Traveller or Tourist?

Are you a traveller or a tourist?  If an item I heard recently on a radio programme is to be believed, this is an extremely loaded question.  It seems that the majority of people who write about travel on their blogs describe themselves as ‘travellers’, and rarely as ‘tourists’.

A couple of things interested me about this report, and the interview with the academic sociologist who had undertaken research on the subject.  The first was the discovery that there was an academic sociologist making a study of travellers’ tales blogs. I’d never really thought about what such a researcher actually does, but if they can study this, there must be no end of things to which they might get to the bottom.

The second was that the research was done entirely by studying posts published in blogs; very specifically, the academic had no direct contact or conversation with any of the writers.  What she discerned from her reading was that those who believe themselves to be ‘travellers’ also believe they are having a more ‘authentic’ experience, and rather look down on ‘tourists’, which is generally used in a pejorative way.

By the written word shall ye be known.

My elderly Concise Oxford dictionary offers little help in distinguishing between the two vying words: to travel is to make a journey, especially one of some length to distant countries (and, to act as a commercial traveller, or door to door sales man), while a tourist is a person who makes a tour, traveller, especially for recreation; however ‘tourist class’ is the lowest class of passenger accommodation in ship train etc, and a ‘tourist trap’ is a place that exploits tourists.

I’ve never thought much about how I would describe myself when I am at large in the world; but now that I’ve posed the question, I think I’d say I’m a tourist when I travel through one place after another.  The subjective judgemental distinction I draw in not that between tourist and traveller, but between those who travel in a group, and those who do not.  I’ve done both, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each of them.

When I did my trip around the world on my own, I treated it as a full-time project, almost as a job of work, to do the research, see the site and record my impressions; periodically I joined a group, and felt like I was on a holiday, I had to pay much less attention, I went along with the flow, I did what I was told, I ate and slept when and where I was delivered.  I relaxed, until I started feeling antsy wanting to be on a solo jaunt again.

Recently I’ve been undertaking a periodic effort to visit places in London that are on the ‘tourist trail’ but which I’ve never been to before.  One noticeable thing about most of these outings is that, as a resident Brit, I have generally been in a minority; providing anecdotal evidence that we tend not to visit the sites of interest on our doorsteps.  If we didn’t go on a school trip we may never actually visit our own national patrimony.

The only occasions I can recall rejecting being designated a tourist was when I lived in Moscow.  At the time, the entry price for many museums and galleries was one thing for Russian residents and something 100 times greater for foreign tourists.  There was always a dispute at the ticket office and we would have to go to the supervisor’s office, show the residents stamps in our passports and argue that just because we were foreign didn’t mean we were in the tourists price category.

So what are you, tourist or traveller?  And what makes one experience more ‘authentic’ than another?

Word for the Day

During his talk a few days ago, Richard Ford used the word fricative.  I don’t think I’d ever heard it before, but, from the sound of it, I felt that I knew straightaway what it meant.  It had to be something to do with the percussive sounds of consonants blown through with air, if the principles of onomatopoeia are worth anything.

Finally, yesterday I got round to looking it up in the dictionary, my parents’ well battered volume of the Oxford English, which does sterling service in support of checking spelling for their weekly crossword marathons, and just assisted me in the writing of onomatopoeia when the spellchecker let me down so woefully!

So, here you are: fricative, adjective denoting a type of consonant made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow; noun, a consonant made in this way e.g. f and the.

Richard Ford used the word in the context of describing how he constructed what, for him, were the right sentences.  He reads out his work to hear the sound of it, to know that the flow has the rhythm and cadence he wants, and so that the fricatives are doing their work harmoniously.

But with the dictionary open, it was hard to resist the other words on the page.  Fricative comes after fricassee (a dish of stewed or fried pieces of meat served in a thick white sauce), and before friction (the resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another)….. and my favourites: fribble (noun, informal, a frivolous or foolish person), and friar’s balsam (a solution containing benzoin in alcohol, used chiefly as an inhalant), and Freudian slip (an unintentional error regarded as revealing subconscious feelings).

Now, to try and write a paragraph containing all of them…… any suggestions?

Whatever’s Happened to the Word ‘Like’?

