Thursday, June 25, 2009

Length matters

No bones about it, we all know length matters. Given the choice between the long straw and the short, I know which one I’d pick, any day. Long is safe, it’s seductive, it’s impressive. The longer, the stronger, they say, and in many cases I’d agree with that happily. In language terms, however, I take the opposite view: the longer, the wronger.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nowt against long words as such. When used aptly, the long word is perfectly in its place. And considering the amazing extent of the English language, why not mine the glorious length and depth of its vocabulary? It’s not that I'm an anti-size queen for lawd’s sake (‘gimme the ant-sized not gi-ant-sized’) or suffer from hippopotomonstrosessquipedaliophobia. It’s just that I prefer reading pithy writing as opposed to screeds of "flashy stunt words", as Ben Zimmer, true word junkie and editor at the Oxford University Press, puts it.

What’s that I hear? You’re not convinced? Don’t tell me you think polysyllables pack a better punch. Nonsense! Polly-silly-billies, I call them, and the dumb parrots who succumb to them deserve a really good tap on the bill (funnily enough, in Dutch ‘bil’ is what they call your gluteus maximus). Really, given the choice, which sentence do you like better: A or B?

A. The feline entity posed sedentarily on the vestibular runner.
B. The cat sat on the hall mat.

See? You chose B. Probably because you can tell in a flash what the sentence is all about. Now look at both sentences again and tell me which one was written by the more intelligent author. Now you say A, maybe because you think: Big words = Big brains. It’s erudite, right? Well, let me ask you: How easy was it to understand A? Did you instantly get that ‘runner’ in this context doesn’t mean ‘someone moving faster than a walk’ but that long strip of dusty carpet you find ‘running’ down a hall (funnily enough, in Dutch it's called a 'walker').

Oh, so you’ve changed your mind, have you? Now you think B is the more intelligent. Well done, you’re right! Most people would think the author of B is smarter but don’t take my word for it, there’s proper scientific evidence to prove it.

Smart people don’t write to impress, but to express themselves clearly to ensure their message gets across. Smart communicators consider their readers. They know that any extra effort is a turn-off and only makes readers inclined to think the writer is dumber rather than smarter. In a nutshell, this is the message of a paper called ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly’ by Daniel M. Oppenheimer of Princeton University. Bet your bottom dollar it’s an easy read, so don’t miss it!

Let me leave you now with popular VJ Joanne Colan and her stumble-free recital of the longest lingo in the language. Top marks for tackling such wily stunts as honorificabilitudinitas and the ultra-long Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. Enjoy, and see you next week!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kiwi accent

In sixteen forty-two, Abel Tasman sailed the ocean blue…
This little rhyme taught me when the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European to discover New Zealand. Somehow it’s stuck in my memory, which is strange because when I was at school I couldn’t have cared less about New Zealand’s historical connection with the Netherlands. Nor would I have dreamed that one day I’d be living a personal connection between New Zealand and Abel Tasman’s homeland.

But maybe that’s not so strange. After all, my family was Dutch. We moved to New Zealand in the 1950s and I grew up speaking English, just like a proper little Kiwi. That, by the way, is what New Zealanders call themselves. It is not the same thing as that furry brown kiwifruit you might know but our national bird, a flightless nightwalker. In actual fact Actinidia deliciosa used to be called the Chinese gooseberry. It was rebranded by those who wanted to market it as a 100% pure New Zealand product.

Fast forward to after I left home, and in the good old Kiwi tradition, it was time for my Overseas Experience. To my surprise, on applying for a passport I found I had a choice of nationality. According to length of residence I was a New Zealander but following birthright I could stay Dutch. Feeling disloyal to my upbringing I chose the nationality that would let me live and work in Europe.

Not long afterwards I left Aotearoa – Land of the Long White Cloud – and landed at Schiphol, Amsterdam Airport. Now, nearly 30 years later I speak Dutch fluently but still haven’t lost my Kiwi accent. It’s not unusual for me to be asked where I come from.

Before Lord of the Rings (shot by Peter Jackson in places where I spent my holidays herding sheep) launched our landscape onto the wide-screen world, many Dutch people knew little about New Zealand. Even now some still confuse it with Tasmania but I can’t hold that against them. Look at how it gets depicted on TV – as a squiggle on the world map! You can’t be blamed for not knowing how Long that White Cloud is. Listen to this: it’s long. From the top of Cape Reinga to the bottom of the Bluff is the same distance as from Amsterdam to Barcelona. All those long empty miles, all that wide open space for only four million people and forty million sheep, give or take a few.

So okay, the Netherlands may be tiny and crowded compared to the rugged land of rugby, racing and beer, but apart from the odd bout of nostalgia, I’m rarely homesick for my old homeland. Before leaving Amsterdam and moving north to a small village near Abel Tasman’s birthplace, I did miss the space at times. But now I’ve got that where I live, in the wide open Ommelanden.

I came to the Netherlands needing to work out the irony of being Dutch yet inescapably non-Dutch. I settled here with some vague ambition to search out my roots. I’ve lived here long enough to accept that I’ll never be as Dutch as my passport says I am. It doesn’t matter. I feel at home in my second homeland.

Two homelands are enough for me, but here’s someone who sounds as if she’d be at home in at least 21. Let me leave you now with Amy Walker and her little linguistic tour of the world. Take it from me, when she gets to New Zealand, her Kiwi accent is spot on. Enjoy, and see you next week!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cross word

Just imagine. It’s mid-morning, you’re in your peaceful office, fresh cup of coffee close at hand (but at a safe distance from your keyboard), working avidly on your latest exciting assignment (don’t laugh, most stuff I edit manages to excite my neurons). You’re on a high, racing along at your best editing speed when rrrrrrriiiiing-rrrrriiiiiiiiiinnnnng. Oh no! It’s the bell from hell.

Who does it turn out to be? Not some nice client lusting after your professional language services, but a muckety-muck telemarketer. How dare they muck up your day, uninvited! The audacity! The distraction! The exclamation point (taken). "No!" you snap in lieu of a witty retort, refusing whatever's on offer. You slam the phone into its cradle hoping the caller will end up in purgatory. And stay there. In agony. Forever.

Hm. Is that how you deal with the tyrants of the telephone? I would, at a punch [stet], but you’d never guess I hate answering the blasted thing, now would you? No, don’t bother answering that and listen to this. What I want to say has nothing to do with my telephoney (sincere) phobia. Remember how I’ve been asking freelance editors what they consider to be standard editing speeds? Well, I’ve had another great response on LinkedIn, this time from David McClintock in New York.

David has surveyed his American colleagues in the Society for Technical Communication on this very topic and has come up with the following benchmarks based on three levels of text complexity and measured in words per hour (wph): heavy (~500wph), medium (~2000wph), and light (~3000wph). You can read the full account in Corrigo, the newsletter of the STC’s Technical Editing SIG (special interest group). The bottom line, David concludes, is that editors need to find their personal word-processing speed. "Thinking about personal speed means acknowledging a universal limitation: You can think fast, but you can’t think faster."

Think fast, editors, and help David update and expand his “rather unscientific study” of editing speed. Submit your heavy, medium, and light wph rates here. And don’t forget to let David know how he may credit you in a future article (or ensure you're anonymous).

Talking of submissions, here’s a fun link that Kari Koonin, one of my translator friends on SENSE forwarded to our Non-Sense group this morning. Fell right off my chair, I did, laughing out loud (gosh, isn’t there some clever way of abbreviating these cumbersome expressions?) when I followed Kari’s link and read the business blurbs trumpeted by Eurozone Translations.

Health Warning for NEEDSer clients: In case you’re worried by what you read on Eurozone and its subsidiaries, I do NOT think you are anything like any of the clients described. Honest.

Meanwhile, I’m still trying to track down the source of this saucy viral satire. Kari says she got the link off the German Network forum run by the UK’s Institute of Translation and Interpreting and she’ll have to ask her colleague who posted it there where she found it. Watch this space!

Which reminds me that I should get back to watching my own space, I mean, back up to speed on the doc I’m editing at the moment. Let me leave you for the nonce with a not so cross word for when those telemucketers won’t take no for an answer. Enjoy and see you next week!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sex symbol

Meet the amazing Marina Orlova (28), dubbed "the world's sexiest philologist" by New Yorker Magazine. The possesser of not one but two degrees in philology from State University of Nizhni Novgorod Region in the Russian Federation, Marina started off in the United States as an English teacher.

In 2007, however, she burst out of the confines of the classrom and stepped onto the world wide stage as the star of what has become one of YouTube's most popular channels. As "HotforWords" Marina explores her own interest in linguistics and etymology and entertains her "dear students" as well by answering questions on word origins.

Watch Marina now talking about a symbol whose name she may find hard to remember but whose mysteries provided no difficulty for her to unravel. Behind all that blonde bombshellery hides some seriously sexy intelligence.

Busy, busy, busy, you know how it goes. Pressure of work stopped me writing a proper episode of the Blagger this time around. Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Hope you don't feel fobbed off with this tiddly bit of philological folderol. Enjoy, and see you next week!