Tag: Language

Where did all the words go?

Uh oh, she’s off again.

I’ve been musing about the lost art of words. So much of our communication these days is through images – emojis, memes, gifs photos, film clips, you name it. Of course, I’m speaking mostly of casual exchanges – not professional or formal – but I wonder how long it will be before that’s acceptable, too. It makes me a bit sad that the art of words and conversation is getting lost among all the pretty pictures. When it comes to emojis I’m just as guilty as anyone – sometimes it just seems more appropriate, friendly, and easy to respond to someone’s comment with a smiley, especially if you’re at the end of a conversation or there isn’t much to say. A picture speaks a thousand words, so an emoji’s got to be, what, ten at least?

These days we’re struggling to express ourselves in a world that’s all about speedy, efficient interactions. Nobody wants to spend time in lengthy discussions anymore. Similarly, for anything to stand a chance against rapidly scrolling fingers it has to stand out, and images do that so much more powerfully than words. So it’s no surprise that we resort to visual flirting instead of going to the effort of composing a sentence. (Rein it in, Kate, rein it in.)

Nudge, nudge, winky face

Back when text messages really were just text, I remember the rise of emoticons – early ‘smileys’ made by combining punctuation. Even before that, you could find rudimentary versions in glyph libraries and font collections such as Symbol and Dingbats, but it never would have occurred to me to use them in a conversation with people. We should have seen it coming. Some smart people did – they got rich (some even tried to trademark emoticons – they didn’t). Pretty quickly, emoticons became smileys which in turn became emojis, and all of a sudden there’s this huge library of facial expressions to choose from, containing more squints and grimaces than we could ever hope to produce with our own faces. And now it’s not just faces – there are cartwheelers, zombies, mermaids, David Bowie and a multitude of suggestive fruit and vegetables. You could basically write a sentence using emojis alone – and I’m genuinely worried we’re headed that way.

Big on ambiguity

My issue with emojis is that while they’re fun and jaunty, there is such potential for ambiguity. The problem with images is that they are very much dependent on the interpretation of the recipient. For example, take the raised eyebrow face. Sandy says to Dave, ‘I tripped and fell on the subway.’ Dave replies with the raised eyebrow face. That could mean so many things. Dave might mean, ‘You did? That’s embarrassing!’ Or, he could be saying, ‘I doubt that’s true!’ Or, ‘You really are a clumsy shitbag!’ The possibilities are endless. Sometimes I have trouble with the sweating emoji because the sweat drop looks a bit like a tear drop, so I’m never quite sure if someone’s feeling (mock) uncomfortable or just very emotional. Even the most innocuous faces like the simple smile could be misconstrued as sarcasm or passive aggressiveness – which they often are (you’ve all seen Moon, right?)

Secondly, emojis still aren’t always rendered the same across different operating systems and devices. Even worse – sync your social media to post simultaneously across all apps, and you might end up posting emojis that look quite different on one to the other. While I don’t link any apps myself, I’ve noticed some marked differences – for example, the ‘surprise’ emoji on my WhatsApp looks more like embarrassment compared to Twitter’s version. These differences could be dangerous (and have been for some celebs) – though it makes a good case for not automating or syncing your apps!


Some of that ambiguity has led to changes in emojis such as ‘geek’ (or ‘nerd’), which has been scaled back to a subtler (less ‘toothy’) image of a person with special interests. That’s less fun though, isn’t it? Does it really get the point across now? Isn’t the point of emojis that they exaggerate for emphasis? And then there was the controversy over skin tone, leading to a range of skin colours to choose from. And gender – so now there’s a male and female for everything. Again this strikes me as trying to make them more like actual people, instead of caricatures that reinforce your words. Is this paving the way for replacing words with emojis and whatever their successors end up being? (Don’t get me started on emotisounds.) After all, they’re increasingly used in place of text rather than alongside it. Will there come a point where we don’t need the words at all? Will we just liaise through a wall of cartoon faces? Is that the wind outside or am I hyperventilating?

Naturally, there will always be a level of ambiguity with words as well, but at least when we send text we know the recipient is seeing the same thing we are. But that doesn’t account for tone and meaning, which every brain will absorb differently. As a Brit with a typically sarcastic output, I run into this problem a fair bit.

