Monday 2 December 2013

words of love and words so leisured....

You might remember that, last year, I took part in a thing called "Collect a Star".  This is where you spend £10 buying a gift for someone who might not otherwise have much to open at Christmas.  Last year, my star was 6 year old Lilly.  Because I got so much enjoyment from reading when I was that age, I bought her a book.  There's no way of knowing how good a reader your star is, so I chose a Dr Seuss compendium, my thinking being that it's simple and has lots of pictures, but that it is bursting with playful and imaginative use of words.... something that is very dear to my heart indeed.  I hope she liked it.

This year, my "star" is a 10 year old called Samantha.  Again, I wanted to buy a book if I could, but wasn't quite sure what to aim for.  I ummed and ahhed around Waterstones for a bit, and found myself at the Tintin section.  I thought that Asterix and Tintin books were brilliant when I was about ten, but for a girl?  That's outside of my field of experience.  Luckily, my wife was with me, and she told me that she too loved the Tintin books when she was growing up.  Excellent, well that was easy.  "The Secret of the Unicorn" and "Red Rackham's Treasure" seemed like a natural place for anyone to start, and I just hope that Samantha enjoys them half as much as apparently we both did.

Growing up in France, of course, my wife read these books in the original French, and we got to talking about how the names are different.  Tintin is Tintin, of course, but Snowy is "Milou" in the French, Thompson and Thomson are "Dupont et Dupond", Professor Calculus is "Professeur Tournesol", and so on.

The best character of course, in any language, is "Capitaine Haddock".  As a lover of language, how could you not love the man's wonderfully imaginative swearing?

"bashi-bazouk", "visigoths", "kleptomaniac", "sea gherkin", "anacoluthon", "pockmark", "nincompoop", "abominable snowman", "nitwits", "scoundrels", "steam rollers", "parasites", "vegetarians", "floundering oath", "carpet seller", "blundering Bazookas", "Popinjay", "bragger", "pinheads", "miserable slugs", "ectomorph", "maniacs", "pickled herring"; "freshwater swabs", "miserable molecule of mildew".

I was delighted to learn that the Captain's trademark "Billions of blue blistering barnacles" also sounds brilliant in French: "Mille millions de mille milliards de mille sabords!". "Ten thousand thundering typhoons" doesn't sound too bad either: "Tonnerre de Brest!"  Somebody has done some wonderfully sympathetic translation work here.  Hats off then to Michael Turner and Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper ("...Turner particularly excelled at anglicising Haddock's colourful but never rude repertoire of insults and curses"  No kidding!).

Words can be such a joy.

If Dr Seuss was a genius in his playful use of language, then Captain Haddock is unparalleled in his ability to creatively swear-without-actually-using-any-rude-words.  In fact, he may be one of the greatest creations in *any* form of literature.  He's brilliant.

A colleague of mine, a consultant originally from Romania was telling me today how delighted she was when someone used the word "sheepish" in conversation with her.  She thought that was delightful and was telling me how much she loved English for all its idiosyncrasies and quirky turns of phrase like that.

Of course, given a lead up like that, I was delighted to introduce her to the world of collective nouns for animals.... a parliament of owls, a murder of crows, an embarrassment of pandas, an ostentation of peacocks, a murmaration of starlings, an implausibility of gnus, an unkindness of ravens, a tiding of magpies, a down of rabbits, a comfort of cats..... the list goes on (and can be found, beautifully illustrated by woop studios here).  Since I discovered it, I honestly don't think I have a friend or acquaintance with a small child who I haven't given a copy of A Zeal of Zebras to.... it's a beautiful book and I hope it sparks the same interest in words in someone else that somebody sparked in me.

Happy Christmas, Samantha.  I hope you enjoy the Tintin books.....


  1. I'm reminded that my mother-in-law actually gave me a copy of "Les Bijoux de la Casafiore", so I'm going to dig that out and read it again. Perhaps there's a whole new world of enjoyment to be had from the originals all over again, this time in French?

  2. We have our own collective noun for rabbits - we call ours "The Benjamins".

    Words and phrases the Swedes have liked :
    Belt and braces
    Till the cows come home

    They surprised me by knowing No Shit Sherlock!