Mama, die die die…

Walk into a Dutch supermarket and you might just see this worrying sight:

mama die

It doesn’t help that the words “Mama, die, die, die…” are set next to the image of a slightly angry-looking child, but this ad didn’t particularly phase the Dutch, only the unfortunate anglophiles who come across it. In its original language it is of course far less sinister, being a child’s request for her mother to buy her “that and that and that” (form what I’ve been told, I don’t speak Dutch).

Not exactly a terrible translation, rather an unfortunate cross-language homograph, but a clear example of what can happen when the advertising world doesn’t consider multilingualism. It’s worse, of course, when you’re trying to sell your product to a global market, but you fail to realise that your lovely new car, the Chevrolet Nova, translates to Spanish buyers as the Chevrolet “Doesn’t run”.

There are others of course, like Nokia’s Lumia phone which translates to a slang word for ‘prostitute’ in Spanish, ‘Gerber’ baby food means ‘to throw up’ in French; and Microsoft’s ‘Bing’ which is a homophone for ‘illness’ in China.  And those are the less rude ones. Check out some more amusing and unfortunate brand translations here.



Ever had the experience of singing song lyrics for years and then, seeing them written down one day, realising that you’ve been saying something similar but not quite right all along? With foreign languages this kind of experience is pretty frequent, especially when it comes to colloquial expressions. You can be using them in the right context, pronouncing the correct sound, and then one day, out of the blue, it will hit you: the expression as it existed inside your mind was something quite different, quite other than the linguistic reality.

Cycling through town yesterday the name of a restaurant caught my eye – an Asian eatery called ‘Ras-le-bol’ – literally a bowl filled to the brim, with an accompanying image to that effect. It was a clever play on words as in French the expression means ‘to be fed up’. And so it dawned on me that the colloquial expression I had been happily using was a 3-word composite with a literal meaning close to ‘to have it up to here with something’.

I had never really questioned it, but it vaguely existed in my mind as a set word, something like ‘ralbolle’, or being pushed at best a conjugation of the verb ‘râler’ (to complain), so ‘râle bol’. Not that this made any sort of sense, but I wasn’t asking it to, like many colloquial expressions, I had assumed its origins obscure, perhaps a result of some sort of Verlan inversion.

Yet this discovery gives the expression a new definition, a new feeling in my mouth, even though I’ll continue using it just as before. Next time I’m fed up with French administration and exclaim ‘j’en ai ras-le-bol!’, in my mind, just for an instant, will appear that faint image of a bowl, brim-full of frustration.

Word of the week: Catachresis


The name of many different types of figure of speech which all have in common that they are using words “wrongly”.

Some Possibilities:
1) The use of a new, never seen before phrase or word. Catachresis is similar to a neologism, but catachresis also includes new phrases.
2) Crossing categorical boundaries with words, because there otherwise would be no suitable word. (like referring to the “legs” of a chair”)
3) A paradox (Milton’s “darkness visible”)
4) A mingling of metaphors (Shakespeare’s “To take arms against a sea of troubles…”)
5) Replacing an expected word with another, half rhyming word, with an entirely different meaning from what one would expect. (“I’m ‘ravished’!” for “I’m ravenous!” or for “I’m famished!” )
6) Using an established word or phrase in the wrong context (“Can’t you hear that? Are you blind?”)
7) The farfetched use of an already existing word or phrase. (Shakespeare again: “Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse”)
8) A blatant euphemism. (Dead people within a cemetery being referred to as “inhabitants”.)
9) The replacement of a word with a more ambiguous synonym.
10) According to Derrida, a reference to the original incompleteness that is a part of all systems of meaning, or a word with an arbitrary connection to its meaning.

Apparently taking points 2 and 10 into consideration, the artist Amalia Pica turned this literary term into visual representations in her ‘Catachresis’ series which, like much of her work, explores the miscommunication inherent to both language and art.

This, then, is what catachresis look like as contemporary art:

Catachresis #9 (legs of the table, the neck of the bottle, the elbow of the pipe, the leg of the chair), 2011

Catachresis #33 (legs of the table, tongue of the shoe), 2013

Catachresis #35 (legs of chair, teeth of the rake, eye of the potato, eye of the needle), 2013.

Word of the Week: Jargogle

Meaning: To confuse, bamboozle. To befuddle, to mess up.

As in: I don’t get quantum theory. It utterly jargogles my brain.

Origin: “Jargogle” apparently dates back to 1692, when John Locke used the term in an article for a local publication. In the article, he was sharing his ideas about getting confused by his own ideas; hence, he interjected that he might have jargogled his reader’s thoughts all the same.
“I fear, that the jumbling of those good and plausible  Words in your Head. . . might a little jargogle your Thoughts. . . .”


Seen in the menu of a posh pub the other night:


This is now officially my favourite definition of a cocktail and it doesn’t even come from a dictionary. Next time I’m at the Library of Congress, I may even look up the source document, an early 19th century newspaper called ‘The Balance and Columbian Repository’. The text was written by the editor in reply to a reader questioning the term ‘cock-tail’ which had been used in a previous edition. The Museum of the American Cocktail (yes there indeed exists such a wondrous place) has the whole story, and frankly the text is worth the read just for the wonderfully humorous and overly-polite language – e.g. “I hope you will construe nothing that I have said as disrespectful. I read your paper with great pleasure and wish it the most extensive circulation.” Gotta love the 1800s.

The Etymologicon


What’s the connection between disgruntled and gruntled? What links church organs to organised crime, California to the Caliphate, or brackets to codpieces?

If you never listened to Mark Forsyth on BBC Radio 4 or were blissfully unaware that he wrote a word-blog called Inkyfool, then this is your chance to catch up with essential word-knowledge. This book was basically written when a big kid with ADD accidentally swallowed the Oxford English Dictionary. Forsyth makes you race through word definitions and origins from one short chapter to the next until you arrive breathlessly at the end to find a fun word quiz awaiting you. There is no better way to spend your time on a trans-Atlantic flight.

Word of the week: Scuttlebutt

I hereby inaugurate this blog, devoted to all things linguistic, with its first edition of ‘Word of the Week’ in honour of ‘scuttlebutt’ – what this blog might have been called had the domain name not been taken.

Thanks go to the Urban Dictionary, endless source for wondrous word knowledge.             (My personal favourite: number 5)


1. (Slang) Gossip; rumour

2. (Nautical) A drinking fountain on a ship; a cask on a ship used to hold the day’s supply of drinking water.

3. (noun) a report (often malicious) about the doings of other people
e.g. “I was hanging out at the scuttlebutt, waiting to get some water when I heard some good scuttlebutt on Vern and an inflatable sheep.”

4. The act of continuously farting while walking. As you take each step you cut another fart.

5. The act of a dog dragging its ass across the carpet.