English As She Should Be Spoke

Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve seen many strange messages written on the back of lavatory doors, and as a translator and former language teacher, I’m super sensitive to quirky formulations in any of the languages in which I’m proficient, so when I saw this in a public toilet I just had to snap it for posterity.


Rhyming couplets are a popular form of humorous doggerel in German, but sadly, a literal translation into the other languages with no rhyme or rhythm just results in puzzlement. The humour is also lost. Are you supposed to sweep the place? Not deface the walls with graffiti?  No, just look back at the lavatory bowl and if necessary, use the brush to wipe it clean in consideration of the person who will be following you here. A request to leave the place as you would wish to find it. But I wonder how many English, Italian or French speakers actually understood this, if they didn’t speak German? Did anyone attempt to clean the toilet with a broom (scopa, balai)?

Through the years, I have acquired a small collection of these awkward translations. One that made me giggle was on a menu in Brittany, where croque-monsieur was translated fairly adequately into English as “ham and cheese on toast” and then into German as “Schinken und Käse am Trinkspruch”. For non-German-speakers, the word “Trinkspruch” is indeed toast,  but refers to raising your glass to drink to a person’s health – “toast” in the non-bread sense.

Another one from Brittany:


Here the sense is clear enough, and I trust that any English speakers on “earing the audio signal” were not drowned. Someone must have commented on this sign, as it was later removed and replaced by a version in perfectly correct English.

The following label adorned a pair of jeans I once bought:


I was never able to confirm whether the expert ‘s tasting was accurate, as I don’t ride, but I don’t recall deriving any particular pleasure in the street from wearing this garment!

Finally, a notice enclosed with a packet of tea, beautifully calligraphed in Chinese on the reverse, that did indeed afford my mother “exceedingly noble enjoyment”. She wasn’t so impressed by the tea, but did like the idea of “merrily drinking” it. We never discovered if it really did enlighten drunkenness and cure sunstroke.



Learning New Vocabulary

My inner Victor Meldrew exploded as we were rehearsing our worship songs.
“I don’t believe it!”
“Did you make this word up?”
“No, it’s a regular word.”

Poor longsuffering Fred, accused of inventing an outlandish word, had no idea why I was so incensed. Apparently, for a long time now, musicians have been referring to the short instrumental closing passage of a song, the opposite of an “intro”, as an “outro”. I have been living on Planet Zog, obviously.

Is it necessary to invent a new word for this? What’s wrong with “coda”? Nah. That’s not the same. I really didn’t believe it but checked Google, and it agreed with Fred: used not only in music but as closing credits for a film or video game, and even for a work of literature or journalism.

So – is there a longer form, “outroduction”? Can it also be used as the opposite of introduction in a social setting, for instance when you deliberately avoid meeting a new person, or part from the person you have just been introduced to?

My dismay was due to the failure to acknowledge the Latin root, intro + ducere, to lead into. The opposite should be ex (or even extra) + ducere, and there is a perfectly good Latin verb educere meaning to lead out, which gives us eduction. In fact, extraduction (a nice panvocalic word by the way) though rare, also exists, but has nothing to do with music. Can’t subvert those, then. And “extro”? seems that has also already been taken.

I must return from Planet Zog and accept that since hardly anyone nowadays bothers about Latin or the derivation of words – and what a loss that is! Another post starting to simmer in my head on the subject! – we are going to get a lot more bastard coinages like “outro”. In fact, I just came across another one: “Freemium”.

I surrender.

Charlie and George

“Charlie’s dead” – “I’ll go and see George.”

When I was at school in the nineteen-fifties, that was code for: “Your underskirt is showing below the hem of your skirt“ – “I’ll go to the toilets to adjust it.”


Photo credit: http://www.annabelladesigns.co.uk/ebay_pics/_images/white2layer4tierpetticoat.jpg … and yes, we did wear these under our school uniform summer dresses!

The phrase suddenly popped into my head this morning and made me smile. Does anyone wear petticoats or underskirts nowadays? The purpose of the bouffant petticoats (starched or dipped in sugar water) that we wore under our full skirts was obvious. And in addition to disguising a panty line, another reason given in our youth to justify wearing a slip under a straight or pencil skirt was; “it makes your skirt hang better”. A slip also saved our modesty, for instance when standing against the light, if the wind was blowing hard, or when jiving. No good girl wanted to show her suspenders and stocking tops!

