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.



It’s time we had a talk about time: during, while, for and since…

It’s time we had a talk about time.

There are some English words that almost always trip-up (faire trébucher) French native speakers.

The mots méchants are: during, while, for and since. It is important to use them correctly and with confidence. For many French speakers this involves both learning and more importantly, unlearning bad language habits. If you translate from French to English, you will continue to make mistakes.

Here’s a guide to keep and learn.

DURING is a preposition which is used before a noun. For example, we can say: during the holidays, during the meeting, during summer.

It does NOT indicate how long an activity happened.

During means ‘pendant, durant’. But, I repeat, it cannot be used as a measure of how long something happened.

You CANNOT say: I lived in Barcelona during seven years. He spoke about the new software system during one hour. WRONG

But you can say: During the nineties I lived in Barcelona. He spoke about the new software system during the presentation.

In French, we can say: Elle a travaillé comme thérapeute pendant 9 ans.

But in English we would say: She worked as a therapist FOR nine years. CORRECT

You CANNOT say: She worked as a therapist during nine years. WRONG.

FOR is a preposition which is used to say how long something goes on:

Simon has been sleeping for 8 hours.

I have worked for the Geneva State for 10 years.

We waited for 30 minutes outside your house.

I have known you for more than 35 years. We have been friends for ages.

So, what’s the difference between FOR and SINCE?

Since is also a time expression. It means from a point of time in the past until the present. Since is almost always used with the present perfect tense.

For example: since 10 am this morning, since we last met, since my birthday, since 2012. (These are all points of time in the past).

If we use since, we can change the above examples above to:

Simon has been sleeping since 3 pm. (Simon has been sleeping for 8 hours).

I have worked for the Geneva State since 2009. (I have worked for the Geneva State for 10 years).

We have been waiting outside your house since 5.30 pm. (We have been waiting outside your house for 30 minutes).

We have known each other since our university days. We have been friends since 1984. (We have known each other for more than 35 years. We have been friends for ages).

You can say: for 10 minutes, for a long time, for 35 years, for five centuries, for a moment or two…

You can also say: since my birthday, since April 10, since the late seventies, since we first met, since 10 am this morning…

WHILE is used to talk about two things that are happening at the same time, usually in the past. The length of time is not important.

In French you would say pendant que.

The phone rang while I was watching TV.

While I was walking the dog in the park, I met Sue.

We saw Lady Gaga while we were eating in the restaurant.

Here’s a little test for you. You can send your answers to

  1. I saw him _____ just a second or two.
  2. She hasn’t seen him ­­­­_____ December last year.
  3. _______ our summer holidays we visited the Colosseum.
  4. _______ I was studying English, a bird flew into the classroom window.
  5. Jean: I saw Susan _____ I was walking to work yesterday.         Maria: Oh really, I haven’t seen her _____ at least six months; not _______ Marc’s birthday dinner in October last year. How is she?

Money doesn’t grow on trees

It’s time to talk about money.

You can do a lot of things with money. You can spend, waste, invest, lose and lend money.

But, before you can do any of that, you must get some. As one wise person said: Money doesnt grow on trees.

In French, there is one verb – gagner – which dominates most actions which involve receiving money.

In English, we have a few different verbs to talk about money.

You CANNOT say: I win CHF 7000 per month as an accountant.

You should say: I earn CHF 7000 per month as an accountant.

In English, you earn a salary, earn money, earn a living.

The Oxford Online Dictionary for Learners defines earn as: to get/receive money for work that you do. Most of us earn a salary.


Of course, you can also win money, but NOT a salary or a payment for work.

Win means to get something as the result of a competition, game, bet (un pari), war, race or election.

You can say: Switzerland won five gold medals.

He won £3,000 in the lottery.

How many states did the Republicans win?

Congratulations. You’ve won a trip to New York.

We won the contract.

I won $100 at the casino.


We also use the verb to make when we talk about money.

Making money often involves money or income you receive from an investment, product or business that generates income for you.

Bill and Melinda Gates may earn a salary, but they have made an astronomical amount of money from Microsoft.

They say its easy to make money online. I think its a scam.

You can say:  She makes $100,000 a year.

Our company made a large profit last year.

We need to think of ways to make money.

He made his fortune on the stock market.

He makes a living as a relationship manager in a private bank in Brussels.


IMPORTANT: Generally, we use earn to talk about a salary or a wage as an employee.

I will earn more money in my new position.

He earned his living (enough money to buy the things you need in life) by working as a painter on the streets of Paris

Earn also has a more general meaning: to get something that you deserve, usually because of something good you have done or because of the good qualities you have.

As an English teacher, Joelle earned the respect of her students and colleagues.

He has earned a reputation as a tax expert.


