Mont Blanc: A magnet for wackos

The word of the day is wacko, kindly brought to you by the Mayor of Chamonix.

So, what’s a wacko? It’s certainly not complimentary. The French equivalent is hurluberlus, a term Mayor Jean-Marc Peillex used to describe some of the climbers that set off from Chamonix to climb Mont Blanc.

He is urging President Emmanuel Macron to stop wackos, crackpots and oddballs from climbing the mountain, after a British tourist carried a rowing machine up the mountain to raise money for charity.

Yes, a rowing machine (machine à ramer).

Unfortunately, the Brit didn’t have the energy to descend with the rowing machine. At the time of writing it’s sitting in a refuge on the mountain, a few hundred metres below the summit.  The man gave his name as Matthew Disney which prompted the far-from-amused Mayor to write in his open letter to President Macron:

“… with a name like that, you’d think he thought he was at an amusement park,”

He’s not the only Mont Blanc wacko. The mayor also cited a German tourist who recently made the ascent with his dog despite promising that he would leave the dog at a refuge before attempting the summit. But no, the tourist and his best friend headed for the top in the middle of the night. It survived, but returned with injuries, according to photos posted on Peillex’s Twitter account.

The mayor also cited two Swiss climbers, keen to conserve energy, who landed a small plane, near the summit and then hiked to the top.

He wants Macron to “write and pass laws without delay that from 2020 would severely punish all these wackos who break the law, and restore peace to Mont Blanc”.

Each year the mountain attracts about 20,000 climbing parties. Thousands of climbers have died on the 4,808 metre-high mountain. It is the deadliest mountain in Europe. Over a three-day period in 2012, Mont Blanc claimed the lives of 11 climbers.

So, what’s a wacko? It’s American English and dates back to the early seventies.

If you are a bit of a wacko, you might be eccentric, odd, a little obsessed, a bit bizarre. But a total wacko is someone that is crazy, crackers, unhinged, unbalanced, daft, demented, bonkers and barmy. You’ve properly got the picture.

There seem to be more and more wackos in the world, not just on Mont Blanc. The internet spawns wackos. Wackos love conspiracy theories. Religious wackos dream of having their own cults. Wackos don’t mix well with guns. General advice: Keep away from wackos.

The word wacko comes from the adjective wacky which means a little crazy, funny or amusing in a bizarre or peculiar way.

You can have a wacky sense of humour or a wacky or eccentric dress style. This can be quite refreshing and not at all negative.  It doesn’t mean you are a wacko. Take for example, the wacky inventor in Hollywood movies who is often quite odd, but quite sharp.

The verb whack means to hit somebody/something very hard.

She whacked the thief with her hand-bag.

Federer whacked the ball over the net.

Some etymologists (word historians) say that the word wacko comes from whack; you become a wacko when you’ve been whacked too many times in the head.

Arguably, you have to be a bit of a wacko to climb dangerous mountains.

The first man to climb Mont Blanc was a 26-year-old crystal and chamois hunter named Jacques Balmat. He didn’t have a rowing machine. Instead he told his wife he was off to hunt for crystals. He filled his gourd with brandy, got a piece of bread, and set off. He didn’t get very far the first time.

Three weeks later, on August 8, 1786 he joined another hiker, a French village doctor named Michel Paccard, and with more brandy and a spot of good weather they both reached the top. The feat was rewarded with cash and honour.

The man perhaps the most obsessed by the mountain at this time was the Geneva aristocrat, scientist, inventor and explorer Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. He was fascinated with the geology and botany of the Alps. He tried many times to scale the mountain.

He finally offered a reward to anyone who could scale the mountain and then help him reach the top.

The mountain was soon crawling with would be mountaineers, much like today. Balmat and Paccard were the first and received the prize. A year later, de Saussure finally realised his dream. Along with his valet and 18 guides (led by Balmat) and some heavy scientific equipment, which was left at base camp, he conquered the mountain.

It seems every man and his dog, and rowing machine, want to follow in his footsteps.



Donald Trump says he now wants to buy Switzerland

Donald Trump says he now wants to buy Switzerland.

After his offer to buy the Arctic island of Greenland was soundly rejected, the real estate mogul, golf player, connoisseur of fast food and US president says he’d now like a little alpine territory. He told reporters:

“It’s essentially a small real estate deal. Switzerland is not as large as Greenland. A small deal. Tiny. Smaller than little Marco. My hands are bigger than Switzerland. The price will be cheap. A give-away. Dirt cheap. They should give it to me. It’s a tremendous deal. I make the best deals. They make the best cheese.

“I mean Swiss cheese has holes in it. Holes-in-one cheese. They’re smart the Swiss. Really smart, like me. You pay for the holes in the cheese. Can you believe it? Hole-in-one cheese. Tremendous people. No-one likes the Swiss more than me. Great cheese. I just get holes-in-one. Like the cheese. Smart people.

“It’ll be cheap. Too many mountains. Up and down, up and down. No golf courses on mountains. The ball rolls off. Up and down, up and down. Nothing flat. No golf. Zilch! I think that’s a Swiss word, isn’t it? I was a brilliant student of Swiss at school… Top of the class. I could speak Swedish fluently. Best student ever.

“You don’t pay for mountains. And no snow. It’s all turning to water that little girl keeps telling us. What’s her name?  Grunta? She wrote me a lovely letter. Like a love letter. Really lovely. Tremendous. I remember she said : Donald there will be no more snow. No apres-ski! None of those little cheese cubes. Remember them? In a bowl. Swiss cheese. Delicious. Better to sell now to the Donald. No snow, no golf. Zilch! See I’m fluent. Best student ever. My teachers all said that. It’ll be all gone soon. It’s finito. Just mountains. No more snow at Davidoff with Vlad. Yep, holes in cheese and no snow and cuckold clocks. No golf courses. Bircher muesli. It’s Swedish. That’s not Coco Pops. You know what I mean?” he told reporters.

Trump said he had fond memories of Switzerland as a young man.

“Ursula Undress! Oh Ursula! Class! The best of the Bond girls. We bonded. Great bikini. Bonds underpants. I still wear them. Must be related. What a woman. Ursula Undress. What a sexy name. Yes, undress Ursula. I’ve always loved Switzerland. Great people. I love them. Too cold in Switzerland for bikinis. Dangerous eh? Who knows?

“I should have been Bond. They wanted me for Bond. They asked me. They were gonna pay me millions. Trump Bond. Great underpants. Comfortable.

“I woulda been a tremendous Bond. Moore was a nancy. Connery didn’t speak English. No-one could understand him. Trump for Bond. Trump Bond, they said. They wanted me for it. Connery was hairy like an ape.

“Chocolate fondus with Ursula. Yep, I would have a chocolate fondu with Ursula. Delicious. Hugh used to have them. And cheese in the bowls. She wanted to go out with me. She was a Trump girl… Believe me!  Connery was a loser. Couldn’t understand a word,

“They wanted me to direct the film. No-one could do it better. Believe me, it was a deal. You know she kept ringing me up. Yeah, I like Switzerland. Tremendous people. Great deal. It’s essentially a small real estate deal. I would’ve been the best Bond. He was so hairy.”





22 trillion dollars is a lot of broken tables

The word bankrupt literally means broken table.

It comes from two Italian words; bancus (table or bench) and ruptus (broken). If a Roman trader was unable to meet their debts or their business practices were unscrupulous, their trading table would be broken – a clear sign for all.

In the New Testament, Jesus also vandalised some tables in a temple. He found that the money changers and the dove (colombe) sellers not so much financially bankrupt, but morally and spiritually bankrupt.

The Old Testament says bankruptcy and debt were often forgiven every 50 years; an event known as the Jubilee or Holy Year. According to the book of Leviticus; slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven and the mercies of God would be in abundance.

The Greeks weren’t so forgiving. If a man owed a debt that he was unable to pay, his entire family ­including any servants he owned became debt slaves. Today bonded or debt labour is the most widely used method of enslaving people around the world.


A fantastic and grotesque story about debt and forgiveness concerns the Creech tribe of Sumatra. It’s a brilliant story to impress dinner guests, but best told between dishes. Travel writer Paul Theroux in his book of anthropological fiction Unspeakable Rituals describes the Creech people as violent, quarrelsome, and in general, not very nice. But he says they have one unique tribal tradition.

Instead of complicated debt laws the Creech have a Memory Man. The Memory Man receives his title at birth. He possesses the entire memory of the tribe, and may spend as much as a week, day and night, reciting their genealogies, property, debts and activities

The Memory Man receives his title at birth.

He possesses the entire memory of the tribe, and

may spend as much as a week, day and night,

reciting their genealogies, property,

debts and activities.

Theroux writes:

When a dispute arises the Memory Man settles it, because he knows what really happened. He knows all the secrets, debts, lies, infidelities and crimes.

After thirty years have passed and he is old by Creech standards – shrunken, wrinkled, probably toothless, probably losing his memory – a meeting is convened. The Memory Man recites the whole of the Creech history (or as much of it as he can remember) and at the conclusion he is put to death. He is then barbecued and eaten by every member of the tribe, in a ritual known as the ceremony of purification.

Nothing is left. The tribe has literally lost its memory, and they embark on a huge, orgiastic celebration of love and happiness and freedom – the best freedom of all, which is freedom from the past.

In England, before the Bankruptcy Act of 1869, debtors and often their families were routinely imprisoned, sometimes for decades. Most European countries limited imprisonment for debt to one year, but debtors in England were imprisoned until their creditors were reimbursed. When the Fleet Prison closed in 1842, some debtors were found to have been there for 30 years.

The English writer Charles Dickens wrote extensively about the infamous debtors’ prisons in his novels. Dickens’ father was sent to the Marshalsea Prison on the River Thames because of a debt to a baker. Young Charles was forced to leave school and start work at the age of 12 to support his family.


Hospital for men at Marshalsea Prison

A parliamentary committee reported in 1729 that 300 inmates starved to death in the prison over a three-month period, and that eight to ten prisoners were dying every 24 hours in the warmer weather.

Dickens was haunted by his experience. He later wrote:

My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation…that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.


Artist’s impression of a 12-year-old Charles Dickens sent to work to support his family in debtor’s prison

Today in the USA corporate world, bankruptcy (better known as Chapter 11) is a well-used form of debt restructuring when business goes sour.

Donald Trump’s empire of hotels and casinos are valued in the hundreds of millions. In 1991, 1992, 2004, and again in 2009, Trump-branded companies or properties were declared bankrupt and sought Chapter 11 protection.  Many companies, such as General Motors, United Airlines and retail outlet K-mart have filed for Chapter 11, but managed to stay afloat.

Debt is one of the cornerstones of capitalism. The US debt is now about 22 trillion dollars. It’s an inconceivable amount. It is written like this – $22,000,000,000,000. About 75 per cent of Americans are in debt when they die.  The average debt is about $66,000. A staggering 80 per cent of Americans are in some kind of debt; student debt, housing debt, medical debt, credit cart and card debt.

In contrast, thrifty Switzerland prefers a surplus and has the lowest debt to GDP ratio in Europe.

The National Debt Clock in New York is an electronic billboard which constantly updates the current United States gross national debt and each American family’s share of the debt.  The clock was modified in 2008 when the debt and its many zeros outgrew the billboard.


So, what does $20 trillion dollars all stacked up in crisp 100-dollar bills look like. Would it fill a swimming pool or a football stadium?   This what it looks like. It’s bigger than the extended Godzilla family, and it is still growing. It will be just as difficult to tame.




The grotesque Swiss export which conquered the planet

The truth shall be written in sans serif bold. And the truth is that the greatest Swiss export is NOT chocolate, medicine, gold or watches, and certainly not cuckoo clocks.

The Swiss export that has permeated every pore of this planet is something quite grotesque. Yes, grotesk!  It’s everywhere. It’s on your desk, on your bedside table, in your telephone, on your computer screen, in your children’s room, in your lounge, in the street, in your favorite shops and on your walls. It’s even been into space.

It’s the subject of a documentary. In fact, you are looking at it right now.

Lufthansa, Microsoft, Skype, Panasonic, Harley-Davidson, Toyota, NASA and Nestlé identify with it.

For most of us, it is invisible.

For a select group it’s cult-worshipped.

For most of us, it is invisible. For a select group it’s cult-worshipped. For these believers, it is the essence of clarity, simplicity and neutrality.

They say: It is like water; essential and everywhere.

It was born in 1957 and christened Neue Haas Grotesk. Today it is better known as Helvetica or Helvetica Bold. (It was given the Latin name for Switzerland in 1960, which comes from the Celtic Helvetii people who first lived in this area around 100 B.C.)

The typeface Helvetica was developed by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann at the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, near Basel. It is the most successful and lauded typeface since Johannes Gutenberg introduced the first printing press in 1439.

Helvetica, according to many type and design epicureans, is the font to die for. It is the benchmark and the gold standard of typefaces. In the 70s, 80s and 90s it was the preferred tool of international capitalism and managed to glide almost seamlessly into the digital age.

It’s the subject of a documentary.

In fact, you are looking at it right now.

Earlier this year Helvetica announced the impending pitter-patter of little font. Helvetica Now was born.

This is how the birth was announced:


In an era of continuously updated and enhanced products, it’s worth noting that Helvetica Now is the first new full-blooded Helvetica offspring in 35 years. Its parents were from the pre-digital age, which for many in the field of design, media and advertising is an epoch somewhere nearer to the Jurassic Age.

So why this sudden rush of fertility?

Helvetica is being abandoned by large companies. They have decided to develop their own bespoke fonts. Google has ditched Helvetica for its own Roboto font. Apple has built a new font called San Francisco and CNN now has its own CNN Sans.

It seems we have reached peak Helvetica. Or is it the death of Helvetica?

The irony is, that for someone like me, and maybe you who is relatively design-illiterate, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between Helvetica and tailor-made company version.

But company accountants know the difference. For massive companies like IBM it is expensive to license the font. It’s cheaper and more brand sensitive to manage your own font. It’s now also fashionable.

Helvetica documentary trailer:





How King Louis XIV’s bottom propelled surgery into the modern age

Next time you have an abscess removed or your haemorrhoids treated, please spare a thought for one Charles-Francois Felix. I am sure it will make you feel much better.

Monsieur Felix, a barber-surgeon from Avignon performed one extraordinary operation. It changed the face of surgery, and thankfully for Monsieur Felix and his family, the royal bottom of King Louis XIV. 

King Louis’ derriere first came to prominence on January 15, 1685 when the royal physicians discovered a slight swelling in the anal area. They noted this abnormality in the delicate regions in their daily record of the king’s health, a document that was widely circulated and discussed in detail throughout the court of Versailles and beyond.

By February 18, an abscess had formed, and by May 2 a nasty anal fistula appeared.

Enemas, compressions, lotions and blood-letting were the mainstay treatments of the day. None worked. The king couldn’t ride or sit comfortably on the throne, or in fact anywhere. He was suffering from a most royal pain in the butt.

Personal hygiene was almost non-existent. The Church had proclaimed that bathing led to immorality, promiscuous sex and disease. King Louis XIV is said to have only bathed twice in lifetime. He found bathing a disturbing act, as did Queen Isabel I of Spain who also confessed to having only two baths; on the day of her birth and the day of her marriage.

The king sweated profusely and according to records changed his shirts three times during the day and night. Despite the powdered wigs, the heavy perfumes and the sachets of scented herbs concealed in clothing, the royal presence in the Palace of Versailles could often be smelt before it was heard.

A Russian ambassador to France noted that His Majesty Louis XIV “stunk like a wild animal”.

As Patrick Süskind writes in the marvellous first chapter of the book Perfume:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter.

But back to the king’s bum… In desperation the king and his royal doctors sent for the hero of our story, barber-surgeon Charles-Francois Felix.

Barber-surgeons were barbers by profession who also performed blood-letting, teeth extraction, and other minor operations. Physicians rarely cut into a living human body. This job was left to barber-surgeons. One can only imagine the mix of stress, panic, duty and honour that swept through Monsieur Felix when presented with the derriere of the Sun King and a royal decree to cut open, operate and cure the king.

He wisely asked for six months to prepare the operation. Under royal patronage he procured about 75 men from the prisons and countryside; many of them, at least at that point in time, in relatively good health. He then went to work; cutting and slicing, on average three operations per week, of course with no anesthesia and no antibiotics. Many didn’t survive. With each bloody operation he developed and refined two surgical instruments for his royal rendezvous with fate.

His tools of trade can be inspected at Versailles today; the royally-curved scalpel, and the royal retractor, of which the less said, the better.

 On November 18, 1686, at 7 am, Monsieur Felix operated on the king. Present were Madame de Maintenon, (Louis’ mistress whom he later married), his son the Dauphin, his confessor, his physicians, and his Minister of State.

As Monsieur Felix wielded his scalpel he may well have thought of the king’s favorite playwright Molière, whose character Beralde in Le Malade Imaginaire observes:

Medicine is only for those who are fit enough to survive the treatment as well as the illness.

The operation lasted three hours. It was well-documented. Towards the end the King, undoubtedly in agony, turned to Monsieur Felix and asked:

Est-ce fait, messieurs? Achevez et ne me traitez pas en roi ; je veux guérir comme si j’étais un paysan.

(Is it done, gentlemen? Finish and do not treat me as a king; I want to heal as if I were a peasant)

The operation was a success. The king was sitting up in bed within a month and was back on his horse within three months.

The royal court which was privy to the smallest detail of the operation was delirious with joy. Fistulas were fashionable and something to be celebrated. The more devoted courtiers developed fake fistulas and took to wearing swathes of bandages around their buttocks, known as le royale, in homage to the king’s bandaged rear end.

The even more fanatical royal devotees demanded the same operation from brave Monsieur Felix. Monsieur Felix did not pick up his famed royal scalpel again. He received money, lands and a title for his handiwork.

The operation gave a new-found respectability to surgery. It helped propel surgery and medicine in general out of the Middle Ages. In 1731, the king’s grandson, Louis XV opened the Royal Academy of Surgery, now known as the National Academy of Surgery.


The strange and bloody story of Teddy Bear. It’s not a picnic.

He was one of our first and most intimate friends and confidantes.

He shared our deepest secrets. We held him tightly in our arms at night and during the day he lay patiently on our pillows, awaiting our return. His name was Teddy; Teddy Bear.

Soft, serene, glass-eyed Teddy. We were inseparable. But where did you come from? Why Teddy Bear? Why not Agatha Bear or Bertrand Bear? Why a bear? Why not Teddy Tiger or Teddy Mouse?

