Lost for words

Lost for words

“There must be a German word for it,” I said, as we breezed past the entrance gate. The magnificent sandstone facade of the house, basking in the evening sun, suddenly shot into in my rear view mirror.

“German word for what?” asked my wife.

“Realising that was your turning, just after you’ve gone past it.”

“Hoffnungslosverloren probably.”

No harm, after all this wasn’t Junction 6 of the M25 but a quiet D road in rural France. I reversed the offending 150 meters and wound the window down. Our host was waiting by the gate…

One of my favourite borrowed words in the English language is schadenfreude – taking delight in the misfortunes of others. Though one of those German composite words, it describes a very British obsession.

Oscar Wilde, in more mannered times, suggested that philosophy teaches us to bear the misfortunes of others with equanimity. These days, we prefer to celebrate the misfortunes of others with a great deal of enthusiasm and, to feed our appetites, the tabloid press stages elaborate sting operations to entrap much loved public figures into committing humiliating and career-destroying acts of hubris.

Now there’s a word. Hubris. Another borrowed word that describes the sort of pride that goes before a fall. Hubris is that sublime but misplaced sense of entitlement that politicians, bestselling authors, minor royals and football managers suffer from up to the moment just before they are stung. Sometimes, these stings happen to really quite likeable people but the fact that very often they do not, merely serves to heighten our enjoyment.

If I like words so much, why are they so difficult to come by? Asking a friend by email some months back to write something for the greyhares blog, he replied that he was keen to do so but writing is one of the few things that brings out the perfectionist in him, so not to wait up. I know exactly what he means. Obsessive polishing and burnishing but never finishing is a maddening trait, even in oneself.

I really should have no excuse. After all, I more or less earn a living by writing things. I lay no claim to literary accomplishment but nevertheless, some would say that dreaming up brand names and marketing slogans and writing punchy copy for emails and web pages is a form of writing. The output is rarely measured in hundreds of words a day or even dozens of words a day. The concision required to capture somebody’s attention in the 4 seconds before they hit the delete key doesn’t offer much opportunity for embellishment. I have trained myself to sum something up in as few words as possible… and then to cut out half of them. Less is more. My problem arises when I have to write 800 of them.

Had I been paying attention when the careers advice was being handed out I think I might like to have been a sub-editor on one of the aforementioned tabloids. The kind of cushy job that involves dressing up others people’s work with a catchy and sometimes tenuous headline and an inappropriate picture. It would have been somebody like me who dreamt up the legendary Daily Sketch headline that accompanied a story about the problems that newly married couples were having in raising money for mortgage deposits: Mounting Difficulties for Newlyweds. Sadly, I can find no reference to this headline anywhere. Perhaps I really did dream it up.

Being the editor of a commercial blog (on the rather arcane subject of ‘electronic discovery’ for litigation lawyers) is about as close as I get to that kind of power. A recent post by my clever and prolific co-blogger, Charles Holloway, refers in passing to the claim that Kim Jong Il, the notorious North Korean tyrant dictator*, is said to have 1200 titles to his name. My contribution was the headline: You are only Jong 1200 times.

Back at the gate, I was berating my host in a most ungrateful way.

“Blimey, Mike, this place is hard to find – it’s taken us two days! You could do with a simple web site; you know the kind of thing, maps, idiot-proof directions, that sort of stuff. It’ll only take 10 minutes. I’ll knock one out before breakfast tomorrow.”

At this provocation, my wife dug me in the ribs. “You can’t do that. You know it will take you hours and hours, days more like, and we are supposed to be on holiday.” Mike agreed.

Ten years later, the web site isn’t quite finished but it soon will be.

Had I been paying attention (do I ever) I should have realised that my wife was only trying to save me from the consequences of a congenital tendency to underestimate the complex nature of apparently simple tasks.

Now, there must be a German word for that.


*Charles Holloway, the Smart e-Discovery blog, 9th July, 2010

One comment on “Lost for words
  1. Jack Humphrys says:

    I enjoyed greatly Lost for Words which reminded me that it is just because English so readily takes on new words that it has become such a wonderful (and international) language. It is interesting that according to the French, English is the idiom of the masses and so driven by the people. French, on the other hand, is the idiom of the elite who control it through their stultifying Academy Francaise. Having said this, French (rather than the German) might be able to offer the expression you were after, as you drove past your friend’s house. It is ‘faute de’, which means ‘due to a lack of’. So you drove past your friend’s house ‘faute de panneau’ – because of a lack of/for want of a ‘panneau’ (a ‘sign’). It has always struck me as a neat construction.

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