Category Archives: language

Can anyone explain to me ….

… the logic behind the apostrophes in the following piece of text?

You cannot return newspapers and magazines, video’s, dvds, cd’s, tapes or computer games if the security seal has been broken unless such items are faulty.

It comes from Asda On-line’s terms and conditions. (Yes I know Asda are evil but it’s a choice between them and Tesco who are equally evil. Asda have their head office in the north of England, so better the devil that’s local).

A couple of other things amused me about them:

We know it’s a lot of legal stuff, but its been written by top lawyers at huge expense to us, to protect You,

Yeah. Right. And who pays your wages? That’s right. Us, the (capitalised) Customer.

It is easy to tell the bits written by marketing from the bits written by lawyers:

You may also write to us at or fax us on, but this is the slowest and most expensive way for us to deal with Your changes so please try and help us keep costs down and prices low by visiting Our Site or using our order helpline.

Written by Marketing presumably, though it is unforgivably careless to leave out the address and fax number.


A legally binding contract with You will only arise once We have completed delivering the products to You. At this time You become the owner of the products.. This means that You will have no legal liability in connection with Your order until delivery is completed.

I like to think that anyone writing consumer-friendly text would have avoided the phrases “a legally binding contract … will only arise” and “completed delivering”. In fact, why not just cut to the chase and skip everything until the last sentence? And note the double full stop.

All in all it reads like an un-proof-read and poorly translated parody of one of Wagner’s operas, with random acts of capitalisation which would only be acceptable if you were a God translated from the German. And lost, at that.

They have a minimum order value of 25 quid and since the point is to save money by cutting down the chances to impulse buy, I think I’ll go for those soft southern jessies at Tesco after all. Besides which, I’d hate to get into a legal dispute with Asda, surreally entertaining though such a thing would be.

And another thing…

It’s “an unique thing” ok? The indefinite article before a vowel sound or a soft aspirate becomes “an“. With an n. An hypothesis. An honourable mention. An indefinite article in fact. An apple and an apron. An historical and linguistic anomaly.

I don’t care if you say something is “almost unique”; that’s a valid use of a qualifier. I don’t care if you say it is “nearly unique” though I’d wince with other people’s referred pain at “very nearly unique”. But if you say something is “a unique thing” I will, without a doubt, loose it. Entirely.

It won’t be pleasant.


Thank you.

The search for my own true swear-word

Been there, done that, used stronger expletives! (I assume you know just how obscene the word “carob” is to a true chocoholic).
Archie, to Reed, on losing a post without saving it.

So what makes a good swear-word? Personally I think it’s the sound of the thing. If it was obscenity alone, one could say “what a complete blairing fool that man is”. Well, when I put it like that, maybe “blair” does work.

My favourite piece of invective came from a friend who has a first in Classics, and who was applying for a post-grad degree at Cambridge. That is Cambridge as in Cambridge, not Cambridge as in The Fenland University or whatever the former poly is called these days. So, hardly uneducated or illiterate, this chap. As it turned out, he did not take very kindly to the academics there. The phrase he used was “fucking cunting twats”. As invective goes, I find that hard to beat, and I think it is the sequence of consonants that makes it so effective, the two K sounds, then the two very hard Ts. The rhythm helps of course.

So I think a good swear word needs good constonants. One could really spit out the tories’ names: “Thatch the snatch” is too obvious to mention, and how satisfying to call someone “total tebbitty bastard” or describe someone else as “a heseltining wanker”. And as for the bottomleys. ‘Nuff said.

But this means that “Bush” and “Blair”, fucking cunting twats and complete tebbitty bastards though they undoubtedly are, don’t actually make the grade as obscenities.

Yet another reason to hate them.

Such a shame.

Sisterhood is for bitches

I tumbled across a this on FtM Doctor’s blog today, and have been choking on my reaction ever since.

