The joy of English spelling

October 27, 2013

#Twitter: proudly promoting ghastly grammar and silly misspelling since 2006. E.A. Bucchianeri

Spelling counts. Spelling is not merely a tedious exercise in a fourth-grade classroom. Spelling is one of the outward and visible marks of a disciplined mind. James J. Kilpatrick

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. Mark Twain


You can forget Richard Dawkins. For me the proof that God does not exist is English spelling. How could an all-knowing deity allow something so perverse? English spelling is notoriously difficult, even for native speakers. Here are some mistakes by illustrious poets and writers:

Emily Dickenson nescessity

Ezra Pound diarhoa

Dylan Thomas propoganda

Ernest Hemingway archiologist

I used to run some trivia quizzes for my fellow English teachers. One time I included a spelling round. Here are the words I had:

1.         colonel

2.         desiccate

3.         indispensable

4.         liquefy

5.         septuagenarian

6.         cemetery

7.         liaison

8.         coliseum

9.         Mississippi

10.       sacrilegious

11.       haemorrhage

12.       calendar

13.       parallel

14.       questionnaire

15.       onomatopoeia

What I remember is that the teacher who did best was one of the older ones. It was an impressive performance. What’s more he was somewhat the worse for drink. I realise that this is a small sample size, but I get the impression that this is one area where modern education could learn from the past.

Why is English spelling the way it is? This is the question that linguist David Crystal deals with in his latest tome on popular linguistics:  Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling. It has proved to be very popular, Crystal’s most successful book to date. Indeed at one time it was #4 on Amazon’s best-selling list, ahead of Fifty Shades of Grey Who could have imagined that a topic like English spelling would be able to compete with dungeons and whips?

English spelling is known for its irregularity. In fact, 80% of English spelling is more or less regular. At the beginning of the book Crystal takes that noted spelling reformer George Bernard Shaw to task:

“A famous example dates from the middle of the 19th century, and came to be associated in the 20th century with George Bernard Shaw: ghoti is said to spell fish, because f is spelled gh as in cough, i is spelled o as in women, and sh is spelled ti as in nation. This is complete naughtiness. The spelling ti is NEVER used with this sound at the end of a word in English, and the spelling gh is NEVER used with this sound at the beginning of a word. But people have been taken in by this sort of nonsense. And the feeling that English spelling is a mess has been reinforced by the clever creations based on irregular forms, such as ‘Though the rough cough and hiccough plough me through, I ought to cross the lough.’ All good fun, but hugely misleading as a summary of the English spelling system. It’s a bit like listing eight accident blackspots in a country, and saying all the roads are like that.”

Crystal’s employs a chronological approach, tracing the influence of a motley crew of Latin-speaking missionaries, Norman conquerors, Flemish typesetters, lexicographers, and 21st century bloggers on English spelling.

Old English spelling of had been largely phonetic: all letters were pronounced. They sounded the w in write, the g in gnat, and the k in know. Things started to go wrong when Latin-speaking missionaries arrived in Britain in the 6th century. With 23 letters in their alphabet they lacked the tools to render English into writing; the Germanic Anglo-Saxon languages had at least 37 phonemes. For example they didn’t have j, u or w. This problem has not gone away. We have only 26 letters for around 40 phonemes.

Then in 1066 the Normans invaded bringing with them their French and Latin words. As the centuries went by the scribes had to reflect the sounds people used with the letters that they had. In English the difference between long and short vowels is extremely important. How could you show the difference between them in the spelling? One strategy was to add a final e to some words in order to lengthen vowels.  So you get hop and hope. To show that words contained a short vowel sound the following consonant would be doubled. Compare ridding to riding, or pinning to pining.

By the end of the 15th century William Caxton had introduced printing to England. He needed typesetters, but there weren’t any English ones available. He was forced to import Flemish speakers. When a word reminded them of a Flemish counterpart, they would spell it their way. A Flemish spook was called a gheest. That is why we have an h in ghost.

