John Maidment's Blog

The blog has moved to

16-31 Oct 1-16 Nov 17-30 Nov 1-17 Dec 20 Dec-15 Feb  16 Feb-11 Mar
13 Mar-8 Apr 9 Apr-26 May 27 May-12 Jun 13 Jun-12 Jul    



Monday 17 December, 2007


Bucca's computer

I have just been reading a copy of Scryfa, a twice-yearly magazine of contemporary Cornish writing.  It contains essays, short stories and poems, mainly by native Cornish people, and mainly on Cornish themes.  In the issue I have (Volume 6, 2005, published by Giss 'On Books, Callington, Cornwall), there is a comic dialect poem entitled Bucca's Computer, written by Ben Batten from Newlyn.  Bucca (also called a Knocker), by the way, is the Cornish name for a mischievous imp-like character found in mines, who is likely to pinch the miners' tools and food and who makes knocking noises to scare the miners into thinking a roof collapse is going to take place.

Anyhow, in the poem a character called Bucca gets a computer, but takes offence at the red underlining that WORD inserts every time he uses a Cornish dialect word.  Here is a brief extract:

"I'll type in the expressions my dear old faather used
And also my dear mawther."  These are the words I choosed:
Dreckly, sheevo, wet leakin, fantod, skeet, flink and chaw,
Scat-off, coose and tifflins, scrovy, shegee and daw.

I thought, "these lovely local words do still belong to we.
I'll add them to the word bank, so everyone can see
That no-one from out foreign in this progressive age
Can hope to spurn a-purpose our Cornish heritage."

Key (for those words I have been able to find):

dreckly directly
fantod ridiculous notion
skeet a heavy fall of rain
flink to throw
chaw to chew
coose to chat
tifflins loose ends
scrovy mean
shegee cuttle bone
daw jackdaw


Saturday 15 December, 2007



Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl

Today's Guardian:

  • in the quiz in the colour supplement: Of what does the Rorschach test comprise? One can only sigh and pass on.

  • in a supplement of magic tricks: Cutting a rope in half only for it to magically become whole again is a trick which never fails to disappoint. Er....hello?

A couple of my favourite verbal infelicities are due to mistranslation:

  • on a bottle of white Rioja: Excellent with chicken or any sort of fishfood

  • on a compressed air can used for cleaning cameras, made in Korea, if I remember right: Attach tube to nozzle for to clean up at nook.

Finally, the other morning I happened glance at bottle of bathroom cleaner.  It bore the startling message: Best ever cleaning power!  Call me picky if you will, but I have always thought that the prime reason for writing anything, or saying anything, is to convey information.  In order to do so, the message should contrast with other messages which are more or less equally likely to appear.  Let us put this to the test:

  • Not quite as good as the cleaning power we had before

  • About the same cleaning power as ever

  • Pretty good cleaning power, but not as good as that in 1953

  • Absolutely awful cleaning power

No?  I thought not.  I rest my case.  The depressing thing is that people got paid for thinking about this message.  People got paid for making decisions about the font, the colour, the placement on the bottle.  Ink was wasted printing it.

I shall now go and lie in a darkened room for a while and burble quietly to myself.

Friday 14 December, 2007

who made an appearance at Golowan in 2007





Today is the start of Montol in Penzance and it will run until 22 December.  Montol (or Mantol in Common Cornish) means "balance" and is also used for the Winter Solstice Festival.  The festival has been revived this year, following the great success of the Golowan Mid-summer Festival in Penzance over recent years.

Many of the old solstice traditions will be revived, such as the appearance of Penglaz, the Winter Hobby Horse, the burning of The Mock (Yule Log) and Geese (Guise) dancers and players, performing traditional short folk plays such as St George and the Turkish Knight and Duffy and the Devil. This is the first celebration of Montol for over 100 years.

The Lord of Misrule and other Geesers

Thursday 13 December, 2007

for a




I do not believe it, and neither will you

One of things I did today was proofread a few pages on Distributed Proofreaders (see blog for 5/12).  The text was from the Warren Commission report on the assassination of JFK.