The story is about a feminist music festival in Michigan which is explicitly for “womyn-born womyn” and explicitly excludes trans women. Presumably they also explicitly excludes trans men. In fact, it is not actually a story, it is a press release, explaining the organisers’ point of view.

The language is interesting, veering between the hate-filled and the overly emotive. At one point the organiser of the “womyn-born womyn” sends the following email to the leader of “camp trans”.

I deeply desire healing in our communities, and I can see and feel that you want that too. I would love for you and the other organizers of Camp Trans to find the place in your hearts and politics to support and honor space for womyn who have had the experience of being born and living their life as womyn. I ask that you respect that womon born womon is a valid and honorable gender identity. I also ask that you respect that womyn born womyn deeply need our space — as do all communities who create space to gather, whether that be womyn of color, trans womyn or trans men . . . I wish you well, I want healing, and I believe this is possible between our communities, but not at the expense of deeply needed space for womyn born womyn.

The self-righteous emotional manipulation of this is nauseating, with its talk of “deeply desire[ing] healing”, “respect” and “deeply needed space”s.

We strongly assert there is nothing transphobic with choosing to spend one week with womyn who were born as, and have lived their lives as, womyn. It is a powerful, uncommon experience that womyn enjoy during this one week of living in the company of other womyn-born womyn. There are many opportunities in the world to share space with the entire queer community, and other spaces that welcome all who define themselves as female.

Is it unkind of me to consider the spaces and places that I have spent with “womyn-born womyn” this past week, which include a women-only gym and the WI? It is not hard to find women-only groups, if that’s what you need for a while. I’ve been on women-only holidays and women-only retreats. I was educated in part at an all girls’ school.

Of course the gym, and the WI aren’t full of radical feminists or …

womyn who could be considered gender outlaws, either because of their sexual orientation (lesbian, bisexual, polyamorous, etc.) or their gender presentation (butch, bearded, androgynous, femme – and everything in between). … gender variant womyn …. ” or women who ” … consider themselves differently gendered

… so far as I know.

I find myself wondering why the organisers exclude trans women if the spread of women at the festival is so broad, (yes, I know, the “deeply-needed space” thing) and also whether or not there are any straight married mothers there, or whether monogamous heterosexuals are not welcome either.

Rather than rant on and on about this, I will conclude with three final comments.

Firstly, it would be acceptable for the “womyn” of Michigan to create an activity exclusivly for “womyn-born women” if, on other occasions, they created events which were exclusively for other sub-sets of women, for example women who have been abused, or widowed, or who are lesbians, or indeed trans. But to exclude trans women and only trans women smacks of the “all men are rapists” school of separatist radical feminism which de-personalises half of the human race in a way which is as unjust and unacceptable as the de-personalising of women by men which went on for centuries before.

Secondly, I wonder if this is actually personal. If it isn’t about all trans women, but about one particular trans woman, if the organisers lacked the balls to exclude her and if they therefore decided to exclude them all. I find this theory rather compelling, given how petty, emotional and factional groups of women can become. See quotes above.

Finally, I put the press release through Gender Genie, and it scored 30% female and 70% male. Which made me snigger. Bitch that I am.

Shock news – I’m female

I am, apparently, female. But not very. Especially not when I am writing about my eggs.

Blog Female Percentage Male Percentage
There should be a special level of hell… 55% 45%
… a woman’s work is never done 52% 48%
Saved by a meme 53% 47%
Migraines II 62% 38%
Summer flowers, winter mornings 75% 25%
Sofa so good 42% 58%
Amazon, my river of shame 31% 69%
“Aphra Behn racism poems” 55% 45%
Exercise and the placebo feel good factor 55% 45%
Scrambled Eggs 47% 53%
Averages 53% 47%

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. The analysis of my writing style came from Gender Genie.

I feel peeved that my gender is so obvious in what I write, and also peeved that my femininity only just shows through.

There I go, wanting it both ways.


