Saturday, January 26, 2013

Oh yes, and then there was this interview...

Last week I was interviewed for The English Programme, a show on community radio station Oldenburg Eins, and it went... surprisingly. One of the surprising aspects was the sound quality, and another was the fact that my planned ten-minute interview went to over 20 minutes because the other guest never turned up. Here is the visually uninteresting video:

In answer to the question on what other subjects I would like to make videos about in future, I should have mentioned the fact that little Kleinkahl, where I live, has more festivals than is good for it: a fish festival, a cheese festival, a lantern festival, a hay-bale festival, you name it. And of course the carneval season is about to get underway, with all the attendant opportunities that brings.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Response to German words

When you wake up and discover that a blog post you wrote the evening before has already been viewed over 300 times when you normally struggle to get 50, you know that Something Has Happened. Sometimes, as in this case, it turns out that you’ve had a brief moment of fame on Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet”.

That’s very gratifying, and thank you to “Aschebescher” for submitting my post, but it does mean that all the interesting discussion is over on Reddit instead of right here, and if you don’t have and don’t particularly want to have a Reddit account, you can’t join in. Seriously, I already fritter away enough time on various bits of the web here and there, I don’t need another distraction from my real life.

So let me just pick up on a few things that are being said over at Reddit:
I’m still confused as to why he listed “Fernweh” on there, if wanderlust is not comparable conveyance of it.
I may be wrong, but I think that Fernweh and Wanderlust are two subtly different things. Wanderlust is generally the desire to get out and travel, while Fernweh very specifically is the longing for faraway places in a much more wistful manner. In any case, Wanderlust is itself a German word and so we still don’t have an English word for it.
No worries, there’s an English word for [Treppenwitz]: staircase wit.
I had to look this up and check it, and in fact it seems you’re right. I’ve never heard this word actually used in English before — I’ve only ever seen it as part of an explanation for what the German word or its French equivalient esprit d’escalier means, as in this Wikipedia entry. It doesn’t seem to be a very common expression, so perhaps we should lobby for it to become more widely used. Or, even better, one of the alternatives I’ve seen listed, “afterwit”, a word I never knew existed before but which I have enjoyed immensely.
To rebook?
This was a suggested translation for umbuchen, but I don’t know how current it is. It’s hard to google for it, because Google automatically assumes you meant “Reebok”. The American Heritage Dictionary does give “to change a booking” as one of the meanings of this word, but also lists the meanings I’d have used it for: to book again, or to cancel the original booking and make a completely new booking. I’d love some more input on this: have you ever had to alter a booking, such as changing a table for six to a table for eight, and would you use “rebook” to describe this?
I don't think I’ve ever heard “umtüten” at all.
Well, the word was eintüten, although umtüten (which would mean “to remove something from one envelope and put it in a different envelope”) is a very nice example of how one language can very easily encapsulate a concept which another language cannot. For logophiles, the key is the German prefix um-, which denotes change, alteration, swapping or circular motion, as in beschreiben “to describe” versus umschreiben “to paraphrase”, that is, to describe something using different words, or “to circumscribe”.

For the record, I have encountered the word eintüten in normal conversation: “Sorry, I’m running late: I’ve just printed off a hundred invoices and I’m still eintüten them.”

Thank you, people of Reddit, for this fruitful discussion.

UPDATE: More comments trickle in over on Reddit.
I fail to see why not having a single word for taking something down is a problem. If you really must have a single word, you could just use “unhang”, though you'll likely get odd looks.
Apparently, “unhang” does exist, although I have never heard it or used it myself. But I don’t want to get odd looks. As a translator, if I deliver a text that makes people look oddly when the original was perfectly clear and natural, I have failed. Also, of course, not having a word for this isn’t a problem per se: the article was really just a bit of fun.
really? no Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung? Come on now...
Excellent suggestion. If I ever decide to write a Part Two, that word’s going in. Thank you.
Regrettably, there are many ways to translate this word: “busy”, “assiduous”, “hard-working” and “studious” are just a few.

