content-page.php --c

Teawords…

Prone to mystify and exclude rather than clarify and engage – jargon is more often than not a bad thing. More often, but not always. Take teawords, for example….

While waiting for a cappuccino in my local coffee spot, I picked up a copy of the SCA Journal (“A Biannual Publication of the Specialty Coffee Association“). Inside, I found an exploration by anthropologist Sarah Besky of the ‘specialized lexicon of tea’. Teawords – the highly specific words used by tea traders among themselves when discussing, assessing, grading, buying and selling the stuff that ends up in our cuppas.

In teaworld, “seemingly straightforward words like cheesy, minty, and fruity do not reference the sensations of cheese, mint, or fruit. These words signal different “taints” in the teas imparted during storage or transport.” As a Kolkata tea broker Mr. Chetal explains: “The language of tea is an intra-trade language. Tea is unlike wine, whose language is applied toward the consumer. [Wine] terms are evocative, finely tuned, and pleasing. They generate emotion.” Tea terms, in contrast, are all business – helpful shortcut language created purely and simply for tea traders to oil the wheels of tea trade.

It just goes to show that occasionally, as with tech tea language, there can be such a thing as good jargon.

content-page.php --c

Words are songs…

In Bluets, Maggie Nelson shares Maurice Merleau-Ponty‘s observation: ‘words do not look like the things they designate’. They might not look like them, but they can sound like them.

Boom, crash, bang, miaow, toot toot – onomatopoeic words are the most familiar examples. But as the FT’s Anjana Ahuja underlines in her review of Steven Mithen’s The Language Puzzle: How We Talked Our Way Out of the Stone Age, the association runs wider and deeper: “In 1929, the American anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir told a group of unwitting study participants that the made-up words mil and mal referred to different-sized tables, then asked them to guess which referred to the bigger table. Whether the volunteers were English or Chinese, child or adult, about 80 per cent intuitively chose mal. That same year, the German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler pulled a similar trick with maluma and takete, asking people to identify which meant “round” and which meant “spiky”. Maluma was overwhelmingly linked to a round shape; the sharp movements of the tongue required to utter takete led volunteers to associate it with a spiky shape.” So the sound of a word sets off a sense in our heads, and at times a non-sense – there is no rational reason why the bigger table could not have been the mil. But our ears instinctively tend to tell us otherwise.

Words are songs, not signs. So it pays to pay close attention not just to their definition but also to their sound. Their meaning and their melody.

content-page.php --c

Listening forward…

“As I write, I listen. The words forming in my mind are sounds. Listening forward in time, I sense and feel you: the reader, listening as well.”

As Ione underlines in her introduction to Pauline Oliveros’ Quantum Listening, writing involves not just paying close attention to the sounds of the words you are using but to the audience listening to them, too. It is a super-empathetic auditory art.

To write well, write with your ears – for your reader.

content-page.php --c

Way with words…

It is common for copywriters of a certain vintage to laud David Ogilvy, but there’s a reason why the greats are, well, just great.

For proof, look no further than his classic book Ogilvy on Advertising. It is chock full of examples, such as these opening lines for a corporate ad designed to foster international friendship:

“The Japanese have a wonderful way with words. What we call a back porch they call a moon-watching platform. A fountain pen is a ten-thousand-year brush. Their name for a motorcycle truck is bata-bata because that is the noise it makes. And do you know a word in any other language that sighs good-bye as wistfully as sayonara?”

Their sense, their sound, their meaning, their melody – a master of words on the wonder of words.

content-page.php --c

Et tu, Brutus.1?…

Fully 26 years ago, “the world’s most advanced artificial story generator” Brutus.1 wrote Betrayal, a somewhat clunky, clichéd tale of back-stabbing in ivy-clad academia.

Able to come up with stories of no more than 500 words all on the same theme of – yes, you guessed it – betrayal, Brutus.1 was state-of-the-art in 1998. Artificially generated stories have moved on quite some way since then, but the fundamental flaw remains. As the developer of Brutus.1, Selmer Bringsfjord, said at the time, “To tell a truly compelling story, a machine would need to understand the inner lives of its characters. To do that, it would need to think not only mechanically, but also experientially, in the sense of having a subjective or phenomenal awareness.” In short, it would need to not just think but feel – to have a heart, and give a damn.