There are plenty of euphemisms to tell a girl or woman that her slip is showing. “It’s snowing down south” is clear, and “Are you looking for a mother-in-law?” (“Tu cherches une belle-mère?”) was how the French would inform you; I have also heard this, in more accusatory tones, in German: “Du suchst eine Schwiegermutter!” The implication is, of course, that you are as loose as your underskirt’s elastic, flaunting its lacy edge to draw male attention. In Italian: “il vostro isolatore a campana sta mostrando” – your bell insulation is showing – is also plain enough. Those are not so farfetched.

But where on earth did the phrase “Charlie’s dead” come from? Was it generally current in the fifties, or only in our school? We also playfully translated it into Latin: Carolus mortus est. I googled it and discovered that it was indeed a current phrase, not only among my schoolmates, but used internationally along with “Queen Anne’s dead”. Why Queen Anne? The implication appears to be that “the flag is flying at half mast”.

But who was the deceased Charlie? Some suggest it was King Charles I (“loyalist women dipped their petticoats in his blood when he was beheaded” but that surely implies a red petticoat), King Charles II (a notorious womaniser: a reminder that there’s no need to show your petticoat because he isn’t around anymore to respond) or Bonnie Prince Charlie who wore a lot of lace. Another explanation – apart from the flag at half-mast – dates it from WWII when window blinds were lowered to mark a death in the family. Is it Cockney rhyming slang? This blog makes an effort but still doesn’t explain who was the original Charlie.

There are literally thousands of euphemisms for the lavatory in English, but what about “I’m going to see George”: was that just a phrase in our school circle, or was the discreet George more widely used? Americans often talk of “the john” but I haven’t heard anyone apart from my schoolmates refer to George. Google doesn’t recognise it. At least one of my regular readers was at school with me. So I’m calling on you, Marie: do you remember this phrase, and any idea where it came from?

Image credit: http://www.annabelladesigns.co.uk/ebay_pics/_images/white2layer4tierpetticoat.jpg

The Black Country Nativity

I have just come across this, reprinted in the Black Country newspaper Express & Star, and reproduce it here in full, hoping I’m not infringing any copyrights:

The traditional Christmas nativity story has been told for countless generations . . . but not always quite like this! This version of the nativity was written by Londoner Michael Prescott, who came to the Black Country many years ago and discovered the area’s rich dialect while teaching the children at Sunday school. Using the words of the children he taught, he put together this unique Nativity story back in 1968.

Mary, er babby an a bostin tale

There was this girl called Mary and er lived in a place called Nazareth. One day er mum went out an er was left do do the ousewerk.

All of a sudden the room went all bright and when er turned round er sid somebody standin by the winder. Er wor arf surprised and nearly fell off er chair.

“Oom you?” er asked, “yo day arf gie me a tern.”

“Doh be scared,” answered the bloke. “I wo urt ya. Me name’s Gabriel, an arm an angel.”

“Yo ay, am yer?” said Mary.

“I am,” ee replied. “An I’ve cum to tell ya summat.

“What?” said Mary, cause er was thinking what a carry on this was.

Yo’m gooin ter av a babby.”

That shook er, and er looked at im an said: “Doh be saft. I ay marrid.”

“That do mek no difference,” ee answered. “If God says yo’ll av a babby, yo’ll ava a babby, yo will an that’s it. Yo’ve got ter call im Jesus.”

Mary was still a bit shook, so the angel said: “An arl tell yer summat else. Yo ay the only one oos gooin to ave a babby. Yer cousin Elizabeth is gooin ter ave one an all, an er’s an old woman.”

“Well, if you say so, ar suppose that’s it,” said Mary. “Me chap wo arf be surprised.”

When eed gone, Mary med up er mind to goo and see Elizabeth an went off ter Juda.

Elizabeth was waiting at the gate an when er saw Mary er said: “Ar ay arf glad to see yo, but fancy yo cummin to see we in yor state.”

Mary answered: “An angel cum an sid me, an arm gooin to av a babby in December.”

Elizabeth told Mary that er old man, Zacharias, day believe er when er told him about the babby, an ee were speechless.

“Ee cor spake a werd now,” er said.

The chap what Mary was engaged to was called Joseph. When Mary told im about the babby er was having, ee day know what to think.

Ee said: “Yor mum wo arf kick up a chow row.”

Any road, ee day get is air off, an when ee went ter bed that night, an angel cum to im in a dream. “Doh get mad at Mary about the babby,” ee told im.

“It’s God’s son er’s avin, an is name’s Jesus. Sumbody’s got ter av im, or ee wo get born, an yower Mary was picked.

