Orangina: not evil, may stain

The product warning saga continues – recently I was highly amused by a warning on a bottle of orange soft drink Orangina: "If spilt, this product may stain."

Really? Unlike orange juice, or other carbonated soft drinks such as Coke, which don't stain at all...

I wonder what compelled Orangina Schweppes, the current manufacturer of the drink, to place this particular warning on the packaging. Perhaps it is connected with the fact that it also encourages you to "shake the bottle, wake the taste" – surely increasing the likelihood of spillage.

Incidentally, one French TV advert for Orangina had - according to Wikipedia - "a mad chainsaw-wielding killer attacking a family in a car who travelled through a forest." The catchphrase: "But why is he so evil?" "Because!"

You've got to love the French...

Smother you

In my local supermarket last week, past the aisles called 'CEREALS' and 'TINNED FOOD', I came across an aisle called 'SMOTHER YOU'. My blood ran cold at this incredibly sinister sign.

It was only on second inspection that I realised the sign actually said 'SMOOTHER YOU' - the supermarket had some kind of aftershave promotion going on.

Then at the weekend I was in the same supermarket and I misread the same sign in the same way - and scared myself again. It's strange how the brain works...

How many is several?

How many is 'several'? If I said to you I'd posted on this blog several times this week, how many times would you think I meant?

Personally I use 'several' to mean a very small number, three to five perhaps - for me it is almost synonymous with 'a few'. But I realise that a lot of other people use 'several' to mean a higher number than this.

One person I spoke to yesterday believed 'several' to mean 'a number around seven', perhaps because of the similarity between the words 'several' and seven'. Although the two words have different etymologies, making connections like this between similar-sounding words is quite common and understandable.

To my surprise the OED agrees with me on 'several', defining it as "more than two but not many". 'A few', in comparison, is "a small number of; not many". So I wouldn't say that 'several' is bigger than 'a few', at least according to the dictionary definition. But then, I would love to hear what you think...

A few, or several? Or am I losing my marbles?

ITA: Initial Teaching Alphabet

I wrote a little while back about my opposition to simplifying the spelling of English, but today one of my colleagues mentioned that he remembered a simplified spelling system that was brought in at his school for a year or so. This must have been back in the late 60s.

The Initial Teaching Alphabet, or ITA, relied on more than 40 characters (our alphabet plus a number of other characters to represent different vowel combinations and sounds such as the 'ng' of 'ring') to spell words in a more consistent, phonetic way. My colleague recalls entire books being written in ITA.

The idea was that children would initially learn to read in ITA, then move over to conventional English spelling. A number of schools brought ITA in, but it was never considered a resounding success. Many people who used ITA seem to blame it for their poor spelling in later life.

Incidentally, all ITA text was written in lower case, so I suppose it should really be called ita.

My colleague later found a BBC article about ITA that is of interest if you want to find out more. Or you can also see the full ITA alphabet online.

I'd be interested to hear from any Engine Room readers that have memories of ITA. Bonus points for anyone who writes in using the ITA alphabet!

Words our colleagues hate

All writers and sub-editors have their personal writing bugbears. If you read this blog regularly, you will be familiar with many of Apus's and mine - I, for example, have unresolved issues with the word 'new'.

Today I asked a few of my colleagues (designers, subs and writers) for the bugbear words and phrases they hate to see appear in the pages of our publication. Here's a selection - and note that I don't necessarily agree with all of them:

  • Together with. No! Just use 'with' or 'and'.
  • Interestingly. No! If it's going in the magazine, of course it should be interesting - you don't need to tell the readers so.
  • Of course. No! If it's obvious, why are you mentioning it? If it's not obvious, don't make readers feel small for not knowing something. Is it a sign of insecurity on the part of the writer?
  • Back in (1996, for example). No! Just put 'in 1996'.
  • Explains. Especially in interviews. For example: "We entered this sector because it is growing fast," he explains. It makes the interviewer look as if they're a bit simple.
  • Smiles. For example: "It's a great place to work," he smiles.

Regarding the last one, I don't know whether it is better or worse than 'he said smilingly'. And today I came across 'he concluded indicatively', which is slightly too grandiose...

Smiles: we hate this

Journalism: your cup of tea?

I expected only the best when I placed my order for a cheese omelette and chips. I wasn't disappointed. Normally, I don't get too excited about chips or French fries, but these had a crispy, rough surface and this made a pleasant change from those boring oven chips.
The above quote comes from an amazing piece of incisive investigative journalism that Col stumbled upon. 'Pot of Jam at the End of a Rainbow' appears to be part review of Balcombe Tea Rooms, part travelogue involving a gentle motorbike ride to said tea rooms. Written, I am assured, by a professional journalist.

If you ever wanted to be a journalist yourself but were worried about long hours, dangerous situations, interesting characters, too much excitement – take heart. The tea room awaits.

Pot of Jam at the End of a Rainbow

Have a sit down

Crime: hugger muggers

Recently you may have read about the phenomenon of hugger muggers - criminals who pretend to befriend people in pubs and clubs in order to steal their belongings.

Hugger mugger (posed by model)

'Hugger mugger' isn't the most accurate of names seeing as these criminals don't mug anyone (mugging being to 'attack and rob in a public place', OED) and they don't necessarily hug anyone either. Mind you, 'befriender-thief' sounds more like a misguided social initiative than a new strain of criminal.

But ignoring all that, what is the crime associated with hugger muggers? Is it hugger mugging? Hugger muggering? Hugging mugging? Huggering muggering?

Incidentally, I was almost the victim of a rather incompetent hugger mugger in Camden a few weeks ago. He managed to lift my mobile phone from my jeans pocket whereupon it fell on the floor and I picked it up again. Actually seeing as my phone is rather old and dented now he may well just have decided not to bother...

Independent: wackiest words

If you are interested in words and live in the UK, I recommend you pick up a copy of the Independent today. In the Independent Extra is a great feature on 'The Wackiest Words You've Never Heard Of', as selected by Christopher Foyle, chairman of Foyles bookshop.

The feature does indeed include many words I've never heard of (such as batterfang, which means 'to attack with the fists or nails'), as well as a few of my and Apus' personal favourites (I've always had a soft spot for fabiform, 'shaped like a bean').

beans are, by their nature, fabiform

If you are unable to buy a copy of the Independent today, you can find the same article online.

Thanks to Col for bringing this to my attention.

More mixed metaphors

A couple of nice mixed metaphors that didn't make it into our publication this week:

This is the mantra currently running through the veins of the organisation

There is no clear black and white path for the industry to follow

Words in your veins? And why is a black and white path easier to follow than any other path? Sheds new light on the Wizard of Oz, perhaps...

A black and white path
(well, greyscale)

Word of the day: heavage

I forgot to mention that my post on smirting was mentioned recently on Buzzfeed – the day the smoking ban came in, I believe.

Chuffed to be picked up by Buzzfeed, I had a bit of a look around. In amongst a lot of guff about giant fish, disposable underwear and third nipples (it's a classy site), I did come across a page on a new word - heavage.

Heavage is man cleavage - you know, when the boys have their first couple of shirt buttons undone to show off the top of their chest. Not something I often do.

It's such a new word that there isn't even a Wikipedia entry on it. However Googling it seems to suggest that Jon Bon Jovi is a particular offender....

Don't worry, I know some of you are sensitive souls so I'm not going to post a picture!


(In case you were wondering, Apus is on leave yet again and will be away until some time in August - one of the perks of being a chief sub seems to be that you get several months' holiday a year...)

Man-eating badgers: denial

UK military spokesman Major Mike Shearer said: "We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area."

That memorable quote comes from a story about honey badgers in Basra on the BBC News website which Gareth has brought to our attention. Well, it amused us.

I eat honey, not people

Word of the day: copacetic

This email recently arrived in the Engine Room inbox:

We came across a word the other day, which neither of us two have heard before.

It’s “copacetic” and means “something is in excellent order”. Apparently, it’s an obscure American word! Have you come across it before?

It was used to describe the mood of my cow, Malcolm, who I’ve adopted online and after I fed him some broccoli....

I have to admit it was a new one on me too. However Wikipedia says copacetic is used "almost exclusively in North America", so maybe it is not so surprising I haven't come across it before. I wonder where Malcolm the cow lives?

Copacetic, which rhymes with 'oh, pathetic' and has a number of variant spellings, is an interesting word because its origin is highly debated. Theories variously suggest it comes from Creole French, Hebrew, or African American slang. It may even be a corruption of 'the cop is on the settee' (my personal favourite).

There's too much to write about copacetic here, but if you want to find out more then good starting places would be the Wikipedia entry on copacetic, or Michael Quinion's World Wide Words.

I would also be interested to hear from other people, American or not, about their familiarity with this word. Ta.

How now, copacetic cow?

Western Mail: dead easy

Following on from Norwich Union telling us in a rather sinister manner that 'accidents happen', Colin has emailed in the following cutting from Welsh newspaper the Western Mail. (If it's too small to read, click on it to see a bigger version.)

For those of you who don't do pictures, it says: "Arranging the death of a loved one isn't easy. But there are companies and services here to help you every step of the way... if you can offer your services and wish to advertise with us please call Claire or Emma."

Don't be surprised to see Norwich Union advertising in the Western Mail any day now...

Well I'm a Dutchman

The English language absorbs words and phrases from a bewildering variety of sources, including our former adversaries.

Take the Dutch. We have a Dutch treat (which is no treat at all); double Dutch (gibberish); Dutch courage (based on alcohol); and "if that's true I'm a Dutchman" (you're lying).

There's no doubt that the Dutch were once ferocious trading rivals who were not afraid of a scrap – the naval encounters between the two nations in the 17th century included the "four-day battle" which reflects the fact that neither side was prepared to give an inch.

But perhaps the most telling Dutch-based phrase is "Dutch cap" as slang for a diaphragm contraceptive device. The use of "French letter" for condom reminds us that we've also been known to fall out with our next-door neighbours – while the infamous aphrodisiac (and toxic) Spanish fly ensures that our third major naval adversary is not left out of this somewhat disreputable list.

Odds and ends from the subs' desk

Just a few odds and ends from the past couple of weeks on the subs' desk.

1. A reporter wrote about the "problems that are ripe in the industry" - couldn't work out if this was an unfortunate typo or a misunderstanding of the phrase. Made me smile anyway. Obviously, he meant 'rife'.

2. A few nice tautologies that our writers supplied (and didn't make it into print):
Damning indictment
Expendable pawns
Panacea to cure all ills

Here's an expendable pawn

3. One writer talked about something being "increasingly critical" - not sure how that works!

4. Lastly, a couple of great phrases. One of our IT systems was described by a senior manager as "a lego set that is one big brick" - and in the same meeting he said that some of our company websites "look as though they haven't been designed, they've congealed"...

Now that's a 'damning indictment' if ever I heard one!

Fighting: not just for drunks

Earlier this week I saw some kind of government health and safety poster with the following advice:

There are some things you only do when drunk. Fighting shouldn't be one of them.

It was in a bar in Borough, London, and I don't think it was meant ironically. Strangely it seems to suggest that you shouldn't only fight when drunk - you should fight at other times as well...

Who wants a scrap?

No to simplified spelling

Today on the BBC website I came across an interesting debate on whether English spelling should be simplified - I personally agree with Vivian Cook who argues against simplification.

In addition to Vivian's points I'd like to say that when I taught English as a foreign language, my students struggled much more with English grammar (especially tenses), and with phrasal verbs, than they did with spelling. I hope that's not a reflection on my teaching...

Also, spellings often indicate a word's etymology - and by simplifying spellings, we would lose a lot of visual clues to the origin and history of words.

A third point I believe is not raised in the debate is that related words are often pronounced differently but spelled similarly, for example 'maniac' and 'maniacal'. If the spellings of these words were 'simplified', the connection between these words would no longer be so obvious in the spelling - which might actually hinder language learning.

Masha Bell, arguing in favour of simplification, says that irregular spellings penalise language learners with poor memories. Perhaps, but could it be that our idiosyncratic spelling actually helps all of us to develop our memories?

Finally, pronunciation of words changes over time, so if we moved to a more phonetic spelling system, would it be necessary to update certain spellings periodically? Who would be in charge of deciding when this happened and to what words? The Simplified Spelling Society, perhaps. But I like the fact that the spelling of the English language, or even of British English, isn't prescribed by any one body or organisation.

Any more thoughts?

Fine herbs: the truth

One word can have several meanings, or many different shades of meaning, and advertisers can use this to give a misleading impression of their product without actually breaking the truth.

I'll give you a silly example. Our staff restaurant recently had on its menu "vegetable soup with fine herbs". I bought some, thinking that "fine herbs" sounded very classy. As it turned out, the herbs were of an average quality but just chopped up very small. Fine can mean both "high quality" and "consisting of small particles" (OED).

Any excuse for a food photo

Of course, these two meanings of 'fine' are related - fine jewellery, which has "delicate or intricate workmanship" (another OED meaning of fine), is probably of "high quality". There is an association between being small and delicate, and being of high quality - which, sadly, isn't true in every case, as my vegetable soup showed.

All these meanings of fine have the same origin - the Latin word 'finire', which also gave us the English word 'finish'. So we're not talking about several different words that sound the same (known as homonyms), but one word with several shades of meaning. And this is exactly the kind of thing that advertisers can play on, so beware.

London Lite and £4m notes

Yes, it's time to mock free London newspaper London Lite again. This time I was amused by a headline regarding a 'gang of cash conterfeiters': "Prison for £4m notes cheats".

If I received a £4m note in my change, or indeed from the cash machine, I would probably assume it was counterfeit...

