Monday, July 03, 2006

Linguistic gymnastics

click photo to enlarge
"English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary", James D. Nicoll (1961- ), Canadian writer on computing

A recent email set me thinking about English words and the pleasure that is to be had from them. Ours is a mongrel language principally derived from German, Latin and French, with significant contributions from several other languages. There are 380 million native speakers, many more who have it as a second language, and it has become the de facto international language that everyone wants to learn.

Fluency and competency in any language is usually tested by oral and written examination. However, I've come up with a new test of proficiency in English. It is entirely oral, and the measure of competence is determined by how much you smile, laugh or roll about on the floor at the following "new definitions" of words, and the extent to which you can explain the humour in them! Many are from the BBC Radio 4 spoof panel game, "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue", and others are by anonymous authors who have extended the idea. Take the test now:
  • psychopath - crazy paving
  • decease - to stop stopping
  • pallisade - what the Queen drinks
  • sentiment - the perfume he intended to buy
  • mistake - winner of a butchers' beauty competition
  • gross mistake - unlikely winner of a butchers' beauty competition
  • Hamlet - a baby pig
  • stalemate - your spouse
  • champagne - malingering
  • servile - a nasty knight
  • MacAdam - the first Scotsman
  • stucco - a hitherto unknown Marx Brother
  • gripe - what Australians make wine from
  • testicle - an exploratory tickle
I think that being sufficiently fluent to appreciate and explain the humour in these "new definitions" demonstrates quite a high level of understanding of English, and is a lot more fun than most of the tests I've taken. An added advantage (or perhaps it's a disadvantage) is that it would be hard to revise for this exam!

You might be wondering what all this has to do with a photograph of the conference centre stairway at Whalley Abbey, Lancashire. The answer is, not a lot! Except that the carved stone pine-cones on top of the stone newels are known by the architectural term, finials, a word that, for no good reason I can explain, makes me smile! I used a wide-angle lens, and a vertical composition for this shot. I liked the composition because the bright sunlight on the lower steps seemed to attract the eye, and from there the zig-zag of the stairs took the viewer through to the dark Victorian porch at top of the picture.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen