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Words

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New Aunts

A bonus to living in a country where they (allegedly) speak the same tongue, is being continually reminded how much nuance exists in the language. I’m not talking about words that are simply different, like lift/elevator or pavement/sidewalk. Neither do I mean variations in idiom, though those are plentiful. You don’t ‘pop to the shops’, but ‘run to the store real quick’; and you’re not ‘cross’, either — a term which causes confusion and/or hilarity — but ‘mad’. I mean instead the ways in which choices of words or terms can be used to signal your level of cultural integration. I remember a friend better-versed in French than I once advising that a snappy way of dealing with someone giving you grief in Paris would be to pop right back with ‘Q’est-ce-que tu veut que je fasse?’. While on the surface this merely means ‘What do you want me to do about it?’, you’re also tutoying your interlocutor (presumptively deploying the informal pronoun ‘tu’, rather than ‘vous’, a subtle way of being dismissive) and furthermore throwing the subjunctive at them (by using ‘fesse’ rather than ‘fait’, thereby indicating you’re not just some dickhead foreigner, but know how to talk proper). I may have got the French slightly wrong, but my point still holds.

There’s plenty of that to be had here, too, though I generally try to avoid snarling at people. There’s the way you respond to someone saying ‘Thank you’, for example. The obvious — and in most circumstances the best — is the traditional standby of ‘You’re welcome’. We still don’t really use that in the UK (despite what we try to teach our children), instead greeting any thanks with suspicion, as though they might be a covert additional request, or an invitation to have a fight. Here it is always sincere. You’ll hear richer versions sometimes, such as ‘Oh, you’re welcome’ or even ‘You’re so welcome’, though you have to be female or really quite camp to get away with the latter.

For the more adventurous, you can come back with a curt-seeming ‘Sure’, which is apparently not only perfectly acceptable and polite but quite manly; and recently I heard for the first time in ages someone responding with the old school ‘You bet!’, which I love, but isn’t something I’m going to be able to get away with in an English accent.

The accent is a problem. People here will greet friends (and strangers) with a ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’, both of which I flatter myself I can carry off. When it comes to ‘Hey - what’s happening?’, or especially ‘Hey - what’s going on?’, however, I know my limits. Californians over quite a broad age range can make the latter sound relaxed and friendly and cool. I sound either like I’m making a genuine and rather querulous inquiry, or as if I’m on drugs and in danger of passing out.

Pronunciation effects individual words too, as with the ubiquitous ‘awesome’, used here to mean everything from a superlative to ‘thanks’ or even almost an equivalent to some uses of the British ‘cheers’. English people pronounce the first syllable ‘awe’ near the front of their mouth, with a pushing-out lip movement: Californians set it further back toward the throat and keep their lips out of it, producing more of an ‘ah-some’ or even ‘ossum’, exactly like ‘possum’ without the ‘p’. Even a word as short as ‘dude’ is hard to nail. ‘Dood’ comes close, but the vowel sound is again pulled further back in the mouth than feels entirely natural. I do my best with both words, naturally, but probably wind up coming across like someone’s dad trying to sound cool, which of course is what I am.

Harder still is the process of learning that you can say some things here with sincerity which in England would only ever be uttered with weapons-grade irony: ‘thank you for sharing with us’, for example. Conversely, the mix of vicious ribbing and self-deprecatory humor that forms the backbone of English banter is likely only to provoke bafflement, alarm, or the offer of an introduction to a therapist specializing in self-esteem issues.

There’s a general openness in American discourse that can make an English person feel unnerved and on the back foot, with inevitable consequences. The family was sitting at the counter having a sandwich in a nice little café up in the mountains the other Sunday (Coffee 9 in Ben Lomond, which I can highly recommend), and chatting amongst ourselves, when a teenage girl nearby asked me if I was speaking in a ‘British’ accent (there are no English people here, we’re all ‘British’). I allowed that I was, at which point she asked, with dawning wonder, if she had a accent. I said um, yes, an American one. This appeared to blow her mind. (The odd thing is that after a year and a half of living here, I’ve more-or-less stopped hearing the American accent as an accent, and instead accept that it’s me who talks funny).

The conversation went a little pear-shaped after that, sadly, as the girl continued to express her awe at the idea of her having an accent, to increasingly furrowed brows on our part, and then ultimately departed, doubtless feeling that the three weird British people had been starting to stare at her in an unfriendly way.

When it comes to conveying reserve bordering on hostility, we Brits don’t need recourse to words. But what do you want us to do about it, huh?

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The Wall of Annoying Words

I’ve already banged on about some of the words below, but you know what? — you haven’t stopped using them. I’m going to keep banging on until you do. I’d like to encourage you to add some of your own, in fact, so that we can over time generate a useful list of banned expressions that we can hand over to the authorities. I will, of course, have ultimate say about whether a word gets onto the wall of shame. No-one said this was a democracy. Minimalistic The word is ‘minimalist’. Don’t put -ic on the end of what’s already an adjective. Why would you do that? Why? Isn’t it a bit stupidalistic? As people on Twitter pointed out when I muttered about this before, there’s something especially dumbalistical and ironicalisticallynessish about making the word ‘minimalist’ longer.

Simplistic This is actually a perfectly good word. The problem lies in denizens of the Internet habitually mis-using it. It does not mean a pleasingly focussed feature set, which might be a GOOD THING. ’Simplistic’ is a pejorative term meaning ‘excessively simplified’, and is therefore a BAD THING. You’re using the term perfectly wrongly, do you see? Well, do you?

Chillax For Christ’s sake. There is no better way of making it clear that you’re an utter tool than by using this ‘word’. Just stop it. Even deploying it ironically is on a knife-edge, so don’t take the risk. Either say ‘relax’, or ‘chill’ (if you must). Or preferably bugger off back to your ‘crib’.

Functionality What does this even mean? It’s used in sentences like ‘For a version 1.0, this software has impressive functionality, but...’, where it appears to indicate… it’s not total crap. If you’re reviewing something and you’ve used this word, try cutting out the sentence it appears in, and see if you’ve lost anything of value. Ten bucks says you haven’t.

Form factor You don’t mean ‘form factor’, you mean ‘shape’. No, really, you do.

Piracy As used in relation to software and TV shows and music and books. ‘Piracy’ sounds jaunty and daring and as if you're doing something rather cool and dashing and should be played by Johnny Depp. You're not — you're being played by that fat, sweaty guy who hangs out round the back of the KFC and always looks like he’s just hurriedly re-done up his flies. You're stealing. At least have the balls to acknowledge that and come up with some half-assed rationale.

Writer Specifically when proceeded by the word ‘virus’. Listen up, you little ****ers, producing viruses is not ‘writing’. It’s ‘exuding’, as one might exude pus from a badly-infected sore occasioned by seedy sexual exploits powered by precisely the kind of knock-off Viagra you’re trying to peddle. Using some piece of software to exude crap that starts "eval(gzinflate (base64_decode ('tVh7b9pYFv87I+” isn’t creation. It’s destruction, it’s a criminal waste of everyone’s time, and it’s ****ing annoying, so stop it for the love of God, before I call down upon you The Curse Of The Busy Man Who Does’t Have Time To Rebuild His Sodding Website Every Few Weeks, You Assholes.

Workflow One irritating thing about this word is that I can’t think of a concise synonym, which usually proves a word is worthwhile. It's still annoying, though, possibly because when people write about a piece of software ‘fitting into their workflow’, it seems their ‘workflow’ only ever involves writing blogs about software that may or may not fit into their ‘workflow’.