I’m looking forward to December when I don’t have to scrabble round for blog subjects, and I can think more and write less.

For m, and other large values of n

Gosh. I’ve just discovered something.

A whole new word in fact:



Now there was me thinking it was a typo lurking under your finger-tips when you are trying to type imminent. Nothing of the sort. Immanent is another word entirely. Then there is eminent which means well known, and enimen, which happens because white men cannot sing the blues, and M&Ms which are chocolates covered in blue-stuff.

Immanent means ‘inherent in, indwelling’.


Enimen’s fondness for M&Ms and his immanent flair for hip-hop made his eminence imminent.

Try saying that without re-gluing your dentures!

Sign of the times

So where do the doodads go then?

The ‘doodads’? What doodads?

The dot-things. I know there’s dot-things. Where do you put them?

Oh, the diaereses? Over the e.

Over the E? That doesn’t look right.

It’s right.

Hmmm. I’ve never seen it spelled like that before. Over the E?


Not the O?

No. The e at the end. There’s an e at the end. It has diaereses over it.

Oh well. Up to you. If it’s wrong, remember I asked.

Bronte Parsonagë Museum

Buzzword Blingo

Why do people express such a hatred of jargon?

Recently the new CEO of the organisation I work for said Strategy is a word I dislike. I hope it is the word he dislikes and not the concept, otherwise the organisation will end up as a case-study in business school textbooks and I’ll end up looking for work.

The main reason for disliking jargon is that one does not understand it. Here is a list of words I can never remember the meaning of, even though I looked them up in Wikipedia to write this, and even though each has been explained to me more than once:

I guess that tells you as much as you need to know about my interests and my pragmatic approach to them.

A second reason for disliking jargon is that the writer may not understand it. Problematic is an excellent example of this. Does the writer mean beset by problems or do they mean improbable and unlikely? An outcome can be certain but beset by problems – the plane’s crash-landing was problematic, or it can just be unlikely – the question of whether Blair will resign gracefully is very problematic. You end up having to decide whether or not you trust the writer to limit themselves to words they actually understand.

It gets doubly frustrating when one is dealing with concepts for which there is currently no single-word synonym, such as meme, ideolect, dystopia and, yes, strategy. I have read more than one rant recently against the use of the word ‘meme’. Yes, it is over-used. Yes, it is often used by people who don’t know what it means. But there is no other word which means the same thing.

There is a third reason for being afraid of jargon: this when words are used so loosely that anyone can use them for just about anything. This can happen with odd and unexpected words such as percent. I’ve previously mentioned my naivete in thinking that 20% should always mean one fifth of the total, instead of turning up decoratively as the second part of the 80/20 rule.

The main danger, though, is when it is used about abstract and fashionable concepts such as post-modernism and democracy. In fact, each of these denotes an overlapping group of concepts, like a venn diagram of glass-rings left on a pub table at the end of an evening of drunken pontificating. This gives rise to confusion: I might mean a consensus process where all involved have the opportunity to contribute to the debate and the final decision is a compromise agreed by all parties; and you might mean whatever it was that went on in Florida in November 2000. These are both valid uses of the word, but they refer to different processes and outcomes and are based on different assumptions.

Dangerously, Christianity and Islam are two other examples of these. You might understand Christian to refer to someone with mental health problems so confusing that they believe they hear the voice of Jesus in their head, and I might use it when talking about my elderly widowed neighbour who organises jumble sales.

It gets worse: Democracy and strategy are unchallengeable sacred cows, they are universal get-out-of-jail-free cards. It is impossible to criticise any positive statement including the word democracy, and it is almost impossible to challenge any positive statement including the word strategy. To do so is like saying that you think seal-clubbing is a worthwhile and pleasant way for a student to spend their gap-year, or that you think the Queen Mother was a vindictive and sanctimonious manipulator. Those are concepts which are so far outside the perceived wisdom as to be oxymorons, and impossible to think. This, of course, is how Bush and Blair got away with invading Iraq – they used words like a strategy for democracy, put the pea under the cup and swizzled the cups around around a bit and when the one in the middle was lifted we discovered that there never were any WMDs and that there are 3000 civilian deaths there each month now.