UPDATE 2: A list of suggested translations has appeared.
  • Allgemeinbildung = common sense: It’s a great deal more than that. Common sense is things that anyone can work out for themselves: if you put your hand in a fire you will get burned, and if you put too many heavy books on a shelf the shelf may collapse. Allgemeinbildung also includes general knowledge: fresh fruit and vegetables are a good source of vitamin C, and Paris is the capital of France.
  • eintüten = to stuff: This is incorrect, as the word “stuff” implies the use of force due to the bulkiness of the things you are trying to insert into the container; by extension it can also imply a certan slapdash approach. None of this is implicit in the German word.
  • Spießer = a square: A square is any person ignorant of current fashion. This is not necessarily true of a Spießer: such a person may be all too aware of current fashion, but disapprove of it. A square is merely a dull person, while a Spießer wishes everyone else to be as dull as he is. Additionally, “square” in this meaning is hopelessly outdated and people who use it reveal themselves to be out of touch with modern trends.
  • Treppenwitz is translated from the French, as is the English version: The English version has already been discussed here. As for it being a translation of a French expression, that makes no difference to whether or not there is an acceptable and concise English translation.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

German words you wish existed in English

Hello, you wonderful people from Reddit. I’m enjoying the debate you’re having over there, and thank you for your interest. Once you’ve finished reading this, you might like to read my follow-up post where I address a few points you have so far raised. Do bear in mind, though, that this is just a bit of fun. Interesting, and hopefully educational, fun; but fun nonetheless.

If you have had a reasonably good education, the chances are you may have encountered the word schadenfreude, to mean “malicious delight at another’s misfortune”. There is no word for this in English, and so we have borrowed the German word and incorporated it into our language. Well, here are some more German words with no easy English translation, which I think would be useful additions to the language:
  • abhängen: to remove something that is hanging, such as a picture from a wall.
  • Allgemeinbildung: everything that any adult capable of living independently can reasonably be expected to know, including general knowledge, common sense, most things taught in elementary schools or discussed in such things as newspapers, periodicals, TV chat shows and so on. For example, the fact that an exclusive diet of cheeseburgers is likely to give you health problems is Allgemeinbildung.
  • eintüten: to put something, such as a letter, into an envelope.
  • Erklärungsnot: the state of requiring a credible explanation at very short notice, such as being discovered by your spouse in the company of an attractive young acquaintance, having claimed to be working late.
  • Fernweh: the desire to leave home and travel far; the opposite of home-sickness and akin to Wanderlust.
  • Ostalgie: nostalgia for things relating to the former Democratic Republic of Germany.
  • Scheinselbständigkeit: the state of having registered yourself as self-employed or freelance despite only having one client, thereby avoiding the higher rate of tax that would be due if you were on that client’s payroll.
  • schweigen: to refrain from speaking; to remain silent.
  • Sitzfleisch: the ability to sit or remain unmoved for long periods of time despite everything that anyone else can throw at you. In a positive sense, this means the ability to endure hardship merely by sitting it out. In a negative sense, a party guest with Sitzfleisch is difficult to get rid of and may not be invited a second time.
  • Sitzpinkler: a man who sits in order to urinate.
  • Spießer: a fussy and fastidious man, typically from the aspiring middle classes, who demands certain standards of attire, language and behaviour to the point of being a killjoy; the type of person who would confiscate a child’s toy because it spoiled the look of the neighbourhood.
  • Treppenwitz: the things you should have said but only occur to you when it is too late, such as all the witty one-liners you only think of after you have left the party.
  • umbuchen: to alter a previously made reservation or booking.
  • Verschlimmbesserung: a change which is intended or announced as an improvement, but any improvement is outweighed by all the disadvantages brought about by said change.
  • vorgestern: the day before yesterday.
  • vorvorgestern: the day before the day before yesterday.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The airport to nowhere

Now, this is a tricky thing: an unfolding scandal too big to miss, but also far too outrageous to be satirized. How do you satirize something that sounds like a satire before you even start?