Curating I go back and forth on this one, but currently it’s on the outs. You have not ‘curated’ a selection of links to interesting or cool things on the web. You’ve ‘chosen’ them. Actually, you’ve just ‘shared’ your bookmarks (and trust me, ‘sharing’ is in the bullpen for this list). Obviously some degree of choice has taken place — otherwise you’d have linked to absolutely everything, in which case you’d merely be the Internet, duplicated — but that does not put you on a par with someone who’s selected just three tea-cups from the entire history of domestic potteryware over the last five thousand years for a high-profile four-month exhibition at MOMA or the V&A. Here’s a deal - you can call yourself an Internet curator if you also wear a little bow-tie and a green cardigan all the time. And shave your head but grow a beard. Even if you're a woman. Okay?

Momtrepeneur I only learned this one recently. As a snappy term for the vogue for moms to roll up their sleeves and start micro-businesses specialising in decorative geegaws fashioned from recycled ballet shoes, or tiny pots of organic canapés for dogs, I guess it kind of works (though it seems a tad sexist and patronising). It’s still annoying, though, probably because it’s one of those arch little neologisms — ‘staycation’ is another — cooked up by slackers to legitimate writing endless screeds of unnecessary text about something zeitgeisty.

So — what are the words that cause your brain to seethe and make it impossible for you to chillax? I’m not talking about the obviously appalling collections of letters like ‘twitterverse’ or ‘whatever’ or ‘Russell Brand’, I mean the ones that make you want to start sharpening pointy sticks and hunting down the perpetrators with deadly intent…

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Caution: Contains Nitpicking

I knew my last post would be deeply unpopular in some quarters (though, to be fair, it also had strident support, and not just from people in creative professions). I got a lot of irate tweets, and lost followers. I'll live. The piece's potential unpopularity was kind of why I posted it, rather than getting it out of my system and leaving the file safely on my hard disk.

I didn't do it to be provocative, but to be honest.

It's extremely easy - especially in popularity contests and profile-conscious opportunities like Twitter - to always play to the crowd, stay safe, not antagonise the demographic. Pretending you always agree with the unconsidered zeitgeist is easy. But kind of empty, surely? If you're going to say stuff, then mean it. Otherwise remaining silent is a more honourable course - except, of course, for the fact it may be taken as tacit approval of what everyone else is saying, however dim that may be. It's a minefield. So I posted, and now some people evidently think I'm a stooge of Old Business and the Federal Government, and an active supporter of the worst forms of Censorship (It's not entirely clear to me how cracking down on theft counts as "censorship", but that's because I'm a stooge of the etc, etc).

For the avoidance of doubt, I'm not for SOPA, okay? I'm simply disenchanted with some of the reasons people have for opposing it. If you've read the bill (including the revisions) and have strong arguments and/or reasons for opposing it, you have my respect. If not... I'm just saying think about it first. Don't just press ME TOO. And while I'm on the subject, if you're so in favour of WikiPedia, you might want to donate something toward it, eh? See the button at the bottom of the right-hand column on this page. Even "free" things cost somebody something, somewhere. Their time, their effort, their love. They give. You can too.

Anyway. Allied to all this, it's struck me this afternoon how the Internet is changing the meaning of a couple of words - and how these speak to this overall debate.

1. "Contains" As in "This software may contain profanity, adult themes, violence, nudity, etc". Seen most often with browsers, Craigslist apps, and anything that accesses the Internet.

But the thing is... the software doesn't contain these things, really. If the web browser had drop-down menus featuring swear words, or popped up a dialog box every ten minutes showing a picture of people shagging, then it would "contain" these things. But it doesn't. It merely provides a window onto a world in which these things pre-exist. It's interesting that the software is being held to account here - like blaming a sheet of glass for standing between you and an atrocity. It may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but to me this usage covertly implies it's not the web or its users which should be held responsible for the content of the Internet or the the way people use it. The Internet's in the clear - perfect and true and blameless. So are the internauts. It's the naughty software that does the wrong.

I'm really not sure this is true, and I think it's indicative of the way the Internet and some of its users hold themselves unaccountable for both their content and their actions.

