Is Roald Dahl destroying our language?

Gremlins are sabotaging  the English language!

The latest quarterly update to the Oxford English Dictionary includes made-up words and phrases used by Roald Dahl in his books.

Words like ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’ (which I think is just ‘scrumptious’ with a bit of nonsense filling in the middle, rather than a new way to describe an enjoyable game of rugby) and ‘oompa loompa’. It’s one of those curious co-incidences that at the same time as this was announced, I happened to be reading a book by Richard Dawkins which deals with, amongst other things, the evolution of language. Dawkins suggests that languages evolve in similar ways that living creatures do. Many writers have put made-up words into their books over the years, and I can imagine it must be very satisfying when one or more of your words or phrases find their way into general usage. There are many ways in which languages change, most of which, I think, are the result of people attempting to differentiate themselves from the rest of society. All of the commentary I’ve heard seems to be in the direction of suggesting that a changing language is a living language, and that’s a good thing. Whilst I can see the appeal, I can also see a huge problem.

To illustrate how the English language has changed, Dawkins used a passage by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was writing in the fourteenth century. Chaucer’s text is difficult to understand today. Some of the words have gone out of usage and are unknown to us. The grammar is odd, and the spelling so all over the place that we don’t even recognise some of the words that we know. Half a millennium of language evolution has seriously impeded Chaucer’s ability to communicate with us. With the current accelerated rate of change in language (I’m assuming the rate of change has accelerated, but I think this is likely given the fast pace of change in our society generally) how long will it take for what we are writing today to become gibberish? We understand the value of communication (or we think we do) but we don’t seem to have the foresight to consider the benefit of being able to communicate outside of the present. Do we want to be able to pass on our knowledge, our discoveries, our experiences, our mistakes, our feelings, and the sense of what it is like to live in todays society, to people in the future? In order to do this we would need to fix our language, to stop it from changing, or at least to hold back the rate of change. Then again, new words and ways of speaking often become popular for a while and then fade into obscurity, so perhaps the long-term effect of all this language change is less than it appears.

Isn’t it ironic that by creating new language, as well as adopting new ways of speaking into our writing, writers are effectively making the work of earlier writers obsolete, and that writers in the future will do the same to our work?

I love dictionaries. I can (and regularly do) get lost in them, but even people with much better memories than mine have no chance of remembering even half of the words in the OED. So, do we really need more words? Do we really need ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’, in addition to the more succinct ‘scrumptious’? And if we want to play around with words, aren’t we clever enough to do it ourselves? I’m inclined to be cynical and say that, for dictionary writers, it’s something of a gravy train [informal a situation in which someone can easily make a lot of money] *. Those guys are forever adding new words, but I wonder – do they ever take any out?


*Oxford English Dictionary

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How do you edit a novel?

Snakeandpig01WAnd how do you motivate yourself to get started?
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Book Review – The Establishment…

…And how they get away with it.  By Owen Jones.
The Establishment













This was not an easy book to read; not calming or uplifting. Jones sets out a tale of how, over the course of more than forty years, an elite, privileged few set about neutralising democracy and helping themselves to power and wealth at the expense of the rest of us.

At a high level, there’s very little in the book that I wasn’t at least vaguely aware of. But Owen Jones has been meticulous in his research; and conducted candid interviews with people who have first-hand experience of the processes and behaviours that the media try so hard to hide from view. Some of the interviewees were victims of the establishment. Others were in positions of power – and some of them still are, and continue to behave in ways that are harmful to society as a whole ( but make which make themselves and their peers ever richer), often with only a limited understanding of the effect their behaviour is having. Jones’ research has teased out a relentless stream of fascinating and infuriating detail. I found it difficult to put the book down, which for a work of non-fiction (if only it were fiction!) is high praise. And yet, despite being addictive, reading it feels just a little bit like self-harm. With each new revelation I found myself thinking ‘wow – I must try to remember that!’ (swiftly followed by ‘I’m not going to remember that!’) So many facts, but it’s all pulled together with great skill.

There are themes running through the book. One is the idea of how the establishment use scapegoats (such as the unemployed, trade unions or immigrants) to direct the public’s attention and anger away from their own nefarious activities. Another is the idea that while corporate interests are constantly chipping away at the state, promoting ever greater cuts in public spending, they themselves are being subsidised from the public purse at a level that actually dwarfs spending on public services. I was struck by his portrayal of those three letters ‘NHS’ having become little more than a logo behind which corporate interests operate, hidden from the view of an unsuspecting public. David Cameron said, I believe, that the NHS was safe in his hands. Owen Jones details the wide-scale of part-privatisations that have in many cases gone unreported.

As someone who follows anti-establishment commentary in preference to the conventional (establishment) media, I thought I knew a bit about the injustices in British society. But in this book I found plenty of revelations. For instance, after Ed Milliband was elected as leader of the Labour party there was a widely held view that they had picked the wrong brother. Owen Jones claims that after losing the election, David Milliband threw all his energy ‘into building an impressive portfolio of business interests’, and that he ‘made around one million pounds between his failed leadership bid in 2010 and his departure from the commons some two-and-a-half years later’. Perhaps Labour chose the right brother after all!

