All posts by John Farrow

Acker Bilk and the “Jazz Wars”

Yesterday came the sad news that the great British jazz clarinetist, Acker Bilk, has gone to that great gig in the sky. Dapper Acker, with his trademark striped waistcoat , has been delighting audiences for over 60 years with his distinctive and melodious playing.

He also had the distinction in 1962 of being the first Brit to achieve a Number One hit  in the USA . His hauntingly beautiful instrumental, Stranger on the Shore,  originally written for his daughter Jenny but then used as the theme song for a TV series is known throughout the world.

Reading through anecdotes from those who met him, he sounds like a thoroughly nice chap. He was from the West Country and remained a local patriot. “Acker” is Devon slang for friend.

What is probably less known is that in 1960 Mr Bilk found himself in the middle of a riot at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival and had to try and pacify an army of rioting beatniks with his soothing sounds. I think of jazz fans as a rather sedate bunch. Sitting peacefully in Fasching or Stampen, stroking their goatee beards and digging a sax solo or two.

This was not the case in the early 60s. Be Bop had arrived from the US and its fans, the beatniks, passionately clutching their copies of work by Kerouac or Jean Paul Sartre, were a fundamentalist crowd who did not want to listen to trad jazz.  The fans of the two kinds of jazz clashed violently at Beaulieu and Lord Montague looked on in horror as his stately home became a battle ground.

The tabloid press had a field day. These “soapless and hopeless” hooligans were a threat to the fabric of British life.  They were as anathema to the establishment as the punk rockers were to be 25 years later. A fascinating chapter in British life. This amusing article tells the full story.

Hamster firing squad?

There are many synonyms in English and it’s so important to choose the right word.

My son was telling me about a classmate who had an elderly and very ill hamster: “In the end they just had to have him executed.”

That gave me a bizarre mental image of a brave little rodent having a final cig before walking out to face the firing squad.

Executed is just not the right word there.  So what is?

Put down? Not bad but a bit too brutal. More appropriate for livestock.

Exterminated? It was a beloved family pet, not vermin.

Terminated? Not unless Arnie pulled the trigger.

Liquidated, eliminated or neutralized? Rather macho and most likely to be used in a spy film. “Mr Bond, the hamster  must be neutralised.”

Bumped off or wacked? Not unless the furry fellow was in the Mafia or the kingpin of a crime syndicate.

The right answer is of course, put to sleep. It’s gentle and respectful

We’ve all seen Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch. Several hundred times. That must be such a pig to translate subtitles for. It uses so many synonyms for dead. That’s the whole joke.

The hamster has popped his clogs/ is pushing up daisies/ has gone to the great gig in the sky etc etc. All wonderful expressions but not advisable when talking to a child who has just lost their dear little friend.

There we’d recommend: Hammy has passed away or the (rather cheesy) Hammy is with the angels now.

Hmmm! Hundreds of little  hamsters with wings running round a gigantic silver training wheel. No maybe not!

Duckling, earthling, groundling, Quisling

I was at Eriksdal Baths yesterday with the kids as a half-term treat, and as my daughter bounced around in the bubbles in one of the magic caves, I pondered the suffix –ling. It’s a full time job being a language nerd.

My line of thought was sparked by the invented word youngling which is rather cleverly used in the new In Flight Safety video by Air New Zealand to mean child. It sounds suitably archaic. Tolkien also used the word halfling to refer to the hobbits.

The suffix –ling is added to a word to make it a smaller version of something as in duckling, gosling, princeling, stripling, yearling, fledgling

This is one meaning.

But the suffix has been around since Elizabethan times and originally it just meant something or someone who had a connection of some kind to the root word. As in groundling, a poorer member of the audience in Shalespeare’s time who stood on the ground.

Changeling, weakling, darling (from dear) and foundling all belong to this group.

The very old word earthling got a new lease of life when aliens in 1950s sci-fi movies started to use it to describe inhabitants of our planet.

One of the most famous –lings has nothing to do with either of the explanations: Quisling, the surname of the Norwegian Nazi collaborator. Such was his infamy that quisling is now used to describe all treacherous puppet governments.

If you enjoy this kind of thing, you’ll love this very comprehensive article.

And now, readerlings, that epic Air New Zealand Hobbit clip.