“So just yo marry er, me mate. There ay nuthin ter worry about.”

Soon after they was married, Joseph cum in an told Mary: “Arv ad a letter from the tax mon, and that Ceasar says as we’ve got to goo to wheer we was born to be taxed. So we’ve go to traipse all the way to Bethlehem next wick.”

Mary cut sum sandwiches an packed a few cairkes an opples.

Then er med a bottle a tay, an when they’d ad a daysent breakfast, Joseph got the donkey out, put Mary on, an away they went.

“Cheer up, our kid. It ay far now,” Joseph told er.

“We’ll soon av a rest. I keep gettin bricks an sond in me sandals.”

When they got into town, Joseph knocked on the door of an inn an asked for a double room.

The bloke what answered said: “I cor elp yer. There’s that mony on em eere they’m avin ter sleep in the passage.”

The next un was like it an all, but Joseph said to the chap: “Ain’t there anywhere we can goo? My missus is out theer on a donkey, an er’s gooin ter av a babby soon.”

The chap scratched his yed and said: “We cleaned the stable out after tay, so it ay mucky. If I shift a couple of osses an a camel, you could kip down theer.”

“We’ll tek it,” said Joseph, straight off.

In the noight, Mary woke Joseph up an said: “The babby’s ere.” So Jesus was born, an they wrapped im up tight an put im in the manger what the osses et out on. Mary an Joseph wor arf proud. The innkeeper cum with is missus an brought Mary sum ot milk.

They thought Jesus was a bostin little lad an the innkeeper said to Joseph: “Yo’d better cum an av a drink to wet is yed.” So he did.

Up in the ills, there was sum shepherds luckin after the sheep. It was cold, so they was sittin by the fire lettin their dogs do the werk while they ad summat to eat an a smoke.

Suddenly the sky lit up loike bonfire noight, an an angel cum. They day know owt about angels and they was that frittened they all fell on the ground.

“Yo’m a silly lot,” said the angel. “I shore urt yer. I got a message for yer.

“There’s a baby bin born in Bethlehem. Is name is Jesus an ees God’s son. Goo an ave a look at im. Ee’s in a stable lyin in a manger.”

Any road up, they cum down the ill into Bethlehem. One said: “It’s or roight im sayin we’ll find the babby in a stable, but they’m all over the plairce. We cud be looking for wicks.” Then they eard their mate’s whistle an they fun em outside a stable built in a cave. Someone whispered: “Doh mek such a clatter. We’m ere.” One knocked on the door and Mary called: “Come in.”

They took off their ats an went in on tip toe.

The chief shepherd said: “Adoo missus. A angel tode we ter cum an see yower babby.”

Mary smiled and beckoned them in. Joseph said: “Eere ee is. Cum an look, but mind you doh breathe on is face.”

The shepherds knelt down round the manger an looked. “Ay ee tiny?” said the youngest. “An ay ee got little onds?”

“Course ee’s tiny, yo saft ayporth,” said the leader, “ee’s new, ay ee?”

“I know that,” said the young un, “but you cor imagine God bein little, can yer?”

Mary smiled an said: “Oil spin sum wool an knit im a jumper, an is dad’ll play the flute ter mek him sleep.”

The shepherds turned to goo, an little Jesus smiled. The leader said after as it wind, an all babbies did it, but ee wor as sure as ee med out.

While all this was a-gooin on, three wise kings was in a country far away lookin at stars.

Suddenly, one on em put down is telescope an called: “Cum eer yo lot. Oi’ve fun a star wot wor theer afore, and it ay arf a big un.”

“Yo’m roight mate,” they said then they looked. “Oil bet it’s that one what’s to tell us a new king was born.” They checked up an it was.

One day, they cum to Jerusalem an went up to the Palace an knocked on the door. A sentry opened it an they asked: “Is the King in?”

The sentry said: “Arf a mo, Oil goo an see.”

The King’s name was Erod, an ee was in.

“There’s three kings to see yo,” the soldier told im. “Oh ar?” said Erod. “Weer?” Ee ad a fit when the soldier told im “Outside.”

“Yo cor leave kings standin on the step,” said Erod. “Get em in.”

So they all come in, an Erod said ow noice to see em an wot cud ee do fer emn. They said they was looking fer a new king, and wondered if ee was theer.

Erod said: “Ee ay ere, but when yo’ve fun im, drop in on the way back so’s Oi can goo anay a look meself.”

They said “Righto,” an off they went.

When they’d gone, Erod said to isself: “Theer’s ony room fer one king ere, an Oi’m it. When Oi know weer the new un is, Oi’ll have im killed.”