The gif that keeps on giving

I’ve rambled on for ten paragraphs and I haven’t mentioned gifs or memes yet – and perhaps these are a better example of replacing words completely. Replying to people with an image is so common on social media now. My Twitter timeline is peppered with it, and I get it – an intriguing visual makes a user stop in their tracks – text involves reading, and we don’t have time for that. (Rein.) I’ll admit, though, that I enjoy the propensity for subtle humour and cult references that come along with it. If someone replies with a still from a TV show or film that you would only recognise if you were a fan, it’s fun. It’s like you’re in on it.

But another thing about memes is that they proliferate so quickly. The same meme will pop up countless times in a million different contexts, rendering it pretty meaningless and not attached to anyone in particular. Its original owner was lost about 100,000 users ago. No one has ownership of anything anymore, and I can’t help but think that would be less of a problem with words. Words don’t spread so easily, and people aren’t as inclined to reproduce big chunks of someone’s writing as they are to posting an image as their own. Images seem to carry more anonymity and less liability; a wordy sentence or paragraph is more unique and specific than a single visual frame. People can hide behind pictures, but words are more personal.

And you know, less lazy. (Reins snapped.)

In all seriousness, I know we need to move with the times. And we are mostly talking about social media here and, as I said before, not about formal communication. I think the turning point (and my descent into despair) will come when we see those lines beginning to blur. In the meantime I’ll continue using emojis and images in my conversations with people while trying to keep a balance with actual, meaningful sentences where it matters.

If you’ve read this far without slamming into a wall of fatigue, you might notice there aren’t any images in this piece. That’s intentional, to make my point. What it probably, actually, means is that this is my lowest ranking post, ever. *sweaty-faced emoji*

Can we talk about the monkey wrench puzzle?

I’m currently playing Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. It’s great – the humour is spot on and I love how the world completely opens up after the first few challenges. It’s even possible that I’m enjoying it more than the first one.

A few days ago I reached the infamous monkey wrench puzzle. I’ve long been aware of this part of the game and the controversy over its difficulty, but it’s only through playing it myself and seeing it first-hand that I’ve come to appreciate just how obscure it is.

Monkey Island 2 spoilers ahead!

The puzzle

On Phatt Island, our protagonist Guybrush reaches the top of a waterfall where there is a pump. Presumably, Guybrush needs to turn it off to stop the waterfall, so he can cross to other side.

However the pump doesn’t turn. Further interaction offers no clues. There is seemingly nothing else in the area that would help, nor does my inventory contain any relevant items.

The solution

Guybrush must go to the Bloody Lip bar on Scabb Island where he will find Jojo the monkey playing the piano. There is a metronome ticking. He must place the banana from his inventory onto the metronome in order to mesmerise Jojo and ‘freeze’ him in his current position. Jojo can then be picked up and added to the inventory.

Guybrush can now go back to the waterfall and use the monkey to turn the pump.

Monkey Island 2 Special Edition_ LeChuck's Revenge 08_10_2018 18_11_17

The joke

The reasoning behind this puzzle is that Jojo has been turned into – drum roll – a monkey wrench.

There are two reasons why this doesn’t work well.

It relies on the player knowing what a ‘monkey wrench’ is

n. An adjustable spanner with large jaws that has its adjusting screw located in the jaw that is fixed. (English Oxford Dictionary)

As a Brit, we don’t use this term a lot. I vaguely know what a ‘monkey wrench’ is, but unless you’re a tradesman who uses one all the time, we would just say ‘spanner’ or, at the most, ‘wrench’. I believe this is the case for most countries outside of the US (where the term was invented). Even if a wrench or spanner enters your mind, you’re unlikely to think, specifically, ‘monkey wrench’. And in some languages, ‘monkey wrench’ isn’t even a thing.

It relies on the player knowing the puzzle is a metaphor

If you relayed this puzzle to a group of people in the same way as you might tell a joke, they would likely find it clever and amusing. The idea itself is a great play on words.

The problem is, in the context of an adventure game where the player doesn’t have the benefit of knowing the answer, getting there is very difficult. If you think about the thought processes involved, most people would begin thinking, ‘I need to turn this pump. I probably need a tool to do that.’ But how many would then think, ‘I need a monkey wrench. There’s a monkey in the bar that I could turn into a wrench shape by placing this banana on the metronome!’

Okay, so some might, and I salute you. But back in the day, before internet walkthroughs, my guess is that most people finished this puzzle by trial and error. Or, they already had the monkey in their inventory and just thought to try it (great if that works, but it’s not a brilliant puzzle if you don’t know what the connection is).

Even now, there are numerous comments on Steam and other forums from people baffled by the logic even after they’ve solved it.

‘Nuff said

Being a big LucasArts fan I’m not having a dig at the developers here. I just thought it would be an interesting topic to explore given all I’ve heard about it, and having reached that part of the game myself for the first time.

I guess for the most part it comes down to language differences. Oh look – that means I stayed on topic!

Are you using these words correctly?

As a self-confessed pedant and nitpicker, there’s nothing that grates more than hearing someone utter a well-known word or phrase incorrectly.

Here are three that spring to mind.

‘I scratched my arm’ or ‘I itched my arm’?

‘I scratched my arm’ is correct.

For some reason I hear a lot of people say ‘I itched my arm’, meaning they remedied a tickle by ‘itching’ it, when they really mean ‘scratching’. An ‘itch’ is what you have in the first place; you can’t ‘itch’ something.

You can use the verb form in lots of different ways, such as ‘my arm itched’, ‘my underwear is itching’, or even just ‘I itch’. You can also use it in the metaphorical sense of longing: ‘I was itching to go to Disneyland’.

As a noun, ‘itch’ can refer to the site of irritation: ‘I have an itch on my leg’.

The verb examples I gave above show ‘itch’ used as an intransitive verb, meaning it doesn’t have to be directed at an object. It can be used transitively, though this is more rare: ‘This carpet itches my feet’.

An object can itch something, but a person cannot.


‘Bought’ or ‘brought’?

‘I bought some curry powder at the shop.’ – correct.

‘I brought some curry powder at the shop.’ – most certainly, undeniably, definitely not correct.

‘Brought’ comes from the verb ‘to bring’, which means to take something somewhere, as in ‘I brought my dog along to the park’. ‘Bought’ is the past tense of ‘to buy’, meaning you purchased something with money.

Most people know the meaning and distinction of these words, yet it’s another common switch. Someone will often tell me they ‘brought a lovely new dress in Debenhams’, or ‘brought six doughnuts from Tesco’ (at which point I impatiently wait for them to be produced, only to realise their mistake).

I’m not sure why this one started, aside from the similarities between the two words, but it’s become really common.

H: ‘aitch’ or ‘haitch’?

‘Aitch’ is correct.

When spelling out a word or warbling the alphabet, many Brits are quick to pronounce the letter ‘H’ as ‘haitch’. There are two reasons for this – the first is that because it makes a ‘hhhh’ sound, there is a misconception that it should be pronounced as such. The second probably comes from years of being scolded for dropping our aitches by parents or at school – so much so that we instinctively add one where it’s not needed. Language discipline coming back to bite me on the arse.

It’s perhaps made more problematic by the fact that we rarely see it written down; people rely on hearing it in conversation and therefore it’s easier to reproduce incorrectly (particularly if the person saying it gets it wrong).

It’s such a common mistake that in some dictionaries and language teachings it’s cited as a ‘variant’ (I strongly disagree with this so I’m not going to give them credit).


It’s funny how errors can spread among the population, like a contagion, until they become very commonplace. I have no doubt that the examples above could very well end up in dictionaries as ‘alternative’ uses, or ‘informal’ ones. I think that’s a shame – it’s like instead of teaching people the correct way to use words we just let mistakes slide into acceptance.


Aside from some basic fact checking, I intentionally didn’t look up any sources for this post, because I want to write it uninfluenced. I might start marking these ‘pure posts’.

Episode names in The X-Files

For those who don’t know, I’m a massive fan of The X-Files (the original series more so than the recent revival).

I’ve always found the names of the episodes interesting. In the first few seasons they were fairly literal, related to characters (Deep Throat), settings (Space) or events (Gender Bender). I guess that had a lot to do with being cautious in the early days. Plus they almost always referenced the title in the episode itself, and probably didn’t want to make that too challenging!

But in later seasons they get more interesting. Here are three of my favourites.

The Post-modern Prometheus (Season 5)


The most obvious connection here is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was subtitled The Modern Prometheus. I guess bringing the story of a monster made by science into the modern day (complete with a Cher soundtrack) makes it postmodern.  Dr Pollidori is also a reference to John William Polidori, Shelley’s contemporary.

In Greek mythology, prometheus refers to a demigod (someone who is part human and part god). He created man from clay, then stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, setting off evolution and civilisation. In a similar way The Great Mutato could be seen as an attempt to drag the backwards characters into the modern age. Like Frankenstein’s monster, his existence ultimately forces the townspeople to consider their judgement of others and what it is to be human (while also pointing to evolutionary advances such as miracle births).

But perhaps there’s a bitter undertone to that. Some critics view this episode as a dream sequence that isn’t real, due to the fairytale elements and the bookending of the story with the opening and closing of a comic (which may be Izzy’s comic book that we see in the episode). So civilisation is perhaps not ready to progress, or is incapable of this maturity.

When Victor Frankenstein asks himself ‘whence does the principle of life proceed?’, and when there’s as a gratifying summer to his toils creates a hideous phantasm of a man, he prefigures the postmodern prometheus, the genetic engineer, whose power to reanimate matter, life, genes into us, is only as limited as his imagination is.

– Fox Mulder, The Post-modern Prometheus

I noticed that ‘post-modern’ is hyphenated here, unlike in most dictionaries. I’m guessing it’s to make it easier to read. I’m not going to call Carter out on it.

Fun fact: before he made the episode, Chris Carter discovered Matt Groening had already created a character called The Great Mutato (different pronunciation) for a comic book entry of The Simpsons. He got in touch and Groening agreed to let him use the name.

Chinga (Season 5)


Co-written by Stephen King, this episode has always been interesting to me because the title was changed from Chinga to Bunghoney.

It’s fairly well-known among X-philes that the broadcasting standards people got into a tizzy because ‘chinga’ means ‘fuck’ in Spanish (unbeknownst to King or Carter) and is used in all sorts of profane variations – so it was changed to Bunghoney outside of the US. Which, from all my research, doesn’t really mean much either (the closest I can get is ‘bunghole’). I guess they just wanted a nonsensical title that sounds a bit crude.

In terms of why it was called Chinga in the first place, apparently it was the name of Polly’s doll in King’s original script. I’m not convinced by this because a) there’s no source given for this claim in the few places I’ve seen it and b) ‘Chinga’ is never mentioned in the episode itself. Maybe one day I’ll ask Chris Carter myself.

One conclusion I have drawn is that, personally, I think I actually prefer the name Bunghoney.

Monday (Season 6)


This is one of my favourite episodes. Apparently they wrote it under pressure, which I think actually pays off. The pace is perfect.

Apparently Monday was inspired by a Twilight Zone episode, Shadow Play, and not Groundhog Day as many fans surmise (*raises hand*). The events are also filled with much more hopelessness. At the end of Groundhog Day Phil Connors gets the girl and everything is hunky-dory again – but for Pam in The X-Files her fate is much sadder.

Monday has for a long time been associated with melancholy and depression, being the first day of a typical working week when everyone goes back to the daily grind. So it makes sense that an episode about a day endlessly repeating itself is named after it. It was originally titled Moebius (from ‘moebius strip’; a scientific concept of a continuous loop). Monday also sounds a bit like ‘mundane’, which it is for Pam in the sense that she is the only character aware of the repeating day. Or in contrast, in the sense of the bureau’s tedious, boring Monday morning meeting.

Monday as a working day could also be a reference to the writers’ work, re-scripting an episode of The X-Files over and over until they’re happy with it (what, you mean that’s not fun?!)  and this in turn repeats itself every week.

How appropriate that I’m finishing this blog post on a Sunday night. Let’s hope my waterbed-I-didn’t-know-I-had won’t spring a leak tomorrow.











Clucking bell: why do we swear?


As a little kid, swearing had a definitive ‘cool’ factor. Anyone who dared say ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ (gasp!) in the playground was instantly elevated to a higher status among their peers. It was a guilty pleasure, a way of feeling so powerful just by uttering a single word or phrase, and unlike many naughty activities was one that (provided you were careful) left no evidence behind.

As an adult, swearing lets us feel equally powerful, even when there’s no one there to witness it. Consider for a moment the relief you feel when you stub your toe on the furniture and retaliate with a bellowing ‘FUCK YOU, TABLE!’

For children and adults alike, swearing is cathartic. It lets us express ourselves and process emotion that would perhaps otherwise be backed up and left simmering without an outlet. It helps us to cope with the pain of a bruised toe without being reducing to a crumpled, crying mess.

Swearing at other people can be just as satisfying, but isn’t nice. When it’s done in a really serious, aggressive way, I hate it. It’s the classic precursor to a fight, or the nasty, dismissive end to a negotiation that has failed to reach an agreement. Being witness to a gruffly murmured c-word practically gives me palpitations because I’ve seen what can come after that. No good can come from swearing at one another, and it’s just not necessary. Talk it through, come back to it, or just be done with it.

Whispered, cautious swearing as a child is one thing, but swearing in front of children is quite another. This is a real no-no for me. Kids are at an impressionable age and don’t need to hear you spewing offensive words all over the place. Assess your surroundings and censor your language appropriately – it’s not difficult. There’s no need to swear audibly in public, especially when you don’t know your audience.

This brings me to another type of swearing that I’m not particularly fond of – casual swearing. I’m sure everyone has different ideas about what this is, and different levels of tolerance, but I’m talking about when every other word is a swear word, for no reason, like it’s just part of someone’s vocabulary. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but when I tune into it (for example on a bus) I flinch at every ‘fucking’, ‘wanker’ and goodness knows what else comes out. It grates on me. But I’m easily irritated, so perhaps I’m overreacting. As for why people do it, is it a cultural thing? A group mentality thing? Sometimes it sounds so second-nature that I don’t think people even know they’re doing it.

So far we’ve covered the following uses:

  • the cool factor / power
  • personal relief
  • aggressiveness towards others
  • casual/cultural swearing

I think it’s fair to say that the drive behind swearing is that it’s taboo – we’re not supposed to do it. It’s too explicit for children; it’s censored or age-rated in TV and films; most are offended by it at some degree. But if swearing suddenly became acceptable and everyday, most of the uses above would be redundant. It wouldn’t be cool if it were allowed; the words wouldn’t seem strong enough for relief; cursing would have less impact as a form of aggression; and casual swearing wouldn’t be a ‘thing’ because we’d all be doing it. The Thick of It would be like Neighbours.

So, talk to me. Do you swear like a trooper? How do you feel when others do it? Is it a big deal to you or are you frowning at my post wondering when I became Mary Poppins?


Clucking bell: a brief history of swearing

Ransome-swearing-squareNeedless warning: post contains offensive words

Since last year I’ve followed the development of a video game, Thimbleweed Park (created by Monkey Island veterans Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick). Recently, Terrible Toybox released downloadable content that uncensors foul-mouthed Ransome the Clown, turning his beeping into swearing. In the context of the game I found it pretty hilarious.

But it got me thinking about swearing in general – where does it come from, and why do we do it?

Definition and etymology of ‘swear’

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to ‘swear’ means to ‘use offensive language, especially as an expression of anger’. (Delightfully, one of the example sentences they give is ‘Kate spilled wine on her jeans and swore’.) Other variations include curse, cuss, eff and blind and (perhaps more loosely these days) blaspheme.

Its origin is a bit less clear. The word ‘swear’ comes from the Old English swerian, from the Proto-Germanic swarjana and various other European derivations, all meaning ‘to take an oath’, or more generally, ‘to speak’ (like in ‘answer’). At some point it took on a second meaning of ‘using bad language’ – sources such as the Online Etymology Dictionary suggest that this originated from the idea of invoking sacred names, particularly in response to small or meaningless things, which is probably where blasphemy and the connection with speaking inappropriately comes from. I guess the two meaning are a bit blurred these days – when someone says ‘I swear to God’, are they making a promise or expressing annoyance?

