Friday, May 30, 2008

Got alight?

Following previous posts on this, I note that you can still get a light for the Planetarium at Baker St tube station.

Whose Tom Jones?

If you didn't know that Henry Fielding is the author, and Tom Jones is the book, you might be confused by this Oxford World's Classics book cover that gives them equal billing. But seen in a bookshop, with others in the series, the relationship of author to title is clear:

So here, the status of author and title are indicated solely by position. But collecting together other editions gives a nice demonstration of how, in certain circumstances, typographic, layout and verbal codes are interchangeable.

The ones that use Fielding's original full title are the least ambiguous. In this last one, it's the picture that really disambiguates:

Friday, May 23, 2008

Unknown at this address

Speaking of direct mail, Tiscali have just sent a letter to our house that obviously needs redirecting to Donald Rumsfeld.

You can read Donald's poetry here.

Friday, May 09, 2008


I quoted a sailing manual in a post the other day, and I've been reading more. Much of the terminology is absolutely functional - you have to distinguish between ropes with different functions (halyards that pull sails up, sheets that control them, the painter that you tie the boat up with, and stays and shrouds that hold up the mast). And 'left' and 'right' don't really cut it when everyone on the boat is facing in a different direction. 'Port' and 'starboard' are relative to the boat itself, not the way you happen to be standing.

But it seems to me that quite a bit of nautical writing goes a little too far. It's the verbal equivalent of the gadgetry that boat owners love to buy. We love to rummage around for interesting pieces of kit - some of us want the high tech stuff, others are strictly traditional. But a lot of it is designed for selling not for using.

Verbal chandlery might describe words that are lovely to have, and to bring out from time to time, but which are not strictly necessary.

The best ones are made from wood and brass. Like the word 'witnesseth' that my solicitor included in a lease he's just drafted. Or the word 'thusly' that appeared twice in a student dissertation I've just marked.

Molesworth and personalised mail

People of my age and background may have spotted the Molesworth reference in my last post. I nicked this image from the St Custards website.

As a boarding school pupil I loved the Molesworth books* which normalised my odd experience of childhood. Our hero, Nigel Molesworth is at an archetypal prep school, St Custards, that I was convinced was modelled on my own.

His letters home start off as detailed accounts of his school-life, gradually homing in on test marks received, the latest school football match and the present he would like to be sent. Finally they come down to a form letter: (a) Maths 3/10 (b) St Cakes 4-0 (c) water pistol.

When my son Alex was about that age we were able to take advantage of modern technology to build a simlar mail merge system for his Christmas letters: the mail merge table contained a column with 'Granny, Aunt Marjorie, etc', another with a choice of suitable adjectives ('nice, interesting, great, brill') and third with a choice of gift ('cheque, book, WHSmith token', etc). It worked very effectively for several years.

*Written by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle, they were written in the mis-spelled voice of Molesworth. They are the origin of the Private Eye catchphrase 'as any fule kno'.


The correct form of address

I just looked up the postal address for information design consultancy and/or/if (they are former colleagues and very good). It is:

Oakridge Barn,
Plum Park Estate,
Watling Street,
NN12 6LQ
Great Britain
The Universe

I repeat it in full here not just to make my plug more complete, but to remark on the sevenlinesness of their address.

They do a lot of design for personalised laser-printed documents, and one of the things you have to do in that line of work is to test for worst-case examples. Long names or addresses for example. Years ago we worked on documents for BT, and found that their customer database required us to allow up to eleven lines for the name and address.

I suspect and/or/if deliberately chose their address so they could themselves feature as a test scenario. Expect one of them to change their name any minute to Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Trumpington-Verylongname.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Exit alight

A while back I commented on the quaint use of 'alight', meaning 'get off train'. As in the message at King's Cross underground station saying 'Alight for the Royal National Institute for the Blind' (geddit?).

At some point recently the message changed to 'exit for the Royal National Institute of Blind People'.

So farewell alight as exit enters. And exit 'for', and enter the more empowering 'of' and the more respectful 'people'.

Home grown jargon

Hearing about the new Simplification Centre at Reading, David Betts (a retired member of staff) has written to suggest we look to our own language. As he points out, since his time, "'Porters' have become 'Building Facilities Attendants'; 'Buildings Officer' has become 'Director of the Directorate of Facilities Management and Estates'; 'Wardens' have become 'Group Senior Resident Tutors'."

Fair comment. I'll get one of our Linguistic Communication Disambiguation Officers on to it straight away.