I will enlighten you. But let me first warn you that the truth is often more a cactus than a soft toy. Teddy Bear is named after a US president. Let me assure you, immediately, without drawing breath or lifting a finger from my keyboard, that your teddy is of no relation, none whatsoever, to that narcissistic man-child that now occupies the White House. Relax. Let’s continue…

Your Teddy Bear’s bloodline can be traced back to the 26th president of the United States from 1901 to 1909; Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt, like the 45th, had skeletons in his cupboard. Indeed, thousands of skeletons, and furs, and horns, and antlers, and other and bits and pieces of animal anatomy.

Teddy the president was addicted to guns and killing animals. He celebrated the end of his presidency in 1909 with a 12-month hunting trip to Africa with his son Kermit. They killed more than 512 animals. Their tally included 29 zebras, 28 rhinoceroses, 17 elephants, eight hippopotamuses, nine giraffes, nine tigers, 17 lions and 17 gazelles and hundreds of birds.

The hunt was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and many of the animals were sent to the US to be stuffed and mounted in museums.

Roosevelt nurtured his image as the American frontiersman and hunter and was also celebrated as an animal conservationist.  He established national parks and sanctuaries to conserve the animals, mainly for his favourite sport; hunting. In his own words, he said: Hunting made our veins thrill. Yes, it was a very different epoch. One writer later noted: No other president has killed, or saved, as many animals.

In 1901, on a 10-day hunting trip in Mississippi, the president was keen to shoot a bear. His enthusiastic team chased an old black bear into a watering hole. Cornered by hunting dogs, the bear swiped several with its paws, killing one. The bear was bashed and tied to a tree ready for the president to take aim.

Roosevelt refused to shoot the injured and bloody bear. He said it would be unsportsmanlike and instead the bear was knifed to death by two other hunters.

It was certainly no picnic.

Washington Post cartoonist Clifford K. Berryman recreated the scene, or at least a sanatised version of it. Roosevelt is dressed in full rough-rider uniform, with his back to a frightened, cute and tiny young bear. The cartoon caption, Drawing the Line in Mississippi, was a double-entendre of Roosevelt’s hunting code and his criticism of the rampant lynching of black Americans in the South. His political opponent in the state had recently declared: If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.

The cartoon inspired Rose Michtom, a Russian immigrant who ran a penny store in Brooklyn, New York with her husband. Rose made the first Teddy Bear out of plush velvet, and the next morning, the Michtoms placed “Teddy’s bear” in their store display window.

That day, more than a dozen people asked if they could buy the bear. The Michtoms mailed the original to the president as a gift for his children and asked if they could use his name for the bear. Roosevelt consented and rest is history. The Michtoms closed their penny store and made their fortune with the first stuffed teddy bear factory.

A good year for gherkins and tulips

You won’t find the world’s largest gherkin (cornichon) in a carnotzet in the Valais. It’s in London.

Ask any local: Where’s the gherkin? and they will point you in the direction of the East End, once a down-trodden, working-class area of inner London.

This cornichon géant is 180 metres high and has 41 floors. It has always had strong links with Switzerland. The Gherkin was commissioned by Swiss Re, the insurance giant, which today occupies half the building’s offices.

The building was originally named after its address, 30 St Mary Axe, but once the droll Brits laid eyes on it, The Gherkin was born. It’s a name not out of place in a skyline that features The Cheese Grater, the Walkie Talkie and The Shard.

The Gherkin is now owned by banker Joseph Safra, head of the J. Safra Group, which owns the Geneva-based private bank, Bank J Safra Sarasin.

Mr Safra is not an architecturally shy man. He commissioned Norman Foster, the architect/designer of The Gherkin, to design another botanical skyscraper to be planted right next to his gherkin in his East End garden plot.

You may ask yourself: What would complement a gherkin and a cheese grater in a garden of metal, concrete and glass?

The answer, in this case, is a tulip. Yes, plans for the The Tulip, a fantastic 305-metre-high flower tower, are currently being scrutinised by London planning authorities. The Tulip, if approved, will grow to the height of London’s tallest building, the impressive The Shard (éclat de verre).

The Tulip is amazing. It’s already iconic and the seed, or should I say bulb, has only just been planted. It is as controversial as it is high. Depending on your cultural sensibilities, The Tulip is a giant cotton bud (un coton-tige), a penis-in-the-sky (not an unusual description of a skyscraper), a cocktail cornichon on a very long toothpick, science fiction art come-to-life or simply an extraordinary piece of architecture that will be the flower of London’s skyline.

You can judge for yourself from this video, which would not be out-of-place in the opening scene of Star Wars Episode 11.

The Tulip is not for office space. It is an elaborate viewing tower, which seems to be a must-have for all self-respecting world cities nowadays. It will offer a popular high for millions of the planet’s tourists. Everything happens in the flower. The concrete stem (tige) supports a 12-storey glass bubble or flower which will be filled with bars, restaurants and a viewing gallery. It is also being touted as a free educational facility open to the school students, which may boost its chances of getting final approval.

Popular opinion seems to be blowing in the flower’s favour. In a recent survey, most Londoners said they were happy to see a tulip on the skyline. Spring is in the air.

You can read more on The Tulip website here.

Murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary

Great creations take time. Some take six days (with divine assistance). The grandest of human handiwork can take a lifetime or two.

The Taj Mahal and the great pyramid of Giza both took about 20 years of blood, sweat, death and toil.  But not all great works are so massive in scale. Some, like Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, can fit on a bookshelf.

The 12-volume New English Dictionary, later known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was expected to take just 10 years to compile and publish.

Work began in 1857, but after just five years it had barely crawled past ambitious to reach the word ant. It was finally published in 1928. It took 70 long years to create this esteemed guide to the English language.

A third edition of the dictionary (OED3), is expected to be completed in 2037 at a projected cost of about £34 million. This online version, directed by the eighth OED editor, will never sit on a bookshelf.

The OED will always be a work in progress. After all, it is the foremost guide to the planet’s most successful living language which remains in ruddy health today. One day, it may well be viewed as the greatest legacy of the British empire.

But let’s go back to the first edition. Its guiding philosophy was to gather text and quotations to illustrate every meaning, sense and nuance, as well as the history of a particular word. The OED is an historical dictionary.

This prodigious project called on volunteers world-wide to send in their research. This early form of crowd-sourcing attracted dozens of amateur and professional lexicographers and philologists including J J R Tolkien (The Hobbit), who worked on words from waggle to warlock, and his good friend C S Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia).

One prolific amateur contributor was Doctor W C Minor who corresponded with the OED’s primary editor, Sir James Murray, every week for 25 long years.

He contributed more than 10,000 words to the dictionary. The doctor was a mystery. He gave his address as Crowthorne, about 60 kms west of London, but refused countless times to meet with Sir James and his dictionary colleagues. Finally, an exasperated Sir James wrote to Dr Minor:

“You and I have known each other through correspondence for fully 17 years, and it is a sad fact that we have never met. I have long wanted to meet you, and may I perhaps suggest that I come visit you. If this is convenient, perhaps you might suggest a day and train, and if convenient for me I will telegraph the time of my expected arrival.”

A report of the meeting, (a little exaggerated), was later published in a Chicago newspaper as follows:

“When Sir James arrived at the hospital in Crowthorne he was taken to the director’s office and announced: “I, Sir, am Dr James Murray of the London Philological Society and editor of the New English Dictionary. And you, sir, must be Dr William Minor. At long last. I am most deeply honoured to meet you.”

There was a pause. Then the other man replied:

“I regret not sir. I am the Superintendent of The Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Dr Minor is an American and one of our longest serving inmates. He committed a murder. He is quite insane.”

The newspapers loved the story. The headlines ran: American Murderer helped write Oxford Dictionary.

What happened to this American doctor? How did he end up in a British asylum writing the Oxford Dictionary?

Dr Minor was a gifted young army surgeon on the confederate side during the American Civil War. His first action (and his last) was the terrible Battle of Wilderness in Virginia where 27,000 men died during three days of fighting. The trauma of war destroyed him. Minor’s behaviour changed dramatically. He became increasingly paranoid, began drinking heavily, and was often ill.

He suffered paranoid delusions and was discharged and sent to an asylum. A few years later he was released and in 1871 sailed for England and a new life. But he was never to be well again. That same year, he ran onto the street and shot dead a man he claimed had broken into his bedroom. At his trial it was revealed he had complained several times to Scotland Yard about “Irish men who were hiding in the roof and slipping through the windows” and trying to poison and sexually molest him. He was classified a criminal Lunatic; patient number 742 at Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane where he lived for most of his life.

He had two large rooms, a man-servant and a world class library. Every day he worked on the dictionary supplying thousands of quotations per year, despite horrific bouts of illness. He surgically removed his own penis by candlelight one night, convinced that he was being abducted to far away places and forced to commit sexual acts on children.

Dr Minor was the dictionary’s second most prolific amateur contributor.

Sir James Murray visited him regularly. Dr Minor’s other regular visitor was the widow of the man he murdered. Eliza Merrett was pregnant with her sixth child when the doctor murdered her husband. Dr Minor provided her with a weekly pension and in return she supplied him with books for his quotations. But that’s another heart-breaking story…

Recommended reading: This thrilling and sad linguistic tale is brilliantly retold in the book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, written by Simon Winchester.