The star stopped over the ouse where Jesus was, an the kings day worry cos it wor a Palace. They went in an knelt down by Jesus an gid him their gold, frankincense and myrhh.

Mary looked at the presents an said: “Thank yo, they’m smashin, but Oi’ll keep em till ee’s bigger, if yo doh moind.”

The kings took off their crowns and bowed.

Then they said: “Tarrah abit,” an went all the way back wum.

But they day goo back past Erod’s palace cos a angel ad told em what a awful bloke Erod was, an ow ee wanted to kill the little Jesus.

What Was That Name Again?

Do you know – or have you ever heard of – any of these names?

  • Lacey Green
  • Stanley Wrenthorpe
  • Rodney Stoke
  • Mavis Enderby
  • Cherry Willingham

Well, I propose a little quiz for those of you who don’t know them. Are these

a) Musicians
b) Fictional characters
c) Actors
d) Places
e) Ships 
f) Artists

What do you think? Have you made an educated guess? Here are some more names in the same category:

  • Compton Martin
  • Burton Joyce
  • Askham Richard
  • Lach Dennis
  • Thornton Curtis

Getting warmer? Can’t you just imagine the dulcet tones of Lacey Green and Cherry Willingham performing their duet at Covent Garden Opera House, or Rodney Stoke’s unforgettable interpretation of Hamlet with the RSC? Mavis Enderby must surely be the heroine of a tragic Edwardian novel and didn’t you see those impressive paintings by Stanley Wrenthorpe at the Tate Modern? You probably heard about the disastrous cruise a few years ago when the Burton Joyce ran aground.

Has that jogged your memory? Or have you already resorted to Google and Yahoo, or asked Jeeves? Well, maybe you need another clue to put you out of your misery. Here are some more:

  • Catherine de Barnes
  • Wentworth Woodhouse
  • Clifford Chambers
  • Bishop Norton

And if that hasn’t done it for you, these must:

  • John O’Groats
  • Ben Nevis
  • Juan les Pins
  • Alice Springs

Got it? Bishop Norton has lots of relatives – Brize, Chipping, Midsomer and Hook to name but a few. Perhaps I could – at a pinch – add Mable Thorpe and Ashby de la Zouch?

Most of these places are in England, two in Scotland, one in France and one in Australia. I’ve always been intrigued by the name of the village Catherine de Barnes, seen on motorway signs near Birmingham airport, and which sounds like a Jane Austen character.


Photo credit: Wikipedia

A few years ago I was amused when I drove past Rodney Stoke near Bath, Somerset. Then as I searched for long dead ancestors in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, up popped Stanley-cum-Wrenthorpe, Wentworth Woodhouse and Mavis Enderby. I reaiised that many villages include Christian names that don’t have “St.” in front of them and started looking out for them consciously.Rodney Stoke

I suppose you could say that Ben Nevis is cheating, as it’s a mountain and not a village or town, but check out any large-scale map of British counties showing villages and hamlets, and among the very picturesque sounding names you’ll probably find a whole lot more that sound like people. Let me know if you do.

Students And Nelly Sachs

All of a sudden yesterday there were over 500 hits on my Nelly Sachs site, and more than a dozen comments. Intrigued, I checked to see what was happening and discovered that the comments were clearly by students in the USA who must have been given an assignment by their teacher to choose a poem and comment on it.

Whilst I am pleased to see that my versions of Nelly Sachs’ poems are being read and the students are trying to figure out what they are about, it is also rather disappointing to see how facile and wide of the mark most of these comments are. My knee-jerk reaction was to trash them, but then I decided to click the “approve” button after all: not that I approve of the comments themselves, but of the intentions behind them. Thank you to the teacher who found my blog and pointed the class to it, and thank you to the students who actually sat down and struggled through these poems until they found one that appealed to them.

Mine are translations, not interpretations. I am no wiser than the next person about what was going on in Nelly Sachs’ head when she wrote her original works. Naturally I have my ideas, and since I also wrestled with her words, symbolism and ambiguity as I sought to render the German into English, I have perhaps delved more deeply into them than these teenage students are able to. Plus I am so much older than they are, and have so much more experience of life, as well as having been alive – though a small child – at the time of the Holocaust. I have met survivors of those horrors, and am thus much closer to them than sixteen or seventeen-year-old American High School students. So I apologise to my young readers for my hasty judgement and initial dismissal of their comments.

