Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cryptic colour

Update: May 2, 2009. This episode was written and posted online in all ignorance of the tragic drama at Apeldoorn taking place at the same time. Dutch driver Karst Tates ploughed his car through the crowds in an attempt to attack the Dutch royal party, killing four people and injuring three times as many. To date the death toll, which now includes Tates himself, is seven people. I can't ignore what happened, but won't be deleting my post as it reflects the innocent fun Dutch people were used to having on Queens Day. Many of us in the Netherlands fear this innocence is gone for good.

Original post: April 30, 2009. Don’t tell me a Dutchman doesn’t know how to have a good time. It’s just not true, no mimsy doubt about that. April 30th is Queens Day in the Netherlands, a day off work and a national excuse for having a good time on a scale possibly unnerving to those from less Dutch-courageous countries. Or unnerving to those whose taste doesn’t run to an overriding passion for orange, the heraldic colour of the Dutch royals (House of Oranje-Nassau, which has its origins in the Principality of Orange) (which has its remains in modern-day Orange, a place in the south of France about 20 km north of Avignon and on average the warmest town around, temperature-wise).

You’re not wild about this hot colour? Then you’re done for when the heat of orange fever hits the Netherlands. You’ll be familiar with the sight at international football events: the not so huddled masses of the Dutch faction, oozing orange in a wildly creative assortment of silly hats and costumes. And on Koninginnedag too, all that wonderful silliness comes out of the orangery again, to be worn with pride and more often than not accompanied by the battle cry “Oranje boven!” (orange above) and a noisy hup-hup-Hollander polonaise from one pub to the next.

It ain’t new, I tell you. Jolly Hollanders have been hollering and rollicking throughout human history. They’re certainly not averse to a spot of hedonism, as droolingly described by this NY Times report from 1890 about a Holland Society banquet – addressed by Theodore Roosevelt, no less (you can guess where his family came from).

Actually, I’m glad that Dutch girls (and boys) only want to have fun because Queens Day really is. Fun. And divinely hedonistic too, though don’t blame me for your hangover tomorrow. It’s certainly not a day to be spent inside, posting a blog. Hence I’m outta here. I’m putting on my plastic orange top hat and I'm off to my village’s free market to see what treasures I can snap up from someone else’s trove, um, leftover junk.

But before I go, let me give you something to mull about at least. Did you know that orange is one of only two words in the English language that are impossible to rhyme perfectly (the other one is silver). It has half-rhymes, such as hinge, lozenge, syringe, flange and Stonehenge, but no true rhymes. Who cares, besides cryptic crossword fans? If you can’t find a perfect match, contrive one, the way composers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel did in "Oranges Poranges", sung by Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes) on the show H.R. Pufnstuf. Enjoy this triple (Dutch) treat and see you next week!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Free booty

Back in the day when dinosaurs walked and I was but a lowly bottom-feeder – one of several assistant stage managers at the Sydney Opera House – one of my backstage cobbers dubbed me ‘Main Chance Werner.’

Ye gads! I’d been sussed! I’d believed no one could see my burning ambition and all the while it had been blazing in flagrante. To my dismay the nick caught on like bushfire and soon everyone was calling me ‘Main Chance’ at the Opera House, permanent crew and itinerant casts included. In my callow yoof, I was mortified and did all I could to live down the evil of being a so-called opportunist.

But today, looking back from the lofty height of experience I’d be more blasé. ‘What’s so fearsome about that?’ I’d say, referencing a famous ex-nun about to burst into song to boost her confidence. Doesn’t main-chancer mean I can spot an opportunity and am prepared to gung-ho for it? What an ideal entrepreneurial trait, especially when you’re marketing your own freelance business.

Which, of course, I am. Confirmed cave-dweller that I am, I prefer to do all my schmoozing online (okay, so I exaggerate) (only a bit) and forgive me, I’m still learning the ropes. So far NEEDSer is on LinkedIn, Facebook, Hyves, and Twitter, to name a few biggies, and just last night I main-chanced myself onto another two great-looking facilities for business social networking.

The first is Ecademy, London-based and with a global membership of 300,000. The Ecademy was set up in 1998 by Penny Powers and her husband Tom (one of Sir Alan’s original Apprentices). The factsheet says the Ecademy is a ‘networking tool for business people, especially home workers and business owners who can otherwise be isolated from the kind of contacts that are vital for propelling business forward.’ Sounds like the Blagger’s cuppa, doesn’t it? I signed up only hours ago, haven’t even finished my profile and already I’ve been courted by nearly 30 potential clients calling from as far afield as Alpharetta (in Georgia, USA) to Zurich. Watch this space…

The other site is part of the Envato network from Australia that was started by the brothers Ta’eed (Collis, Vahid & Cyan) in a living room back in 2006 and now gets upwards of 11 million pageviews a day for the whole network. FreelanceSwitch is a niche site offering all the information and support freelancers need. There are daily postings, chockablog full of useful topics like pricing, finding jobs, dealing with clients and daily productivity. And there are forums for crowdsourcing support and advice plus a resource section filled with knickknacks such as a rates calculator. Again, I’ve only been signed on for a few hours so I can’t vouch for how good the site is. But I’ve had a good first impression of its wealth of freelance booty.