A Layperson’s Guide to the Decline and (humiliating) Fall of the British Empire

Confused, bored, infuriated or saddened by Brexit? Perhaps, all the above. Here is a simple Brexit guide in bite-size pieces. The hard work has been done for you.  We’ve sifted through 39.7 trillion words, (some witty, some wise and some woeful), which describe the Divorce of the Century: Brittania vs Europa.

The best way to understand the gob-smacking omnishambles that is Brexit, is to compare it with something that you already know and like. Metaphors are fun. In this guide, Brexit has been simplified into categories of hobbies and interests. Choose the category that most appeals to you:

Brexit is like a cup of tea:

Everyone loves a cup of tea. None more than the British. Imagine Brexit is a peppermint tea. What about the tea bag? Do we leave it in, or do we take it out?

Heres another one for tea drinkers:

Why does Britain like tea so much? Because tea leaves.

Brexit is like a cat:

In this life, you’re either a dog or a cat person. A dog will happily lick the face of any European Union official. Brexit, of course, is a cat; a pathologically, self-centred creature.

Nathalie Loiseau, France’s Europe minister, said Brexit is the perfect name for a cat: It wakes me up miaowing because it wants to go out. When I open the door, its sits there, undecided. Then it looks daggers at me when I put it out.

Heres a quick one for computer geeks:

With Britain leaving the EU how much space was created? Exactly 1GB.


Brexit was like the UK got drunk and accidentally unfriended Europe on Facebook. Leo Karse, UK comedian

Brexit for film lovers:

If you like films, then you won’t have any problems understanding Brexit. All genres catered for: disaster, pathos, fantasy, comedy and black comedy. Is Brexit the greatest disaster since the Titanic?


For fans of Monty Python:

British Prime Minister Theresa May is a brave, chivalrous knight who will never, never, never give up. I have a lot of respect for Theresa May – she reminds me occasionally of that Monty Python character where all his arms and legs are cut off and then says to his opponent: lets call it a draw. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte


Game of Thrones and mythical dragons:

How the EU became a mythical dragon. A fascinating history of where Brexit came from, narrated by Stephen Fry. (11minutes)

For James Bond 007 fans:

Make a note to yourself: Take water and food supplies to the next James Bond film (out next year). It will be between 35 minutes and two hours longer than earlier Bond films. Why? Because of airport scenes of his passport being heavily scrutinised between exotic European destinations.

For Quentin Tarantino fans (lots of guns and blood and guts):

The UK has shot itself in the foot. This self-harm expression is a Brexit favourite. It means: to say or do something stupid that will cause you a lot of trouble.

This expression has been widely used by onlookers and commentators including Virgin chief Richard Branson and former head of the European central bank, Jean-Claude Trichet. The UK must be running out of feet by now. The actor Hugh Grant changed the angle of the weapon: Brexit is a fantastic example of a nation shooting itself full in the face, he said, not so cheerfully.

More suicidal tendencies:

The British government’s negotiating tactics: Unless you give me what I want I’m jumping out the window. Simon Coveney, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister

Brexit for book lovers:

Brexit is a cross between an Agatha Christie thriller and the Sex Pistols.

It’s actually pathetic and distressing for someone like me who has liked and admired Britain all his life, to watch these debates in Westminster. MPs are suggesting solutions, possibilities, that just do not exist in the real world. The Brexit process feels like some weird mix of Anarchy in the UK and one of those Agatha Christie detective stories where all the suspects are locked in a room talking to each other, with no interest in, or grasp of, what’s going on outside. André Gattolin, vice president of the French senate’s European affairs committee

For beer lovers:

Rule number one: You’ve got to pay before you leave the European Union.

If you are sitting in the bar and you are ordering 28 beers and then suddenly some of your colleagues [leave without] paying, that is not feasible. They have to pay, they have to pay. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission

What an absolutely ludicrous, incompetent, absurd, make it up as you go along, couldnt run a piss up in a brewery bunch of jokers there are running the government at the most critical time in a generation for the country. Ed Miliband, former Labour leader

Brexit and a walk in the countryside:

A gentle stroll out of Europe has become a high altitude, risk-taking venture. Avalanches to the left and blizzards to the right. Storm clouds coming in quickly…

Brexit presented the British people with a wide, straight, flat path and are now on a very difficult mountain full of curves and uncertainty. Sandro Gozi, Italy’s former European Affairs minister

Brexit for chefs and foodies:

For many, Brexit is simply indigestible: A mix of omelettes, aliens and nonsense.

Britains reputation is, theres no denying it, much diminished. Some British politicians are on another planet. Brexit is the infinitely complex diplomatic and legal equivalent of trying to take the eggs out of an omelette. Even today, they spout the most monstrous nonsense. Many have still not landed in a place one could call reality. The cognitive dissonance is remarkable. Pascal Lamy, former World Trade Organization head.