Common swear words and their origins

I decided to take three common swear words and look at their history. Interestingly, they’re all Germanic in origin (it seems most swear words are).

bloody – mid 17th century. The early phrase ‘bloody drunk’ is thought to come from the ‘bloods’, those of aristocratic blood, through the phrase ‘as drunk as a blood’ (meaning very drunk). Somewhere around the 18th century it was deemed offensive – some think this is because it was mistakenly seen as a blasphemous reference to the blood of Christ, or a variation of ‘by Our Lady’.

shit – late 16th century. This one has maintained much of its original use, from words meaning dung (scite), diarrhoea (scitte) and to defecate or poo (scitan). It’s taken on a few extra uses now, though – such as a derogatory name for a dislikable person (‘little shit’), false information (‘a crock of shit’) and a general word for things or stuff (‘I need to move my shit’).

fuck – early 16th century. Possibly originating from Indo-European words meaning ‘strike’ and ‘fist’, which perhaps explains why it’s considered a harsh word and used quite aggressively (especially when put together with its sexual meaning). ‘Fuck’ is one of the most versatile swear words, being used as a noun (‘a good fuck’), verb (‘I’m fucked’), adjective (‘fucking idiot’), directive (‘fuck off’) and even an affix (‘abso-fucking-lutely!’)

It’s interesting how these words have changed over time. I find people tend to avoid using ‘bloody’ in its original sense of ‘containing lots of blood’, because the current use is mostly for swearing. If I told a friend with a nosebleed to ‘throw that bloody tissue away’, she’d probably take it the wrong way. Likewise, a passing comment about an unlicensed plumber in your bathroom could mean he’s either ‘full of shit’, or the toilet is. (Both are usually true.)

Swear words have lots of scope for confusion and comedy.

I’m going to split this into two posts before it gets too long. Consider this the high-brow, historical discussion of swearing, while my next instalment will be an opinion piece about why we swear – in other words my unbridled train of thought (you have been warned).

Why do we swear?

References and further reading, should you feel the urge:








Does anyone care about good English?

One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog is because I’m sad about the decline of written English language. People used to care about good grammar and spelling. ALL people. Kids would be told off if they got something wrong, and at the other end of the scale businesses would be distrusted and discredited. Reputations would be marred and employees would be fired. It was at the core of school education, taught regularly and drilled in by rote and by stick. People would leave school knowing the basic principles of language structure, when to use plural or possessive, and the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’. Not everyone would grasp it, but they’d bloody well try.

Nowadays you’re lucky if most people can string a simple sentence together. Ask some kids what an adjective is and they’ll tell you it’s a type of biscuit. Granted, English is a difficult language, with its broadly inconsistent vocabulary and inexplicable range of exceptions to the ‘rules’ – but it’s people’s attitudes that have changed. No one cares anymore. Grammar, spelling and punctuation have been demoted in favour of more ‘creative’, extra-curricular learning. The core has crumbled.

It’s difficult to point a finger at one defining reason for this, but certain aspects of modern society haven’t helped. Such as social media. The internet has been great for education, but with it came a new breed of informal language that has leaked into our writing. The problem with emails and social platforms like Facebook and Twitter is that they’ve introduced a new middle ground – they’ve made it acceptable to write in the same way that someone would speak. And this is slowly filtering through to all mediums of writing.

Social media isn’t solely to blame, but it’s an example of how society is taking a more relaxed approach to written communication. In the last year or so I’ve seen countless errors in important written correspondence (such as a doctor’s letter, mortgage paperwork and insurance policies) that I’m confident would never have occurred 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.

I’m not saying we all need to know the advanced principles of grammar (unless heading for a career in linguistics), but basic spelling and sentence structure is important – in the same way that we don’t all need to understand complex algebra, but should know how to add up.

I really feel that big companies in the public eye have a responsibility here, too. If you’re going to blitz the world with your brand and promotion, remember that our younger generations will be seeing it and taking it in (whether they want to or not). We all know how powerful advertising can be, so think about the consequences if you get something wrong – you’re teaching them that, too. It amazes me what gets through the proofing stages these days.

As if to prove my point, ASOS was in the news recently for this blunder. How many people did those plastic bags go through for no one to notice ‘online’ was spelled ‘onilne’? The fact that BBC News referred to ASOS as a ‘victim of a branding spelling mistake’ (as if an elf put it there!) seems only to confirm this detachment and lack of responsibility when it comes to expressing things correctly.