This is about Berlin’s new Berlin Brandeburg Airport, which has been under construction since 2006, was due to open in 2011 after five years in the making, and now is expected to open possibly in 2014 or even later, if at all. You see? Already it sounds like a working draft for an episode of Yes, Prime Minister.

I gave it my best shot, but I’m not sure I was able to make it funnier than it is.

There are, of course, a myriad other facts that go with this story. The technical supervisor, for example, has been accused of writing his dissertation instead of turning up for work. The fire alarm and sprinkler system, the first major installment in this comedy of errors, is said to be so complex nobody actually knows how to work it. Several parts to the airport, including the jetbridges and the luggage caroussels, have cost twice the original estimates. Several experts have complained that the airport is too small to cope with the expected traffic. One YouTuber commented to say that the kerosene tanks were full in anticipation of the grand opening, but kerosene is perishable so it had to be taken to Tegel in tankers.

In fact, even before the contract was awarded, things were going wrong. The airport operators anticipated that the decision would be made to build the airport at Schönefeld, and bought a fair-sized chunk of land at what was later discovered to be a vastly inflated price. That chunk, though, isn’t in the right place and to this day hasn’t been built on or used in any way.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Radio interview for The English Programme

It’s just been confirmed, and I am allowed to tell you: on Saturday, 19th January, I will be interviewed live on radio. It’s expected that the interview will mostly be about my YouTube videos, but there may be time for some chat about German culture as well. The interview will be for a small private channel, Oldenburg Eins, but you can listen to the show live on its own special website.

The show begins at 12 noon Central European Time, which is 11 am GMT. This is, I’m afraid, bad news for anyone in America: sorry, guys, it’s going to be 6 am in New York and 3 am in Los Angeles. I have no idea whether a podcast will be available later.

If you’re in the Oldenburg area, sorry to you also: I won’t be travelling up there, camera in hand, because Oldenburg Eins doesn’t have the kind of budget that will stretch to a rail ticket and a hotel room. I’ll be doing the interview, through the marvellous medium of modern technology (read: Skype) from the comfort of my own home.

Monday, January 7, 2013

To boldly split an infinitve

There’s a sketch by British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb, in which an overstrung office worker disrupts a meeting by producing a massive gun and slaughtering each colleague in turn whenever they make a grammar mistake. Eventually, the last surviving colleague demands an explanation. “I can’t work with such ignorami,” says the gunman; whereupon his colleague points out that because in Latin the word “ignoramus” is a verb meaning “we don’t know”, the correct English plural is “ignoramuses”. The grammar nazi has no choice but to shoot himself in the head.

I mention this because of this once again doing the rounds on Facebook, which I reproduce for the purposes of analysis and comment:

There are lots of these cute little things floating around, but this one bears the signature of Grammarly, the makers of a piece of grammar-checking software and the provider of a service that will instantly check your “writing for grammar, punctuation, style, and much more”. I don’t worry too much about the Oxford comma after “style” — that’s acceptable punctuation and perfectly good standard American English. I do worry slightly about the all-caps and extraneous exclamation marks that litter their Facebook page (as in: “SHARE your tips in the comments below!”). Of course, these rules didn’t originate with Grammarly: they were originally printed in the June 1986 issue of Writers’ Digest. (Ironically, I found this information at, the official website of the Plain Language and Information Network, which misspelled the name of publication as “Writers’ digest”.)

Now, since I do advertise my own proof-reading services, I have to declare my vested interest here, although I don’t think we’re fighting for the same clientèle. But I do know what I’m talking about. I have, however, long been cured of my tendency to correct people’s mistakes in forum posts, Facebook posts, text messages and the like. There’s a big difference between writing a magazine article and writing a tweet, and it turns out to be a mistake to hold non-professional writers to the same standards you struggle to keep to yourself. It’s like finding fault with your homemade cake because it doesn’t taste the same as one baked by a pastry chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

To be sure, some basic care and thought is required: I’m sure we’ve all seen the one with the fluffy sea mammals in a disco accompanied by the line “Stop clubbing, baby seals”. But as long as the message is immediately clear, and it’s not for professional publication, the primary purpose — conveying a message — has been fulfilled. Everything else is a bonus.

