Blog in 05 2011.
That’s a question Douglas Adams and John Lloyd explored in their book, The Meaning of Liff, in 1983.
They took some of the spare words that have little or no meaning and put them to good use. And 28 years later, we’re still finding their explanations funny.
Here are some of their originals:
Shoeburyness (n.) The vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else's bottom.
Banff (adj.) Pertaining to, or descriptive of, that kind of facial expression which is impossible to achieve except when having a passport photograph taken.
Plymouth (vb.) To relate an amusing story to someone without remembering that it was they who told it to you in the first place.
A few of us Writer folk had a go, here’s what we came up with:
Winchester (n.) The feeling of gratification when cramming oneself into a shirt that, at first glance, appeared too small.
Tooting Bec (n.) When a car draws up at the traffic lights and hoots when the lights go green before realising that the car in front is parked and there’s nobody inside.
Tewkesbury (n.) The act of embarrassing oneself whilst on a bowling green.
Poole (n.) A body of sullied, stagnant water – widely agreed to be offensive to the nostrils.
Benfica (n.) A low chest of drawers, often used as a bedside table. Traditionally made from oak.
Tullamore (n.) A wart on your ear that, in a certain light, looks like an ear stud.
Kitwe (n.) The sound of animals in the landscape that you only begin to notice as dusk falls.
Walsall (n.) A small bruise that’s not all that painful, but keeps getting itself caught or knocked and so becomes irksome.
We’ve been writing our very own style guide here at Writer HQ. We’ve had some arguments.
Focused or focussed?
Targetted or targeted?
Straight away or straightaway?
Never before have I seen harmonious working relationships turn to mulch quite so quickly. Each side starts off by making their case from the point of view of history, or etymology, or current usage. But the battles usually degenerate into variations of ‘it just doesn’t look right.’ Or, as these guys would argue, it just doesn’t:
Then there’s the ‘who cares as long as it’s understandable’ camp. Contentious, but lots of people can relate to it. The painters of this road, for a start.
Stay tuned for more judgments (or judgements).
Kenneth Clarke, genial, knowingly rumpled Conservative minister. Lars von Trier, revered, slightly nutty Danish film director. In any given week they wouldn’t have anything in common.
This week is different. They’ve both been in trouble for saying the wrong thing.
In a radio interview, Ken suggested there were serious and less serious kinds of rape. Cue the infamous exchange:
Victoria Derbyshire: ‘Rape is rape’.
Ken: ‘No it is not’.
He could perhaps have dodged the bullet altogether if he’d said there were serious and more serious kinds of rape.
In a Cannes press conference, Lars took that surprisingly well worn path to career suicide that involves publicly sympathising with Hitler. Shortly afterwards, digging the hole even deeper, he said: ‘OK – I am a Nazi’.
He should perhaps have stayed in bed, or not turned up in Cannes at all.
Both men’s advisors have no doubt sat them down in a quiet corner and said, ‘Ken, old chap/Lars, darling. Think before you speak’.
Great advice for writers too.
Every day, we write words that we hope will change people’s minds, make them like us or get them to do what we want. The more we think before we lay a finger on the keyboard, the better those words will turn out. And the more effective they’ll be. Our internal editor needs to be sure what we want to say and what order to say it in. Then they need to be an ultra-harsh critic of every phrase and argument.
Unlike Ken and Lars, we have the luxury of being able to cross things out and start again. But once our words are out there, on people’s desks and in their inboxes, we can’t hastily correct ourselves or go on Question Time to say sorry for being confusing or accidentally offensive.
We may not be going out live to millions, but we can still do a Ken/Lars.
I saw a nice little article in the Evening Standard last night. A good news story, tucked in between less good news about trains and tubes.
It's about a chap called Tim Pinn. He's a tube worker who's been writing friendly messages on the information boards at Warwick Avenue station.
"The weekend's arrived – let's see some dancing down the escalators" and "You've given enough for the day, the rest of it is yours for the evening" are just two of the messages that have led to Tim getting his own dedicated Facebook page.
We always like to see people showing a bit of personality in their writing, so good work Tim, keep it up.
Last month the BBC reported the launch of Action for Happiness, a social movement encouraging people to get happy by doing simple things.
And because everyone loves a list, they came up with 40 things you could do to make yourself happier. It’s pretty standard fare: ‘Give up your seat’, ‘Pick up litter as you walk’, ‘Help someone in need’. All undoubtedly good suggestions. But there was one thing missing – writing.
Us Writer folk are understandably biased, but research has shown that writing down your thoughts every day can genuinely make you happier.
In 59 Seconds, psychologist Richard Wiseman argues that writing beats talking hands down in the happiness stakes – even though 90 percent of the public believe talking will do the job. He says talking can be unstructured, whereas writing creates a storyline, helping the writer make sense of what’s happened.
His research claims people who write things down end up ‘happier, much more optimistic about the future, and even exercised significantly more’.
The obvious way to get started is with a daily dose of ‘dear diary’, but even scribbling down some random thoughts on the bus to work can clear your mind of clutter and brighten your mood.
Plus, it’s easier than looking after your friends’ kids and less painful than giving blood (two of the other happiness suggestions).