You may remember that on Sunday 24 November 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald was shot to death by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas Police Department in Dallas City Hall.  The pages I proofread were from the deposition of Captain Talbert, who was the Squad Duty Officer in the department that morning.

Apparently, sometime during the night the officer in charge of the preceding watch had received an urgent message from both a representative of the FBI and someone in the Sheriff's office in Dallas.  They were both insistent that Oswald should be transferred to the county jail as soon as possible.  The FBI man had received two separate telephone calls during the night from a man with a "perfectly calm and matter of fact voice".  This man said: "We are a hundred and Oswald will die before he is transferred to the jail."

The night duty officer attempted to call the Chief of Police, but there was a problem with the telephone system.  When he handed over to Talbert, nothing had been done to plan for the transfer of Oswald, which had not even been considered until then.  Moreover, since it was a Sunday and, in Talbert's words, "police activity was low on Sundays", the number of officers on duty was very small.

Think about that.  They were holding the only suspect in the murder of the President of the USA.  Rumours of communist plots and Russian attacks were rife.  But the Dallas Police Department did not consider it necessary to deviate from their normal weekend schedule.

Finally, at about 7:30am, Talbert gave up trying to establish telephone contact with the Chief, the only person who could give permission for Oswald to be transferred, and sent a squad car to his home. The Chief responded that he would be in the department between 8:00 and 9:00pm.  So the transfer of Oswald was organised very hurriedly, at the last moment, and with very few policemen available to secure the building from intruders  -- even though the events that prompted the transfer were specific threats on Oswald's life.

We all know the outcome and I think we should all be mightily depressed at the chaotic behaviour of those who supposedly are professionally responsible for "security".  It makes you think about more recent events, doesn't it?

Wednesday 12 December, 2007

Man with heavy umbrella ahead



Signs of the times

On a recent trip to a store, I came across a door between two sections.  On the door was the following sign:

Customers are advised
that they should push the
button in order to open
these automatic doors

This sign conforms to the Loquacity Law.  Always use five words when one word will do.  First, "customers".  So no-one else should push the button, huh?  "Are advised" we have to take the advice?  "The button"...which button?  There was no button anywhere near the sign.  "In order to"...why not just "to"?  "These" where are there any other doors?  "Automatic" you have to push the button then the doors ARE NOT AUTOMATIC, ARE THEY?  Hello?

Glad I got that off my chest.

The next sign is just strange, strange, strange.  In a pet shop: RAT STARTER KIT.  I wonder how one starts a rat.  Maybe when you open the box it contains a female and male rat and a CD of romantic music.

Finally, on the door of a locked public toilet:

These toilets are closed from November 1 until March 1
In case of emergency, please call.....


Tuesday 11 December, 2007



Street names

The main street in Penzance is Market Jew Street, but this has nothing to do with Jews at all.  It is simply the road that leads to Marazion, whose old name, Market Jew, is based on a mistranslation of the Cornish marghas yow, meaning "Thursday market".  Leading off Market Jew Street is a now pedestrianised way called Causewayhead.  This name has always puzzled me, as I associate causeways with water and Causewayhead is quite a distance from the sea.  However, the dictionary tells me that a causeway can simply mean a paved or cobbled road.  It seems likely then that the name Causewayhead is a translation from the Cornish pen kauns, meaning the end of the paved roads of the town, which then gave way to the mud of the countryroads.

My favourite street name in St Ives is Salubrious Terrace and Truro has the wonderfully named Squeeze Guts Alley (it is pretty narrow).  Also in Truro there are quite a few opes.  This word is not in Chambers 10th edition, and I am not sure how local it is.  I presume it is related to open, but am prepared to be corrected on that.  The opes of Truro are all covered passageways between two buildings.  There is also an ope in Penzance, called Harvey's Ope.  I haven't yet seen a large white rabbit there.

Monday 10 December, 2007





The most enigmatic antiquity in the Penwith area is MÍn-an-Tol ("stone of the hole").  This is only a few hundred yards from MÍn Scryfa and maybe half a mile from Boskednan stone circle: see blogs 12 November and 18 November.  It is known that there were once four upright stones in the group, though one is now fallen (not visible in the picture)..  Also the arrangement seen today, with the two uprights and the holed stone in a straight line, is not the original one.  At one time, the two uprights with the third fallen one formed a triangle with the holed stone in the centre.

Although there is no lack of theories about what MÍn-an-Tol is, there is no consensus.  Nothing like it is known elsewhere.

The hole in the centre of the stone is just about big enough for a grown man to crawl through and thousands upon thousands must have done just that.  However, I bet most of them didn't do it nine times widdershins.  If they had, it would have cured them of rickets or scrofula.  That's good to know, isn't it?

Sunday 9 December, 2007

A storm in Penzance in 2004



Pity the poor commuter

The wild weather continues here.  80mph gusts have been recorded on the Isles of Scilly.  Part of the roof of Penzance station has been blown off and dumped on the tracks.  The line from Penzance to Plymouth is subject to a 50mph speed limit in case of debris on the line.

My sympathies are with those who have to try to get up to London.  It looks as though they will have a tedious journey.  Quite few people do a weekly commute from here to London and other parts of the South East.  I did this for nearly two years.  In the summer in good weather it can be very pleasant as the line passes some wonderful scenery.  However, on a wet, windy night in winter it is anything but pleasant.

Saturday 8 December, 2007




Tre, Chy and Bos

By Tre, Pol and Pen
Ye shall know the Cornishmen.

Pol ("pool") and Pen ("head, headland, end") cause no problems, but Tre is a bit tricky.  John Wells writes, referring to my blog entry of 6 December:

You write
Tre an Gwaynten ("house of springtime")
- but is this correct? In Welsh at any rate tre = town, while house =tŷ, which ought to give Cornish chy, as in Chynoweth = tŷ newydd =Newhouse, Chegwin = tŷ gwyn = Whitehouse..

Wellllll....yeeeees.  In Cornwall what TRE seems to mean most of the time is "farmhouse" as opposed to cottage or any other sort of dwelling.  There are many, many houses in this area called Hendre or Hendra (from Hen + Tre) which means "old (farm)house".  TRE also turns up as just initial TR as in Trink (from Tre + Frynk ="Frenchman").  Given the fact that towns were pretty uncommon when most of these places were named, to translate TRE as "town" seems to me to be anachronistic.  However, I guess it depends exactly what you mean by a "town".  In future, I shall avoid the problem by not translating TRE at all, so Trengwainton means "The Springtime Tre".

John is quite right about CHY.  This is the usual word for "house".  It also turns up in the forms: -dy -gy  -jy -sy -ty at the ends of compound words, so for instance, lety derives from legh ("milk") + ty and means, naturally enough, "dairy".  This is the origin of the surname Laity.

BOS means "dwelling, home" and in place-names is often followed by a personal name.  This is not true of CHY, which rarely is.  BOS can turn up as bod-, boj-, and bus-.

Friday 7 December, 2007

A totally irrelevant picture



Trivia for a winter's day

It's another day to batten down the hatches here.  So here are a couple of trivia I suddenly thought of.  Please don't ask me why.

The first is just a puzzle.  It involves palindromic numbers.  Take any integer of two or more digits.  Reverse the order of the digits and add the result to the original number.  If the sum is a palindrome, stop.  If not, repeat...reverse, add, and so on.  Eventually, you will arrive at a palindrome, usually in very few iterations.  Here are a couple of examples:

346 + 643 = 989
984 + 489 = 1473 + 3741 = 5214 + 4125 = 9339

All very interesting.....? However, there appears to be one number that never produces a palindrome by this procedure, and this number is, would you believe, 196.  I've just tried 10 iterations and still no palindrome.  Actually, of course there is a whole series of numbers which do not produce palindromes, but 196 is the lowest.  What is so special about 196?  Search me.

I can no longer remember where or when I first heard of this, but I do remember reading that the oddity of 196 was discovered almost simultaneously (but independently) by a mathematician in the USA and also one in the USSR.  Curiouser and curiouser.

The second piece of trivia needs to be accompanied by a warning.  It could drive you mad.  It is called the four fours game.  The object is to represent all the integers from 0 to 100 using expressions involving four occurrences (no more and no less) of the digit 4 and no other digits.  Any valid mathematical symbols other than digits are allowed.

Here are a couple of examples (most numbers can be expressed in more than one way incidentally)

2 = (4/4) + (4/4)

4 = (4/4)*(√4 + √4)

Get it?  Watch out though.  4n is illegal, unless of course n=4.  Good luck, especially with the number 73.

Thursday 6 December, 2007

Trengwainton in spring




Today's weather is foul. The wind is howling and the rain lashing down.  It is a day to make me wonder why I didn't retire to somewhere like Jamaica.  Just kidding.  Anyway, I thought an entry reminding myself of balmier days would be a good idea.

Trengwainton, the name comes from the Cornish Tre an Gwaynten ("house of springtime"), is a property in the parish of Madron on the edge of Penzance.  It is only about 20 minutes walk from where I live.  The gardens are administered by the National Trust, but the house is not open to the public. It has belonged to the Bolitho family since 1857, but there has been a house on the site since the 16th century.  The present layout of the garden was started in 1925.

Apart from a beautiful woodland garden, full of hydrangeas, camellias, rhododenrons and tree ferns, there is a wonderful series of small walled gardens, all interconnected.  Each has a small lawn surrounded by borders containing tender shrubs and specimens collected on an expedition to the Himalayas in 1927, which was partly funded by the Bolithos.

Enough words.  Here are a couple more pictures taken at Trengwainton to cheer me up:

Another good thing about Trengwainton is that it has an excellent tearoom.

Wednesday 5 December, 2007

Johannes Gutenberg




Books, books

Project Gutenberg is a library of about 17000 electronic texts of world literature.  The texts are of works out of copyright and are freely downloadable. I have known about this for a number of years, but only recently came across a related site.  This is Distributed Proofreaders.  Volunteers are asked to compare scans of texts with OCR versions and correct the latter.  A text goes through several rounds of editing before being submitted for inclusion in Project Gutenberg.

I've tried it and found it great fun.  You can do as much as you like, when you like, and it's in a good cause, I think.  I've learnt a couple of new words in the process.  One is scanno -- for a scanning error.  The other is cacique (a West Indian or Native American chief).  I happened to start by trying my hand at proofreading a few pages of Adventures Among the Red Indians by H. W. G. Hyrst.  Fascinating stuff!

By the way, what a beard!

Tuesday 4 December, 2007

Lancelot Hogben, FRS




Verbal gymnastics

Following on from yesterday's entry, I thought of those who have messed around with language, not principally from a desire to produce stylistic effects, but rather for pure fun, or just as a challenge.

Lancelot Hogben (1895-1975) was a man of many achievements.  He was a zoologist and geneticist.  He was a pacifist and conscientious objector during the First World War. He held academic posts in the UK, Canada and South Africa.  The latter he disliked because of its racial policies. He became Professor of Social Biology in the University of London in 1930 and during WWII he was in charge of medical statistics records for the British army.

Hogben published popular science books such as Mathematics for the Millions and Science for the Citizen.  He developed an interest in language and edited The Loom of Language, written by his friend Frederick Bodmer.  He also invented an (unsuccessful) international language called Interglossa.

In 1967 Hogben published Whales for the Welsh- A Tale of War and Peace with Notes for those who Teach or Preach. This is a 97 page novel whose most surprising quality is that it is written entirely in words of one syllable.

Another of his qualities is that he had such a wonderful name.

Ella Minnow Pea, a novel by Mark Dunn (San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage, 2001), has the subtitle: a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable. It is a tale told in letters and notes from and to the eponymous Ella.  However, for reasons which are fully explained in the text, the correspondents are forced to abandon letters of the alphabet one by one.  First Z is outlawed.  Then Q.  And so on.  The results are hilarious.  However, the novel carries a serious message about repression by lunatic authorities and about the dangers of religious zeal and irrationality.

Monday 3 December, 2007

Damon Runyon



My Hero(in)es:  Damon Runyon

Partly inspired by John Wells's recent blog about the Book of Dave (30/11), I got to thinking about writers who re-invent English for their own purposes.  One such is Damon Runyon (1884-1946).  Runyon was a journalist and sportswriter who published a collection of short stories called Guys and Dolls in 1932.  It is one of these stories - The Idylls of Miss Sarah Brown -- that forms the basis of the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.  Other collections of stories of the same type followed and at one time Runyon was one of the most famous writers in America.

What is different about Runyon's writing in these stories is that he mixes high-flown, stylised utterances with New York slang of the time, he never uses contractions, even in dialogue, and in all the Broadway stories there is only one past tense form of a verb, and this is reckoned to be a misprint.  To give you a flavour of Runyon's style, here is a short extract from the story Earthquake:

Now about this time the bench seems to move from under me, and I find myself sitting on the ground, and the ground also seems to be trying to get from under me, and I hear loud crashing noises here and there, and a great roaring, and at first I think maybe Earthquake takes to shaking things up, when I see him laid out on the ground about fifty feet from me.

I get to my pins, but the ground is still wabbling somewhat and I can scarcely walk over to Earthquake, who is now sitting up very indignant, and when he sees me he says to me like this:

"Personally," he says, "I consider it a very dirty trick for you to boff me again when I am not looking."

Runyon's stories are sometimes funny, sometimes rib-hurtingly so, sometimes dark and horrific, sometimes quite sentimental, but they are always entertaining.

Anyone who can write a sentence like (or something like.  I can't locate the story at the moment):

Nicely-Nicely Jones is a guy who seriously loves to commit eating.

just has to be a star.

Sunday 2 December, 2007

Tetragonia Expansa
aka New Zealand Spinach




Alexandre Dumbass?

In The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas there is an episode where D'Artagnan finds a gloomy, love-lorn Aramis in an inn.  He is about to go back into holy orders after being rejected by his lady love.  Aramis says that, as it is Friday, all he can offer D'Artagnan in the way of food is fruit and an omelette of 'tetragon'.  This is ordered and just as it arrives D'Artagnan hands over the letter he has brought for Aramis.  Oh joy!  The lady loves him after all.  "Away with that horrible vegetable", cries Aramis.  "We'll have a hare, a capon and a leg of mutton with garlic and four bottles of Burgundy!"

A charming little scene, though I would have kept the spinach omelette, left out all that meat and cut down (slightly) on the quantity of Burgundy. However, there is one tiny problem with the story.  Tetragonia Expansa was unknown in Europe until 1771, more than a hundred years after the exploits of D'Artagnan and his pals.  Oops!

Source:  Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book (London: Penguin Books, 1980). A great book with many interesting anecdotes and delicious recipes.


Saturday 1 December, 2007



/aɪ seɪ | aɪ seɪ/

A slightly phoneticky entry today. Differences in pronunciation can sometimes produce comic or bizarre effects.  If you have ever studied English intonation, or thought about it much, you will probably have discovered this for yourself.  Here are some sentences, which with some intonations are perfectly normal, but there is at least one intonational treatment for each which produces odd results.  I give them in lower case and without punctuation, so as not to prejudice you.

  1. what is this thing called love

  2. it's all over my friend

  3. what's that in the road ahead

  4. what's for dinner mother

Another one which only really works if you see the relevant utterance in transcription (or hear it, of course) is a brief conversation:

Q: Do you take sugar in your coffee?
A:  /aɪ dəʊnt nəʊ/

It isn't only intonation which can produce comedy.  Here is an original (I think) offering of mine, which relies on /t/ epenthesis.

"I've lost patience with it," said the surgeon, referring to his blunt scalpel.

Acknowledgements: 1 was told to me by Michael Ashby, 2 Barry Cryer, heard on the radio programme "I'm sorry.  I haven't a clue." 3 & 4 were from Doc O'Connor and the coffee conversation, which actually took place, was from Olive Tooley.