we wish to evoke something simple and homely, we tend to use the Anglo-Saxon word, if we need a little more formality we are more likely to choose the word of French origin, and if we wish to sound scientific, technological or official, we will probably opt for a Latin-based word.
Ask, for example, is an Anglo-Saxon word, demand a French one, and interrogate a Latin one.
You get my drift...
While it has been estimated that we have almost a million words available to us in the English language today, while the Russians have 150,000 and the French 180,000, when Shakespeare was alive, there were only 21,500 words at his disposal. No wonder he had to create his own.
More about that anon!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Our multinational language

Here I am blithely talking about the English language, when actually our language has borrowed ( or should I say hi-jacked, stolen, ransacked, robbed and kidnapped) from over 300 other languages. Have a think about it. Most of our words for food, for music, for some animals, plants and types of landscape have come into English through long-term borrowing.

Everyday English is born

No-one was more surprised and delighted than me when the editors at Michael O'Mara Books asked me to write a book entitled Everyday English. I thought I knew a bit about the language, about writing and speaking and how to inspire people to enjoy their language. As it turned out, the subject was even more vast, more interesting, more exciting and more complicated than I had realized and I had a very short time in which to make sense of it all.
Luckily for me, and for everyone interested in the subject, there are some wonderful, inspiring books on the shelves; unluckily for me, they all have different names for similar things - not just across the Atlantic, but from author to author. There was so much material to discover and so much of it said different things!

Thanks to some wonderful editing, the addition of some great illustrations and a very talented designer, it looks as if we are ready to hit the shops in May.

What I would like to do with this blog is to share some of the strange and fascinating aspects of the English language and to demonstrate that grammar does not have to be a grind.
Over time, this blog may take us into new regions, some of them unconnected with language, but for the time being, watch this space and let's enjoy the richest, most extraordinary gift that we, as English speakers, have been blessed with: the English language.