A brief tirade about totaphobia…

This is trivial and I will be mocked. More 4 is currently rebroadcasting The West Wing from the beginning and they have it surrounded by this sponsorship thing from 118118 which is some directory thing I refuse to use. And one of the adverts that surrounds the thing has the 118 people saying, “I have totaphobia, it’s the fear of absolutely everything,” and it’s supposed to be a joke or something, but it drives me mad! The main reason it drives me mad is because (1) it’s not a word and (2) there is a word for this condition and it’s a real bloody word and it’s not bloody totaphobia. You know why it’s not totaphobia? Because tota– is derived from Latin. I think it’s Medieval Latin. On the other hand -phobia is derived from Greek. Greek is not Latin! Normally when you try and make new words out of nowhere then you only use one language to do it. It’s only sociology and television that break that rule and they’re stupid words anyway and everyone knows it. Coincidentally there’s a word for ‘all’ in Greek and when you put that word together with -phobia then you get a perfectly real word that gets used all the time and the word is pantophobia. Which is even funnier than the word they used on the television! And I know that it’s not a really well-known word, and I’m sorry about that, I really am. But every time they say totaphobia on television I cringe and flinch and I die a little inside. And that is all…

Humour Language

On Pokemonetisation…

Only colleague (but not for long) Simon Willison and I have been spending a hell of a lot of time over the last three weeks sitting in a tiny room with lots of whiteboards puzzling over motives for collecting and sharing and – frankly – it’s semi doing my nut. Not that it’s not an interesting subject, because it completely is, but because it’s such a big and varied territory. And with only the beautiful OmniGraffle and the amiable Tom Chi to break up the intense thinking (with doodles and … er … more intense thinking), something eventually was bound to snap, and snap it has. So late last week, at something like ten in the evening when we were busy fiddling with some mock-ups or scribbles, at the precise moment that the moon passed overhead and the perfect synchronicity of movements sent a beam of light directly into Simon’s brain, he had a moment of divine revelation, channelled our collective enthusiasm and limited brainpower and came up with this:

It’s pretty awesome, I’m sure you’ll agree. And while it’s not totally a web neologism because of the Googlewhack of the Americanised Pokemonetize, it’s so much more elegantly extemporised that basically I think ours wins. I say ours because basically I’m in charge of using Simon’s brain at the moment, so really it’s mine by default. Who wants to touch us? I said who wants to … touch us?


On Paralepsis (Part Two)

One of my favourite words is paralepsis (I’ve even talked about it before). It’s a word from the ancient study of rhetoric and it essentially means that you state loudly the subjects that you’re not going to talk about – in the process bringing what you’re omitting into the forefront of people’s consciousness. Here’s an example:

“Let’s not get bogged down here… Let’s pass swiftly over the vicar’s predeliction for cream cakes. Let’s not dwell on his fetish for Dolly Mixture. Let’s not even mention his rapidly increasing girth… No no – let us instead turn directly to his recent work on self-control and abstinence…”

It’s an immensely satisfying and highly entertaining piece of verbal fun, even if it is also a bit of a blunt instrument. Paralepsis is a collision of statement with intent – it presents itself both as an obvious paradox and as the extension of language’s ability to use fragments of fact to allude to larger and more involved passages or narratives – the paralepsis is a signpost that there’s more going on here than the person’s in a position to talk about, even as he or she talks about it. It’s an insidious move as well as a revelatory one, and it reveals one of the greatest difficulties of speaking the truth – that even if one doesn’t lie one can easily mislead. This is the terrible sin of ‘lying by omission’ – of using carefully selected and accurate information in such a way that totally mischaracterises the situation in hand. And an extension of that is the way self-censorship tries to stop individual people making connections of this kind. We all need a weird kind of internal paralepsis, perhaps, to make those connections that we don’t want to make out loud – or perhaps we feel we can’t…

Which is all, in its way, merely an introduction to one of the most blatant, glorious and important use of paralepsis I’ve seen in my life. From the Onion: I Should Not Be Allowed To Say The Following Things About America

P.S. For the Americans amongst us, “Dolly Mixture” is a peculiarly British kind of sweet that traditionally you would buy in small paper bags by weight from large glass (or later plastic) bottles held behind the counter. I can find little about their origins online, but I believe they got their name by being small enough to look like food for dolls’ tea parties and the like. Shamefully, they are a personal favourite.