Want any old story? Try prompting a machine. Want a great story? Trust a human.

content-page.php --c

Values and a voice…

These days, annual reports are much more than just a home for the numbers aimed purely at finance folk. At their best, they’re strategic documents setting out for all key stakeholders what a company has done to live its core purpose, create lasting value and contribute to the wider world.

Values and a voice are critical here. According to the FT’s Peggy Hollinger, “A recent study found that companies that came in highest or lowest on a well-known ranking of LGBTQ policies were rewarded by investors with share price rises, while those in the middle were ignored. It was not about who had the most inclusive policies but who had the clearest position.” The moral is, avoid the murky mid-zone – have a strong point of view and let it sing.

So as we head into 2024, I’m resolved to put more clarity and conviction into reporting.

content-page.php --c

Ruthful roots…

As an uplifting end-of-year read and/or last-minute festive gift, I’d like to recommend Roots of Happiness: 100 Words for Joy and Hope, by all-round word wizard Susie Dent.

“I am on a mission to find light in the deepest darkest corners of our language,” says Susie, on the back cover of her brill book. Lovable language like “forblissed” (extremely happy). “Lost positives” like “ruthful” (full of empathy and compassion) that have fallen out of everyday use, rather than their easily-found negatives.

We could all do with a lot less ruthlessness in the world, a lot more joy and hope. That starts with the language we use between and about each other. Susie’s setting the tone. I’m all ears.

 

content-page.php --c

Toasty, not scalding…

As the great Ed Ruscha says, “Words have temperatures.”

A master at choosing and using words with care, Ruscha plays not only with their meaning but also their look, their sound, their all-round feel. Take, for example, this work, currently on display at Tate Modern:

According to the FT’s Ariella Budick, Ruscha likes words that are “toasty, not scalding”. “Sometimes,” he says, “I have a dream that if a word gets too hot and too appealing, it will boil apart.” Ouch! In this spirit, here are a few of my favourite phrases to gently warm the head and heart:

sun-kissed

honey-tongued

loon-hearted

Keep it toasty.

content-page.php --c

Poetic possibilities…

When it comes to innovating, what part do facts play?

In his Selected Writings, Ralph Waldo Emerson puts them firmly in their place: “Whoever discredits analogy, and requires heaps of facts, before any theories can be attempted, has no poetic power, and nothing original or beautiful will be produced by him.” This chimes with one of the many good things Storied CEO Michael Margolis has to say in his conversation with Chris Do, CEO of The Futur™: “Data is a story of the past, whereas disruption is a story about the future. So we have to start with the future first, and then we use the past, the data, to legitimise and validate the future we’re trying to create. Most of us have that order or sequence turned upside down. We’re constantly looking backwards instead of looking forwards. And this is where we trap ourselves within a past story or within even an existing narrative that may not be the right story for the future we’re trying to create… For any of us who are leading change or doing something that’s new and different – you’re being hired for your possibility mindset, the ability to see and name the possibilities and the opportunities amidst change, amidst constraints. But we often are leading with the data, trying to prove and validate something and trying to posture instead of widening the aperture and really unlocking the creative mojo and the generativeness in any situation.”

Whether it’s Waldo’s ‘poetic power‘ or Michael’s ‘possibility mindset‘, the key here is to prioritise and encourage the freedom to imagine. To explore in full the poetic possibilities.

Looking to innovate? Dream more; let the facts follow…

content-page.php --c

Synching brains…

It’s one of their great qualities – stories bring us together, encouraging us to think and feel that we are all connected. But the thing is, this only works if the story is well told.

As The Moth’s How To Tell A Story points out, this is backed up by science: “A study led by neuroscientist Uri Hasson found that when a person is listening and comprehending a story, their brain activity begins to couple, or align, with the brain of the teller. The scientific term is “speaker-listener neural coupling”. MRI scans of two brains, one talking, one listening, showed that the brains began to synch. Where the teller’s brain showed activity, or “lit up”, soon after, the listener’s brain lit up too.” However… “One catch is that this only happens when the listener is engaged and comprehending the story being told. In short, if you want to spark another person’s brain, your story needs to be good.”

So the next time you need to tell a key story, it is well worth making sure it is as good as it can be.

content-page.php --c

Unsung hero…

“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.” So begins Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood. Lyrical, loaded, a touch ominous – as all good openings should, it sets the mood while encouraging you to read on.