That is why if you see me correcting somebody in public, it’s only ever because that person has sought to correct a third person, often unfairly. In that spirit:

The introductory sentence may have been a deliberate attempt at irony; in case it isn’t, the word “learnt” should of course be replaced by “taught”.

Rule 2: This is a myth: terminal prepositions have long been a feature of English and may go back to Anglo-Saxon times. This rule was dreamt up by John Dryden out of thin air, and no grammarian before or since has ever insisted on it.

Rule 5: Having admonished us for not using everyday speech in rule 4, Visco uses the word “eschew” instead of “avoid”.

Rule 6: Parenthetical statements, which need not be between parentheses, often convey additional information important to aid understanding. The clause between the commas in the previous sentence is a special kind of parenthetical statement known as a non-defining relative clause.

Rule 7: Another popular myth with no basis in fact. As with rule 2, no authority is against the splitting of the infinitive: even Fowler, that most conservative of grammarians, merely suggests it should be avoided if it doesn’t do too much violence to the style and structure of the sentence. It would be hard to recast a sentence like “It is illegal to sexually harrass women in the workplace” without either changing the meaning (“It is illegal sexually to harrass women in the workplace”) or making the sentence sound clumsy and unnatural (“It is illegal to harrass women sexually in the workplace”).

Rule 8: True; but these days, even in formal writing, avoiding contractions completely can result in stilted English.

Rule 9: True to a point. If you are using foreign words and phrases to replace perfectly good English words, you will look like a pompous bore. But there are many foreign words and phrases English could not easily do without: among them schadenfreude, hinterland, bazaar, pièce de résistance and rendezvous, to pick a tiny handful at random.

Rule 10: This should usually be restated as: “One should never overgeneralize.” It is simply not possible to discuss many issues without some degree of generalizing. The statement “Americans speak English as their mother tongue” is a generalization, as many Americans don’t. But if I am making a general point about which languages are commonly spoken in which countries, it is understood that, for the sake of brevity and readability, I will be generalizing.

Rule 12: It depends on the comparisons you are making and why you are making them. In creative writing, it is certainly true that metaphors are preferred over similes; but must we then censure Shakespeare for writing, “Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night / Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear”? And of course in non-fiction, comparisons are the bread-and-butter of explanatory texts: the information that the tongue of a blue whale weighs as much as an elephant helps us grasp just how massive a blue whale is.

Rule 13: That seems fair enough. But then:

Rule 18: Why?

Rule 19: This is rule 12, reloaded. So much for rule 13, then.

Rule 20: The passive voice is very useful when the identity of the agent is unknown or irrelevant. In non-fiction: “The Himalayas were formed about 50 million years ago.” In crime fiction: “The victim had been beaten unconscious, tied up with rope, shot and left to die in a disused warehouse.”

Rule 21: This one needs qualification, especially in light of rule 4.

Rule 23: Rhetorical questions are very powerful and effective rhetorical devices (hence the name) which should, to be sure, be used sparingly. But in argumentative writing and motivational speeches, they are an indespensible tool if you want people to come around to your way of thinking. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want people to come around to their way of thinking? Even two thousand years ago, Jesus used rhetorical questions, as in Matthew chapter 6, verse 27: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

And really you don’t need to worry about pandering to the self-appointed grammar police, who don’t always know the grammar any better than you do. In all non-professional writing, just check that your writing is clear, unambiguous, and says what you want it to say. Mistakes happen, and anyone who claims that they can’t understand your sentence about Paris being the “capitol” of France is either lying or criminally stupid.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The good old days

In the news at the moment, if you want to waste your time on such things, is the “story” (if it can be called that) that a satirical panel game show on Britain’s Channel Four has been criticized for making lewd jokes about the Queen and Usain Bolt, among others. For those familiar with British popular culture, that’s The Big Fat Quiz of the Year.