On workaholics, sexaholics, alcholics and etymology…

I have a bone to pick with you. You’ve all had a drink in your lives, I assume. You’ve all gone out and bought some alcohol? Some of you may have got rather too keen on alcohol. You might even have become addicted. you might have become an alcoholic.

The term alcoholic is a slightly strange one. It sounds like a religion or philosophical position. Like Marxism. But more logically it sounds like a medical condition. Like necrotic (it means ‘dead-like’) or neurotic (someone with a neurosis). It’s clearly an adjective derived from a noun – in this case “Alcohol”. Alcohol, according to various dictionaries, comes from a word meaning any distillation or essence – and eventually only to what was previously called “alcohol of wine”. So alchohol goes to alchoholic, right? It’s simple! Alcohol is a substance, and the person who is obsessed with that substance or dependant upon it in some way is an alcoholic…

Now answer me this. When in your life have you ever drunk sexahol? Or workahol? Or chocahol? I’m not saying that a couple of drinks of sexahol wouldn’t go amiss at the moment. Nor, for that matter would a draught or two of chocahol. But they’re not substances. They don’t exist! So how can there be someone who is a workaholic? Or a sexaholic? Surely a more plausible description would be a workic or sexic or chocolatic? Well of course, the derivation of each of those words is different – they come from different languages and have evolved in different ways – so you can’t generalise quite in that way. But what is clear is that workaholism is just wrong. Plain wrong. Offensively wrong.

According to this model, alcohol becomes to be based around the idea of addiction. That the ‘alc’ part refers to drink, and the ‘ahol’ the addictive quality. But where is this phrase when you look at truly addictive products? Where’s the nicotinaholic? Where’s the crackaholic? Where’s the heroinaholic? It’s absurd. They’re just ridiculous words. They mean nothing.

Addenda: This rant was yet another one to emerge from a cursory viewing of Ally McBeal, the most annoying television series of all time.


On creative etymology…

Notice the similarity in pronunciation between these two words: “Homey” (as in homeboy, contemporary American street-slang) and “Omi” (old gay palare for man). Palare had a word, “omipalone” (Oh-Mi-Pal-Oh-Nee) which was a combination of Man and Woman (“palone”), and which at the time meant something along the lines of “poof”. Creative etymology leads me to posit the creation of the word “Homey-Palone”, referring to the almost non-existent phenomenon of the “Gay Gangsta Rapper”. [research from Quinion]


Why don't Americans understand British English?

This post is SOOOOO not going to go down well. Tracy and Katy are having a conversation about American and British English. Before I begin, I know that I am jumping rather savagely into the fray on this one, that I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone, and that I am responding in a fashion that is full of generalisations. If I seem to go over the top, bear in mind that I am talking more about a cultural phenomenon than about arguments with individuals, and also bear in mind that I have just as many (if not more) issues with the cultural attitudes of Britain.

TRACY: I think the English are very nice, but when I was teaching English in schools run by British expats, I wasn’t too fond of them. They used to laugh at the Americans and tell us our accents made them sick to their stomachs. I wasn’t allowed to teach “American” English. I had to tell my students that their tennis shoes were called “trainers” and their underwear were called “pants.” Then when I went out for drinks with them after class I would say, “Forget that British nonsense, this is how you should really say it.” Because isn’t it true that most foreigners (and these were businesspeople I was teaching) are going to be doing more business with Americans than with British?