But it didn’t start out that way. Indeed, as Capote’s recently published manuscripts and notebooks reveal, it was initially a more detailed, less captivating description: “Holcomb is a very visible village located on high wheat plains of western Kansas, where the air is Swiss-clear and the flat views lonesomely, awesomely extensive.” Which is where editing comes in. Capote took the key parts of the statement, cut out the rest (no matter how appealing, such as the spot-on ‘Swiss-clear’), and created a sentence that sings his song, strong and true.

It’s a great example of the power and point of revising your writing. Sometimes seen as an afterthought or poor relation of drafting, editing is in fact more often than not a critical part of the whole writing process. So here’s to good editing – unsung hero of great storytelling.

content-page.php --c

Do…you…

Good to see an uptick in support for the age-old art of rhetoric, AKA persuading people through words.

Yet coming as they do, clothed in the relatively arcane and unfamiliar terms of the ancient Greeks (anaphora, anastrophe et al), the techniques can seem daunting. Happily though, much of the effect can be achieved just by focusing on the music of your meaning. Its rhythm, rhyme and melody.

I recently came across an example of not quite getting this right, while waiting for a tube train at my local Underground station:

Put to one side the questionable use of “most original” and linger instead on the ending: “…whatever it is you do, there’s a space for you here.” Clunky, isn’t it. But easy to fix: move the last three words around and you have the more musical “…whatever it is you do, there’s a space here for you.”

Not long after that, I spotted this in a pub garden:

Simply sings its sunny advice.

As the poster on the Underground and the notice in the pub garden affirm, to write well, write with your ears. Happy listening!

content-page.php --c

The full meaning, colour, and harmony of words…

As Herbert J. C. Grierson says in his Rhetoric and English Composition, “Words are the material with which we have to work in composition, the bricks of our building, the simplest elements available for the communication […] of our thoughts and feelings.” No matter how lovable a word might be on its own, “The full meaning, colour, and harmony of words depend on their combination with others in sentences; the sentences themselves on their interaction in the paragraph; and the paragraph itself […] in other, larger divisions – chapter or canto or act – in the whole composition.”

I was reminded of this in the wake of the sad departing of Martin Amis – a king of composition. As Ian McEwan puts it, Martin Amis “really was one of those writers who cares a lot about the sentence. He had a real dedication to getting things right. He didn’t just think onto the typewriter.”

‘Writing is thinking’, so the saying goes. But this is only part of the story. Writing is thinking rethought, rewrought – composed. And like all the best compositions, it has meaning and melody, substance and style. Here’s one of many such compositions from the late great Amis – the opening to his article for The Guardian in the aftermath of 9/11:

“It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her.

I have never seen a generically familiar object so transformed by effect. That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future…”

“The second plane, sharking in… galvanised with malice… its glint […] the worldflash of a coming future…” Words full of meaning, colour, and harmony – words composed with great care not just to capture our thoughts and feelings but to bring them into sharper focus and augment them. So that we are somehow made more from that moment on.

content-page.php --c

We can be heroes…

In her brill book The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives, Jude Rogers touches on the power of hero narratives not just to guide but to galvanise us all.

She draws on ‘Hero Worship’, a paper by psychologists Scott T. Allison and George R Goethals, which cites the importance of said narratives for both ‘human survival and human thriving’. According to Allison and Goethals, hero stories serve two functions: an ‘epistemic’ function and an ‘energising’ function. Epi-what?? Happily, Jude is on hand to explain: “By epistemic, they meant hero stories imparted knowledge and wisdom to people that needed them. Its energising function related to these stories elevating people to believe that they were capable of positive action.”

So the next time you want people not just to understand but to act, add a little heroism to your story. Or maybe even add a lot.

content-page.php --c

Happy walking…

While following the South West Coast Path, we came across this handcrafted message – a welcome complement to the super-minimal and somewhat confusing official signage:

Friendly help for all befuddled ramblers, care of a kind Cornish stranger. Happy walking indeed!

content-page.php --c

Wear sombreros…

In Edward Tufte’s Seeing With Fresh Eyes, the da Vinci of Data underlines the value of going beyond the confines of rational right-angled thinking to look truly, deeply and widely at the world as it really is in all its wavy wonky wonder – from the ellipse of the half-moon to the sloped ramp of the Guggenheim by way of the the laidback undulating curves of the sombrero:

In a world awash with data-driven decisions made by machines, it is more important than ever not to lose sight of the human angle and touch. Not least because still – and who knows, maybe forever – no algorithm can yet match us for creativity, judgement, nuance, empathy, perception. Those wrong-angled, right-minded beautiful things that make us who we are.