There may be a valid point here. I don’t know exactly what the joke about the Queen was about, but apparently the joke about Usain Bolt included the suggestion he be put out to stud. Apart from the distasteful likening of a black man (or, indeed, any person at all) to a horse, it’s especially unfortunate given that it’s very possible that Bolt’s ancestors — who were slaves — may actually have been selectively bred by their masters.

That aside: this being the internet, it wasn’t long before comments sections on news websites started lamenting about the state of British comedy and how much better it used to be back in the day. The golden age, it seems, of Only Fools and Horses and Last of the Summer Wine; Jasper Carrott and Kenny Everett.

Well, yes. There are two assumptions here: that there was no bad comedy back then, and there is no good comedy now.

This is all very objective, of course. The current bad boy of British comedy is Frankie Boyle, who is no stranger to controversy, but who, not so long ago, was curiously censured for likening a sportswoman’s face to somebody looking at their reflection on the back of a spoon, while a joke he made on the same show about the Queen’s private parts appeared to pass muster. Frankie Boyle is reviled by many, and loved by many others. The people who love Frankie Boyle no doubt consider Michael McIntyre to be bland and too safely middle-class; yet McIntyre, like Boyle, performs to sell-out audiences.

So it’s not easy to be objective about this, and if you’re British, you may disagree with what follows. It is necessarily my own personal opinion, but I think the general point still stands: there is now, and always has been, good comedy and bad comedy.

To represent the bad comedy of the supposed golden age, I would like to suggest the likes of Bobby Davro and Bernard Manning, for very different reasons.

Poor old Bobby Davro. He only really wanted to make people laugh, but unfortunately he just didn’t have the talent. The more he tried, the worse it got. His material was old and tiresomely predictable. At some point, long after his career had gone into its terminal tailspin, he found himself surrounded by some other fading stars of comedy, hands and face in the stocks, and having his trousers pulled down to his ankles, all in the name of comedy. Live on stage, he lost his balance; with his arms and legs effectively immobilised, there was nothing he could do and he fell face down. If this had been a scripted and rehearsed stunt, it could well have been the funniest thing he ever did. As it was, he lucky to get away with concussion.

Bernard Manning’s line was pretty much straightforward racism, homophobia and sexism “because,” he claimed, “it gets laughs”. In one infamous moment, he claimed he wasn’t at all prejudiced against other religions: he said he thought that Jews and Anglicans and Catholics and Methodists should all get together and fight the Pakistanis. He supporters urged us not to be taken in by his act: he wasn’t at all like that in real life. Perhaps he wasn’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that his material was every bit as offensive as the one about putting Usain Bolt out to stud.

Good British comedy today? Well, there is a lot of stuff that is inoffensive but arguably bland: Miranda Hart’s Miranda, for example, is a fairly forgettable sitcom about a clumsy woman failing to attract a boyfriend. But I’d like to present one sitcom, and one writer, to stand in for good modern comedy.

The IT Crowd is penned by Graham Lineham, the man behind Father Ted and Black Books, and is an old-fashioned style sitcom about the IT department of a multinational. It manages not to be offensive while still mining for comedy gold in such subjects as pre-menstrual tension and disfiguring accidents.

And the writer John Finnemore is responsible, among other things, for the excellent radio sitcom Cabin Pressure, about a ramshackle fly-by-night airline (actually an airdot, because it only has one plane, and to put planes in a line you need at least two). Finnemore is a relatively young writer who nevertheless attracts to his little radio sitcom stars as big as Stephanie Cole, Benedict Cumberbatch and Anthony Head (and even if you’re not British, you ought to be familiar with at least two of those names). Again, it’s an old-fashioned style of sitcom (appropriate, you see, because we are comparing modern comedy with the supposed “golden age”), yet Finnemore’s material is always fresh, rarely predictable, and never cruel. If TV executives know what’s good for them, they’ll be keeping their eye on John Finnemore.

This is not a very scientific approach, I realise; but then you can’t be scientific about something as subjective as comedy, which is, after all, an art form. My point is simply this: before you hark back to the good old days, remember that there is a lot about the good old days you have forgotten because it wasn’t worth remembering, and a lot more to the current scene than the stuff the newspaper headlines are complaining about.