I don’t know why they have posted these on my blog: it would have made more sense – assuming this was a homework assignment – to present them in class so everyone can express their views, and the teacher could guide them into a better understanding of the aspects they have missed. Perhaps they are doing that, too, and it is simply a courtesy on their part to have shared their reactions with me? Is the generation gap simply too wide between us? I am, after all, old enough to be their grandmother.

I would like to be able to enter into a real discussion with them and their teacher (who has all my sympathy in her desire to acquaint her class with Nelly Sachs and the Holocaust: it can’t be an easy task) and point out a few things that to me are as plain as a pikestaff but which they have missed. Alas, any exchange of comments on my website is going to remain very superficial, and would I fear be even more frustrating for all concerned. I want to encourage my young readers, not deter them from making the effort to get to grips with difficult poetry or to understand what went on in the Third Reich. So perhaps I should, after all, respond individually to each one and offer a little food for thought, more easily digestible than the morsels they have chosen. I just hope I don’t end up making Nelly Sachs even more unpalatable.

Alphabetical Musings

Where does alphabetical order come from? It’s a question that has haunted me ever since I first started school, and typically, when I inquired in my infant innocence, I was told not to ask silly questions so eventually I realised my teachers didn’t know everything after all. It didn’t stop me wondering though, and I have never found a truly satisfactory answer. There are theories, of course. But the origins of our alphabet are lost in the mists of time, probably somewhere in Egypt, and it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure. It may have been a poem, a series of musical notes, a mnemonic, or a numerical sequence. Or something entirely different. Whatever the reason, apart from Sanskrit and futhorc runes, the earliest alphabets from which our modern abecedaries have developed also appear to place the letters in the familiar order. Very puzzling. It must have been something very powerful to have made such an impact.

A serious English language usage website states:” a dozen Ugaritic tablets from the fourteenth century BCE preserve the alphabet in two sequences. One, the ABCDE order later used in Phoenician, has continued with minor changes in Hebrew, Greek, Armenian, Gothic, Cyrillic, and Latin; the other, HMĦLQ, was used in southern Arabia and is preserved today in Ethiopic. Both orders have therefore been stable for at least 3000 years.“

Our modern English alphabet, like our language, has a rich and interesting history, with many ancestors contributing to it. Wikipedia informs us: “In the year 1011, a monk named Byrhtferð recorded the traditional order of the Old English alphabet. He listed the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet (including ampersand) first, then 5 additional English letters, starting with the Tironian note () an insular symbol for ‘and’:

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z & Ƿ Þ Ð Æ”

Tironian notes, if you are wondering, are a form of shorthand allegedly invented by the Roman Marcus Tullius Tiro, who was Cicero’s scribe. If you have ever tried to read Cicero’s longwinded speeches, you will understand why a stenographic system was needed to record them.

This alphabet omits letters j, u and w but y and z have been tacked on at the end before the 5 we have lost.

We still use the ampersand (&) today, derived from the Latin word ‘et’ and more of Tiro’s notes that still survive are v. = versus and the ‘z’ in the abbreviation viz, meaning videlicet. The “insular symbol” (⁊ ) survives in Gaelic and Irish, serving the same purpose as the ampersand, and designated “insular” because it’s used on our islands.

The letters that Byrhtferth added last are called thorn, wynn, eth and ash. Another vowel, ethel, is missing from this eleventh century alphabet, although it survives under a different name in French in worlds like cœur and sœur. (You surely didn’t expect the French to call it by a name they can’t pronounce?) These letters that were borrowed or adapted from futhorc runes have disappeared in modern English, though the sounds they represent live on and are mostly nowadays symbolised by digraphs like th and gh as well as w (originally rendered as uu or vv). Some Welsh writers also still use the eth (ð), though others have replaced it by ‘dd’.

At the risk of being told to stop asking silly questions again, I wonder why we have “progressed” to using two letters instead of one, especially where we use ‘th’ to represent both the voiced and the unvoiced consonants which in the past were clearly distinguished by thorn and eth? And if we could now reinstate our lost ancient letters, why not add a couple more to replace the digraphs used for the sounds of ‘sh’ and ‘ch’?

A final thought. I know people called Bea, Kay, Jay, or Dee. The obsolete letters also have very pleasant sounding names that you could easily give to your children. I’d love to meet a family consisting of Thorn (þ), Eth (ð), Wynn (ƿ), Yogh (ȝ), Ash (æ), and Ethel (œ). Double-barrelled surname, of course: possibly Futhorc-Rune?

And if you are wondering about futhorc runes, here they are: