The only true synonyms in English?

I was playing hide and seek with the kids in the local park yesterday and I got talking to one of the other parents. Hearing that I worked with English, he asked me if I knew  which words were the only completely interchangeable synonyms in English. It was something he’d learnt in school and never forgotten.

Of course I didn’t.

The answer was gorse, furze and whin. They are interchangeable words for ulex europaeus: a common shrub.

Are there really no other synonyms of this kind in English?

I was a littlesuspicious so I googled just to be sure. On a blog, one wag had come up with these suggestions:

Nil and zero, twelve and dozen and  selfish and Republican!


Highly irregular not to ask for a second opinion



Even if you’re writing something in your own language, it’s always a good idea to get someone else to read it and give some feedback. Sometimes you just can’t see the wood for the trees when you’ve been working for a long time on a document.

One of the most valuable services we provide at WLC is acting as a sounding board and providing the chance to get a second opinion on a word, expression or even a longer  text.

Gary and I also constantly consult each other. He just rung me to ask how I understood the phrase “irregular payments.”  To me it sounded like bribes, money under the table or kickbacks. Irregular may mean not regular, but it also means dubious, dodgy, illegal, fishy or questionable.

This was exactly the answer he’d been hoping for. “Irregular payments” is not wrong. But it is potentially ambiguous. And when the ambiguity could imply financial impropriety, it’s far better not to use it.  He  changed the text to “non-regular payments ” which is correct and completely unambiguous.

The moral of this anecdote? Even when you are 90% sure about something, there’s never any harm in asking for a second opinion.

I do wish the publishers of Bum magazine had consulted us before they went international. That name is a serious bummer!

What’s the English for omvärldsanalys?


One of the trickiest tasks we face in our work is translating job titles. This is particularly true when the job or the activity doesn’t exist much outside of the Nordic countries. A classic example of this is “omvärldsanalys”.

This refers to the fact that many big companies and organisations employ experts whose job it is to report on and analyse any events or developments in the business world, society or international politics which may affect them .

In a rapidly changing global world it is crucial for both individuals and organisations to have their finger on the pulse and be able to identify any relevant trends and innovations that will impact on their activities.

But how to translate it?

Googling will reveal that there are several translations in use. One of the most common is “business intelligence” which is a variation on military intelligence. Which is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t cover non-business activity. “Market research”, also in use, is even narrower in meaning whereas “environmental scanning” sounds as though it has something to do with global warming.

To conclude, the translation you choose will depend on which professional area you work in.

Which brings me to what we do at WLC. We may be working on translation, proofreading or language training however our gathering of  “language intelligence” impacts on our work every day. What is happening in the English language? What’s in and what’s out? What changes should we and our business partners be aware of? We need to know the answers.

008 – Licensed to Translate. Yes, we’re the James Bonds of the language sector!

The Princeton Review tries to stitch up Taylor but is not swift enough


Anyone who is interested in modern pop music will know about Taylor Swift, the young singer-songwriter who attracted headlines when she refused to collaborate with Spotify. She’s the one pop singer that everyone is our family likes. Her latest album was the soundtrack of our drive back from Öland last Xmas.

The grammar snobs at the Princeton Review clearly decided it was time to put this young upstart in her place.

There was a section in a recent test paper they produced called “Grammar in Real Life” which read:

“Pop lyrics are a great source of bad grammar. See if you can find the error in each of the following.”

They then quoted one of Ms Swift’s songs.

They were rapidly  hoist by their own petard. They had misquoted her lyrics. The sassy popstar rapidly put those fuddy duddy grammarians in their place.

Of course correct grammar is important. But who ever went to pop songs to find perfect examples of correct grammar?

Taylor’s fans  call themselves Swifties and are rather fanatical. Here she explains how she invited some of them home to hear her new album. Hilarious!

The tide has turned: London is no longer calling!

In Sweden, as in many countries, there has been a trend for talented, ambitious young people to move to the three metropolitan areas of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö/Lund. This has lead to considerable depopulation in rural areas and great pressure on the housing market in those cities.

So it was interesting to read this article in The Independent about how many thirty somethings living in London have realised that a greater quality of life is on offer in other parts of the country.

They are moving not to the countryside but rather to medium-sized provincial cities like Birmingham and Bath. Considering how difficult it is to find a home in Stockholm, one wonders how long it will be before we see a similar trend here.

Snowplough, helicopter and curling parents

In Sweden over-protective mums and dads who do their best to remove all the obstacles for their sprogs are known as “curling parents.” Curling is a winter sport that the Swedes are rather good at. This clip from the Vancouver Olympics which shows the track being cleared by two players with brushes illustrates where the image comes from.

I was thus interested to see this interview with the headteacher of St Paul’s School who refers to them as “snowplough parents.” You don’t often see snowploughs on the streets of London.