Later in the story, we are told:

Ringleader Kenneth Howe, 35, of Rainham, was arrested after he tried to outrun police cars and two helicopters

Clever boy all round is our Kenneth.

The navy's here

Today one of the writers in our care came up with "unchartered territory". A routine malapropism for "uncharted", of course, but it left me musing on how many of our phrases have their roots in the Royal Navy.

"Uncharted" clearly means "off the map" but one of my favourites is rather more obscure: "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey". The good news is, it isn't rude and has nothing to do with chilled simian genetalia.

Quite simply, in the days of fighting sail a small number of cannonballs were often kept on deck for immediate use. They were stored in a brass frame known as a monkey (probably because the boys who brought gunpowder from the magazine were known as powder monkeys). In exceptionally cold weather the brass could contract enough to dislodge the iron balls.

Another balls-related phrase you can use in front of granny is (for an engine) "running balls out".

Steam engines need to be governed to stop them revving too fast and exploding. The governor incorporates a pair of heavy balls on pivoted arms that are thrown outwards by centrifugal force – so when the engine is working flat out it is literally running "balls out".

A blog with supergeniusitude

I'd like to use my post today to tell you about one of my favourite blogs, Mark Peters' Wordlustitude.

Mark collects examples of amusing but ephemeral words which otherwise might disappear forever. Each of the words comes with a real-life citation so you can be fairly sure he's not making them up himself.

To give you a flavour of the kind of words on the site (and some of them are quite close to the bone, so be warned), here are a few of my recent favourites. I think most of the meanings are self-evident:

  • supergeniusitude
  • nutsopath
  • pope-o-licious (infallible)
  • non-honkified
  • sexbombish

I'm adding Wordlustitude to our blogroll (in the bottom right-hand corner of the blog) so you'll be able to find it eaily - it's updated fairly often.

Universal sentence

Is this the ultimate use-anywhere sentence? It landed on my desk as part of an otherwise reasonable feature:

It is not possible to plan for every eventuality but spotting potential problems early and taking appropriate steps and, where necessary, advice is essential.

Here's a challenge to any subs who happen to spot this blog – drop this sentence into the next feature you sub and see if anyone notices.

Don't mess with Beethoven

We've had an interesting query from Clare:

I need a word inventing. Any ideas?

Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata was originally composed for and with, a fascinating man called Bridgetower. The poor bloke fell out with Beethoven (over a woman) so he dedicated it instead to a chap called Kreutzer.

So despite it being originally written for Bridgetower, and Bridgetower playing it, which is something Kreutzer never did because he said it was too difficult, Bridgetower has slipped out of the history.

There’s a word for that, but I can’t think what it is. The only one I can think of is 'bummer'.

Beethoven: not a happy bunny

The word that comes immediately to mind is 'Kreutzered', as in 'Bridgetower was Kreutzered by Beethoven'. I checked with Apus and he concurred, adding that it sounded "suitably Germanic".

I thought also that the story is a classical music version of gazumping - in a way, Bridgetower was gazumped as Beethoven's friend by Kreutzer - but I'm not sure this word has ever been used outside the context of property buying.

Does anyone else out there have any ideas? Or examples of being Kreutzered?

Let's talk about biscuits!

I share JD's fascination with biscuits, and have the waistline to prove it. But while I enjoy the odd packet of chocolate chip cookies, my favourite remains the noble Bourbon.

And yes, the OED confirms that in this context Bourbon takes a capital letter (it gives no reason for this; possibly the lexicographers were simply revealing their respect for a great biscuit).

American tourists must be confused by Bourbon biscuits, bourbon being a form of American whisky. But isn't it odd that while the biscuit gets a B the whisky makes do with a b, despite taking its name from (capitalised) Bourbon County in Kentucky.

And once they've recovered from the disappointment that Bourbon biscuits contain no whisky, our colonial cousins have to climb a steep learning curve as they work out that to a Brit a cookie is a type of biscuit while to an American a biscuit is a type of cake. Two nations divided by a common language? More a case of two nations divided by a common biscuit.

JD, now you know how, maybe you could find a pic of Bourbon biscuits to join the cookies?

Apus: I couldn't find a picture of Bourbon
biscuits we could use, but here's a 19th-century
bottle of bourbon instead - JD

All-butter cookies

All-butter cookies - what are they about? They contain lots of ingredients other than butter, such as egg and sugar. Surely this is one for trading standards.

Cookies: Not all butter, fortunately

(Yes, I know it means that the only fat used in the recipe is butter, but I made myself laugh reading a packet of cookies yesterday and thought I would share... it's also a good excuse to put up the blog's first picture, which is something I hope we'll do more of in the future.)