I’m always fascinated by words that show how another society structures things – the minute divisions of otherwise joined emotions; the “moods” in Russian that show whether something is finished, ongoing or repeating, and categories.

The Chinese word “tiao” is one of the latter, and part of a grouping system that characterises pearls, bullets, teeth and stars as rounded like a kernel, needles, bananas and chopsticks as thin-slender, and bed sheets, bars of soap, dragons, rivers, avenues, trousers and news as “tiao” (long-narrow-shape).

Apparently groupings were applied to first to objects that could be held or picked up, then natural phenomenon and then metaphorical definition, eg news is “tiao” because of how it was initially written down in narrow columns of text.

Completely fascinating and some great definitions here.

Bread and ashes

Tabasarn, in south-eastern Daghestan, spoken by about 90,000 has, I was once assured by a tipsy linguist, eight genders. Scholars, he assured me, enjoyed introducing new, unfamiliar objects to the Tamasars to see which gender might be assigned. Apparently a samovar was unanimously assigned to the seventh gender, though no one could say why.


A typically hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy type intervention from this delightful book that talks you through the politics, landscape, history and languages of this region, along with a good smattering of rollicking travel tales (Tony’s friend Chris generally sleeping upright in his green sleeping bag like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, and staring at the local cheese trying to decide whether it would make his hangover better or worse.)

Here’s some more on the local linguistic melting pot:

Many languages here have a prolix proliferation of cases: one analysis of  Tsez identified forty-two different locative case markers, which can describe precisely what space someone or something is in, at, under, by, near, away from: a hollow space, a flat space, a space that might be a trifle uncomfortable or sadly lacking in alcohol…Abkhaz, a notoriously difficult language, has fifty-eight [consonants] ; one of its dialects, Bzyp, has sixty-seven…Essed Bey insisted that Tabarsarn was so difficult that the Tabasars…preferred to speak an easier, neighbouring tongue.

Your email back, however

Synaesthete would like to meet

Other synaesthetes describe their experiences as pleasant whilst for me it is a constant sensory overload…. pick up any cheap paperback that uses too many mixed metaphors and that is my day to day, with all attempts at clarity squandered by confusing, muddled leaps of imagery. I see fireflies when a tyre screeches, smell fried onions when I step on an upturned plug…

Online dating marked a huge step. At first I found the profile I created absolutely disgusting. Reading through it, the paragraph smelt of tar and vinegar and was full of sticky, tooth-chewing words. I had no hope of response to such a squalid, acrid thing, and imagined that anyone to whom it might in any way appeal must have some kind of perversion I did not want to share. You must understand that it was not just that I did not have high hopes, I actively dreaded who would be interested in such a thing. I gave it to my doctor to edit, and he gave me two thumbs up, but I could tell by his tweedy, neoprenaged vowels, he was just being kind.

Your email back, however, smelt like a sea breeze: that was all it took. I didn’t have to read about the interests you listed, your hobbies or your star sign. It was that sea breeze smell, cutting through the snow and mown grass, that convinced me this was a chance I had to take. I organised a meeting.

You chose a spot at Piccadilly, within sight of Eros and the Criterion. I like Piccadilly Circus; the exhaust fumes and the chatter present me with a fresh inky blue, it’s almost precisely the colour of the line on the Tube map. To me the flashing neon adverts are a barbershop quartet suffering the giggles, which pleases me, and the tourists’ interbraiding accents cause a firework display of neurological responses. The taxi drivers’ swearing is accompanied by different shades of silver, squeaky and lickable.

As I waited, the rain made a pink overture against my jacket. And your colour, when you introduced yourself? You must not be insulted, but you were blank. A soundless, tasteless, brilliant blank.


From “Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams”, a book I’m rushing to buy after hearing this extract read aloud on the Backlisted podcast.

The red gleam…

On a pouring wet Sunday night in December last year a special meeting was held at the House of the Sacred Flame in Knocklatchers Row…Nigel Bathgate, looking disconsolately out of his window in Chester Terrace, noticed its sign for the first time. It was a small hanging sign made of red glass and shaped to represent a flame rising from a cup. Its facets caught the light as a gust of wind blew the sign back. Nigel saw the red gleam…

An atmospheric opening to Ngaio Marsh’s “Death in Ecstasy”. Such clever writing; as well as setting a strong sense of atmosphere, all the psychological clues are already there. Marsh is so good at mood, whether it’s a tense evening party, a shabby artists’ colony or wet, dark night.



I’m finally reading this book, which my father gave to me a couple of years ago, and I’m reading it with my iPhone in my hand so I can google this:


and this:


and this:


and this (which is actually in Venice, but which bears the same name as a less famous church which Farrell discusses.)


images: Aci Castello, Chiesa San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi, Santa Maria dei Miracoli (all from Wikipedia), “St Jerome in his study” by Antonello da Messina (via Wikimedia)

Things I won’t miss

Things I won’t miss

Bar mitzvahs


The sound of the vacuum cleaner


Email. I know I already said it, but I want to emphasize it.

Small print

Panels on Women in Film

Taking off makeup every night


Things I will miss


The view out the window

Next year in Istanbul

The Christmas tree

Taking a bath

Pride and Prejudice



I love a good list.

With apologies to Nora Ephron, as adapted from two lists printed in “The Most of Nora Ephron”


What happened in 1585 – 95 that the French verb blandir (to soothe, caress, coax or flatter) around from the 1300s suddenly acquired an English noun, blandishments?

Possibly a rash of smooth-talkers down the local tavern or an outbreak of particularly wily politicians at court. Or maybe the English just started eating lots of this:


It does look quite nice for a sore throat.

No doubt the real answer involves Shakespeare having something to do with it.