Another verb sometimes associated with money or value is to gain which means to win, to get, or to increase.

The country gained (won) its independence in 1985.

She has gained/earned a reputation as a brilliant painter

I gain (increase) weight at Christmas time.

The euro gained (increase in value) against the dollar again today.


Exercise: Which word is correct: earn, win, gain, make. (You may have to change the verb tense)

She _____ CHF 15,000 on the stock market last week.

In my new job I will________ CHF 1000 more per month.

How much does a judge ­­________? ­­­­­­­­­­

How many medals did Switzerland ­­­­­_____ at the Winter Olympics?

I am going on a diet. I ­­­­­­­______ 5 kilos during my holidays.

She is young, but she has already ________ an international reputation for her study of whales.

If we can export more cars to Istanbul we will ­­­­­_____ a fortune.


Questions and feedback:

It’s raining cats and dogs

The English are obsessed with the weather, probably more than most nations. It’s an odd obsession because the weather is often grey, gloomy, wet, drizzly, foggy, chilly or frosty.

The weather has long been our traditional entrée into social interaction; one of the few remaining, non-threatening doors that lead to simple conversations with another member of our species.

Ben: It’s still raining cats and dogs (pleuvoir des hallebardes or pleuvoir des cordes).

Gill: Yeah, they say it’ll clear over this afternoon. Maybe a spot of sun this afternoon.

Ben: That’s good. More rain tomorrow, they reckon.

Gill: It’s good for the garden. How are the kids?

The English language is full of expressions about the weather. The weather affects our mood. The external climate affects our inner climate and it’s not just psychological. It’s also about survival. We rely on the weather to produce food. A severe frost (gel) is very unwelcome, especially if it destroys our food and threatens our survival. If you receive a frosty or chilly reception from someoneyou know you are not welcome.


Riders on the Storm: The Doors

We can use the following words to describe the weather, as well as people and situations.

gloomy, grey, dull (sad and depressing)

frosty, chilly, cool (unfriendly) NB: Chilly means cold. It has nothing to do with chili, the very hot spice.

stormy (angry)

hazy, cloudy, foggy (confused)


Four Seasons: Antonio Vivaldi

Some people have a sunny disposition (a positive outlook). Many people say it’s easier to warm to (make friends with) Canadians, New Zealanders or Australians and that some northern Europeans can be a little cold (not so friendly).

If you are under the weather, then you are not feeling well. You may have had a few too many glasses of wine last night.

A fair-weather friend is a friend when times are good, but someone who cannot be found when things become difficult. It’s better to have a friend come rain or shine who is loyal and reliable in all situations, no matter how challenging.

So put on your raincoat and rubber boots (and your headphones). Here is today’s weather forecast:


To be a breeze:  to be very easy to do.

Our English exam was a breeze. I’m sure I’ll get top marks.


Call me the Breeze: JJ Cale

Get wind of something: to learn or hear of something that should be a secret.

He got wind of the closure of the company so started looking for a new job.

Throw caution to the wind: act recklessly and forget all responsibilities or commitments.

They threw caution to the wind and left their jobs all on the same day, before finding a new job.


As right as rain: to feel fine and healthy and have no problems

Don’t worry about me, I’ll be as right as rain by myself.


Singin’ in the Rain: Gene Kelly

It never rains but it pours: when things don’t just go wrong but very wrong and then something else bad happens again.

First he lost his telephone, then his credit card and then his car broke down. It never rains but it pours.

It’s raining cats and dogs: it’s raining very hard.

Take you umbrella and a jacket because it’s raining cats and dogs outside.

Save for a rainy day: to save for the future when it might suddenly be needed (unexpectedly).

I know you want to buy a new kitchen, but you should really save that money for a rainy day.

Take a rain check: decline something now, but offer to do it at a later date.

Thanks for inviting me to dinner but I can’t this week. Can I take a rain check on that?


The Sound of Sunshine: Michael Franti and Spearhead


To brighten up – to become more cheerful or to add colour and light to a dull space.

I think we need to paint the room. It needs brightening up.

Your mother really brightened up when she got the flowers you sent.

To take a shine to someone or something– to develop a liking, attraction for someone or something often after the first meeting.

The interview went really well. I think the HR manager took a shine to me.

To make hay when the sun shines – to make the most of an opportunity while it lasts.

You won’t be able to go to Australia if your get the job. Go now. Make hay while the suns shines


Ain’t no Sunshine: Bill Withers

A ray of sunshine – Someone or something that makes others feel happy and positive, often during a difficult time.

My grandson is a little ray of sunshine

everything under the sun – everything on earth.

I would not give you my grandfather’s watch for everything under the sun.

To have a sunny disposition – to have a positive and happy attitude about life.

George is a happy chap. He always has a kind word. He has such a sunny disposition.