That reminds me of a riddle: what’s the hidden link between freelance and booty? You don’t know? Well I’ll tell you. The origin of freelance is ‘free + lance’ (oh do keep up, please). ‘Lance’ comes from, um, ‘lance’, that weapon wielded by knights on horseback, like Sir Lancelot (no relation). ‘Free’ is not what our services ever should be (as some misguided clients seem to think) but comes from ‘freebooter’, which comes from the Dutch vrijbuit ‘booty’ and means a person who pillages and plunders, esp. a pirate. So there you have it. Once we were freebooting warriors, living by the might of our lance and sword. Today we’re freelancers, living by the wit of our mightier pen. All together now: aaaaahhhh!

Let me leave you now with a loving testimonial to a contender for the NoBull Prize, one helluva Holstein named Braedale Freelance. Here’s 211 glorious slo-mo seconds of Freelance’s second batch of daughters posing posteriorly to show us their udderly bewitching assets. Shake ya booty and see you next week!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hermit age

You know the tired old sign that office jokers keep on their desks: "You don't need to be mad to work here but it helps"? Well, for me, “here” has to be “home”. Indeed, it would be sheer madness for this tireless joker NOT to work from home. I sure ain't good at the alternative. All that tweet and greet and blithering about the coffee machine in the corridor gives me the heebie jeebies. No offence intended, but I had enough of that social faffery in my corporate days to last me several lifetimes.

Let me socialise instead with the birdies gossiping outside my own window. I can handle their chirpy twitter and besides, the birdies never mind what I bleep back at them or even how I bleep it. So, does my desire to escape the madding crowd sound that mad? Nope, not to me, nor to many of my neighbours in Thesinge, the placid village we live in.

Really, we ought to rename the place “Hermit’s Hamlet”. For some strange reason, Thesinge harbours a wilderness of work-at-homes among its 700-strong inhabitants. Down my own sleepy lane, for instance, you will find (in no particular order) an accountant, a builder, a children’s book illustrator, an electrician, a health food distributor, a management consultant, a psychologist and a translator/photographer.

That’s nine hermits in a row (including me, your trusty language editor), although I hasten to declare that none of us actually occupies a grotty cave in solo splendour. We are blessed with socially outgoing partners who go out to work (and can be counted on to do all the housework whenever there is a deadline).

Gerard Kingma, friend and fellow language hermit, who lives at the end of the lane, does get out and about but that’s because he’s also a prize-winning photographer and has to. Obviously he can’t fob off his clients with the shots he's caught on his office webcam but rest assured, his snaps of the Thesinger Maar (the river flowing past his office) are as gorgeous as the works of art displayed on his wonderful travel & nature website.

The rest of us hermits, however, true to our reclusive nature, seldom are observed blotting the landscape or scaring off visitors, the task of the truly professional hermits employed on the fashionable estates of our Victorian forebears. Only a few of us would ever - except under duress or in unbearably sunny weather - poke a nose outside the comfy confines of our hermitages.

Talking of which, did you ever wonder how the moniker for a dank, dark grotto got to be given to that mega-museum in St. Petersburg? Well, stay put and I’ll tell you. When Catherine first began her great art collection she called the original gallery she had built to house it “my small hermitage” since only very few people would be allowed inside to view its riches. She once lamented in a letter that “only the mice and I can admire all this.” Thought you’d like to know that.

Ach, give Catherine the Great her mice, and her art, this hermit has her birdies and a great new age to enjoy. Yes, it was my birthday this Easter, and no, I won’t tell you how old I am. Suffice to say that I’d barely become a teen angel when this hit came out. Happy listening and see you next week!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Deep gobbledy joy!

Not so long ago one of my colleagues e-mailed the SENSE forum with a query about a copywriting term. “I need to crowdsource for this one,” she wrote. “What's the name for the key bit of text, often a direct quote, that you extract from an article and feature in a box?” As it turns out the answer is “pull quote” which sounds intriguing but isn’t what I want to talk about now. What really got my language cortex going was “crowdsource”, new to me but a term I supposed had been around for years. Google proved me right. There it was, defined by Grant Barrett in a New York Times column on the buzzwords of 2007: “Crowdsource ‒ to use the skills or tools of a wide variety of freelancers, professional or amateur, paid or unpaid, to work on a single problem.”

Wow, I thought. Crowdsource. What a good description of how the SENSE forum works. It’s so good I can almost forgive the word its gobbledygooky flavour. But what I can’t and won’t ever forgive is gobbledygook, for being what it is.

The G-word was coined in 1944 by one Maury Maverick in a memo banning "gobbledygook language" at the Smaller War Plants Corporation. Mr. Maverick made it up in imitation of a turkey's gobble in reaction to his frustration with the convoluted language of bureaucrats. So it's an American word but it has its equals in other languages including French (charabia), German (Kauderwelsch), Dutch (koeterwaals) and Italian (gergo incomprensibile). It's the converse of clear and concise, so confusing that no one can be expected to understand it.