My pal Pia in Canada tells me that over there they are known as “helicopter parents.”

Janitors, house caretakers and super sleuths

We’ve certainly been busy with Housing English this autumn. Last week Gary Watson and I had two lively days in Solna doing training sessions with the staff of the Signalisten municipal housing company. And today he’s in Lund with LKF. Here he is in the penthouse of the Park Hotel enjoying a birdseye view of Solna.

Gary in Solna


We’ve compiled an English- Swedish dictionary of housing words for our trainees. One word that has given us some interesting translation problems is “bovärd”. These are often the first point of contact with the municipal landlord. They are also the ones who carry out small repairs with plumbing and electrical matters.

The British word caretaker and the American janitor are a reasonable translations but don’t really cover the level of responsibility that a “bovärd” has. In addition to maintenance they are also responsible for liaising with contractors, ordering work and then assessing that it has been done correctly. We recommend the term “house caretaker.”

A house caretaker is also the eyes, ears and even nose of the landlord. By talking to tenants and being observant, they can soon detect is anything is amiss or suspicious. One of our Signalisten trainees told the group about how she had noticed an unusually high number of people visiting one particular apartment block in her area. Some of them seemed to be under the influence of something. Some nifty detective work enabled her to find out which flat they were visiting.

The police were informed, they did a stakeout and within a short time there was a raid. The lodger in the flat had been dealing drugs. He is now behind bars.

That house caretaker was a real Sherlock Holmes. I was just waiting for her to turn to Gary and say “Elementary, my dear Watson!”

Hero or villain? The headteacher that sent 152 schoolkids home

When I was in Sundsvall last week doing my training sessions at SCA, one of the topics that came up as dress codes. Except for certain sectors, such as banking and insurance and politics (at times),  Swedes do not usually wear suits to work.

I’m told that when English visitors come to visit their Swedish counterparts, the men power-dress in suits and ties during the day and then change to jeans and a smart casual style in the evening. The Swedes do the opposite and like to wear a suit if they are going out to eat at a restaurant.

White tie, black tie, lounge, cocktail, business, business casual, smart casual: all the different dress codes out there can be very confusing. Employers and hosts are not always as clear as they ought to be on this topic and whole books have been written on the subject. If in doubt, over-dress is my motto. Nothing embarrassing than being badly under-dressed.

The British are more generally more formal than the Scandinavians. Starting from when we have to wear school uniform and address our teachers as Mr Jones or Ms Smith. None of this use of first names in the UK!

The story of Bradford headteacher, Elizabeth Churton, who sent 152 schoolkids home in one day because they were incorrectly dressed, made the headlines last week. She’s become a national hero is the eyes of some sectors of the public.

It would never happen in Sweden although I notice a sneaking admiration for the strictness of the UK school system.

Here for your amusement is a 1950s film showing how US high school kids should not dress.

The boomers refuse to be “elderly”

The boomers? They sound like the Clangers or some other characters from a kids TV show. Far from it. They are the baby boomers, those born during the Post WW2 baby boom between and 1946 and 1964.

That demographic group, after a life with considerable consumer power and influence in society, are now reaching retirement age. And they do not want to be referred to as “the elderly.”

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute who writing about ageing, whose papers we often proofread, are in agreement. The rather pejorative word “elderly” with its undertones of impoverishment and neediness is on the way out.

Boomers incidentally is also the name of a recent BBC comedy series. The working title was Grey Males! That sounds really exciting.

The ever-readable Bill Bryson’s memoir of his childhood in Des Moines, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is a wonderful, very amusing account of a boomer childhood in the Mid-West.

One Swedish word, two meanings in English: rykte and säkerhet

snowy sundsvall

I’ve just got back from two days in Sundsvall working as a language trainer with a group of European Works Council reps at SCA.

One issue that came up was Swedish words that have two different meanings in English. If you are thinking in Swedish and then translating, the danger is that you will choose the wrong one.

First rykte. This  means either rumour or reputation. Two very different things.

There’s a rumour going round that she will resign.

Forget the rumours! Let’s stick to the facts.

A rumour is an unsubstantiated story.

The company’s reputation was badly damaged by all the negative publicity.

The hotel has an excellent reputation.

Reputation is the commonly held opinion of a person, company etc. If you have a bad reputation, you are infamous or notorious!

Säkerhet has two meanings: safety and security. Here they are related to each other but different nevertheless. Safety concerns the prevention of accidents and injuries to people. Security concerns the prevention of theft and damage to property.

We take the safety of our workforce very seriously.

The regular safety rounds help to identify accident black spots.

There have been too many thefts. We need to improve security.

Guards patrol the perimeter to ensure maximum security.

Sometimes when translating we encounter sentences where both these meanings are implied by säkerhet. In this case, both the English words need to be used.

We have developed an action plan to increase safety and security at the factory.





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