A half century of stubborn resistance on the language front


I’ve been in Sweden for 48 years now. Despite this, I only have to say “latte” and people still helpfully shift to English. I could and probably should have put more effort into learning to pronounce less generously (starting my Swedish life with a year in dipthong-rich Skåne only helps when I go to Denmark, where they find my Swedish pronunciation reasonable).

I’m not, however, uninterested in Swedish if I can keep it to myself. Because of the links with Old English and Danish, it’s been of great value in understanding English, especially place names and dialects so that Shetlanders should be careful about making negative comments about me in dialect if they don’t wish to be frowned at.

After years of ferreting around at the interface between Swedish and English, my Swedish vocabulary is at least fairly strong, which is some consolation for being a basket case when it comes to pronunciation.

I usually manage about nine or ten of Dagens Nyheter’s twelve unusual words in its weekly language test. This week “däka”, a southern and western Swedish dialect word for girl floored me. And, more interestingly “idiosynkrasi”, which I hadn’t realised had only been imported into Swedish in its narrow medical sense of “aversion”, “unusual reaction” and not the everyday meaning in English of quirky, unusual behaviour. I’ve never encountered it in a translation but hope that my experience would have prevented me from writing “The patient exhibited bizarre behaviour after taking the medicine”.

I’ve stopped drinking latte anyway so that’s a step in the right direction.

Idle chatter and Schrödinger’s cat

Hedengren’s bookshop at Stureplan had just opened and was almost empty. I couldn’t resist sneaking in to check what they were selling off before their move. Mostly to my relief, I couldn’t find anything I wanted so there’s hope for Hedengrens yet.. Sales where shelfwarmers are purged are rather sad as you suspect that the flogged off diamonds will be replaced by an ocean of froth. I was the ideal customer at Hedengrens – attracted by the sale, I bought one of the other books at the regular price, Robert Philip’s The Classical Music Lovers Companion to Orchestral Music (a Financial Times best book of the year!). Improving my knowledge of classical music has been on my wish list for a long time and this looks as if it could help. So after my day’s ration of 20 pages translation, I settle down to fathom the mysteries of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto (my ear is not naturally sensitive which my record as a serial abuser of foreign languages bears witness to, so I need help to appreciate)..

It’s an intensive period for translators just now- the Annual Report season. And I have ten days to get through 140 pages, 20 pages a day with some time in reserve if  the going gets tricky with a lot of new material), So far so good anyway. I’m up to page 90 but there’s not much time for anything else.

My new routine of starting the day with four or five hours of commercial work and then moving on to less concentrated pursuits has been a Circadian triumph. I am sleeping better and at the “right time”. My problem is that after four or five hours of translation, the old man in me gets militant and I don’t get much else done. I am frustrated about my slow progress with my other projects, learning about Bengal and Bengali, Dorset churches, Provencal, learning about Lyon in France, brushing up my Latin and German, developing my collection of photos of St Jerome, studying the state of the UK and not so few other things which I draw a veil of discretion over. Once I have got this annual report off the agenda, I think I shall give priority to commercial work every other day instead of every day.

I am starting to feel that it might be pleasant not to live in a world of perpetual deadlines but I’m not attracted by the reduced income of living only on a pension. My existence minimum includes rather a lot of travel, a subscription to the Financial Times, and working on my project of having a bigger library than the Library of Congress by my 150th birthday).

I don’t want to kill the golden goose prematurely but I need to find a way a making a half golden goose a viable concept.

I have at least managed to select one notebook to jot things down. I have a horrendous number of used, semi-used and unused notebooks that have attracted me for various reasons, aesthetic, practical and nostalgic. Attempts to put them in order by designating different notebooks for different purposes failed dismally as my clutter of notebooks is now accompanied by half-remembered remnants of numerous overcomplicated systems. But now I have started from the other end, consigned the clutter to a box where the density is approaching a critical threshold. I have just  one book that accompanies me everywhere where I have noted various odds and ends that have attracted my attention as clues to worlds yet unexplored, the first entry “gallimaufry”, a medley of things, a rather upmarket alternative to bits and bobs from an archaic French word galimafree meaning unappetising dish. And I had a friend who referred to a letter I’d written as a homily. And that had to be noted too as my idea of homily was vague – something that a friendly quirky character might produce, which didn’t feel too alien. But on looking it up I discover that homily is defined as a religious discourse, a tedious moralizing lecture, which was odd seeing that I’d written about the Edinburgh police calling their campaign against vandalism on the buses “Operation Proust”: Either the dictionary is wrong or my friend shares my vague idea of what a homily is about (or I am becoming the sort of person who writes letters to the Daily Telegraph but that seems intrinsically unreasonable…).

And while searching for “homily” I find the lovely word “hominivorous” meaning (a creature) that feeds on human beings. I fantasise about smacking a Bengal tiger firmly on the nose and telling it in no uncertain terms to cease instantly its outrageous hominivorous behaviour, whereupon the tiger shamefacedly slinks away into the bushes (since they prefer to attack from behind and there are anyway no tigers within 40 km of places where I hang out in Bengal, this fantasy will probably not be realised).

The same friend mentioned another feline – Schrödingers cat, one of the many paradoxical examples of quantum theory. Wanting to do something about my abysmal low level of education on scientific topics, I start to read about quantum theory while breakfasting but quickly realise that getting to the bottom of quantum theory and translating 20 pages is an unrealistic combination for the same day,,,I also learn a new Swedish word “tryfferad” which I believe means “decorated with truffles” and read an interesting article in Dagens Nyheter about the nineteenth-century author Carl Jonas Love Almquist. I’d stopped subscribing to DN as it had become so magazine-like and timeless but have started again during the pandemic as the recognition of my existence by the outside world in the form of a newspaper arriving felt rather pleasant (I felt that I and the outside world were growing apart and wanted to do something to support our relationship).

I am anyway not likely to become bored even if I do manage to reduce golden goosery to manageable proportions,

Bits and bobs and paraphernalia

The other day I was thinking of bits and bobs. meaning objects of different kinds. It’s a homely expression, which makes me think of my late mother. It has a 1950s feel about it and I associate it with listening to the Light Programme on the radio, stamps of George VI and the coming dynamic times of the New Elizabethans (that was the story in 1953…), the WVS doling out bottles of orange juice with blue bottle caps and aged electric trains from before the war trundling from Brighton to West Worthing.

Curious about its etymology, my secure world crumbles. Wikipedia has the explanation that I find most convincing although unfortunately without a source. “It originated from carpenters’ tool kits containing parts for a drill, with bits used for making holes while bobs are routing or screwdriving drill attachments”. The word “routing” catches my attention. It takes a while to find the meaning, the net being swamped by a tsunami of computer routers, but this router is a power tool with a shaped cutter.

I learn that a drill isn’t designed for the sideways forces associated with routing, using a drill as a router may damage its gears, whether it’s a drill press or a handheld tool. Additionally, drill press chucks are often fitted onto tapered posts, and applying excessive sideways force can cause a chuck to come loose.

According to Chris Deziel on www.hunker.com “A drill chuck doesn’t hold the bit as tightly as a router collet, and a router bit is more likely to slip in a handheld drill or drill press. Apart from the fact that this makes the tool unreliable and potentially dangerous, it can also damage the bit by creating a series of grooves on the bit’s shaft. After use in a drill a bit may not fit in a router again, or, if it does, it may suddenly break while you’re using it — imagine a sharpened carbide blade that’s spinning 500 times per second becoming airborne”.

I would prefer not to think of sharpened carbide blades becoming airborne while spinning at 500 times per second. But now bits and bobs will for the rest of my life not just remind me of my secure childhood on the Sussex coast but it will have associations with a world full of metallic threats and unknown terms, router collet and drill chuck, a world not made for me, more or less a drill virgin. Knowledge has its price; not quite as dramatic as Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden but a step in that direction.

“odds and ends” is anyway a bit more friendly originating from the 1500s and originally referring to bits left over from bolts of cloth. I’ve seen the Middle English term “bolt” before but it’s not part of my active vocabulary. But I can at least integrate it without collateral verbal damage and am sure it will pass my lips before drill press chuck gets there.

To be really on the safe side, perhaps I should go upmarket and stick to paraphernalia. Not quite the same but not so far away in its sense of miscellaneous articles per se. It comes from the Greek, and here means “apart from a dowry”, originally in the sense of the bride’s small personal possessions, which were not part of the dowry. Later broadened to the present meanings.

It’s a gap in my education that my grammar school didn’t offer Greek. It’s too big a project to learn classical Greek when I’ve attained the Parisian age of 75 but I would really love to go to a good course that picked out the aspects of the language that are important for understanding the origins of English. But there again I would love rather a lot of things and when it comes to language, I am irredeemably promiscuous, becoming infatuated at the flip of a cognate.