So let’s put down our set squares, look up, look out and trust our eyes – wear sombreros.

content-page.php --c

Scrappy oracles…

I was going to write something about the implications of ChatGPT for writers, but there are already many eloquent voices out there on that subject, notably Nick Cave and iA. So instead, I would like to show my hand:

As Patti Smith says, while showing her own hand at the beginning of her brilliant A Book Of Days, “The hand is one of the oldest of icons, a direct correspondence between imagination and execution… Social media, in its twisting of democracy, sometimes courts cruelty, reactionary commentary, misinformation, and nationalism, but it can also serve us.  It’s in our hands. The hand that composes a message, smooths a child’s hair, pulls back the arrow and lets it fly. Here are my arrows aiming for the common heart of things. Each attached with a few words, scrappy oracles.”

In a world awash with hoo-ha surrounding generative AI, the mysterious alchemical magic of the human hand, head and heart remains as powerful and precious as ever, reminding us that we humans, in all our messy, marvellous, thinky blinky, scrappy oracular glory, are essentially, thankfully, unalgorithmable.

content-page.php --c

Miniature marvels…

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the impeccable grounds of The Newt in Somerset. Owned by Koos Bekker (AKA Canniest Investor In Tech), the Newt is a wonder to wander, not least because of its attention to every last detail. Yes, the big draws include a reconstructed Roman villa and grand gardens, but my eye was caught by the scatterings of little infopanels around and about. Miniature marvels of communication, such as this one:

In a handful of well-chosen words, it takes you from when the surrounding beech trees were planted to what was once a Somerset Boxing Day treat, by way of the chatting, digging, steaming, weeping badgers who live in the sets beneath your feet.

Jugged badger may no longer be on the menu, but characterful communication is never out of fashion.

content-page.php --c

Guilty of poor writing…

This one goes out to anyone who has ever been left scratching their heads or indeed tearing their hair out trying to decipher lawyer-speak – hello everyone…

Each year, the Ig Nobel awards honour research that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think”. Sure enough, I chuckled to see that this year’s literature prize went to a team who analysed why legal documents are so impenetrable. Far from conceding that the complexities of law call for similarly complicated language, the team concluded that poor writing was the culprit. They found legal documents guilty of containing “startlingly high proportions of certain difficult-to-process features – including low-frequency jargon, center-embedded clauses, passive voice structures, and non-standard capitalization – relative to nine other baseline genres of written and spoken English”. Pretty damning stuff.

So the next time a lawyer tries to bamboozle you with legalese, politely but firmly ask them to go away and come back with some clear communication.

content-page.php --c

Good song…

For less than the price of a Starbucks latte (other brands are available), I bought from a charity shop Beethoven’s Own Words – “a little book,” as the compiler Philip Kruseman describes it, “in which a choice of thoughts and expressions of the greatest among the great tone poets is collected”:

This little book is indeed packed full of choice thoughts and expressions. Here’s my favourite:

“Good song has been my guide; I have tried to write as fluently as possible, and I dare to answer for this before the judgement seat of healthy intelligence and good taste.”

An encouragement to make our words sing, from the great master of organised sound.

content-page.php --c

Echoing patterns…

In episode 1 of the BBC’s Great Poets In Their Own Words, UCL Professor of English John Mullan notes that “It was often said that WH Auden had this peculiar gift of making ordinary words sound terribly poetic by putting them into echoing patterns of sounds.”

This strikes me as a neat reminder of how putting ordinary words together in ways that sound right and ring true is at the heart of all forms of good writing. The meaning of our words is, of course, critical, but so too is the music. Indeed, the music reinforces the meaning. On this front, it’s not just the sound of each individual word that counts, but the patterns they create when we combine them – not just the single note but the rhythm and melody of the piece as a whole.

So whether it’s a famous poem or everyday business communication, it’s always good to write not just with your head and your heart but also with your ears – to create patterns that echo positively.

content-page.php --c

Familect blinkies…

The readiness of the English language to welcome with open arms mighty fine new words is one of its great strengths, and family slang, or familect, is one of the more entertaining and inventive sources.

This particular strain of lovable language finds a happy home in Kitchen Table Lingo – an ideal summer book to dip into while “bibbly” (tipsy) or “incatacipated” (when you are trapped beneath a cat asleep on your lap). To add to the pot, here’s a homespun neologism courtesy of my daughter: “blinky” – when a great idea suddenly appears in your head, making your eyes widen in wonder.