The influence of Latin can be seen with the word debt. English borrowed this word from French dette in the early Middle Ages. However, it ultimately comes from the Latin word debitum, so it was thought necessary to include this silent b would be a useful mnemonic when people had to write the word. It would avoid them puzzling over whether the correct spelling is det, dett, dette or deytt. But nowadays most of us do not know Latin and is no help at all. English is overrun with silent letters subtle indict sign, salmon and receipt to name but a few.

Doctor Johnson’s dictionary was another important landmark. It was undoubtedly a work of great genius, but it was idiosyncratic, reflecting the particular foibles of its compiler.  Johnson largely fixed English spelling. By the 19th century, Crystal says, every educated family had a copy. But not all of Johnson’s were taken up.  He believed that no word should end with a c. So he insisted on musick. Unlike debt this spelling didn’t catch on. Ultimately spellings are made by people. Dictionaries will, eventually, reflect popular choices. What Johnson did for British English, Noah Webster did for American English. He was the man who gave us color. Americans eventually adopted most of his recommendations though, like Johnson, not all of his proposed reforms, such as fether and tung for feather and tongue, were to prove successful.

The author provides some fascinating examples – one of my favourites is noodle. It comes from the German Nudel and arrived in the late 18th century. It was converted into noodle. The long /u:/ vowel sound became oo and  the /әl/ ending le. However, a century later, German Strudel wasn’t written as apple stroodle. Now the exotic was being captured. Foreign words have also had an impact on English spelling. Nowadays Internet and globalisation are affecting English spelling, and this influence will surely become more marked. With English as the world’s lingua franca we will most likely see simplification.

Crystal believes that we need to improve how spelling is taught. It is a skill separate from reading and writing and so it needs to be studied specifically in the classroom. It should be in linguistic context. In order to master spelling you need to know the enemy. A little Latin would definitely help; aberrant has one b and abbreviate two because of the Latin sources. Whether Young people would be up for etymology lessons is another question.

I will leave you with Crystal’s conclusion:

Nor is staying with traditional attitudes towards spelling an option. We – everyone, not just teachers – need to change the way we think about it. We have to stop viewing it in solely negative terms – as a daunting barrier, as a hostile mountain, as an apparently perpetual process of rote learning – and start thinking of it as a voyage of exploration. The story of the English writing system is so intriguing, and the histories behind individual words so fascinating, that anyone who dares to treat spelling as an adventure will find the journey rewarding. It is a skill whose acquisition requires serious application, of course, but that does not need to be at the expense of enjoyment. Approached in the right way, spelling can be fun.

I couldn’t agree more. Give me spelling over BDSM any day of the week.

A poem about spell checkers

October 27, 2013

This poem is a warning about relying too much on spell checkers:

Candidate for a Pullet Surprise  by Mark Eckman and Jerrold H. Zar

I have a spelling checker,

It came with my PC.

It plane lee marks four my revue

Miss steaks aye can knot sea.


Eye ran this poem threw it,

Your sure reel glad two no.

Its vary polished in it’s weigh.

My checker tolled me sew.


A checker is a bless sing,

It freeze yew lodes of thyme.

It helps me right awl stiles two reed,

And aides me when eye rime.


Each frays come posed up on my screen

Eye trussed too bee a joule.

The checker pours o’er every word

To cheque sum spelling rule.


Bee fore a veiling checker’s

Hour spelling mite decline,

And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,

We wood bee maid too wine.


Butt now bee cause my spelling

Is checked with such grate flare,

Their are know fault’s with in my cite,

Of nun eye am a wear.


Now spelling does knot phase me,

It does knot bring a tier.

My pay purrs awl due glad den

With wrapped word’s fare as hear.


To rite with care is quite a feet

Of witch won should bee proud,

And wee mussed dew the best wee can,

Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.


Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays

Such soft wear four pea seas,

And why eye brake in two averse

Buy righting want too pleas.