Disco English in the Youtube age


Disco poster

Last Friday I accompanied my son to the kids’ disco at Björkhagen School. It was bursting at the seams with very excited 9, 10 and 11 year olds. How thoroughly delightful, you must be thinking.

Well, it was pretty noisy. Lots of kids frenetically dashing around, jumping up and down and screaming their heads off. A 12 year old DJ was choosing the tracks on Spotify but the sound system was both tiny and tinny. I had to make a big effort to hear which song was playing.

One thing that helped was that the denizens of the disco were singing along heartily with  the songs, 95% of them were in English. They knew all the lyrics and their pronunciation wasn’t at all bad.

One of the mums standing next to me commented on how, back in the day, she and her friends had also sung along to their favourite songs. They hadn’t really understood the lyrics and she was pretty sure that no English speaker would have understood what they were singing either.

Things are so much easier for modern schoolkids.

Want to know what is being sung? Just go to Youtube, write the song’s name and the word lyrics. and invariably there’s a clip where you can read as you listen.

Here’s Adele with Rolling in the deep.

And it’s not just disco songs. You can even find old favourites like Leonard Cohen.

Youtube is a huge treasure chest of language learning treasures just waiting to be explored!


Blackadder returns – In Swedish

I was a tad surprised to see that one of Gary and my favourite British TV shows, Blackadder, is returning. In Swedish. On stage at Intiman in Stockholm.

It won’t however be the first time that it has been done as a stage show:

The Hexagon Theatre in Reading did a production featuring three episodes from Series 2.

But director and writer Anders Albien must like a challenge. The original series was written by among others, Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, and featured Rowan Atkinson (the best thing he’s ever done), Hugh Laurie, Steven Fry and Tony Richardson. A very difficult act to follow.

There were four series, each set in a different historical period: the Middle Ages, the reign of Elizabeth 1, Georgian England and World War.

Here’s the late, great Rik Mayall guesting as Lord Flashman at the Court of Queen Elizabeth:

And now Robbie Coltrane as Dr Johnson and Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent.

In this episode, the only copy of Johnson’s lifework, his Dictionary has been destroyed and Blackadder and his servant Balrick are trying to re-write it.

Go on! Buy yourself a box set and enjoy!

Billy Bragg sings about subs

As the latest submarine hunt goes on in the Stockholm archipelago,  I suspect that several of us will be dusting off our copies of Mr Bragg’s fine 1991 album Don’t try this at home,  listening to Sexuality and having a very strong sense of deja vu:

A nuclear submarine sinks off the coast of Sweden

Headlines give me headaches when I read them

A very fine song, co-written by Johnny Marr of The Smiths, as the music nerds among you will know.  If you’ve never see Billy Bragg live, you have missed a treat. I suspect this will be back on his setlist.

I wonder if they are playing Sexuality out at FOI where Gary and I once did quite a bit of teaching. They will be working their socks off just now!

You are middle old Father William

Remember Lewis Carroll’s poem, You are old, Father William, from Alice in Wonderland?  Here’s the ever-wonderful They might be giants to jog your memory.

Nowadays, at least in the research world, Aged Bill is no longer just old. He is either young old, middle old or old old.

We discovered this when proofreading a paper on the elderly and falls for the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Karolinska Institute. Thanks to the greying of society, greater life expectancy and a far larger number of senior citizens, old is far too imprecise a term. Old age is now divided up into the three categories mentioned above. In Europe the subgroups are divided as follows: young old (60 to 69 years), the middle old (70 to 79 years), and the very old (80 years and older). In the USA, that land of eternal youth, young old starts at 65 and you aren’t old old until you reach 85.

It’s not just among the elderly that new sub-groups are developing. Until the 1950s there were children and adults. Then along came teenagers, adolescents empowered by post-war affluence and the widespread availability (at least in the USA) of cars in which they could go courting. No more dinner at home in the parlour with the parents for young couples. Now there’s a new group: tweenagers. Pre-adolescent children aged 10 – 13. In Kulturhuset, Stockholm they even have their own section of the libary: Tio – tretton. No adults or kids of other ages admitted.

What would Shakespeare make of all this?  In his As you like it there is a wonderful speech about the Seven Ages of Man.

We can still recognise the schoolboy  “creeping like snail unwillingly to school.” But the Bard would need to add at least four or five new ages to make the speech reflect our times.