Politicians, the media, the police, big business, the city of London – one by one the groups that hold power and control our lives are shown to be corrupt; driven by self-interest to damage our economy, our environment, our society – who cares, so long as they get ever richer? I’m not sure I should be reading this kind of material. I have a keen sense of injustice – indignation is something I’m rather too good at. But then, Owen Jones’ scientific approach might have helped me to go beyond indignation and become more objective. And after two-hundred-and-ninety-two pages explaining what an unassailable and merciless grip the establishment has on society, he manages to end the book on an optimistic note, telling us how history shows that situations which seem permanent and irreversible can change – and often quite quickly. He suggests ways in which the status quo might be broken, and how we might build a better, fairer society

I’m glad that I’ve finished the book, but I’m also glad that I read it. Everyone should read this book, and it should be part of the school curriculum…

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Europe is in Jeremy Corbyn’s hands

It’s Labour dogma that will lose us our place in Europe.
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The Devil Rides Ute

UteI seem to remember I might have promised (or was it threatened) some more poetry. So here it is, another piece from my sojourn down under, inspired by a monstrous vehicle that trundled past me one day while I was walking to the beach.  I didn’t have the presence of mind to whip out my camera and take a photo of the actual, offending vehicle, so the one in the picture is the best I could find some days later (not nearly as large, imposing or frightening as the original subject).  Brace yourselves…

The Devil Rides Ute

There is a roar that cannot be purely mechanical;
A grating, rattling, rumble that could come from the belly of a dragon.
It shakes the ground, drawing out a terror presumed long dead.
From out of the subconscious, a materialisation of primeval dread,
And my mind slips, desperate for recognition,
Not wanting to acknowledge this ghoulish apparition,
So paralysed with fear, I can’t turn my head,
Until the monster is almost upon me,
And I’m engulfed in an acrid, black fog,
That chokes, and reeks of generations long dead.

And through the dark, cancerous fumes the monster forms,

White-black, with a presence larger than its worldly size,
White chassis, seen grey through the gloom,
Trimmed all around by black;
Black grill, black glass, vertical black exhaust,
Pumping translucent black fumes into a blue sky,
Black bumpers and bars, black tyres; black heart,
The creature moves slowly; in a world apart,
Floating, not rolling, on black wheels as tall as a man,
Or perhaps just as tall as I feel, shaking as I am with confusion,
Disoriented by this frightening intrusion,
Fearing death, overcome by strife, wondering;
What devil rides inside this affront to life?
More menacing still, unseen behind black glass,
What human mind could conceive to ride inside such a threat,
Such a provocation, that causes others to
Regret the invention of internal combustion? Continue reading

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Writer’s Retreat

Sydney Sketch 25.2.2016.adjusted

Why is it that ambition always exceeds the reality of what can be achieved? My writing holiday is now a fast-fading memory, and I’m left wondering how I could have imagined I would have got  so much done (see my last post). Continue reading

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The Mile High Poets Society

I’d like to share with you a poem that I wrote yesterday, while sitting in an aeroplane somewhere over Southern Europe. I say yesterday, but I can’t be sure of that, having crossed several time zones since then. And I say poem, but it’s actually more like a short piece of descriptive (and rather surreal) prose. But I decided to follow what seems to be the trend at the moment by throwing in a few random line-breaks and calling it a poem. After all, what makes something poetry is the same as what makes something art – the creator (of the work, not the fictional ‘Creator’) saying that it is.

So here goes. …Well, actually, I think I should set the scene first – changeIMG_20160202_053340 the mood from flippant to something more serious. So imagine me in full imaginative flow, gazing out of the window, all starry-eyed, at the beautiful cloudscape below (yes below, and not above). I’m on my way to Singapore, for a few days, and then on to my adopted home-from-home, Australia, and a few weeks spent mostly in beautiful, elemental natural environments – deserted beaches, bush-land teeming with exotic wildlife and, hopefully, some lovely warm weather. I’m going to walk, swim, relax, sketch and, most importantly; write. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from myself, but I’m hoping to complete a first draft of my novel, knock out a few short stories, and perhaps dream myself into some poems too. Absolutely no pressure. But I’ve made a start already. Whether it’s a good start or not, I’ll leave for you to judge.


The Plains of Heaven

A landscape of low white peaks and soft grey shadows extends away into the distance.
The horizon is a band of white,
Evaporating up into ever deepening blue.
Impenetrable cloud, like deep snow on solid ground,
But cotton-wool soft: a soft-toy Antarctic landscape.
I want to get out, I want to fall from this aeroplane,
To plummet through the air into a duvet-soft landing.
I feel as though the cloud must be able to hold me, to welcome me;
To embrace me into the purity of a world untainted by people, unsullied by life.

There’s silence, and stillness, and alone at last,
I lie on my back, cosseted; at peace.
I could stand up, walk, take one leaping step after another,
Bound moon-like across the endless plateau,
Entranced, indefatigable, bouncing along, happy now;
Joyous in the reborn innocence of childhood.
But it’s so comfortable just lying still in my cotton-wool womb.
I can’t bear to move.

My eyelids feel heavy; they close,
The whiteness engulfs me and I fall asleep.

Note: The plains of Heaven is the title of a painting by John Martin , a nineteenth century artist who specialised in very large canvases showing immense landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes; detailed, intense stunning works. Of course, he was working before aeroplanes had been invented, so he could only imagine what I was fortunate enough to experience

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