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29 May 2020

In search of the ramkie in the Karoo and the Olifants River Valley

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Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper is a researcher and writer with an expertise in mythology and folklore. Since 2011, he has been recording and investigating the culture of Afrikaans-speaking Khoisan descendants living in rural areas in the Western Cape and the Northern Cape provinces of South Africa. In March 2018, he carried out field work with the support of the British Library which focussed on music. Jose Manuel's previous field work had been devoted to understanding and documenting narrative traditions and oral histories.

The Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper Collection has recently been made accessible at the British Library though until Reading Rooms re-open, readers won't be able to access the videos that make up this collection. For now you can browse Jose Manuel's detailed catalogue entries on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue under collection number C1760. As an introduction to the collection, Jose Manuel has written a guest blog post about his encounters with the ramkie instrument in his field work.

In October 2012, while on a field trip, at a lovely restaurant and junk-shop that has the unlikely name of Williston Mall, in the South African Karoo town of that same name, my wife Helena and I saw a magnificent ramkie made of wood. The price was very affordable, so the temptation to purchase it was strong, but since my wife and I were about to return to Spain in December, after more than two years living in South Africa, and had plenty of things to pack, I finally decided to give up the beautiful instrument. Of course, it was not long before I regretted that decision.

A year and a half later, in April 2014, another field trip brought me again to Williston. Of course, at the first opportunity Helena and I went to the mall with some hope that perhaps the item we had not bought in our previous visit would still be there. Stranger things have happened to us in the Karoo. But just as we were asking one of the owners of the place about the ramkie, I saw it hanging from one of the walls, among other not-for-sale items. Fortunately, noticing our disappointment, our interlocutor said he was going to give, rather than sell, us another ramkie, and soon we had it in our hands.

Ramkie
Ramkie made with a primus stove, given to the author in Williston

Made from the tanks of two Primus stoves, the instrument is a fine example of the Karoo folk luthiers’ ingenuity for making the most of whatever is at hand. I would rather have had the other one, but this was certainly an excellent consolation prize. By then, the ramkie had become for me more than a mere curiosity, since it featured in some of the most intriguing stories I had been recording in the Karoo and neighbouring areas. More on this later.

The ramkie is a string instrument similar to a guitar. According to the eminent musicologist Percival R. Kirby, in his monumental book The Musical Instruments of the Indigenous People of South Africa (first published in 1934), the name comes from the Portuguese rabequinha, meaning “a little violin”, and the instrument “shows traces of Portuguese influence”. The earliest mention of the instrument, Kirby writes, comes from the 18th century German author O. F. Mentzel, who lived in the Cape from 1733 to 1741. Mentzel attributes a Malabar origin to the ramkie, but according to Kirby “it is either definitely of Portuguese origin, or else a hybrid instrument”. It was soon adopted with enthusiasm by the Khoisan servants of the European colonisers. Originally made using as a resonator a calabash to which a wood handle was attached, as described by Mentzel, it normally had three or four strings which were plucked, not bowed. Different accounts by early travellers suggest that variations in the material used for the resonator appeared early on. In recent times it is usually made with a 5 litre oil can, hence the name of blik kitaar, “tin guitar” in Afrikaans, by which it is also known.

When in March 2018 I undertook a field trip to the Olifants River Valley and parts of the Upper Karoo, one of my main objectives was to find out if the instrument was still alive among the rural, Afrikaans-speaking communities of those areas, most of whose members descend from the original Khoisan inhabitants of that part of southern Africa. I wanted to record, if possible, people playing it, to film the making of one and even bring at least one to the British Library if I was fortunate enough to obtain it.

In the event, what I could mostly do was gather memories of the instrument, yet memories that, to my surprise, were of not so long ago. The majority of the musicians I interviewed were middle-aged people who now played the guitar but had learnt music in their youth by observing a parent, a relative or a friend play the ramkie. At some point, many had made their own instrument, usually with the 5 litre oil can.

The very first person, my assistant Patrick Hanekom and I interviewed, had learnt to play in this way. He was Alfred Basson, of Clanwilliam, who had grown in the Heunnigvlei area of the Wupperthal Mission, in the Cederberg Mountains. Mr. Basson has won several prizes at rieldans competitions and is an accomplished guitarist. Using just three strings from his guitar he gave us a glimpse of how the ramkie sounds, and offered to make one for us. We jumped at the opportunity, but on our way home after the recording session Patrick told me he doubted Mr. Basson could finally make good his offer, for the simple reason that the 5 litre oil cans are nowadays almost impossible to come by. And sadly, that was what happened.

                                                       

The ramkie people remember is the one made with the oil can. It had from 3- to 4 strings, normally made from fishing-line, although some people mentioned a more archaic material: sheep-gut. From what we were told by several of the people we recorded, it appears that really affordable guitars became available in the area around the 1980s, and they have gradually replaced the ramkie. There are, however, still many people around who know how to make and play this wonderful instrument.