Sisu meets lagom



Gary Watson learnt  a new Finnish word this week: sisu. It sums up the Finnish national character and is extremely difficult to translate. Guts, perseverance, courage, sheer bloody-mindedness. The Finns have one of the most difficult languages on the planet in which they take great, almost perverse, pride. Learning Finnish certainly takes a lot of sisu!

I felt he needed it as he had the assignment of explaining Swedish business culture to a Finnish chap from Turku who is relocating to Stockholm with his family. A few times a year, we get jobs like this for an American company, Casus, who specialise in helping ex- pats who are moving to a new country to get settled in. Normally it’s for someone who has scarcely set foot in Sweden. Explaining Sweden to a Finn is a completely different kettle of fish. Two countries with a common history and many similarities but also a lot of subtle differences.

I stumbled across this excellent article about sisu which refers to it as “the Finnish stiff upper lip” which was an interesting variation. An excellent read!

Finland was a province of Sweden until the Napoleonic wars, after which it became a Russian protectorate. It achieved independence in 1917. As a “young” country, it has a lot to be proud of. My personal favourites include:

Tove Jansson – creator of Mummintroll and the writer of several other fine novels for adults

Nokia – the rubber company that became world leaders on the mobile phone market

Ari Kaurismäki –  the wonderfully distinctive , hilarious and extremely Finnish film director

Lordi – the metal band that achieved the impossible and won Eurovision for Finland.
Untranslatable words that sum up a national character is a fascinating topic. Lagom (just right – Swedish), hiraeth (homesickness tinged with regret – Welsh), saudade (melancholy – Portuguese), Sehnsucht (longing- German), mono no aware ( awareness of transcience – Japanese) and duende (a magic feeling in response to a work of art – Spanish).

Guaranteed to get a conversation started with someone who speaks that language.

Bubbly, vivacious, entertaining, inspiring

Space scientist and TV presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock really knows how to give a speech.

One much-appreciated service that we provide at Watson Language, is giving people who are going to give a speech or presentation the chance to have a “dress rehearsal.” It always help to get some feedback prior to an important piece of public seaking. Particularly if it’s in a foreign language. Coaching on pronunciation, grammatical accuracy and pacing  do  a lot to boost confidence.

But at the end of the day, it’s getting your message across that matters. The odd mistake here and there is unlikely to impede that.

Maggie is a marvelous role model for any speaker, Personal,  engaging and rather humorous. Very uplifting for any kids who are having self-conidence issues. The story of how she conquered her dyslexia, largely through her love of science would inspire anyone.

My son is dyslexic, so school can be pretty heavy going for him, despite having very caring, inspiring teachers who are really looking out for him.  So fellow dyslexic, Ms Aderin, was a real breath of fresh air.

A well-known fígure in the UK, she was recently a guest on the very popular Desert Island Discs. Her first piece of music? One of Van Morrison’s best songs: Moondance!

Krakel Spektakel, yummy mummies and Foxy Knoxy

Lennart Helsing is a Swedish national treasure. Written in the spirit of Edward Lear, his wonderful children’s books have delighted many generations of kids. There’s even a new film based on his work.

Anglophile Helsing understands how much children love to play with words and is wonderfully inventive with language. The names of his characters say it all: Håkan Bråkan, Krakel Spektakel etc.

The technical term for rhyming doubles like this is reduplicative phrases. And English speakers love them even though very few us know that term. Used all the time, our language is choc-a-bloc with them:

pub grub, hanky panky, hoity toity, Delhi belly, higgledy piggledy, culture vulture, pow wow, jet set, slo mo, airy fairy, namby pamby etc

Expressions like riff raff and mish mash have been around since Shakespeare’s time. And we are constantly inventing new ones: flower power, pooper scooper, yummy mummy etc.

Some of these phrases are rich in meaning.  A yummy mummy is far more than a good looking mum. It’s a woman who despite having small children, is always immaculately dressed in designer clothes and has perfect make up. It’s definitely slightly pejorative. The revenge of all those other mums who don’t have nannies and a rich husband.

Reduplicatives are very popular for nicknames which tend to stick. President Nixon will always be Tricky Dicky. And consider the case of Amanda Knox, the American woman at the centre of the much publicized murder case in Perugia. A journalist coined the nickname Foxy Knoxy and suddenly the media of the world had a peg on which to hang all their comments about her bohemian lifestyle. She must be cursing that hack.  She’s Foxy Knoxy for the rest of her life now.