If you have any familect blinkies of your own, please feel free to share – the more the merrier!

content-page.php --c

Long live stories…

In his regular Radio 4 feature on Just One Thing, Michael Mosely touches on the remarkable power of stories. “Reading something which has characters and a story seems to deliver a remarkable number of benefits to your brain, your wellbeing and your life,” says Michael.

Research shows that reading stories increases the blood flow across the entire brain. It can also increase the connectivity in your brain, and create new neural pathways. It enhances empathy. It reduces pain. It protects against dementia. All in all, it’s a veritable miracle food for our minds, our bodies and our souls.

But that’s not all – it could even help us live longer. Yale University research found that those who read fiction for 30 minutes a day lived on average 23 months longer than those who did not.

So stories really are a powerful remedy, which is why we could all do a lot worse than take a daily dose of a good novel. For healthier, happier, longer lives – long live stories.

content-page.php --c

Paris Pernod parties…

Currently at the door of my local bookshop is a brilliant idea, Blind Date with a Book:

For £8 (c$10) a pop, you can choose from a selection of identically brown-paper-packaged mystery books, with the help of a few enticing descriptions. Half the fun is in detecting a book you know and love – such as the one that lies beneath ‘Expatriates, Spanish bullfights, Paris Pernod parties, Jealousies, Classic’. (I won’t spoil the experience by revealing the title, but it is indeed a classic.) The other half is in not having a clue what book it is – ‘Cosmic collision, Princess, Dynamite, Love and lust, Quirky’ anyone?

Whether it’s an old favourite or a new read – whichever book you choose, enjoy your date!

content-page.php --c

A good story…

“All the best facts, figures and arguments in the world can’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story,” says Richard Powers, in his sylvan epic The Overstory.

So what counts as a good story?

For me, it’s a story about something that matters, well-told. Substance and song. A story that holds and rewards our attention, and changes us for the better along the way.

content-page.php --c

Meaning, colour, and music…

In a Norwich charity shop not so long ago I picked up, for £2.99 (c$4), a copy of Herbert J. C. Grierson’s Rhetoric and English Composition. Published back in 1944, it is full of insights that still hold true. Insights such as this one, in the chapter on The Choice of Words: “To the poet and orator [words] are living things, the winged messengers of their thoughts and feelings, and like the birds they have three properties – body or meaning, colour, and music.”

Alongside their dictionary definition (their meaning), words also have colour “the associations which gather around a word by long usage”, and music – their melody and rhythm. Taking all three together, every word has the potential to make us think, and feel, and hear different things.

This is powerful stuff. In choosing the right words to tell our stories, we can play with all three properties – meaning and colour and music – to appeal to the head and the heart and the ears. So our stories not only convey clearly, but feel right and sound good, too.

content-page.php --c

The story is mightier…

In these dark days, a ray of light from Yuval Noah Harari:

Nations are ultimately built on stories. Each passing day adds more stories that Ukrainians will tell not only in the dark days ahead, but in the decades and generations to come. The president who refused to flee the capital, telling the US that he needs ammunition, not a ride; the soldiers from Snake Island who told a Russian warship to “go fuck yourself”; the civilians who tried to stop Russian tanks by sitting in their path. This is the stuff nations are built from. In the long run, these stories count for more than tanks.”

In the end, the story is mightier than the sword.

content-page.php --c

Small change; big difference…

A tasty reminder of the power of words comes courtesy of research carried out by the World Resources Institute (WRI) into the big difference just a small change on a restaurant menu can make to what we choose to order.

Researchers tested responses to different sustainability-themed messages on menus. Messages such as: “Each of us can make a positive difference to the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference.” Diners who read this message chose a vegetarian dish 25% of the time – over twice the rate of diners who were not shown the message. This is good news because, as the WRI points out: “Food-production accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, with animal-based foods contributing double the amount of emissions to plant-based foods. Shifting consumer demand away from animal-based foods toward more plant-based alternatives is critical for reducing food-related climate change impacts, as well as resource use and biodiversity loss.” Imagine the difference if everyone everywhere swapped their beef burger for a bean burrito.

Of course, it’s not just on menus that a few well chosen words can have a big positive impact. (And indeed, vice versa.) Something for us all to bear in mind as we tell our stories – select wisely to tell well.

content-page.php --c

Pilipala, papillon…

Pilipala, papillon, farfalla, mariposa, babushka, borboleta, pulelehua, húdié – butterfly.

