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The joy of lex (icography)

This blog post first appeared in Somerset magazine in 2015.

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I like words. First; last; in-between: in my mind they’re all good.

I have my favourites: “onomatopoeia” just sounds right and “edgy” appears, well, edgy. “Somnambulant” makes me feel drowsy even saying it, whereas “vibrant” is a little disturbing if said too loudly. I spent most of my university years describing things “ontologically” or arguments as “ontologically sound”. Somehow I managed to achieve a theology degree without ever really understanding what ontology actually was. But it seems to fit anywhere. Whatever it is, it’s great.

But even though English is a rich, resonant and colourful language, you have to go to the continent to get the true richness of words. Some foreign words are just so packed full of meaning that they are very difficult to translate, even though we will all recognise the feeling or concept they try to convey.

Take Spanish for example. “Sombremesa” means the period of time after a meal when you have food-induced conversations with the people you have shared the meal with. Perfect. And we have all been there.
Or Italian. “Culaccino” is the mark left on a table by a cold glass. Nice. Just writing it makes me thirsty, and longing to book a holiday.

Russian is a little more edgy (see what I did there?). “Pochemuchka” sounds a little harsh, and when you realise that it refers to someone who asks a lot of questions, in fact probably too many questions, the harshness takes on a sinister feel. Polonium anyone?

But my absolute favourite, probably because it seems to happen to me a lot, is far closer to home. In Scots there is wonderful word: “tartle”. It describes beautifully that panicky hesitation we all experience just before you have to introduce someone whose name you should remember but can’t. Social oblivion and worse looms.

So the next time you relax somnambulantly into a sombremesa with your friends having experienced the joy of a culaccino filled lunch without a pochemuchka in sight, just remember that you have the joy of words to thank. Ontologically anyway.

When the Robots take over

This article first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette on 4th September 2014.

I travel a lot for work, and stay in a lot of hotels. This used to be fun, but to be frank the novelty soon wears off. Hanging around on your own in a town a long way from home is not a great night.

But I find ways to cope: I have my little routines, and the hotels I stay in get to know them. So whenever I am in the guest house in the midlands that has become a second home, the team know that beyond a “good morning” I prefer to be taciturn in the morning. I read my paper; I work through a plate of meat the size of Durham (hospitable lot in the midlands) and drink gallons of tea. I don’t talk.

Until recently. I was at breakfast, contemplating the day ahead and perusing the latest transfer news when I noticed a middle aged man sitting at a table near me. He was smiling in that way people do when they want to initiate conversation; a sort of half embarrassed and overly polite grimace grin.

I smiled back wanly and carried on reading. But he didn’t give up and after a few more extravagant smiles he coughed and said “anything good in the paper?”

This is not easy to ignore. I sighed internally, gave up on ever finding out if Spurs were planning to sign an unknown Swedish centre back and made some vague comment about football.

He told me his story: weather bad the previous night, decided to stay at the pub, heading home today. But with a tedious inevitability we moved onto a slightly more challenging agenda.

“The military – they are years ahead of us you know. Everything we have, they have really advanced versions. Their technology is so powerful, really frightening. We’ll never find out but they have robots and stuff that can do just about anything.”

So far so good. Interesting enough, if a little Hunger Games for my liking, but certainly not threatening. He leaned in closer. For a horrible moment I thought he was going to nick my bacon.

He whispered conspiratorially: “The thing is, after a while they are going to realise they are more powerful than us, aren’t they?” It took me a moment to understand what he meant.

“The robots will realise that we need saving from ourselves and they’ll take over. To stop us killing the planet and each other. Stands to reason. We programme them to help us and automate our lives, make us safer, but they’ll take over. Where will we be then?”

I nodded, trying to create a respectful yet authoritative distance between us. After an acceptable delay of about 30 seconds I looked at my watch, made my apologies muttering something about meetings and headed off.

I walked to the car laughing. Robots? Taking over? I activated the car’s auto start. Realising they know more than us? I switched on the sat nav. Changing things to keep us safe? The car’s speed and distance limiter kicked in, making sure I couldn’t hit anyone. Automated decision making? The blue tooth chose a track I liked. Technology taking over? The cameras showed me the space behind as I reversed and the automatic handbrake released itself. It’ll never happen?

Honestly, the things people believe.