The story behind the song #3: Cortez the killer

October 19, 2013

He came dancing across the water

With his galleons and guns

Looking for the new world

In that palace in the sun

On the shore lay Montezuma

With his coca leaves and pearls

In his halls he often wandered

With the secrets of the worlds

His subjects gathered ’round him

Like the leaves around a tree

In their clothes of many colors

For the angry Gods to see

The women all were beautiful

Men stood straight and strong

They offered life in sacrifice

So others could go on

Hate was just a legend

War was never known

People worked together

And they lifted many stones

And they carried them to the flatlands

But they died along the way

And they built up with their bare hands

What we still can’t do today

And I know she’s living there

She loves me to this day

I still can’t remember where

Or how I lost my way

He came dancing across the water

Cortez, Cortez

What a killer

What a killer


Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” is the eighth track on his 1975 album, Zuma, which was his second outing with Crazy Horse, an American group, who worked with the Canadian rocker on a number of albums. According to Wikipedia, the song reached #39 on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos and #321 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Cortez the Killer deals with Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, who with just 600 soldiers, was able to conquer Tenochtitlán, with a population of 200,000, thus bringing down the Aztec Empire in 1521, just two years after starting on his expedition. The song presents a romanticised vision of the Aztecs: apparently all of the native women were beautiful.

But it is Young’s characterization of the human sacrifice which takes this idealisation to new heights. He fails to mention how sacrifices were carried out. Victims were tied to an altar, their chests sliced open and their still-beating hearts offered to appease “the angry gods.” The eighth Aztec king Ahuitzotl, who was Montezuma’s predecessor, is said to have organized the sacrifice of more than 80,400 prisoners during a four-day bloodfest at the 1487 inauguration of the Great Temple to Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlán. The killing rate of fourteen victims a minute over the ninety-six-hour period actually outdoes the daily murder record at Auschwitz. Four convex killing tables, which were arranged that the victims could be easily kicked down the pyramid, were the key to this macabre production line. The teams of executioners were periodically replaced to keep them fresh. These sacrifices were designed to intimidate their opponents. Of course, according to Young they were willing victims, prepared to sacrifice their lives so that others could go on. How public spirited of them!

In no way could the Aztec society be described as a peaceful utopia. The Aztecs and their neighbours were perfectly well acquainted with hate and war. The Aztecs were a belligerent civilization, perpetually at war with neighbouring peoples. What is true is that they had traditionally fought differently to the European style. Victor Davis Hansen has pointed out how they were subject to significant cultural and geographical constraints without horses or oxen, or even the wheel. Without pack animals the operational range of Aztec armies was limited by the amount of food and supplies their human porters could carry. Military historians describe their mode of combat as “flowery war.” This was a special ritualised form of warfare, where two enemy states would plan battles through mutual arrangement. Aztec warriors were used to capturing their enemies in battle rather than killing them. Fighting was rare in the rainy period between May and September and night combat was frowned upon. Europe, on the other hand was a brutal school of war. The Spaniards were perfectly willing and able to fight all year round, day or night, at home and abroad, on land and sea, with few natural or human restrictions. It was war without quarter. The Spanish swordsmen and pikemen had been drilled expertly drilled in the art of killing with a single stroke.

The Spanish conquest was not just accomplished by a small number of white Spaniards. Cortes was able to enlist the cooperation of a number of indigenous allies, such as the Nahuas, the Tlaxcaltec and the Totonacs. These allies outnumbered the actual Spanish forces by many hundreds to one. Why did they help the Spaniards? They perceived the Aztecs as an aggressive imperialist power who took prisoners and tribute from them. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Cortés could not have conquered Tenochtitlán without the support of these native allies.

The last verse – “And I know she’s living there, and she loves me to this day. I still can’t remember when or how I lost my way” may be partly autobiographical. The song was written around the time of the break-up with his wife Carrie Snodgress.  The song fades out after around seven and a half minutes. In the book Neil and Me, Neil’s father claimed the recording process had ground to halt after an electrical circuit had blown. Thus the final verse was lost to posterity. However, his son said that that he had “never liked that verse anyway.”

The real story of Cortés and Montezuma is far more interesting than Young’s simplistic vision. The fall of the Aztecs is one of those epic tales in which it is hard to separate myth from reality. The colonisation of the Americas followed different patterns. The early Spanish settlers came to the New World representing church and state; in the north the puritans were escaping from the state and creating their city on the hill. Most of the conquistadors were young men in their twenties, looking to return to Spain by the age of forty with status, money, and vast estates – they would not have been able to acquire all this in the home country. This period is known as the golden age in Spanish history, but really the age of silver would be more accurate. Between 1500 and 1650 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver would arrive in Spain from the New World.

Apart from the aforementioned military factors, the success of the conquistadors can be put down to the devastating effect of European diseases, for which the Indians had no resistance, and the important technological advantages. If you want the big picture of why it wasn’t Montezuma who conquered Europe, read Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel.

The glory days of the conquistadors did not last long. Two decades after the conquest of Tenochtitlán, they had become an anachronistic embarrassment. They were the product of a particular time and place. While one can admire their audacity, their effect on the native populations was catastrophic. In the north the modus operandi was different, but results were the same, if not worse, in terms of the indigenous peoples. In Matthew White’s list of the world’s hundred deadliest atrocities the conquest of the Americas after 1492 comes in at #11 with 15,000,000 deaths.

Sodcast and other new words

October 19, 2013

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

amygdala hijack

An immediate, overwhelming, and usually inappropriate emotional response to a perceived threat or emergency.


A person who obsessively collects and shares data about his or her own life to improve self-knowledge and embellish self-presentation.

eye broccoli

An unattractive person


Pretending to work hard; busyness that consists of trivial or unproductive activities

guerrilla proofreading  

Marking up a public sign to correct or point out a grammatical error or typo.

Matilda effect 

The systematic under-recognition of the contributions of women to science, particularly in favor of their male colleagues.

organ recital

A long-winded recitation of one’s ailments, particularly those related to or caused by aging.


Snubbing another person by using your smartphone instead of interacting with that person

Proteus phenomenon

The tendency for early findings in a new area of research to alternate between opposite conclusions.

safe shake

The touching of elbows used as a handshake replacement to avoid spreading germs.

smartphone face

A drooping jawline and saggy jowls caused by neck muscles that ave been shortened from constantly looking down at a smartphone or similar device.


To play music loud enough that other people can hear it, particularly in a public location.

stealth wear

Clothing designed to prevent the wearer from being tracked, recognized, or photographed, particularly by surveillance systems

The Michelin Guide

October 13, 2013

The Michelin Guide is a veritable French institution. Each March, when it is published, it sparks a media frenzy similar to the Oscars. In the days leading up to the announcement speculation is rife, and TV and newspapers discuss which restaurants might lose, and which might gain a Michelin star. The acquisition or loss of a star can have dramatic effects on the success of a restaurant. Chefs spend their careers trying to get and then maintain them. Paul Bocuse, one of the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine in the 1960s, said, “Michelin is the only guide that counts.” The term Michelin Guide refers to the Michelin Red Guide, the oldest and best-known European hotel and restaurant reference guide. The Michelin guide is published in 14 editions covering 23 countries and sold in nearly 90 countries. There are hundreds of thousands of restaurants all over the world, but just 106 of them earned three stars in 2012.

When the tyre manufacturers André Michelin and his brother Édouard first produced it in 1900 there were fewer than 3,000 cars in France, and what they wanted to do was to boost the demand for cars, and get people driving more and thus wearing out their tyres. Originally it was not just about food. It contained useful information for motorists, including maps, instructions for repairing and changing tyres, and lists of car mechanics, hotels and petrol stations. The brothers had nearly 35,000 copies printed and it was given away free of charge. During WWI publication of the guide was suspended. After the armistice, revised editions of the guide continued to be given away until 1920. But when André Michelin noticed copies of the guide being used to prop up a workbench, he decided that enough was enough. We only respect what we pay for so they began to charge. It was at this time that the restaurant side of the guide came to the fore. The brothers recruited a team of inspectors to visit and review restaurants, always travelling incognito. In 1926 the guide first awarded stars for fine dining. Initially there was a single star for restaurants; in 1931 the hierarchy of one, two and three stars was introduced. In 1936 the criteria for the star system was published:

one star: “A very good restaurant in its category” (“Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie”)

two stars: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour” (“Table excellente, mérite un détour”)

three stars: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (“Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage”).

During WWII publication was again suspended. However the 1939 guide was specially reprinted for the Allied Forces which invaded France in 1944; it was thought to have the best and most up-to-date maps available. And once the war finished, just one week after V E Day, it came out again. Due to the shortages that persisted after the war, Michelin decided to impose an upper limit of two stars.

At the heart of the process are the visits. Restaurants can solicit an inspection. There are also from the readers of the guide. But some establishments will resort to orchestrating campaigns to promote themselves. Derek Bulmer, a former editor of the British edition, cites a restaurant which got people to sign postcards that already had ecstatic reviews written on them. Needless to say it didn’t get a star. Bulmer explains what the inspectors are looking for:

You can’t get a star without quality products that are fresh, seasonal and local. These must be prepared with a high degree of technical skill as part of a well-balanced menu. “The starters have to be as good as the mains, the fish dishes cooked as well as the meat dishes and so on.”

Most places will be seen within 12 months of their request, but they aren’t told when it will be or who will be coming. They typically make between three and six visits, and you have to excel every time. They sample venues at different times of the day using different reviewers each time. They have been known to go as many as ten times. The restaurants will not be told they have been awarded a star until the guide comes out in March. However, when a restaurant gets two or three stars, or if they are going to lose a star, they will be informed beforehand.

These Michelin inspectors always go incognito and their meals and expenses are paid for by the guide, never by a restaurant being reviewed. Michelin takes great pains to maintain the anonymity of its inspectors. According to an article in The New Yorker, many of the company’s top executives have never met an inspector. The Guide recommends that they keep their line of work secret, even from their parents, who might be tempted to boast about it. Obviously the inspectors cannot talk to the press. One man who ignored this prohibition was Pascal Rémy, a veteran Michelin inspector based in France. His exposé of the world of restaurant inspection, L’Inspecteur se Met à Table led to his dismissal in 2004. He brought a court case for unfair dismissal, which was unsuccessful. We may have an image of a glamorous life of a Michelin inspector, but Remy paints a picture of solitude, tedium and drudgery as they drive all over France dining alone every night. He felt that he was underpaid considering the strict deadlines for getting in his reports he had to meet. He also attacked the guide for becoming lax in its standards. In particular he stated there were simply not enough inspectors to do the job adequately. Rémy also accused the guide of being biased. They would give an easier time to such famous and influential chefs as Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse, who he described as “untouchable.”

Remy’s criticisms are not the only ones you hear about. There is also said to be a systematic bias French cuisine and dining standards. The case of Michelin and Japan is particularly interesting. In 2009 Tokyo overtook Paris at the city with most three-star establishments, and in 2012 Japan was also the leading three-star nation. The rise of Japan sparked criticism that there were commercial reasons behind the stars; Michelin wanted to gain brand awareness with Japanese customers so that they could market themselves in Japan. Curiously some chefs were not wild about receiving a star, feeling that their restaurants would become too popular and they would end up lowering their quality.

Despite the criticisms there is no doubt that the Michelin Guide retains a lot of prestige. It is a fascinating world, but it is also somewhat alien to me. I have never knowingly eaten in an eatery with Michelin stars. I don’t think my local kebab place will be applying anytime soon.

QI: A selection #13

October 13, 2013

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

The study of flags is called vexillology. The Latin word for flag is vexillum – a vexillarius came to mean a standard-bearer.

Woodrow Wilson had his golf balls painted black so he could still play when it snowed.

Napoleon’s most humiliating defeat came at the hands of rabbits. In 1807, he was in high spirits having signed the Peace of Tilsit, a landmark treaty between France, Russia and Prussia. To celebrate, he suggested that the imperial court should enjoy an afternoon’s rabbit shooting. The party arrived, the shoot commenced, and the gamekeepers released the quarry. But the rabbits were tame, not wild, and thought they were about to be fed rather than killed. Rather than fleeing for their life, they mistook Napoleon for the keeper bringing them food. Napoleon was left with no other option but to run, beating the starving animals off with his bare hands. According to contemporary accounts of the fiasco, the emperor of France sped off in his coach, comprehensively beaten and covered in shame.

The Nazis made a point of looking after their rabbits really well, in order to demotivate their prisoners. They kept angora rabbits in a programme which provided warm fur to line the jackets of Luftwaffe pilots. The rabbits lived a life of luxury in the same complexes as concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau – both as a showpiece to visiting dignitaries, and as a constant reminder to prisoners of how little their lives were valued. In Buchenwald, where tens of thousands of human beings starved to death while living in terrible cramped conditions, rabbits enjoyed scientifically prepared meals and lived in their own luxurious hutches.

An astrologer once tried to sue Nasa for “upsetting the balance of the universe”. The Nasa Deep Impact probe impacted with comet Tempel 1 in 2005, creating a crater. As a result, a Russian astrologer filed a lawsuit claiming that Nasa’s landing had ruined the natural balance of forces in the universe and deformed her predictions.

The first mobile phone call took place on April 3 1973, when Motorola’s Martin Cooper called up their rival company to let them know he’d got there first. It wasn’t until 1992 that the first SMS (Short Message Service), or text message, was sent – it said “Merry Christmas”). The first mobiles had to be charged for 10 hours to give 30 minutes of battery life. A survey in 2007 found that 4.5 million mobiles are lost or damaged each year – 885,000 of them flushed down lavatories. Because gold is used as an efficient (i.e. non-tarnishable) electrical contact, a ton of mobile phones contains more gold than a ton of ore from a gold mine.

Many important things have happened in pubs down the years. Sir Thomas More was tried in a pub in Staines in 1535. Karl Marx drafted the Communist Manifesto and held lectures in a room above the Red Lion on Great Windmill Street, London. The George and Dragon in Yarm was the site of the 1820 meeting at which the decision was made to build the Stockton and Darlington Railway, Britain’s first railway. The Eagle in Cambridge was where Francis Crick stood up and announced that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life” having finally cracked the structure of DNA in 1953. And in 2001, QI was founded over several pints of Hook Norton bitter in the Falkland Arms, Great Tew, Oxon.

The Hungarian word “goulash” actually means “cowboy”: the traditional dish is gulyásleves or “cowboy’s soup”. The Hungarian word for the stew that everybody outside Hungary refers to as goulash is pörkölt or paprikás.

Before Italy’s unification in 1861, Italian was primarily a written language based, due to authors like Aretino and Dante, on Tuscany’s dialect. Only after unification was it the national spoken language. It was not until the advent of broadcasting that standard Italian was heard in almost every home. To this day, in parts of Italy local dialect is spoken in preference to standard Italian (the famous Neapolitan songs ’O Sole Mio and Turna a Surriento are written in dialect).

Giacomo Casanova (1725-98) wrote 42 books, including works on the history of Poland, a translation of Homer’s “Iliad” into modern Italian and a five-volume science-fiction novel which predicted the motor car, the aeroplane, television and more. But his masterpiece is his 12-volume memoir, The Story of My Life. Running to 3,600 pages, the book is written in French, because Casanova thought it more sophisticated than his native Italian. Not published in full until 1960, it records each significant moment in Casanova’s life up until the summer of 1774 (when he was 49); at which point, the narrative stops in mid-sentence. The memoir was written when Casanova was in his sixties: a washed-up, impotent, pox-riddled librarian in an obscure Bohemian castle. Bored out of his mind, he began to write as “the only remedy to keep from going mad or dying of grief”.

Part of the M6 toll road is built from copies of pulped Mills and Boon novels. 2.5 million books were shredded into a paste and then added to a mixture of asphalt and Tarmac to prevent it cracking. The British Library’s collection of Mills & Boon novels was once stored in “The Arched Room” at the British Museum, but when the library moved to its new site they were replaced with clay tablets covered in cuneiform writing that once formed part of the library of King Ashurbanipal, a sixth-century King of Assyria.

In German, to have a hangover is einen kater haben, “to have a tom-cat” or katzenjammer, meaning “the wailing of cats”. To Norwegians, it’s jeg har tommermen, “I have carpenters” (in my head, presumably) and for the French it’s avoir la gueule de bois, “to have a wooden throat”. The Italians, who don’t like getting drunk, opt for the bland postumi di sbornia, “the effects after drinking” The idea of drinking again the next morning, called in full “a hair of the dog that bit you” (a reference to a supposed remedy for rabid dog bite), really just postpones the hangover.

The word “bankruptcy” comes from the Italian banca rotta which literally means “broken bench”, although there is little evidence that the wooden moneylenders’ benches were ever actually broken to graphically display their unfitness for business. Strictly speaking, under UK law only individuals can be declared bankrupt. Businesses become insolvent and go into administration. Today you are usually discharged from your bankruptcy after a year but it will cost a minimum of £525 to go bankrupt. Abraham Lincoln, Walt Disney and Oscar Wilde all went bankrupt.

In 1979, a Danish comedian, Jacob Haugaard, started a party called the “Union of Consciously Work-Shy Elements”, promising good weather, the wind at your back on all cycle paths and better furniture in Ikea. The joke paled when he won a seat in the Folketing, Denmark’s parliament. In his four years in office he managed to issue Nutella in army rations, give out bread for ducks in parks and build a bathroom in a park in Århus, where he’d started the party.

Perhaps the most famous 300 of all were the Spartan soldiers under Leonidas, who held Xerxes’s 100,000-strong Persian army for three days at the pass of Thermopylae in 480BC, delaying their invasion of Greece. In fact, there were only 298. One of the men was sent off to deliver a message, and the other had to sit out the fight because he had an eye infection. He did manage to redeem himself later on by dying in another battle, but the messenger committed suicide from the shame of not fighting.

The life and times of an American icon: Barbara Millicent Roberts

October 6, 2013

Barbara Millicent Roberts has most certainly lived life to the full so far. Born in 1959, she comes from the town of Willows, Wisconsin, where she was brought up by her parents, George and Margaret Roberts. After graduating from the prestigious Manhattan International High School in New York City, she has tried her hand at a number of jobs including astronaut, doctor, pilot, flight attendant, ballerina, palaeontologist, and a SCUBA diver. She also played Karen Carpenter in the Todd Haynes film Superstar. And in 2000 she became president. With all this frantic activity it is hardly surprising that she has never had the time to tie the knot, although she has had an on-off romantic relationship with her boyfriend Ken Carson, who came on the scene in 1961. However, in February 2004 they decided to split up. In this aftermath she became friendly with Blaine, an Australian surfer.

By now you will probably have realized that we are not talking about a real person, but the most successful doll in history – Mattel’s Barbie. It is estimated that over a billion of these dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that three Barbie dolls are sold every second. The standard range of Barbie dolls and related accessories are manufactured to approximately 1/6 scale. The standard dolls are approximately 11½ inches (29cm) tall, which would make her 1.75m. Her vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist) and 33 inches (hips). Barbie products include not only the range of dolls with their clothes and accessories, but also a large range of Barbie branded goods such as books, apparel, cosmetics and video games.

The origin of this global phenomenon is rather surprising. She was invented by the president of the toy manufacturer Mattel Inc. – Ruth Handler, who took her inspiration from a German toy doll called Bild Lilli, which was not designed for children, but for adults, originally being marketed as a novelty gift in bars and tobacco shops. Barbie was based on a popular character appearing in a raunchy comic strip drawn by Reinhard Beuthin for the newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung. This blonde bombshell certainly liked a good time. She was a working girl who would use men to get what she wanted – “I could do without balding old men but my budget couldn’t!”


Bild Lilli doll

On returning to the United States, Handler redesigned the doll and it was also given a new name, Barbie, after Handler’s daughter Barbara. It made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. This date is considered Barbie’s official birthday. Five years later Mattel acquired the rights to the Bild Lilli doll and production of Lilli was stopped. The first Barbie doll, which was available as either a blonde or brunette, had her wearing a black and white zebra striped swimsuit and sporting her signature ponytail. The doll was marketed as a “Teen-age Fashion Model”. The first Barbie dolls were actually manufactured in Japan, their clothes being hand-stitched by Japanese home workers. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production. Although this is now the norm, Barbie was one of the first toys to harness the power of television advertising as the cornerstone of their marketing strategy. There is no doubt it has been incredibly successful. As the Economist pointed out, if all the Barbies and her family members – Skipper, Francie and the rest – sold since 1959 were placed head to toe, they would circle the Earth more than seven times.

But there’s a more sinister side to Barbie. She is seen as a product of a sexist and materialistic society. In 1993, the Barbie Liberation Organization, a culture jamming group, secretly modified a group of Barbie dolls by implanting voice boxes from G.I. Joe dolls. They then secretly returned them to the toy shops from where they were purchased.

The most frequently heard objection is that the doll promotes an unrealistic idea of body image for a young woman, which leads girls to anorexia, bulimia and diet disorders. According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, Barbie would lack the 17% to 22% body fat required for a woman to menstruate. There is a condition known as “Barbie Syndrome” in which pre-teenage and adolescent females seek the physical appearance and lifestyle that the Barbie doll embodies. Indeed, this condition is not limited to young girls. Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova sought to mould her body into Barbie-like proportions. She claimed that the breasts were implanted, but that the rest was down to exercise and a special diet. In 1997, perhaps as a reaction to the criticism Barbie was given a wider waist, with Mattel saying that this would make the doll better suited to contemporary fashion designs.


Valeria Lukyanova

Barbie has been banned in some parts of the world. The most notable case is Saudi Arabia, which outlawed the sale of Barbie dolls, saying that she did not conform to the ideals of Islam. The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice stated “Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West.” In the Middle East you can find alternatives such as the Fulla doll, which are more suited to Islamic mores.

There is also something about the doll which makes some people want to inflict physical damage on them. In December 2005, Dr. Agnes Nairn at the University of Bath in England published research suggesting that girls often go through a stage where they hatred of their Barbie dolls drives to a subject them to the violence and torture, including removal of hair, burning, decapitation and even nuking them in the microwave. Dr. Nairn stated: “It’s as though disavowing Barbie is a rite of passage and a rejection of their past.” It also the butt of satire and Mattel is not exactly known for its sense of humour. For example, they sued artist Tom Forsythe over a series of photographs with kitchen appliances called Food Chain Barbie. In one of them she is put in a food blender.


Food Chain Barbie

In November 2002, a New York judge turned down an injunction against the British-based artist Susanne Pitt, who had produced a “Dungeon Barbie” doll in bondage clothing. You can find it on E-bay for $49.99. And they didn’t appreciate Aqua’s song “Barbie Girl”, suing MCA Records. Once again they were unsuccessful. Judge Alex Kozinski ruled that the song was a “parody and a social commentary”.

I find what Barbie represents rather questionable, but I think that it is rather simplistic to blame her for anorexia. We tend to look for simple explanations for complex social phenomena. What does the future hold for this doll? Will she be around for another fifty years? That’s difficult to say. Now she faces new challenge from the Bratz franchise. These are the new kids on the block and Barbie has now become more of an establishment figure trying to see off this usurper. Once again Mattel have resorted to the courts, suing MGA Entertainment for $500 million, alleging that Bratz creator Carter Bryant was working for Mattel when he developed the idea. On August 5, 2011, after a protracted legal dispute, Mattel was also ordered to pay MGA $310 million for attorney fees, stealing trade secrets, and false claims. They should have got the doll to represent them.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

October 6, 2013

Thanks to YouTube it’s possible to see Todd Haynes Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story online. Barbie plays the part of the ill-fated singer in this 43-minute film.