December, 2011


Fur flies as Tories get caught in cat-flap – but is it a catastrophe?

If you don’t like puns, or cats for that matter, step away from this blog post now. Home Secretary, Theresa May’s blunder at the Tory party conference yesterday unleashed a flurry of cat related comments from the media who have been in pun heaven.

‘Clarke mocks May as catfight over human rights dogs the Tories,’ taunts today’s Guardian on page eight. While the headline on page 10 of the Independent states, ‘Fur flies between Clarke and May as cat tale starts immigration row’. And last night’s BBC news programmes purr-sued the story with similar glee (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Can’t you just imagine the Cheshire Cat sized grins on journalists’ faces as they opened their laptops after May’s speech?

She couldn’t have given them a better pet to play with. There are lots of purrfect cat-related terms to use in ameowsing headlines for this sorry tale. And so many of our words are prefixed with cat

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What’s the origin of Indian Summer?



Old Scotney Castle

There I was tootling along the M25 yesterday, on my way to Scotney Castle in Kent to meet a friend. It was a beautiful day and given the wet summer we’ve had, the glorious sunshine came as a welcome surprise. “Perhaps we’ll have an Indian Summer,” I said to myself. Then I started to wonder where the term comes from.

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Household words* – what our language owes to Shakespeare

The Yvonne Arnaud's striking Macbeth poster

I went to see a production of Macbeth on Tuesday night by the Icarus Theatre Collective at The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford.

The staging was stark, dark and fabulous, and sitting there watching some excellent performances from the small cast of seven, I was reminded how much our language owes to Shakespeare.

OK. I know you Bard haters and detractors will disagree but so many of his phrases are still commonplace in our language almost four centuries after his death. 

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Coast magazine feature on Dungeness artist

In my post of I September, ‘Painting with Words at Dungeness’ I wrote about the work of Dungeness artist, Paddy Hamilton who is working on series of paintings that use words. Well, more correctly, they use letters because Paddy is developing a new font called Dungeness.

There’s a fabulous six-page spread in this month’s Coast magazine on Paddy and his partner and fellow artist, Helen Gillian. And there, in the background of one of the photos is the piece of work I bought from Paddy on our last visit!

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Grabbing the headlines

Grabbing the headlines

Whatever we think of the reporting standards in our national newspapers, they have given us some great headlines over the years.

One of my personal favourites is The Sun’s “Super Cally go ballasitc, Celtic are atrocious” following Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s 3-1 win over Celtic in the Scottish Cup in 2000.

I spotted one of a slightly more sophisticated nature on the front page of The Guardian in April and have been meaning to write a post based on it ever since. It accompanied a front-page story by the paper’s Paris correspondent, Angelique Chrisafis. She was writing about the alleged outrage of notorious French riot police – the Compagnie Repulicaines de Securite (CRS) on hearing they would no longer be allowed to drink alcohol with their lunch.

Apparently, up until now, even packed lunches provided to the CRS out of riot vans while they were patrolling demos, came with a can of beer or glass of wine. And the headline?

“Riot squad sees rouge as police vin gets bottled.”

It’s tempting to think that good headlines are the result of a flash of inspiration (an old stalwart, by the way, when I was Head of Press and PR for Nikon UK and writing about the company’s flashlights – yes I know, I know). But the majority of strong, memorable, and more importantly, effective headlines take time and a great deal of hard work.

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Painting with words at Dungeness

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about paintings that feature words after I’d been to the Royal Academy Summer Show. A week later we went to Dungeness and called in to see our friends, Paddy Hamilton and Helen Gillian at Dungeness Open Studios.  And there, in both studios, was a series of new works composed exclusively in letters and compound phrases.

The works feature words made up from a new font Paddy is developing together with graphic designer friend, Andrew Sullivan of Blacknight Design The font will be called Dungeness and should be available later this year.

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Painting with words

After weeks of promising myself a visit, I only just made it to this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition before it closed on Monday 15 August.

As always it was a mixed bag and there was lots to see but I was particularly drawn to three pieces of work that used words rather than images.

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Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in lost online sales

BBC News online ran an interesting article the other day about how spelling mistakes on websites can lead to lost sales.  According to online entrepreneur, Charles Duncombe, an analysis of website figures shows a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half.

I actually find it heartening in a way that correct spelling and grammar still matter so much to people, and that they are seen as an indicator of trust.

Mr Duncombe believes bad spelling makes people doubt a website’s credibility, ‘When there are underlying concerns about fraud and safety, then getting the basics right is essential,’ he says.