Some flowers nice enough to like

There was a time when the word ‘like’ was used, on the one hand, either as a conjunction meaning ‘similar, resembling’ or ‘in a suitable state for’  ripe with many possibilities of misinterpretation (as in ‘I feel like a black coffee’), or on the other, as a verb, meaning ‘to find agreeable, congenial or satisfactory’.

It’s always been a rather dull word, similarly inexpressive as, say, ‘nice’, a word that you would use only if you couldn’t be bothered to think of one of the many more colourful and interesting synonyms.

Perhaps its very dullness, its insipid half heartedness, is what has given it the recent supercharging in its usage.

Now there is the special kind of liking made possible by Facebook, a little flag that indicates, yes, it was interesting enough to read, but it’s not really inspired me enough to write anything original in return.  Where a ‘friend’ (a whole other minefield of new meaning lies therein) has posted something demanding mutual outrage, what a cacophony of desire for a ‘don’t like’ button is unleashed.  Disagreement requires words, agreement can now be entirely half hearted and passive.

‘Thank you for ‘liking’ the blog post on Facebook’

‘You’re welcome.  I really did actually like it; you know, like in the real world ‘liking’.’


And then there’s the way that some people litter their sentences with the word almost at random.  I’ve even caught the virus, and have heard myself say it.  It’s got to stop. Even ‘er’ and ‘um’ are preferable.

I’ve grown used to hearing people in the street

‘And I’m like, duh, and he’s like, whatever.’  They’re usually young, with shiny faces, a carrier bag from Primark in one hand and their mobile phone in the other.

Last week however I had to step to the side of the pavement to allow two people, who had been having a conversation too close to my ear, to walk past me, specifically so I could look at them, so far from the stereotype did they sound.

‘So I like go, the warranties and indemnities just won’t wash.’

‘Sounds like the right way to deal with him, innit?’

And he’s like but this is like a negotiation. There’s gotta be compromise. And I go, so like, I’m listening.’

Two young women in black suits, carrying a couple of lever arch files each, grey handbags adorned with too many buckles over their shoulders, tottering on high patent leather heels, heads down, so deep in their own world they don’t notice me making notes.

I want  both to thank them for making me challenge my prejudices and to shout after them ‘Talk proper, innit!’

Laughable or Funny?

I’m continue to be fascinated by the search terms people have used which have led them to this blog.  The regular searches for ‘houses with yellow front doors’ is particularly intriguing; not that they arrive here, because I wrote a post on the subject, but that there are so many people looking for such a thing online.  Why?

Sometimes a smile is all you need

Recently there has been a peak in searches for ‘sense of humour’, which of itself is amusing to me, as the only post I’ve written on the subject is about the frequent failure of mine when faced with mainstream comedy.

It’s the example I always use if someone asks me to explain that writing  instruction that one must ‘show not tell’.  Rather than tell the reader that something was funny, you have to write an amusing scene, because for a reader like me, as soon as I see that something has been described as ‘hilarious’ or ‘side-splitting’, I immediately think ‘I bet it wasn’t. Prove it.’

Amusement is such a personal response that it can’t be forced or predicted.  A few months ago I went to a comedy  night in the basement of a pub in Crouch End .  It was perhaps unfortunate that I didn’t get there early enough not to have to sit right in the middle of the front row.   It was probably more unfortunate that I didn’t find the compère amusing, and that, even though I was making a conscious effort to keep as neutral an expression on my face as I could, whatever he saw there brought out the aggressive side of his nature.  He started haranguing me for not finding him funny; a strategy I couldn’t help but feel was somewhat misplaced, and one which was unlikely to convert me.

Fortunately, there is nothing more entertaining than telling the tale of an entirely unfunny comedian, once the torture of having to listen to them has ceased.

And this has led me to that ‘laughing at’ or ‘laughing with’ distinction; one a joyful sharing of an experience, the other something more cruel (but let’s be honest, not necessarily less enjoyable).

There are other subtle distinctions of language in this area, which enrich our usage of it, but which must also add to the pitfalls waiting for the person trying to learn English.  What of the difference between ‘funny’ and ‘laughable’?

I had fun looking them up in the thesaurus (each to their own entertainment, after all)

‘Funny’ can be amusing, comical, droll, witty (and might make you laugh) or  odd, quaint, weird, peculiar and  strange (which probably won’t).

