The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, July 31, 2009

Views of the world

I love reading. I wouldn't say that I read a lot, because I'm a rather slow reader - I get through an average of about a novel a month. The context has to be just right, I hate being disturbed, and as a lover of language, I rarely skim or skip. As such, I'm careful about the books I choose. I hate wasting precious reading time on rubbish books. I particularly love writing that stirs the grey cells and makes you think about the world differently in some way.

Yesterday I read a short story by Kate Atkinson from a collection in aid of Oxfam - Ox Tales: Earth. It's called Lucky We Live Now and is about a future world in which everyday materials start mutating back into their original form. So, for example, knitted jumpers turned back into sheep and silk into moths. It's a great concept and is beautifully written, but the thing that struck me most was a few lines which made me laugh out loud. I thought I'd share them here:

A kangaroo and a deer lurking in the hall cupboard proved to be an Armani jacket and a Jil Sanders coat bought in a Harvey Nichols' sale.
"You had a jacket made from kangaroo skin?" her mother said. "How extraordinary. Did it have pockets?"

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nice weather for ducks

It's been raining a lot recently, and I mean a lot. It hasn't just been the usual, boring, British drizzle. It's been rain that draws you to the window to watch, awed and mesmerised by the power of the elements.

I noticed today that my last four Facebook status updates have been about the rain! At first, I thought that was a bit sad in a rather British kind of way, but when you think about it, the weather, and its unpredictability, can have a huge impact on your day-to-day life; your mood, your movements, your plans, the cricket. Really, it's hardly surprising that we Brits talk about the weather so much and I think it's something we should be unapologetic about.

Years ago, when I was teaching mixed groups of learners studying at a language school in Cambridge, I put together a worksheet about all the words we use in English for rain. It wasn't so much intended to teach new vocabulary, as to act as a starting point for discussion about a. cultural differences in conversational topics and b. the wonderful variety and richness of English as a language and the fact that we have so many different and subtly nuanced ways of talking about the same thing. Sadly, the worksheet was put together before the age of electronic materials and has long since been lost, but I've just put together a new selection of rain words:

rain, showers, drizzle, deluge, downpour, cloudburst, a sprinkle of rain, a few spots of rain, spits and spots

pour with rain, be spitting with rain, teem down, bucket down, tip it down, fall down, pelt down, come down (in sheets/buckets), lash down, chuck it down, be pissing it down, the heavens open, be raining cats and dogs

driving, torrential, showery, patchy, heavy, steady rain

I start teaching again next week and I think if this weather continues, I might be putting together a new worksheet ...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An ex-photographer?

"So, what do you do?"

It's a question I tend to dread, especially when I don't want to get into a long complicated discussion about it. It doesn't seem to matter what answer I give - I work in publishing, I write teaching materials, I write dictionaries, I'm a lexicographer - it inevitably prompts rather predictable misconceptions or questions, which then require proper explanation.

In my continued househunting, it's a question that's cropped up several times from letting agents showing me round flats when I've mentioned that I work from home. The reactions have been varied, but the best so far was from a woman in rather a hurry and not really paying attention who turned to look at me rather puzzled and said "an ex-photographer?!"

Monday, July 20, 2009

Calming cricket

It's been a rather low, lethargic past week or so what with my aches and pains causing constant frustration and weeks of inactivity getting me down, the one calming influence though has been the cricket ...

I'm not a big cricket fan, but I understand the basics and generally take an interest in international matches. Yes, it's exciting that England have actually beaten Australia for once, but what I really love is the TMS commentary on the radio. It's just so incredibly calming and the language has a mystical quality all of its own. There's nothing quite like listening to a slow, calm BBC accent talking about slips and covers, silly mid off and short square leg. It's something akin to the shipping forecast.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Perception of Time

I did my MA after almost 10 years in the workplace. I went back to being a full-time student off the back of a particularly demanding role as an assistant director of studies at a language school. During the first term of my Masters, I thought it was a breeze. I'd go to my lectures, doing all the suggested reading and assignments, and still be finished by four o'clock each day. I couldn't understand why my fellow students were complaining about the heavy workload and struggling to keep up. I wondered whether there was something I was missing. By the end of a year of relaxing into the student lifestyle though, I too was moaning about being super busy. It's amazing how quickly your perception of time can change.

When I started on my reduced working hours a few weeks back, the days seemed to stretch endlessly. I was restless and frustrated, consciously aware of how to fill my day around the couple of hours work I was managing. I'd fill the hours with useful chores at the start of the week and soon run out of stuff to do - at least stuff that wasn't going to aggravate my pains, which rules out quite a lot of things. Somehow though, I'm now relaxing into it and days seem to be passing more easily. It's not so much about finding more stuff to fill the time as just slowing down and expecting less. I'm spending more time over things and not beating myself up about being lazy, useless or unproductive.

Working less is definitely a state of mind. Students manage it effortlessly and I guess it's something people are forced to adapt to in retirement, but it just feels a bit odd in the middle of your working life, especially when it's enforced rather chosen.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Speaking slowly and clearly

Yesterday evening we went out for a meal at a new Italian restaurant up the road. The food was great, but the Italian waiter was perhaps a bit too authentic. We realised that his English comprehension skills left a bit to be desired when he got rather confused over our order, which had to be sorted out by an English colleague.

It led to a discussion about the art of speaking English to non-native speakers. Having spent many years as an English teacher, both abroad and in this country, it's something that you get down to a fine art and it's not just about speaking very slowly and shouting!