Finally of course there are words which are just too seductive not to use. My personal list of these includes: methodology, landscape, domain, and paradigm. I’d like to say I use them in an ironic post-modern kind of way, but unfortunately I have no idea what that particular phrase means. Even more unfortunately, I use them as a kind of short-hand, because if I am talking to colleagues it gets my meaning over quickly and effectively. The thing I like the most about paradigm though, is the way it is spelt.

The challenge to us as communicators is to balance the downsides of using jargon: turning people off, confusing them, irritating them and just plain failing to communicate at all, with the upsides of using the one and only word which sums up our meaning elegantly and accurately without recourse to a sentence or so of explanation.

I guess our CEO feels the same way about strategy as I feel about post-modernism and democracy, that these are Humpty-Dumpty words and because they mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, they end up meaning nothing at all.

You might enjoy fooling around with the following sites. Having spent a couple of hours messing around on them I feel mentally and physically queasy. Entertained, but queasy.

And because only nonsense is nonsense:

Finally, you can lose hours of your life in subversive thought provoking ways here:


There’s a particular kind of sickening and envious delight I feel when I come across words, phrases or even entire poems, which I wish I had written myself. One couplet – written by a South African woman whose name I don’t know but who lives in Stroud – is a good example of this:

Mr Language-man,
let me lick your words…

I would have been shivering with delight if I had written that in my first language. She wrote it in her second.

Another example comes from Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s new album Living with War:

Sister has her headphones on
She hears the music blasting
She sees her brother marchin’ by
Their bond is everlasting
Listening to Bob Dylan singin’ in 1963
Watching the flags of freedom flyin’

Now why couldn’t I think of placing a 21st century teenager in a situation where she’s “Listening to Bob Dylan singin’ in 1963”?

Because I’m not Neil Young, I suppose.

Oh to be a linguist, now two point zero’s here….

Don’t you find what’s happening to the written language compelling? It is changing before our eyes, even faster than spoken languages change, and it is impossible to tell what written English will look like in a couple of decades time.

I am not convinced that standards are falling which is the easy and elitist assumption to make. Sure, printed English used to be grammatically correct and impeccably spelled, (unless it was printed by the Gruniad). But this was not because of the journalists’ English teachers. Newspaper offices had shelves of books on correct English to guide their journalists, and even then their writing would go through the ruthless filter of the sub-editor and the compositor, who had books of their own to guide them on the presentation of written English.

Web 2.0 axiomatically provides you with unedited and unfiltered access to what people want to say to you but, as I’ve said, it exposes their illiteracy.

The proportion of literate to illiterate texts we see has changed. We have returned to the Medieval directness of communication not seen since Caxton and the printing press. Now, what you see is what I wrote.

It is going to be interesting to see whether literacy is more valued because it is more needed, and if the written language will take on variances similar to those in the spoken language. There is a doctoral thesis waiting for funding on the subject of txtspk and l33t as dialects.

People already have different voices and standards for instant messaging (where speed is of the essence), for discussion forums (where language is informal and urgent), and for blogs (which are more like show-case pieces). But the written language is changing in other ways, <example purpose=”to illustrate the point”> the use of pseudo-tags in emails, posts or other text </example>. This crosses over. I know of several people who include stage directions in their conversations. *smiles whimsically*

I am trying really hard not to use the word “meme” here.

I guess I am curious about three things:

  • Will literacy be more highly valued by cyber-skiving kids?
  • Will the general standard of literacy be driven down by the sheer volume of illiterate texts we expose ourselves to?
  • To what extent will the written language take on features previously exclusive to spoken languages such as dialect and voice?

Oh to be a linguist now 2.0’s here.