KATY: That said, I’d just like to reassure Tracy that we’re not all like that. Boorish expats really aren’t representative of us all – thank goodness! If it’s any consolation, I’d like to say that when I was living in the States, I always said sneaker, cellphone, baked potato, zucchini and gas. Verily, Tracy spaketh the truth – I wouldn’t have got very far talking about trainers, courgettes or petrol. Though I must confess, I still couldn’t bring myself to call trousers ‘pants’, and women’s underwear ‘panties’. You can take the girl out of England but you can’t take England out of the girl I guess…

Now excuse me, but I really think that Tracy needs to be taken to task a little here. I mean I don’t want to come over all Riothero-ish, but really! I mean really! Before I begin, I should make it clear that I do not in any way condone telling people that their accents make them “sick to their stomachs”. And I don’t want to go into details about how if it were a school run by people speaking British English then it makes sense not to confuse your students with two sets of vocabulary for everyday things (although it makes much more sense to teach one branch of the language [whichever one] and then supplement that with a separate class on local variations in Australia, England, US, English-speaking parts of the Far East etc). Nor am I going to talk about how the attitude that you should tell your students to “Forget that British nonsense, this is how you should really say it.” is just as bloody dodgy as the stomach comment. No – I am going to leave all that beside and concentrate on an old bugbear of mine.

In the UK, everyone can understand pretty much everything that an American can come out with. Every accent has been heard on television, or in the cinema or met in person. Similarly, the English can understand pretty much everything that Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders say. Australasians in their turn can understand pretty much everything that people say in the UK and the US. The idiom might seem strange but it is still comprehensible. So why is it that Americans have so much trouble? And what height of arrogance is it to assume that people learn English to speak only to Americans?

The fact is that America has become culturally dominant through the media across the world. The American Dream has been packaged and repackaged and circulated through the world and the world has eagerly bought it up. In the process, the world has become familiar with the US of A. But also in the process, America has become more insular and inward looking – unwilling (on the whole) to import entertainment products (except redubbed and repackaged cartoons) from the rest of the world. And as the news companies (TV and print) compete for market share, they have become gradually more and more caught up in the idea that Americans want to hear about America – that everything important happens there first.

But this insularity does not mean that the rest of the world has to adapt to service [the] US (Borg joke). Our biological and technological distinctiveness will NOT be added to their own. Frankly, Americans understanding or not understanding British English is a matter for the US education system. it is not our responsibility to make it palatable to North Americans. I’m sure the French or the Japanese would feel the same way if it was suggested they should simplify their language for the purposes of tourists – why should the UK be any different?

In Scandinavia at the moment, mobile phone technology and information technology is integrated into the structure of the world like nowhere else. People are already doing all the things that are still being promised in the US, in the UK and the rest of Europe, and in the rest of the world. And the world takes notice. But I heard of a meeting in the last six months where a US company started talking to a business in the UK talking about the magical times of the future when all these things would be possible – a magical time that THEY were helping to bring about. The patient UK CEO listened carefully and then told him about the Scandinavian projects. The US company hadn’t even heard of them, but they didn’t care! They simply didn’t believe that a system that was not invented in the US could catch on.

I don’t have a problem with American English, nor do I have a problem with the gradual homogenisation of language that is inevitably going to occur as international boundaries go down (although I can understand why people might get annoyed). After all, language is a living thing and phrases and structures from other cultures get co-opted all of the time. English (in all its various forms) is full of these borrowings, moreso than any other language. But these ideas: 1) that those of us who speak British English should not teach our own language [because] 2) all foreign people learning English are interested in only in America, 3) that British English speaking people should adapt their language to make it more comprehensible to those trained in American English while 4) Americans remain culturally unwilling to make any attempt to understand anything that happens outside their borders. Well, frankly, I find that slightly ridiculous.

For more on this subject, check out my post for 3/26/2000. If you are furious with me or need to get involved in this particular scrap, e-mail me at