Sometimes it's a matter of being more simple and direct, using smiles and intonation to convey politeness rather than confusing long constructions (would it be possible to .../would you mind if ...). After we'd got our order straight last night and the English waitress had taken our wine order, the Italian waiter came back and asked "Have you ordered wine?". My boyfriend started to mumble something like "Your colleague's just been over" - I jumped in with a simple "Yes, thank you" which did the job much more effectively.

And when it came to coffee, I was reminded of an incident when I lived in Greece many years ago. I was in a cafe with some British friends who were visiting. The waiter, who'd greeted us in English, came to take our order and my friend offered "CAN I HAVE acoffeewithmilkplease?" She couldn't understand why he looked so confused, but then smiled and nodded when I 'translated': "a coffee, with milk, please". Yesterday evening, a careful emphasis on the key words once again did the job "Wemighthave some COFFEE LATER" - it elicited a grateful smile and a repeated "ok, coffee, later".

It's not just about simplicity, speed and intonation. Any English teacher knows only too well the words and constructions that cause learners problems - they learn to avoid idioms and tricky phrasal verbs, for example. It's knowledge that I often wonder about passing on. I'm sure that many business people who have to communicate with non-native speakers could improve their communication skills no end with a few hints and pointers. Perhaps that's a new career direction to take me away from my desk ...

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A space to work

Yesterday was a day of huge emotional highs and lows, just one of many on the route to finding a new place to live. I'd spotted a fantastic-looking house for rent a couple of days before, went to see it yesterday lunchtime and immediately fell in love. I realised it was going to go quickly, so immediately came home and phoned my boyfriend at work. He agreed to trust my judgement and so I whizzed up to the letting agent with my deposit cheque to bags it before anyone else. I walked home full of excitement and starting to plan where my furniture would go. Little did I know that someone else had done the same thing at almost exactly the same time and in a phone call an hour later, I found I'd been gazumped! So much for the property market being slow at the moment!

Finding a place to live is always a tricky process, deciding what you're looking for and what you're prepared to compromise on, but it's complicated even further when you work from home. Not only does this mean that you need a working space, preferably not in that "smaller second bedroom", but it also means that you spend an awful lot more time in your home than if you went out to work, so the space you choose takes on a hugely important role in your life.

Oh well, I suppose I'd better get back to rightmove again in search of that perfect space ...

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

What exactly are you selling?

I've often wondered at times when I've got more work than I can cope with (for whatever reason) whether I could subcontract what I do to others. Yesterday, I got an email from a friend who's a fellow freelancer but in a completely different area of publishing, saying that work had been a bit thin on the ground recently. Seeing as I've been struggling to keep up with what I've got lately, I got to pondering whether I could train her to do some of my work.

I generally tend to think of myself as selling my time and yes, my skills too. But when I really thought about it, there's actually a really complex mix of elements that go into who I am as a professional, much of them to do with the particular mix of experiences I've had over my career. For most of the work I do, I need a certain technical knowledge of language; distinguishing adverbs from prepositions, for example (not always as easy as you might think). Then there's my knowledge, and experience, of using all the various specialist software applications and wading through pages of jargon in briefs and style guides. All that though could be taught, with a bit of time and patience. The unteachable part comes in understanding just what's relevant and important for students and teachers of English. That comes from years of being a teacher, of hanging around with teachers, of going to professional conferences and of feedback from projects I've worked on before.

I'm not trying to say I'm unique, I'm certainly not and I know of plenty of colleagues around the country with similar sets of skills. It is interesting to reflect though on just what it is I'm selling as I sit here at my desk jotting down hours to be invoiced for. It's certainly more than just my time. Perhaps I should be charging a bit more ...

Monday, July 06, 2009

Working to rule

I've been meaning to post an update on my last entry for the past couple of weeks, but I've been rather avoiding my computer when not absolutely essential.

Anyway, after my last post, I stopped working altogether for a while, pulled out of a couple of projects I was involved in, then switched off my computer at the wall! I know from long experience that the only remedy for RSI is to stop doing the things that cause the pain. So I just stopped. Anyone who's had long periods "off sick" though will know how quickly the novelty of not working turns to boredom and frustration, especially when so many of the things you'd normally do to amuse yourself are out of bounds too. I just about managed to get through three weeks, thanks to some nice sunny weather and plenty of tennis on the TV.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to get back into working very gently, being very strict with myself about only doing a very few hours a day. On a good day, I'm managing two or three hours, divided into hour-long chunks and spread across the whole day. On other days, especially towards the end of the week, I barely get through an hour before I break down and have to give up. I think the frustration is far worse than the actual pain. I so much just want to get back to normal and get on with stuff.

I've also been struggling with the dilemma of what to tell the people I work for. I came clean to some editors straight away because I had no choice. In other cases, I put it off, hoping I'd be able to manage enough work that they wouldn't need to know. But last week the strain of trying to keep up just got too much and I've now had to "come out" to everyone. It's a difficult call. As a freelancer you rely so much on your reputation, not just for producing good work, but also for being reliable. So it's very difficult to admit that you can't manage what you'd promised.

As for what happens next, I'm just taking it a day at a time. Luckily, I have my usual summer teaching stint coming up in August, which will provide the perfect excuse to stay away from my computer for a few weeks. But for the moment, I'll just keep plodding on gently and trying not to let my frustration get the better of me.