‘Laughable’ on the other hand, could never be described as a good thing, being risible, pitiful, pathetic, ridiculous, absurd, preposterous, ludicrous, embarrassing, inadequate, derisory and mediocre.  I do find it interesting that the list of synonyms for this is longer than that for ‘funny’.  What does this say about us, I wonder?

I couldn’t resist looking up ‘Funny’ in the dictionary, where the most amusing thing I learnt was the word before it is ‘funniosity’ which, even though spellchecker doesn’t like it, is a real word, and not something made up by a judge on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ as you might otherwise suppose, and means ‘a comical thing’.

So, your task for today is to use it in a sentence!

Passion and emotion inflation

Earlier this week I went to see ‘Rocket to the Moon’ at the National Theatre.

Written by Clifford Odets in the late 1930s, it is set in a New York Dentist’s office and features sharp, crackling dialogue fashionable in comedies of that period.  The story centres around the impact of the arrival of a young woman to work as receptionist assistant on the dentist who feels he is trapped in a dull marriage.  Complication is added through the attachment his father in law also develops for the young woman.

At the climax, the dentist fails to seize the chance of throwing up his stable life in return for the love of the woman.  His passion for her isn’t enough to give him the courage to take the big risk he dreamed of.

It was an old fashioned play, and fidgeted quite a lot in the first half, waiting for something to happen through all the set up.  But I’m glad I stayed to the end, as it was more thought provoking about youth and the need to seize life’s opportunities, than first indications suggested.

On the way to the theatre on the Tube I overheard a conversation between two be-suited young men I decided were salesmen, which went along the lines of

‘Yeah, I’m really passionate about that product.’

‘Yeah.  Me too.  And the job.  I’m passionate about the job.’

While I was sitting in the lobby at the National waiting for the play to start I noticed that the  strapline on the poster for the show promised ‘In the heat of 1930s New York, passion and the promise of escape turn one man’s world upside down.’

And it started me thinking about the words ‘passion’ and passionate.

It’s impossible to meet a person who claims to be serious about the quality of the service they provide, or someone starting up their own new business, without them describing themselves as ‘passionate’ about this, that and the other; things that I would only ever manage to muster a modicum of passing interest in.  It goes along with someone telling me they always give 110%.

I’ve always felt that this is rather over egging a bit of enthusiasm and a desire to succeed; all inflation and exaggeration.  It’s the insincere hyperbole of Regan and Goneril, when what you really want is the measured honesty of a Cordelia.

Passion suggests something irrational and out of control to me, so of course I consulted the dictionary to check out the definition.

It gives the following definition of ‘passion’: ‘Strong emotion; outburst of anger; sexual love; strong enthusiasm; as well as the suffering of Christ on the Cross’.

‘Passionate’ is ‘dominated by strong feeling, especially love or anger’.

I’m not sure I’d really want to do business with someone who is ‘dominated’ by strong feelings of any kind.

I don’t think I’ve ever been remotely passionate about any job I’ve done.  Some have been torture, but I’ve enjoyed a couple; I’ve had days which have generated a certain degree of satisfaction and, once, I even felt personally upset when a commercial deal, on which I’d worked very hard, collapsed when my employer was outbid.

Maybe I’m too much of an accountant, or too cynical, or I just resist the exaggeration of the word and its application to something commercial; it should be about untidy, unbridled emotion and reaction to the vital essence of life and relationships, not vacuum cleaners or their equivalents.

And anyway, as the play illustrated, passion won’t necessarily make you choose the most rewarding option.


'Luxury' boutique hotel

What’s your idea of luxury?

A hotel suite with big fluffy towels, a dedicated butler and a private infinity pool?  Or is it a few moments alone in the quiet, with a good book and a bar of chocolate?  Or maybe someone else offering to do the washing up?

We probably all have out own idea and it will change with our circumstances, but it will be a moment of pleasure, of something out of the ordinary that makes us feel pampered, something enjoyable that is not essential.  But if we get used to it, its status as luxurious may tarnish and it may be demoted to the ordinary.