2. "Free" This word now apparently means 'it is possible to acquire this good or service without paying for it'. Here's an example, just in this morning:

http://blog.karachicorner.com/2012/01/35-high-quality-free-fonts/

It's a useful blog and you see this kind of thing all over the web (and I picked up the link via the venerable www.iconfactory.com), but to me it neatly encapsulates a key schism in the way people respond to the availability of resources on the Internet. A number of the faces featured in this list (and others of its kind) are available from www.losttype.com, an excellent site where designers showcase interesting new work for sale on a pay-what-you-like basis. And there's the thing. Some users will immediately interpret this as: "Cool - free fonts". Others will equally unthinkingly say: "Wow - nice typeface. A lot of work went into that. I'll donate ten bucks in recognition of the person's time and creativity, and in the hope they'll make more."

(And yes I know some people have more ready cash than others - but don't claim to be "poor" if you've got a broadband connection and a computer to download stuff onto. That's a vicious mis-use of the word "poor" in a world where millions of children don't have anything to eat.)

I guess probably neither approach to pay-what-you-want is right or wrong. They're just different. A lot of people do what they do ultimately out of love, and that's the way it should be: but when there's rent to be paid and food to be bought, nothing says 'love' like a little cash. Anyone who finds this observation distasteful has never tried to make a living via their creativity alone. I'm not dumping on the referring site, note - there's a strong chance that by steering surfers to Lost Type, they'll provoke at least a proportion of visitors to donate, which is the basis on which the designers put their work up there, after all; and many people - including myself - are happy for some free stuff to float around the web as a goodwill gesture, marketing tool, or just out of an open heart. I'm merely saying it's interesting how the word is now being used, and how it perhaps speaks to some of the debate on SOPA.

So - what do you think? Does Safari "contain" profanity? Are the fonts I'm talking about actually "free"? Am I really a stooge for the dark, censoring elite of the New World Order - and if so, why haven't they bloody well paid me yet?*

*Caution: sentence contains profanity.

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I didn't write this post

... but I feel I should share it. It's a piece of spam sent to this very site, but a deeply beautiful one. I can only assume it's an actual interview from somewhere, put through the translation mangle, but who can fail to thrill to exchanges like:

"You grasp a rightly slim choose, does this not conceivably you are reduced to cosplaying characters that spasmodically your allot type? What are your views on this matter?

Vash Nut: This is always a nerve-wracking taxpayer fret with miscellaneous people. I prove to anyone who may not like my answer. Trunk disparity on a seal is something I each with respect to identically last. I admit that I from time to time catch field of view of myself intellectual I can twitch nutty a proper based on cadre personification, but that’s a rare case."

I felt I learned a great deal through reading the following. I'm just not sure what I learned it about.

Enjoy.

- - - - - -

Vash Extremist is joined of the youngest cosplayers we’ve featured consequence here but her presentation is joined of the most inspiring. When not hard at commission on the cosplay go out she is enrolled as a Recognizable Artist, and has assorted interests; such as cosplay, programming, composition, and writing. We sat down with her to pick her comprehension on her bedeck making, the managing, and unborn projects. Read here in behalf of the broad interview…

You’ve been cosplaying after a just years now, so thorough completely the progression of this cunning, what is the segregate most valuable chastening you hold well-versed in cosplaying?

Vash Unpredictable: There are variegated things I sire au fait back cosplay: don’t beat about the bush, needles heartbroken and fiberglass resin kills brain cells. But, aside from those lessons, I would tolerate to approximately the most valuable discouragement I be undergoing brainy is exhausting m俿eries pays off. I recall secure blaze up payed mistaken already (for the benefit of archetype: boarding-school projects and problems in lifestyle); but this is a unimpaired special level. I hold professionals making costumes all the eternally and be inquiring how I would oblige them without the costly materials the professionals would rather access to. But, tight-fisted researching and putting a giant amount of plunge into the cosplay, it makes you start that granite-like develop is all it unquestionably takes.

You make capital out of each garments with a hardship meter from 1 to 5. What is an representation of a 5, and what difficulties does it entail?

