I know where your house lives, but sometimes the front door’s a struggle

Featuring Abel and Marguerite Chevalley and their Concise Oxford French Dictionary.

From Abel and Marguerite Chevalley’s intro to the 1934 Concise Oxford French Dictionary:

It is not sufficient to be a Frenchman, even highly educated, if you want to succeed as a French-English lexicographer. Nor can an Englishman, even with first-class honours in French, be guaranteed to find the best English equivalents for French words or idioms. Every living language gets stratified as it grows. Very few people are at home in its different strata. Mrs. Malaprop’s language was probably free of malapropisms when she spoke to her cook, and the most purist précieuse would perpetrate malapropisms of another sort if she had to deal with the butcher and the grocer. Languages are like houses: they must be lived in—from attic to basement—before they can be called ours. The number of people who have become familiar, in this intimate manner, not only with one but with several houses is, of course, limited.

Culture and knowledge are not sufficient. A taste for words as words; an instinct of divination leading in abstracto to the ‘mot juste’, and an insight into the risks and difficulties of others, less gifted; the sporting spirit that sustains, year in year out, a lifelong word-hunt; an acute sense of the correspondences and discrepancies between words of apparently the same sort and sound in two languages that are now frères ennemis and then “heavenly twins’, these are also not enough. A great thing, perhaps the greatest, is to have lived both French and English, meeting on their own ground all conditions of men, and transacting with them all kinds of business; to have travelled, under the sting of necessity, up and down the social order, always in a spirit of comprehensive sympathy but with that touch of amusement that goes to the making of humour. You must have run a hundred times, half angry, half smiling, from loft to cellar before you can flatter yourself that you know every turning, nook, and corner in your own house; and even then you knock your shins against unsuspected obstacles. What if the house were a double affair, more than half built in the air, of metaphors, shadows and shades, and visions, ever changing, ever moving, without perhaps one single exact counterpart in the two enchanted fabrics? I am not sure that the King’s English does in this sense belong to the King rather than to the bricklayer, and the French of France to the Académie rather than to the nearest pub. But I am sure that the lexicographer who has frequented both is also the best prepared for the task. These conditions must be sadly missing in the world of dictionaries.

I’ve been on holiday too long, but that’s still how I feel about borderline Dutch and Low German, and older houses in places like Hamburg and Strasbourg flash me back to ramshackle dwellings in the diseased swamp and blighted heath that separates the bishops of Utrecht and Münster. With other languages the feeling varies from residence through squatting to Airbnb (sorry, I broke the toilet). The Great House of Russian, on the other hand, is often as strange to me as the 60s West End of London to the anthropomartians above. How different the world might have been had Peter the Great spent some of his tobacco revenues on a translation of Erasmus’ proverbs.

The Chevalleys are interesting. Marguerite translated “from the American, English [sic] and Norwegian into French”, and it sounds as if her lexicography echoed the popular Protestant theology of her father, Auguste Sabatier. Abel has a German, but not a French, Wikipedia page because he represented the French state in the exclavation of East Prussia after the Treaty of Versailles. He wrote that “the English novel owes its existence and power to the authors of the 18th century and its prestige to Walter Scott”, and authored a study of Queen Victoria and a Ripper-type novel loosely based on the Beast of Gévaudan. Son Claude was a better mathematician than diplomat, applying from within the Great Satan for a job at the Sorbonne while simultaneously being rude about the artist then known as French science.

[:en]Accordion bonanza[:]

[:en]With some Norwegian, a bunny, and a bell-ringing act.[:]

[:en]I’ve recently introduced democratic fundamentals by allowing the mob to decide whether I do Postman Pat in Norwegian. The other day someone came up to me and said, “You-must-have-watched-the weather-in-Norwegian-on-L!ve-TV-in-the-90s.” Unfortunately I was elsewhere, but fortunately there are snippets on YouTube, and here is Anne Marie Foss:

I also missed the trampoline-assisted weather reports from Rusty Goffe (of A Kitten for Hitler and so much more), and Nick Ferrari at his peak:

… as well as the Pontins-pi$$take talent competition, Spanish Archer, which, judging by YouTube, was big on accordions. (As patient readers know, organetto is used in Italian for both the accordion and the barrel organ.) The Family Von Skrappe survived Rhodri Williams’ attentions for several minutes:

Harry Hussey’s falsetto “To you!” interjections and Tulips from Amsterdam and Sue Bennett’s tuned cowbells sound like Spike Jones, and the fun was by no means cooked up for Kelvin MacKenzie. Here they are in a longer clip featuring some xylophone action at the 1993 Scarborough contest of the National Accordion Organisation of the United Kingdom:

Finally, here’s Harry doing the Dambusters at the Leyland club, where I haven’t been for a long time:


[:en]One less river to cross[:]

[:en]The secrets of Erith Driving Test Centre.[:]


  1. Do your test in late July. You won’t skid all over the place when they take you up to Belvedere, which is a kind of L-driver lunar graveyard. I’ll tell you about the other advantage in a moment.
  2. Before you go to meet your fate, you’ll need a relaxing al fresco banana and slash. The best place is at the far northern end of Manorway: Lidl distribution centre to right of you, bus depot to left of you, quiet footpath leading to the Thames estuary in front of you.
  3. Park your bike behind the building or the learners will use it for target practice.
  4. When you’re finished, it being late July, go back to your banana peel, leave your bike, and walk to the Thames. The blackberries along the path are OK, but they’re far better if you walk 100m right along the river bank. I collected around 25 quid’s worth at Waitrose prices between my M1 last Thursday and my M2 today. They’re quite bitter but full, so no point in waiting much longer.

    I’ve got a bit of a blackberry fetish. A decade ago I was doing something quite stressful and tiring in London, and leading a fairly ambitious nocturnal existence. On the August Bank Holiday Saturday, I cycled south to drink some of this excellent beer, but soon realised there was something wrong – even slower than usual, and a terrible sense of doom – and a couple of miles short of the festival tent all systems said no thanks. Then out of nothing, an endless hedge of blackberries, where I grazed for half an hour until I looked like a Nazi zombie (Hitler’s bicycle corps was notorious). It then occurred to me that lying in bed for a couple of days might reasonably be preceded by a couple of beers.


    But the ripest blackberries,
    Nor the mulleins topped with gold,
    Peach nor honey-locust trees,
    Nor the flowers, when all are told,

    Pleased us like the cabin, near
    Which as silver river ran,
    And where lived, for many a year,
    Christopher, the crazy man.

    Or something along those lines. I didn’t know Alice and Phoebe Cary, but I rather like them.

So, I got my licence. Now I need to buy a second-hand Piaggio Ape 50 panel van, preferably near London / Bristol.

The Organ-Grinder travelled to Erith courtesy of the Woolwich Ferry, probably London’s greatest ride.[:]