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Passionate and fanatical

The other day I ordered a new ink cartridge for my printer. It duly arrived, and written on the box it came in was the proud boast ‘Passionate about Printing’.

Passionate about printing. Am I supposed to believe that? The company that made and delivered my ink cartridge is passionate about printing. Not about the history of printing, the invention of printing blocks and of moveable type, the achievements of Guttenberg and Caxton and the way these developments influenced western culture and paved the way for the Renaissance and the scientific revolution. That is something I could imagine being passionate about. But passionate about squeezing ink into a plastic cartridge and sending it to me so I can print out my boring lesson plans? This defies credulity. Nobody could be passionate about that.

Two trends converge here. One is the over-use of the word passionate to describe an interest in anything, as trotted out by over-eager applicants in job interviews. The other is the marketing or advertising idea that companies are supposed to boast of their love for the products they supply. The Odeon cinema near me used to display the films currently showing, until a couple of years ago they gave up doing that and instead adorned the frontage with a big sign saying ‘Fanatical about film’. Really? I don’t think so. I think the Odeon, like all cinema chains, simply shows the movies that will make them the most money. But even if they were fanatical about film, so what? Good for them. But I’d much rather be told what films they’re showing.


I forgot it at home

Yesterday I went to see a film, Woman at War, by the Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson. It’s a very good film and I recommend that you go and see it. But that’s enough film-reviewing. The point is that at one moment during the movie someone asks the main character, Halla, if she has her mobile phone and she makes a reply (in Icelandic, obviously) that is subtitled as: “I forgot it at home.”

I forgot it at home. No doubt that is a literal translation of what she said, but in English it sounds wrong. If I forgot something, well, I forgot it. We can’t comfortably add an adverb of place. In English we would say I left it at home. But note that this has an ambiguity that the Icelandic original, and the clunky subtitle, do not have. Because if I leave something at home I might have done so either on purpose or by accident, whereas if I have forgotten it then it must be by accident. I don’t know whether the writer of that sub-title just translated literally or deliberately decided to go with the unambiguous version knowing that it was not idiomatic. Either way I think they made the right call.

Other European languages have this construction: in French you can say Je l’ai oublié chez moi. I think in the long-term it might become a normal feature of English, especially with the still-growing number of people who speak English as a second language. We’ll adopt it for our own, and it won’t sound odd any more.


I was strolling along through the streets today when I saw a bulky green rotund object ahead of me on the pavement, and as I got closer I saw it was… a discarded gonk!

A gonk. Remember those? If you were born in the 60s or 70s you probably do, but I’m not sure if anyone much under 40 would know about them. Yet once both the thing and the word were ubiquitous. Everyone had at least one gonk in their bedroom. A gonk. It was a cross between a toy and an ornament, I suppose: a big round egglike knitted form with grinning features stuck on its woollen face and small hands and feet splaying outwards. It was a friendly, silly sort of object which seemed to express a very 1970s idea of childish irresponsibility, freedom and whimsicality: the word itself, gonk, somehow suggests this.

Well, I thought gonks had gone for good, but that abandoned one I saw today suggests that they are still around. Or have I seen the last ever gonk?


I have blogged on this subject before, but like many, or most, if not all of the things I blog about it hasn’t gone away. I am talking about tongue-displays. Not strictly a language issue, but it’s body language, so that’s within my bailiwick.

I saw a photo in the paper today of Wilfred Zaha, the Crystal Palace striker, celebrating after scoring the winning goal against Arsenal; and he celebrated by displaying his tongue. I don’t mean he was sticking his tongue out. He was grinning and allowing the tongue to loll down over his lower lip, like a great big floppy pink sea-cucumber. If he was the only player I’d ever seen do this I might have thought he had just been photographed at a bad moment, but in fact lots of sportsmen do it (I haven’t seen a sportswoman do it yet). I’ve noticed Aaron Ramsey at it, for instance, and as I mentioned in my previous post on the matter, Gareth Bale and Arjen Robben are committed tongue-displayers, and so is the cyclist Albert Contador. But why? Why would anyone do this? I assume they haven’t all, by coincidence, decided to do it spontaneously. That is not how language works. New usage spreads by imitation. Some sportsman let his tongue hang out and other sportsmen thought, or unconsciously formulated the notion, that this was a cool thing to do and they wanted to to do it too.

Obviously they were wrong about that. It is not cool. It looks absolutely twattish. Infantile, attention-seeking, gratuitously ugly. But maybe that is the point. The message is, I have achieved such an amazing sporting triumph that I can afford to look like a twat and not worry about it.

wicked problems

I was at a conference on the philosophy of sport in Oxford last week (where I gave a paper on whether international sporting fixtures inflame nationalist feeling) and during one of the talks I discovered a new term which I rather like: wicked problems. A wicked problem is not an evil problem, but one that is fiendishly spiky and complicated, that resists resolution. It is not merely an expression of frustration but a precise term; not just any old annoying problem is wicked. Wicked problems have ten defining features, listed in a 1973 paper by Rittel and Witter. I won’t go through them all but they include: a wicked problem cannot be definitively formulated; proposed solutions can only be better or worse, not right or wrong; there is no clear test of a solution to a wicked problem; every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem; and anyone who tries to solve wicked problems gets blamed when their solution fails. Wicked problems are contrasted with tame problems – which may be serious, but at least you know what you are supposed to do about them.

The term was originally used in social policy, but is also used in design, in international relations, and indeed in the philosophy of sport.

Wicked problems. I have a feeling I shall be using that phrase a lot.

go bad, get good

It occurred to me recently how many expressions there are in English where the word go followed by an adjective denotes some kind of deterioration in condition: thus, food goes bad or goes mouldy; animals can go extinct; one can go mad, go blind, go deaf, go downhill; a situation can go pear-shaped, or go from bad to worse.

On the other hand, get is associated with an improvement in condition. You can get better, get well, get rich, get happy, get drunk, get lucky. You can get good at something or get wise to something.

That’s all for today. I have to get going.

cherubims (sic)

In her Foreword to The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers writes: ‘My grateful thanks are due to Mr W.J.Redhead, who kindly designed for me the noble Parish Church of Fenchurch St Paul and set it about with cherubims’.

With what? I am surprised to see the erudite Dorothy Sayers, who graduated with a First in Modern Languages from Somerville College, Oxford, a poet, novelist, critic and translator of Dante, making such a vulgar error. Cherubim is a plural. The singular is cherub. In Hebrew, the plural of masculine nouns takes -im. Compare seraphim, kibbutzim, goyim. Writing cherubims is as redundant as writing angelses.