Vash Maniac: An archetype of a 5, at this show in inadvertently b perhaps, would transport to be Female Arthas. That rags is by a long chalk everywhere 90% armor! I align not in any way made a togs with armor to charge Arthas. Since this was my beginning opening making armor, I had to delve into ways that I could hand over the armor and be masterly to leak forth entangled with it. There are so varied ways to do it! When all is said, I implicit to advantage the fiberglass method, which takes a business of linger and patience. I would bump into b pay up frustrated when there was a fizz, that created more assignment and continuously lost. So a 5 entails countless hours of province and the complicatedness in design.

Since you extricate oneself a recoil looking at the results of your laborious obligation putting a raiment together, do you mostly range away from pliant characters?

Vash Nut: No intuit! The characters I choose to cosplay are ones that I engage curiosity in, vexatious or not. I’m not the classification of cosplayer who chooses characters based on how much mind it’s going to take over from make good to me. While I do make benefit of doing characters that command a plight of squad, it is not a working-out maker.

Make out us about Blizzcon and your first going in into a giant contest. What was it like?

Vash Enthusiast: Overwhelming. I had no point of view how destroy blowing it was flourishing to be. I didn’t conscious what to upon from the convention. At up ahead, I brooding I would be surrounded by means of reactive nerds, like at Anime Expo. Upon suggestion, my respect had changed. There were people of all ages and they all seemed incredibly normal. Well, aside from people shouting “AS OPPOSED TO OF THE HORDE” or “IN THE CURIOSITY OF THE ALLIANCE” at each other (Torch be with you). Getting to the disagree age, I was surrounded by incredibly cool cosplayers. As I was looking from one end to the other of backstage, I right-minded could not have faith what I was seeing. So much strength gathered all together! It was mind-blowing and heady! I got to come together and talk to a reams of the cosplayers. I complimented them on their drill equal and asked some of them how they made some of the things they had. We all were handsome difficult with attentiveness to walking across stage. I kept asking people what I should do, how pretentiously I should function up on separating, justification they in all cases been in this competition? Only anything to persevere in me distracted from being so nervous. But, when the live came, all the twisted feelings I felt in my bay window disappeared and I made my modus operandi across stage. I did as a consequence to a bit of a answer from the audience, which was encouraging, and outright, a gargantuan feeling. Blizzcon was great and has rarely season into on of my favorite conventions! Confidently I can make a show it every year! So various wonderful people and skilful cosplayers.

Does cosplaying usurp with your complete skills in the fitness world? How has this fun been applied to throng your art courses easier?

Vash Zealot: Cosplaying has helped me in the adroitness world. What I secure professional in my technique classes is that: your masterpiece be compelled defend out. It is impressive to employ diverse mediums in your works. On pattern: I did an representative of Bloody Mary allowing repayment for regarding people of my classes. I develop myself inkling of various materials I could establish profit of to make it in propel finished and look creepy. A cosplay I had just done in the vanguard this byzantine mirrors. That was my return! I went to the same retain I had bought the replication like data and employed it on my illustration project. It turned unconfined de facto comfortably and was a bulky whip with the class. My professor parallel with asked me how I would ruminate all over of applying something like that to my in default; my comeback: Cosplay!

We distinguish you’re a conceitedly fiend of anime, could you occasion us a extra of your favorites?

Vash Extremist: If you can’t tell what my all every so frequently old-fashioned favorite anime is already…it’s Trigun. Trigun is the most astounding anime EVERLASTINGLY! Other ones I in occurrence leaning are Durarara, Saiyuki, Kimi Ni Todoke, Panty and Stocking, Ao No Exorcist..the beadroll goes on!

You grasp a rightly slim choose, does this not conceivably you are reduced to cosplaying characters that spasmodically your allot type? What are your views on this matter?

Vash Nut: This is always a nerve-wracking taxpayer fret with miscellaneous people. I prove to anyone who may not like my answer. Trunk disparity on a seal is something I each with respect to identically last. I admit that I from time to time catch field of view of myself intellectual I can twitch nutty a proper based on cadre personification, but that’s a rare case. People should arbitrate their cosplays carefully, keeping their association fount in mind. I’m not saying that a larger damsel shouldn’t cosplay as Yoko, looking for example. If you love the eccentric, do it! But, thinking be predisposed in city of some opposing negatively comments you mightiness receive. The cosplayer community judges based on clothes superiority, not how gangling you are. Stable so, it complex to leak out take delight in what the comprehensive worldwide judges by. I cause on the agenda c gull noticed though, that they non-standard like to judge mostly on looks.

When tackling a Crowd of Warcraft look, what is your mindset like? It imperative be daunting having to establish armor, aesthetics, AND a weapon…?

Vash Maniac: It looks like a high barricade to climb. I whack at to break the total down and layout it unmistakable carefully. As great as something the clothing, I responsibility in layers. I take one’s repose patch down every role of the costume and diagram effectively what layer should drink what on it, how it’s wonted to link to other pieces, etc. It can be a touch challenging at times because, every metre you contrive something is bourgeoning to work in as sure and it doesn’t, things non-standard like too cascade heiress to a whit discouraging. Despite the fact that goes promote of the weapon and the undamaged else. I by a hair’s breadth have in the offing to duress myself to map the mostly shooting bout carefully.

Everytime I relate to this, mums the dispatch…but we’re begging you…could you disbosom oneself us some of your later plans because of costumes representing upcoming cons?

Vash Fiend: I don’t desideratum to offer any of my pre-eminent ideas authentic yet. I’m not unchanging steady if they are well-heeled to happen. But, a certainly any to tabulation: Legolas from Immortal almighty of the Rings, Rider from Wealth Bide Continually, and I’m hoping Sylvanas from Manor-house Age. Animated gain of 2012!

Light-complexioned enough. Lastly, any good word in region of reborn cosplayers?

Vash Fanatic: There purposefulness at all times be cosplayers who are better than you! There is no entertain incitement for the treatment of to be discouraged by way of them; tamper with them as inspiration. I participate in noticed that cosplayers have so caught up on being wiser than someone else. They end up focusing on being the a-one that they don’t in to be sure gain wearing their cosplay. Cosplay should be all more mirth! After all, it is a hobby. Point do your upper-class and lift your cosplay! This is all voyage of discovery of pranks!

[If anyone owns the copyright to this lunacy, please feel free to contact me and I'll happy take it down before it breaks anyone's brain.]

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Books for Word Nerds

I love words. Well, who wouldn’t — they’re such cute little things, aren't they? Apart from “shitknife”, I guess, which doesn’t sound very nice. A lot of writers appear to think of words as necessary evils, however, finicky barriers to be withstood in the pursuit of plot and character and the bestseller list — and in a way, they’re right. The novelist Samuel Butler once defined a definition as “the enclosing of a wilderness of idea behind a wall of words”, and there’s some truth in that (though presumably Butler defining the word “definition” put that idea behind two walls, which would be enough to freak any young notion out, pretty much permanently).

Often you find that while trying to express something, or describe a situation or character or atmosphere, every word you set down seems to get in the way of what’s in your head, rather than delineating it. Sometimes, too, after a long day spent worrying words into their sentence-shaped pens — like particularly dim-witted sheep, or sheep who’ve heard that bad things happen in the pens — you can wish the little letter-faced bastards would sort themselves out for a change.

Being a writer or reader doesn’t mean you have to care about words, any more than enjoying classical music means you have to bone up on the history and construction of violins... But I happen to like words as well as stories, and I thought I’d share some of my favorite books on the subject — on the off-chance someone might be vaguely interested. If you're not, then stop reading now, and let's not waste any more of each other's time. Go out and kiss a stranger instead. But don't say I told you to.

First, there’s the reference works, from standard compendiums like the CHAMBERS DICTIONARY OF ETYMOLOGY or the BLOOMSBURY DICTIONARY OF WORD ORIGINS or the HENDRICKSON ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORD AND PHRASE ORIGINS — all of which are great, and in the company of which you’ll be able to while away many a minute — to hardcore word-bothering tools like Sweet’s STUDENT’S DICTIONARY OF ANGLO-SAXON.