It’s a good point. I also think it says a great deal about a company’s attention to detail. If they can’t get the details of their own communications correct, then what will their product and customer service be like? (I’m now panicking like mad that there may be glaring typos in this article!)

I picked up a blog post in a similar vein from a link on Twitter. In ‘Why spelling and grammar matter in marketing’Kara Sassone cites an instance of how the English language frequently trips us up with words that sound similar, have similar spellings, but have different meanings.

Apparently, the  NBC-owned @BreakingNews Twitter account tweeted that the President would have a ‘personal’ statement on Monday. Naturally, people began to speculate about what that statement might be. And those who wondered if it was a typo were spot on; it should have been ‘personnel’ statement. Nice to know it happens to the best of us.

I’m going to admit something here that may surprise (and even disappoint) you. Spelling is not my very best subject. There. I said it. But because I know that, I’m doubly cautious.

I know if a word doesn’t look right even if I don’t immediately know the correct spelling, but I make good use of my dictionary and online tools.

I’m also very cautious with Word’s spell-checker because of the US English default. I’m always banging on about the need to keep your audience in mind when you write, and there’s no doubt that some Americanisms and American spellings really do grate with UK audiences. And if you did have any doubts take a look Matthew Engle’s article on that very subject.

A guide to British v American spelling

I found this handy (rough) guide to the main differences in spelling between British and American English and I hope you find it useful too.

It comes courtesy of the Westfield House of Theological Studies, Cambridge



Is social media making us less polite?

I’m a big fan of social media: blogging and Twitter in particular. It’s positive and opens up opportunities we might not otherwise stumble across. It’s made us more communicative and we can have conversations with people we’d never get to meet in the real world. It’s made us more generous towards each other as we freely share information and our time.

However, I’ve noticed another, less smiley, less considerate, and quite frankly, downright rude side to it.

Have you ever had a comment submitted to your blog that tore into your opinions, or maybe ripped apart your writing? Or perhaps a tweet that was a little less than polite? And what about some of the comment threads on other people’s blogs? I’ve even seen a Facebook thread between two people under their mutual friend’s update that became more and more irate with each comment. The mutual friend had to step in eventually to break them up!

A little while ago, my blog link to Twitter failed and someone left a tweet that read: ‘er – link!’ I know we only have 140 characters to play with but brevity isn’t an excuse for rudeness, and nor is anonymity.

But it was a recent comment submitted to my blog that prompted me to write this article. It was so vitriolic I thought it was spam and treated it as such. It was only as I pondered it later that I realised it was for real.

The author tore into my writing, picking me up on various grammatical offences and ended with what was clearly intended to be a stinging insult by saying they supposed it wasn’t bad for a PR practitioner!  (I’m not by the way, so I don’t know if that makes my crimes even worse).

The sad thing is, the post was a really positive one about something I’d thought was particularly good. The author completely missed the point.

Now don’t get me wrong: feedback is valuable. If I’m committing obvious grammatical errors in my writing, then I need to know – it’s how I make my living after all. The things the author picked me up on were all subjective, so I’m not going to abandon my career and become a hermit just yet.

My point is this: would that person have delivered feedback in such an angry, rude, and yes, hurtful way had they been standing in a room face-to-face with me? I seriously doubt it.

Just because we can hide behind an IP address or email account doesn’t  mean we should behave with any less respect or courtesy online than we would off-line.

In an article for The Observer, Sunday 24 July, ‘How the internet created an age of rage’, journalist Tim Adams explores internet anonymity in greater depth. He opens by suggesting that, “The worldwide web has made critics of us all. But with commenters able to hide behind a cloak of anonymity, the blog and chatroom have become forums for hatred and bile”.

Apparently psychologists call it deindividuation’.

While the comment left on my blog was nothing compared to the bile mentioned in Adams’s article, it was never the less done without any attempt at constructive feedback.

So, as much as you would in the real world, think before you deliver criticism online.  What’s the purpose of your feedback? Are you giving it to be helpful? I’m assuming the answer will be yes, otherwise why bother? Have you been asked for your feedback? Even if you have, you should consider the effect your words will have and choose them carefully.

And most of all, would you like to be on the receiving end of your words?






Hello. I'm Elaine, I'm a copywriter and this is my blog.

It's mostly about words and writing - things that inspire me, entertain me, and make me smile. Sometimes it's about things that horrify me so much I want to scream and shout!

I hope you enjoy it and find it useful. And speaking of useful - scroll down and take a look at the Oxford Dictionaries tool.

Click here to find out a bit more about me.

Word Alchemy Blog