I vividly recall the first time I travelled in business class on a trans-atlantic flight.  As I was rolling up my coat to put it in the overhead locker a crew member rushed over and offered to hang it in the wardrobe for me.  My profuse thanks clearly amused her.  By the time I had been furnished with a newspaper, a glass of champagne and a hot towel I was nearly beside myself with the enjoyment of it all, before they’d even done the safety briefing.

After six monthly trips to Newark I had become so habituated to the pre flight routine that if my coat wasn’t taken from me within a few moments of arriving at my seat I would be standing, sometimes rather impatiently, holding it out hanging from one finger, willing someone to come and relieve me of it.

One woman’s luxury might be another’s torture.  Sleeping in a hotel bed with crisp white sheets, ironed and straightened by someone else, might be my idea of heaven, but you may prefer the comfort of your own bed.  I might like a long leisurely cup of coffee in the morning, you might be antsy if  you can’t get up and out straight away.

What started me thinking about this word was reading a billboard advertising the building of yet more ‘luxury apartments’.  Does anyone build flats that aren’t ‘luxury’ these days?  And why do we use ‘luxury’ as the adjective, rather than ‘luxurious’?

The dictionary offers the definition ‘choice or costly food, dress, furniture, etc; things that one enjoys, thing desirable for comfort or enjoyment but not indispensable; comfortable and expensive.’

‘Expensive’ being the key, I suspect, to all those ‘luxury flats’!

Our own definition may rely mainly, on what, for us, is our scarce resource at any given time.  When I had little money, an extra little comfort I didn’t have to pay for was something to luxuriate in; when I was working, a morning when I didn’t have to get dressed up to be somewhere on time, was the ultimate self indulgence.

It’s not an objective standard, then; and today I’ll try to think of everything as just that little bit enjoyable.


How would you feel if someone described you as ‘formidable’?

Now, that's formidable. The Hoover Dam

A couple of days ago my friend J told me about a conversation she’d had with a colleague.  The colleague had told J that in the period they had been working together, she thought J had developed into a really formidable woman.

In the subsequent conversation it transpired that it had been meant as a compliment, although J had not initially understood it as such and had been rather taken aback.

When she asked me, I agreed that the image the words ‘formidable woman’ conjures is that of a battle-axe felling everything in her path; and J is most certainly not that.  We pondered how it might be construed as complimentary, and the best I could come up with at the time was an idea of admirable strength.

I tried out the idea of  ‘a formidable intellect’, but that still had a feel of something against which one wouldn’t necessarily have to pit oneself.

If you say it with a French accent it has a certain élan and suggests a celebration of the purely splendid; but none of us had the right accent.

I looked the word up in the dictionary, as frequently I can discover that I’ve not always understood the full elasticity of certain words.

In my OED ‘formidable’ comes between ‘formication’ (the sensation of ants crawling over the skin – who knew there was a word for that?  And even though my spell-checker has rejected it, it’s such an excellent word I’m going to have to find a way to use it!), and ‘formless’ (without determinate or recognisable form; not at all so interesting….)

But here we are: ‘Formidable’ – ‘to be dreaded or viewed with respect; likely to be hard to overcome, resist or deal with’.

So we were right; there’s not much room for manoeuvre there and not an adjective that one would seek out to describe oneself.

I  was interested though to see that to be dreaded and to be respected, if the definition is to be believed, have little to qualitatively distinguish them one from the other.

Is ‘respect’  a word for which the meaning is changing?  In contemporary common usage it encompasses a feeling of admiration that is lacking in the dictionary definition of implied deference.

In the meantime, I’ll offer ‘fabulous’ as an alternative ‘F’ word…..’incredible or marvellous’.


Special and Essential

Would you rather be ‘special’ or ‘essential’?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering since Barak Obama and David Cameron declared that the relationship between the UK and the US is no longer ‘special’, but is now ‘essential’.

According to one analyst on the news, in the ‘special’ period the was the risk of the impression that Britain was a bit desperate, and begging to be reassured that we were important to America, whereas in this new age of the essential, it is a more grown up period of interdependency.

Nick Robinson, the BBC political editor suggested that we think about this semantic difference in the context of a long term personal relationship.  ‘Special’ is the adjective for the first flush of a romance, ‘essential’ comes with age and experience and a pragmatic lessening of emotion.

All this smacked to me of words games, so, of course, I consulted my dictionary.