Though I hate to admit it, it can be fun to play with, like on this Gobbledygook Generator presented by the Plain English Campaign, a UK organisation who have been fighting the good fight against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information since 1979 and who have some really good (free) guides to writing in plain English and handy (free) software like "Drivel Defence" to help you check for plain English in your texts (both docs and web texts).

Several other tools are available to evaluate readability, including the wonderfully named SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook), a formula that estimates the years of education needed to fully understand a piece of writing. It’s important to understand the issue of readability as it can have serious consequences. As Amy S. Hedman points out in Using the SMOG formula to revise a health-related document (American Journal of Health Education), “nearly 50% of American adults are functionally or marginally illiterate and lack skills to read and understand recommendations for preventive health, self-care and screenings, and treatment, thereby leading to poorer health outcomes. One solution to health illiteracy is for health professionals to … develop skills, strategies, and tools to ensure their messages are understood by the intended audience.”

Another solution, for all writers (not just health professionals) wanting to reach an audience, is to subject your writing (docs, web texts) to the pernickety pen of a professional pedant, a language editor who cares about the importance of clear communication and can help you to achieve it. Not that I’m plugging my own language editing service, of course, not (ahem). It’s just that I’d thought you’d like to know that on ReadAble, the readability test tool, NEEDSer scores an easy 8.7 on the SMOG scale, which means it should be easily understood by 12th-graders, that is, 17-18 year olds, my youngest clients. Needless to say (ahem), that goes to show I practise wot I preach.

Let me leave you now with a master practitioner. Rejoico! Stanley Unwin apparates in advertibold for Amstrad Wordyprocessor from approximilotions 1987. Featrisodes manily fantalistic wordings from the worldidode's grotelidiest linguabold. Deep joy!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Tarot, Dare or Promise?

One of my best friends is under the mad delusion that as a freelancer I won’t be touched by the economic crisis. Yes, just yesterday Roz (the Follower skulking behind the Fanny Ardant avatar) said to me on the phone, “What crisis? You’ve got nothing to worry about.” She added a mellow, dramatic laugh that sounded like she’d be twirling her moustache if she had one (well, she does have a teensy smidgeon of one)(oops, sorry Roz) and went on to claim, “NEEDSer must be making you a fortune.”

Reader, my dear, my ears flipped and flopped in horror (see last week’s episode) as I rounded on Roz to retort: “How can you be so unrealistic? NEEDSer is doing fine, thank you very much for asking, but making me a fortune? B*ll*cks!”

I’ll spare you the details of the rude tiff that followed and pass on to the cause of Roz’s conviction that my English editing business (freelance, so by definition uncertain) is indeed booming and will continue to boom well into the future. Evidently Roz had faith in my talent and confidence in my acumen! It was rather flattering, but she flattened my fragile ego in her usual snarky fashion. “It’s nothing to do with you. The Tarot says so."

So. It seems my gullible galpal is an astrojunkie who gets "insightful guidance" in the form of Tarot readings e-mailed by Astrocenter dot com. Roz is so taken by the good value of the (free) readings popping daily into her inbox that she created a (free) astroprofile for me, supposedly as a present for my birthday, coming up soon (April 10, if you must know). But she couldn’t wait, and sent me my first reading yesterday after putting down the phone:

“The World and the Moon are in charge of your life today! Your work will be your fortune. You're not short of ideas (the Moon) and your actions open up new horizons (the World). Your plans are destined to succeed in a way that will cover you with glory.”

Well, glory be! It’s written in the cards, so it must be true. But only for yesterday. This morning I opened the second dose of astroguidance that landed in my inbox:

“In your professional life, the presence of Death and the Lovers indicates difficulties. A project might suddenly be cancelled, or fall through. Try to see it in context. Concentrate on those projects that are going ahead, rather than crying over spilt milk.”

Harrumph, I said, and got on with my work. Funnily enough, not long after a student e-mailed in response to the budget price I’d quoted for editing his 80-page dissertation. His reply began well, it looked like he’d accepted my price until I saw he had (wilfully?) confused the full price with the bit that goes to the taxman (19% value-added tax). The student ended by asking why-o-why could I not start working for him this weekend.

Alas, pressure of work compelled me to lose this considerate job offer. I smiled (winsomely) and went on editing the 106,799-word book that is keeping me busy for the foreseeable future. Hang on, I thought, half a sentence later. Dare I say this is the spilt milk the Tarot promised me for today? I rattled off an e-mail to tell Roz what had happened. I should have known better. The response I received from my clever friend was truthful and to the point:
“I taro-ld you so.”

Roz won’t mind if I leave you now with the truly unbelievable Fanny Ardent, doyenne des filles libérées, doing what comes naturally in 8 Femmes, our favourite François Ozon film.
A la prochaine!

Renvois de la Roz
Thanks to, Inc. where I found the Tarot card illustrations. Now Roz tells me I’ll find financial enlightenment if I turn to their GOLD Tarot reading (only $6.95 USD). Truth to tell, I don’t dare. Why don't you go first, but promise not to blame the Blagger if your pot of gold turns out to be made of brass?