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Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Adam Jacot de Boinod is a lexicographer who survived working for the BBC and whose new book, The Wonder of Whiffling comes out in Australia with Penguin Press in November. The book is not the first product of his lexical travels and, given the inexhaustible supply of untranslatable terms in existence, probably not the last.

I had the pleasurable opportunity to ask Adam a few quick questions.

Question 1

Language is inherently interesting, don’t you think? There have been many ‘histories’ of English, for example Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue (1990) and Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English (2003). Do you think that such books are interesting not only due to a jingoistic dedication to monoculture? Why do you think people want to read about their own language?

Answer 1

Well, I’m not so sure about the notion of monoculture in that the English language has always been adept at grafting on words from many languages and increasingly so, despite being currently the international language for business.

The English language pinched and naturalised the best from foreign languages such as ‘ad hoc’, ‘feng shui’, ‘croissant’ and ‘kindergarten’ to name but a few.
People want to read about their own language because it informs much of their culture both historically and to the extent it has sustained and flourished their clarity of expression.

Question 2

In your own case an abiding interest in language must have started early. Can you give a brief summary of your involvement in the collection of phrases and words of unique interest? Did you have a language background as a child?

Answer 2

My interest in the quirkiness of foreign words was triggered when, one day, working as a researcher for the BBC, I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary to discover that they have no less than 27 words for eyebrow and the same number for different types of moustache, ranging from a ‘mustaqe madh’, or bushy, to a ‘mustaqe posht', one which droops down at both ends.

In the end my passion became an obsession. I combed over two million words in countless dictionaries. I trawled the Internet, phoned embassies, and tracked down foreign language speakers who could confirm my findings. I discovered that in Afrikaans, frogs go 'kwaak-kwaak’, in Korea owls go ‘buung-buung’, while in Denmark Rice Crispies go ‘Knisper! Knasper! Knupser!’

I started learning Latin at the age of seven and Ancient Greek at eleven so I have always been passionate about vocabulary.

Question 3

The Meaning of Tingo came out in 2005 and The Wonder of Whiffling is just now being released. How much time does it take to collect and assemble a book? Do you enjoy writing the books? Why?

Answer 3

It took eight passionate or to be more precise obsessive months to research 500 dictionaries for The Meaning of Tingo and a year for The Wonder of Whiffling. I was unable to go near a bookshop or library without sniffing out the often dusty shelf where the foreign language dictionaries were kept. I started to collect favourites: ‘nakhur’, for example, a Persian word meaning ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’; many described strange or unbelievable things.

How, when and where, for example, would a man be described as a ‘marilopotes’, the Ancient Greek for ‘a gulper of coaldust’? And could the Japanese Samurai really have used the verb ‘tsuji-giri’, meaning ‘to try out a new sword on a passer-by’? And where would you expect to find a ‘cigerci’, the Turkish for ‘a seller of liver and lungs’? I love writing the books because it’s great to unearth, by delving and burrowing, words that have been lost or barely known for ages.

Question 4

As a classics scholar (which I find from a BBC website) how do you feel about the resurgence in popularity of classical languages in Australia? Enrolments in Latin and Classical Greek have risen significantly in recent years, despite their apparent irrelevance to career development. Why do you think this is?

Answer 4

I don’t know why it is but it is highly commendable. Classics gives one the ability to look across a range of different disciplines, thereby allowing one to “think outside the box”.

Question 5

You worked as an ‘elf’ on the BBC2 TV program Q1. When did this program start and how long did it run for? Can you describe what BBC2 is, for people who are not British?

Answer 5

It started in 2004 with Stephen Fry as the compere. The BBC is the English equivalent of the ABC.

Question 6

Are there any secrets involved in being a lexical traveller? Do you need a compendious memory? Does having a classical background help in terms of being able to identify patterns in words that belong to languages you otherwise do not speak?

Answer 6

Well it’s a combination of a private passion and, as you say, a reliance on a Classical education to determine word origins.

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