Brexit for historians:

Brexit has been bubbling below the surface in Britain for decades, if not centuries. It’s been a long time coming. Here are two takes from Yes Minister, a brilliant political satire from the 80s.

Brexit is having the right-coloured passport (just like the Swiss):

The humiliation of having a pink European Union passport will now soon be over and United Kingdom nationals can once again feel pride and self-confidence in their own nationality when travelling, just as the Swiss and Americans can do. Andrew Rosindell, Conservative MP on the possible return of the old blue British passport to replace the burgundy EU one.

Fantasy fiction, fairy tales and they all lived happily ever after:

Brexit was going to be so easy. How easy? Well this is what they said, once upon a time:

The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, April 2016.

Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy the UK holds most of the cards. John Redwood, Conservative MP, July 2016.

Coming to a free trade agreement with the EU should be one of the easiest in human history. Liam Fox, International Trade Secretary, July 2017.

What weve got to do as a government and as a parliamentary party is show we are bigger than the sum of our parts. If we take a bit more of that approach a bit more unity of purpose well get a great result out of Brexit. Well also unite the country. Dominic Raab, Departing Brexit Secretary, June 2018.



What am I? You can lose your keys and your virginity. But you can’t lose me.

What am I?

I have been around since the first modern human. I am a part of all you humans. Yes, I am a part of you too.

You can lose your keys, your temper and your virginity, but I am almost impossible to lose. If you haven’t lost me by the time you are a teenager, you’ve probably got me for life.

I carry your identity. For some that means status and power. For others, I may encourage suspicion and distrust. At worst, I have been a tool of death.

Dolly Parton has an unmistakable one. It twangs like a banjo. Maurice Chevalier and Thomas Picketty have strong ones. The United Kingdom, despite its size, is full of them. You can find a different one every 40 or so kilometres.

Yes, we are talking about the linguistic marker that identifies you as an ally or neighbour, or as a stranger or a threat. I am your accent.

Accent is the way of pronouncing a language. It is also a key tool in how we process information about another human. It is one of the front-line litmus tests we use to include, and sometimes brutally exclude.

Historically, the Hebrew word shibboleth refers to an ear of corn (épi de maïs). Today, in English, shibboleth means a linguistic password: A way of speaking (an accent, pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by a group of people to identify another person as a member, or more importantly, as a non-member.

The book of Judges tells us that 42,000 Ephraimites failed their language test and were slaughtered. They had a different accent.


Shibboleth appears in a dark and bloody passage in the Bible. The book of Judges tells of the defeat of the Ephraimites by Gileadite soldiers, who armed with spears and holding a shibboleth (an ear of corn) blocked refugees from crossing the Jordan River. Each person who wanted to cross the river was shown a shibboleth and asked what it was. The Ephraimites, unlike the Gileadites, had no ‘sh’ sound in their language. They pronounced the word with an ‘s’.

The book of Judges tells us that 42,000 Ephraimites failed their language test and were slaughtered. They had a different accent.

This is how the King James Bible recounts the massacre:

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said to him, Are you an Ephraimite? If he said, No; Then said they to him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

The Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina organised the slaughter of an estimated 20,000 Haitians (perhaps many more) over a five-day period in 1937. It is remembered as the Parsley Massacre. This time, soldiers were armed with a sprig of parsley (un brin de persil). The Spanish word for parsley is perejil. Haitians spoke French and Creole and did not pronounce the word with the Spanish trill sound. Another failed language test. They paid with their lives.

US soldiers in the Pacific used the word lollapalooza as a shibboleth (language password) to challenge unidentified persons during World War II. For non-Americans it was an unfamiliar term, but for Japanese, who have difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘l’, it was almost impossible to pronounce.

It’s no wonder accent neutralization or accent reduction has become a growing part of language learning. If you sound like a native, your chances of survival, at least financially and professionally, can greatly increase.

The UK is one of the most accent-obsessed countries in the world. The more neutral accent is called received pronunciation or RP.  It is the best known and most exported English accent. Think of BBC newsreaders, Dame Judi Dench and James Bond 007. Ironically, it’s spoken by only about three per cent of the population. It’s the accent that English learners feel most comfortable with. Here’s Rowan Atkinson playing the devil:

Heightened RP is the sound of the English upper class; the sound of the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey and the Queen herself.

Why are the English so obsessed by their tribal accents?

Regional accents not only reveal where people are from, but also reveal social classes. Broad regional accents are a barrier to social mobility. Many people who work in London have a RP or neutral accent for work and on the weekends return to their villages and towns and start speaking with their natural broad accent.

Elocution lessons or softening accents in the UK is a burgeoning business.

The RP British accent was judged the world’s sexiest accent in 2018 by Time Out magazine. French finished in second and Italian was in third place.  But what is a British accent? It could be any of these…

Or maybe even this one.