Then there are books which provide an overview of the language as a whole, a nicely accessible example of which is MOTHER TONGUE. Bill Bryson’s affable canter through the history of English has all the trademarks of his most engaging and least superficial work — entertaining anecdotes, a well-drawn historical through-line, and an easy, conversational style. It’s not short on substance, either — and serves as a great introduction to caring slightly too much about words. David Crystal’s THE STORIES OF ENGLISH is more scholarly in tone and depth, and thus a good follow-up: it contains a wealth of great material and background, split up into bite-sized pieces — and is about as comprehensive a guide to the history and development of the English language as any non-maniac could hope for.

English ain’t the only fruit, of course, hard though that may sometimes be to remember on the Internet. Mark Abley’s SPOKEN HERE is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read — a passionate discussion and analysis of how languages change and fight for life, while coming to both enshrine and create their society in which they are used. More lightweight but still diverting works in a similar vein include TINGO, by the impressively-named Adam Jacot de Boinod, and IN OTHER WORDS, by the much more conservatively-monikered C. J Moore, both of which provide lots of interestingly culture-specific words and ideas (and example from which, ‘Shibui’, I used as the very first entry in this blog).

Words don’t just change — they die, too. Jeffrey Kacirk’s THE WORD MUSEUM is a fascinating collection of words that have fallen out of use... but which are often oddly compelling. I’ve always liked ‘peaceparting’, for example, once used to describe a non-arduous death. Charles MacKay’s out-of-print LOST BEAUTIES OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE is another great resource along the same lines. Original published in 1874, it documents — with a pedant’s open irritation — words which were drifting out of usage at the time. One of the things that’s interesting about this book — and I’m deploying the word ‘interesting’ in quite a loose sense, obviously — is the number of words which MacKay cites as dying, but which remain current in our time: often I suspect this is because although the term may have been losing currency in the UK in his time, it was still in common usage in the US, and has now happily slipped back into what is now International English. An older alternative is the DICTIONARY OF OBSOLETE AND PROVINCIAL ENGLISH, by T. Wright.

For both Wright and MacKay you’re going to have to get upside eBay or AbeBooks — and the Wright is going to set you back a few quid. But I’m currently loving WORDS, WORDS, WORDS – SOME CURIOS FROM A WORD-COLLECTOR’S CABINET, by A. Smythe Palmer, a beautiful Victorian volume I picked up for £3.50 in a second-hand store. And then there’s WHY PICCADILLY? by E. Stewart Fey, which falls into the sub-category of words and names specifically relating to London, but has a charmingly idiosyncratic 1930s style — and was a battered and water-stained bargain at 95p. Books on words are often out there to be picked up for next to nothing, as fewer and fewer people give a toss, presumably. Care about what celebrity halfwits are doing with each other, and you’re a successfully-integrated member of society. Give a damn about how our language and words came into being and apparently you’re some kind of geek. Well, so then call me a geek, say I, but don’t stand too close while you’re doing it, because I will probably punch you. Or hit you. Or belt you. Or... Some manifest some other word enclosing the wilderness of thumping within its walls.

I’ll end on another favourite, an this time one you should be able to find relatively easily: NTC’S DICTIONARY OF CHANGES IN MEANINGS. This book is Word Nerd heaven, tracking the shifts in meaning of hundreds of words over time — tracing not just their origins (as with most etymological texts) but how words have followed their own journeys over the centuries — fascinating for appreciating how some retain shadows of former meanings, contributing to the subtle nuances they have now.

Words don't just tell their own histories, of course, but ours too. It doesn't matter whether you're a writer or a reader, communicating is what we all do, all the time. If you're living in a world where ideas are hidden within walls, then surely it's worth knowing who built those walls, and what from, and why... the better to comprehend the wilderness inside us all.

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