I am become a nervous boat!

I am become a nervous boat!

This is just to illustrate the perils of attempting to compose a letter in English, with the aid of never so weighty and prestigious an English dictionary, when English is not your first language. The same would apply to any other language, of course.

It’s a line from an anguished letter sent by a postgraduate Agronomy (or was it Food Science?) student in America. I remember it now, the ultra-thin prison notepaper, the raggedy scrawl…

I was working at an agricultural college at the time, and the department I worked in specialised in postgraduate distance learning courses – similar to the Open University but for agricultural subjects only. This particular student was a long-term prisoner in an American jail – I seem to remember Elk Creek or Moose Gulley or Buffalo Gulch. He was studying because he was allowed to, and perhaps also to maintain his sanity during a long incarceration.

It struck me as odd at the time that anyone who already had an agricultural degree of some sort, as he must have done to gain entry to a postgraduate course, should have ended up in that hell hole in Moose Gulley, Buffalo Gulch or whatever in the first place. I don’t know what crime he committed. He was never asked. At the time I hoped against hope that he wasn’t on Death Row. Nobody enquired about that, either.

Poor chap, his most recent batch of study materials had failed to reach him. Someone inside the jail had stolen them, he was convinced. And he was desperate. Exams were coming up. Kind ladies, I know not what to do, he wrote. I am become a nervous boat!

Dictionary Dip and Doodles

When I was young I used to play a solitary game, or rather the solitary game seemed to play me. It was called Dictionary Dip and I actually thought it was a proper game, but it doesn’t pop up on Google so I guess I must have invented it.

You see, I just wrote  ‘…I used to play a solitary game, or rather the solitary seemed to play me…’ and now in my head I can hear someone singing, and now I know it’s John Lennon, and now I know it’s

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me…

That’s the kind of thing that happens all the time. It gets on my nerves sometimes. Sometimes I feel I’m just a kind of engine, and words are my fuel. The trouble is that words are not discrete; they run into one another like liquid. In the end, I believe, there is just one word, containing all the others, and in the end I might know it. I wrote that, and then I wondered what on earth I meant by it, and then I heard:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Have I gone all religious all of a sudden? No, I think I mean a Something Else, a Something even bigger than God. But then the meanings converge and overlay one another, like coloured acetates, and I wonder whether I do in fact mean God, or whether God means the Something Else. This is the way I think, on paper. Unfortunately thinking is not communicating, so back to Dictionary Dip.

I was lucky in having access to dictionaries – big dictionaries, not the useless pocket kind; lucky also in being a solitary child who made her own amusements. Other amusements were available; I just wasn’t all that interested. I remember a deck of cards, and my father teaching us to play something called Sevens, the rules of which kept falling out of my head, much to his disgust. I remember toy tanks made out of cotton reels, matchsticks, wax candle and elastic bands. Those were quite fun. You could race them, like snails. Kinder than snails. I remember endless, dull buildings in something called Sticklebricks – and Snakes and Ladders, or more specifically the colour of the board and the devious forked-tongue flickering expressions on the faces of the Snakes, but my sister kept cheating at that. We played Hangman sometimes – something to do with trying to reconstruct a mystery word before the scaffold was completed. By the way, did you know Hangman is known as Galgenmännchen in German? Galgen is gallows, so I am guessing Galgenmännchen means Little Hanging Man. We played noughts and crosses, but that was too easy. We played ‘I Spy’ but that was far too easy, and besides my sister always came up with something silly that nobody in their right mind could have guessed.

I found Dictionary Dip all the more absorbing because I would never set out to play it. I’d look up one new word, but in the definition I’d find another new word. So then of course I had to look up the second word. And then it gave a Greek word, or a Latin word that that word had come from. So what did that mean? And then having found out what that meant, I’d remember other words that had the same bit of Greek or Latin (or Middle French, or Anglo-Saxon English) in them, and then the words would all line up in my head, in an array, and I’d see how they were connected. If somebody asks me how to spell something, I read it. There it is, somewhere behind my left eye; I just look. If somebody asks me to define a word, I don’t get a nice neat definition – well I do, but along with it I get reverberations, associations, etymology. There it is all around me – or there I am, within it – like a fog.

If only it could have worked that way with maths I might have been spared many a tormented hour being invisible at the back of the class whilst drawing pictures in my rough book of what I imagined an ouzel bird might look like, and right-facing profiles – couldn’t do left – and endless loopy daisies with coloured-in middles and little stalks, with two leaves each.

I did at one point get urban slang emailed to me. It wasn’t that I thought I’d ever use such words, but I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on anything. But after a while I realised urban slang was so ephemeral and often – let’s face it – so crude and show-offy – that there was no great enjoyment to be had from it. However, I do still collect new words of the more mainstream variety.

I just found a list of new word entries for the Oxford English Dictionary, and here are a random five that caught my eye:


Now, this one just illustrates the dangers of assuming you know what something means. Looking at Comedogenic I would have assumed it was related to Schizophrenogenic – a now more or less taboo term among psychiatrists meaning a mother, or family dynamic, likely to trigger schizophrenia in susceptible individuals – and so would mean anything likely to give rise to comedy. But no, it means tending to cause blackheads and is related to comedone, which is a kind of pimple. Eurgh!


Free-climbing a route, while lead climbing, after having practiced the route beforehand, either by hangdogging or top roping. (Hangdogging? Top roping?) This word apparently comes from the German Rotpunkt, which goes back to a gentleman called Kurt Albert in the mind-1970s, who painted a red X on any fixed pin that he could avoid using. This was probably the way free-climbing movement began.


Is another name for the Jerusalem Artichoke.


Is a chef’s cutting technique for leafy green vegetables. You seem to have to roll or stack them tightly, then slice them, which gives little curly strips. Doesn’t work well with narrow-leaved things like coriander, parsley or rosemary. Chiffon is the French word for rags or ribbons. In English it refers to a particular type of lightweight material. Chiffonade, therefore means Little Rags or Little Ribbons, which is what the chiffonaded leaves look like.

Graffiti Knitting

Also known as Yarnstorming or Guerilla Knitting, this is ‘ the art of conjuring up a piece of knitting or crochet, taking it out into the world, releasing it into the wild, and running away like a mad thing’. So knitting escapes from old ladies’ front rooms and down beside the sofa, and instead festoons phone boxes, statues, trees and such. I quite like this idea. It’s obviously a form of art, no less valid and a good deal less unpleasant than half-a-sheep in formaldehyde or ‘our Tracey’s’ unmade bed. However, so time-consuming and so – ultimately – pointless. For me, Graffiti Knitting, whilst admirable, would have to be placed in the same category as mushroom-stuffing.

(Life is too short to stuff a mushroom – Shirley Conran, 1975)

Which just gave me an idea for another post.