Welsh, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Hawaiian, Chinese, English – lovable in any language.

Wherever in the world you are, here’s to a tip-top 2022 for one and all.

content-page.php --c

Editing Ai-Da…

“I am the world’s first ultra-realistic artist-robot”, says Ai-Da, when asked to describe herself. “I draw, using cameras in my eyes and my robotic arm,” she says. Ai-Da also writes poetry. Indeed, she recently performed a poem to mark the 700th anniversary of the great Italian poet Dante’s death. She was given Dante’s epic narrative poem the Divine Comedy as a source, and using her algorithms and databank of words and speech patterns, created her own work.

So have we reached the point where robots are about to take over the world of writing? The answer is neither a categoric no, nor a simple yes, but somewhere far more indistinct and interesting in-between.

To write her poem, Ai-Da had human help. And I’m not talking about the humans who wrote her algorithms. According to Aidan Meller, Creative Director of the Ai-Da Robot Project, “restricted editing” also plays a part in the creation of her final poetry. “She can give us 20,000 words in 10 seconds,” he says. “And if we need to get her to say something short and snappy, we would pick it out from what she’s done.” So it’s a collaborative effort between human and machine, which to me points the way to the best form of future. One where artificial intelligence (AI) and human intelligence (“Hi”) happily co-create for a common good.

I’m not saying that’s easy – far from it. As Ai-Da puts it in her poem honouring Dante, “There are some things, that are so difficult – so incalculable…” But difficult isn’t impossible, especially when it is so desirable. Living not just well but better with AI – this is the big challenge and opportunity of our age. An epic challenge and opportunity worthy of great poetry.

So as we head towards the new year, let’s welcome Ai-Da, her editors and the many more robot-artists no doubt yet to come – and encourage them all to write their best for everyone.

content-page.php --c

From aguaje to zaperoco…

Popping into a charity shop the other day, I purchased for just 99p The Criollo Way:

Between its sunny covers you’ll find a selection of the finest Venezuelan slang – from ‘Aguaje’ (“rarely heard in its literal sense of the wake of a vessel in water but very common in figurative use to mean worthless talk, hot air, blarney”) to ‘Zaperoco’ (“a commotion, riot or tumult”). But it doesn’t stop there. The Criollo Way also shares local proverbs, like ‘Cada pulpero alaba su queso’ (‘Every storekeeper praises his own cheese’), and similes, such as ‘Más fastidioso que una piña bajo el brazo’ (‘More irritating than carrying a pineapple under one’s arm’).

As this delightful guide demonstrates, lovable language knows no boundaries.

 

content-page.php --c

Made up words…

“Yes, my words are made up – but then, all words are made up. Every single one. That’s part of their magic,” says John Koenig, author of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

His Dictionary takes on the task of finding words for feelings which, until now, have not been pinned down. Words like ‘nighthawk’ – “a recurring thought that only seems to strike you late at night”. ‘Gnasche’ – the intense desire to bite into the forearm of someone you love. ‘Witherwill’ – the longing to be free of responsibility. And his big hit, ‘sonder’ – “the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”.

In so doing, he joins that mighty fine tradition of making up new words for the English language – from Shakespeare through to Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. As John Koenig says, “The English language is a magnificent sponge.” Indeed, the degree to which English happily opens its arms to neologisms is one of the things that helps make it so enduring and enjoyable.

So here’s to my lovable mother tongue, and the people who continue to enrich it.

content-page.php --c

Take this book…

‘I came across a magazine with an inscription that said: “Civilisation flourishes when men plant trees under which they themselves will never sit.” But to me it’s not only plants – putting something in somebody’s life, a young person’s life, is the same as planting a tree that you will not cut and sell during your lifetime. That has helped me a lot in my work. Sometimes the more you give, the more you get.’

So says James Barnor, on the wall at the start of his arresting Accra/London retrospective. Indeed, looking at this master photographer’s work, you can see that he gives a great deal of himself to get images that really let the personalities of his subjects shine through.

Walking homewards from the exhibition through Hyde Park, in one of those happy moments of timely connection, I came across a tree bearing books for people to freely pick:

These particular offerings are part of a wider network of sharing, courtesy of The Book Fairies. “Take this book, read it & leave it for the next person to enjoy” says the sticker on each one.

Civilisation does indeed flourish when men plant trees under which they themselves will never sit – and when people plant books on trees for the world to enjoy.