‘Special’ denotes something of a particular kind, peculiar, not general, or for a particular purpose, or exceptional in amount or degree or intensity.


‘Essential’ means of, or constituting, a thing’s essence, indispensable, or exceedingly important.


It seems there is a comparative element to specialness, whereas the essential is something that is inherent; something that you have to have whether you want it or not.

Or maybe, sometimes you want something that little bit special, but you’ll always need the essential.

I guess both could describe something good or something bad; something especially unpleasant or a necessary evil.

So looked at objectively, dictionary in hand, it just looks like a bit of rebranding, like when they changed the name of ‘Snickers’ to ‘Marathon’, and Opal Fruits to something that I keep forgetting, condemning me to receiving patronising stares from the trainee at the hairdressers  when I say that the shampoo smells a bit like them.

Let’s hope it’s successful and not like the rechristening of the Post Office to Consignia, before being expensively changed back, or that period when British Airways painted each of its aircraft with a different design, confusing everyone.

Fungible blondes

‘Fungible’ is a word I first came across when I was doing my accountancy training, and, I’ll admit, it has limited usefulness; but there are sometimes when it just pops into my head as entirely appropriate for the meaning I wish to express; usually in circumstances where it might cause eyebrows to raise.

The dictionary (between, joyfully, ‘funereal’ and ‘fungicide’) offers the following meaning:  that can serve for, or be replaced by another answering to the same definition (of goods etc contracted for, when an individual specimen is not meant).

An example might be that if I lend you £10, when you return it to me I would not require that you return the exact same £10 note that I gave you.  One £10 note has the same value as any other £10 note, assuming they are both legal tender and not forgeries, and I’ll take any one.

It is that idea of it not mattering whether it’s this one or that one, as they are pretty much the same, especially when other people are highlighting the vanishingly small differences between them, that I tempts me most to use the word.

A couple of days ago I was sitting in a coffee shop in Marylebone High Street, people-watching through the window when I noticed the advertising poster in the window of the adjacent jewellery shop.  The photograph was of a woman I’m fairly sure is on UK television.  Trouble is, I’m not sure which one: there are several blonde women who do presenting jobs on light entertainment programmes, and they all look pretty much the same and do pretty much the same thing, standing next to an older, greyer man, reading from an auto-cue.

And it was then that it dawned on me: there’s a factory somewhere producing fungible blondes for telly. It’s quite a scary thought, but it would explain quite a lot.

Would I be the only person not to be able to tell the difference if one week they switched the one who does the pro-celebrity ballroom dancing with the one who does the pro-celebrity ice skating? (Or have I already revealed my complete ignorance….. are they both the same woman?)

I’m sure I’m insulting ‘consummate professionals’ (that is the phrase isn’t it?), but if you can explain to me the differences between them without making reference to the programmes on which they appear so that I can tell them apart next time I see a picture of one of them in a shop window, I will stand corrected.


I woke up early yesterday morning; too early, so in an effort to lull myself back to sleep I turned the radio on.  The BBC World Service  news was holding all other stories waiting to switch to a live speech from President Obama.  It was in that half awake half light of just before dawn that I listened to the announcement of the killing of Bin Laden by US Special Forces.

Through the surreal quality of the experience one sentence in the speech stuck in my head.  …'[I] authorized an operation to get Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice.’

The word ‘justice’ when used by the holder of high elected office, to me, brings with it an expectation of a judicial act, not a military one.

I don’t disagree with the outcome, but I wish there could be more honesty about what has just happened, especially in the words that are being used.  This was retribution, vengeance, revenge, state sponsored assassination, and I would have more respect for the actions and the people behind them if they could look steadily out from my television screen and speak the truth.

No effort was made to ‘bring him to justice’.  He was wanted ‘dead or alive’, and although that phrase was GW Bush’s, the ‘surgical strike’ and ‘fire fight’ last night lived up to the Wild West imagery of ‘instant rough justice’.

I am a freedom fighter, you are a terrorist.  I seek justice, you wreak revenge.

Maybe I am splitting hairs, but words are important, and the choice of vocabulary matters.

Meanwhile, the first headline I saw on my home page when I logged on to the internet yesterday morning was ‘Celebrities’ reactions to death of OBL’.   So I  must away and check in on what Posh and Becks have to say about the news.

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