Although Oom Dawid de Klerk (born in 1944) of the farm Kriedowkrans, showed us a related instrument, the blik viool or tin violin, which he couldn’t play for us for want of a bow, Patrick and I were not able to see a really traditional ramkie during this field trip. The closest we got was in the Sandveld town of Graafwater, west of Clanwilliam, where a wonderful musician, Ephraim Kotze, with whom we had a most stimulating conversation, showed us an electric ramkie he plays occasionally while performing with his band. He played the instrument for us acoustically, since he lacked an amplifier at the moment. The sound was unlike the guitar, but this ramkie had six strings and the fretboard and other additions to the blik were certainly not made of recycled material.

                                                       

We asked Ephraim about a local character called Dirk Ligter, about whom many stories are told in this part of the world. Ligter was (and for many still is) an unbeatable sheep-thief, who stole and slaughtered the sheep of the farmers without ever being caught. He is reputed to have supernatural powers, among them that of being so fast that he could outrun any horse. More wonderful still, is his gift of being able to transform into virtually anything: an anthill, a broom, a bush…

Ephraim told us that he knew about Ligter, but couldn’t tell us any of the narratives himself. This was not surprising, because the Sandveld is somewhat outside the usual range of this legendary sheep-thief, whose natural territory lies to the east and north of the Sandveld, and encompasses most of the Bokkeveld, Cederberg, Tankwa and Hantam Karoo areas.

The reason I was asking about this character during my fieldwork in March is because, in addition to being a master sheep-thief, Ligter was also an accomplished ramkie player. As was to be expected, his instrument was not an ordinary one. Patrick’s father, Petrus Hanekom, of Algeria, a village in the Cederberg Mountains, told us that when Ligter felt like listening to music he just had to hang the instrument somewhere and say “Elom!”, and the ramkie played on its own.

James Zimri
James Zimri, Algeria, Cederberg Mountains

It was from Oom Petrus from whom I first heard that Dirk Ligter never stole from the common people, just from the farmers. Yet there was an exception: once he stole a ramkie from a labourer. Oom Petrus remembered only this far, but we got a few more details from his brother-in-law, James Zimri, whom we went to visit next. Besides being an excellent harmonica player, Oom James is also a storyteller and of course he knew about Ligter. Among other things, he told us the specific farm at which Ligter stole the ramkie, and also that the instrument in question was broken, and Ligter mended it. Yet, again, he could not go beyond this. The rest of the story, however, is in all likelihood still there and I hope to be able to record it in the near future.

18 May 2020

Recording of the week: Don't try this at home!

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This week’s selection comes from Nick Morgan, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Joseph Sussman (1920-2013) was surrounded by music – literally: his house and garage were crammed full of 78s, LPs, CDs, reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes and videos. They vied for space with stacks of printed music and books, on composers, performers, schools and teaching, as well as on Jewish history, thought, art and music. The sheer numbers, breadth and depth spoke eloquently of Mr. Sussman’s long, busy life as a music teacher, organist and choirmaster, listener, scholar and collector, husband and father. After his death, his daughters generously offered his collection to the British Library. Curator Jonathan Summers spent several days appraising it, and I went along as a volunteer helper in selecting recordings in all formats.

In 2019 I was lucky to join the Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project as a cataloguer. By chance, my first assignment was a collection of 50 reel-to-reel tapes recorded by Mr. Sussman in the late 1950s and 1960s and retrieved by us six years earlier. Most of the tapes contain BBC Radio broadcasts which haven’t survived elsewhere: talks on music and its history, composition and performance (not only classical), live and studio concerts and recitals. They reflect his wide interests and expertise, especially in Jewish music – notably, the works of the Swiss-born American composer Ernest Bloch.

On a few tapes, Mr. Sussman himself plays the piano or accompanies his wife and very young daughters in touching songs and recorder pieces. Music-making was part of the Sussman family’s everyday life, and at its heart was the piano, as it had been in countless households from the mid-nineteenth century on. So deeply rooted was this hundred year-old ‘piano culture’ that, as one of Mr. Sussman’s tapes reveals, in the early 1960s BBC Radio producers still took it as a basis for broadcasts to a wide audience.

In 1961 the BBC’s popular Light Programme broadcast ‘Valerie Tryon at the piano’, a fifteen-minute recital by the British-born pianist, then in her twenties but already a seasoned radio artist – she had been on air since 1954. The music she played whisks us back to a middle-class parlour around 1900: a Mendelssohn Song without Words, a Beethoven Bagatelle, a Chopin Waltz… with only a Poulenc Mouvement perpétuel, written at the end of World War I, to remind us that the ‘long nineteenth century’ had ended in the trenches.

portrait of Valerie Tryon

Another reminder of past tastes and attitudes is the programme’s presenter (he’s not identified – do you recognize his voice?), sounding as if perched avuncularly over Valerie Tryon’s piano. He starts engagingly, welcoming us into the fellowship of active pianists: ‘Miss Tryon is going to play pieces that many of us have tried, probably, at some time or another, to learn to play ourselves.’ The Chopin Waltz, though, brings out a critical streak: ‘Many an aspiring pianist has probably been guilty of somewhat cavalier treatment of the music of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Schumann, but poor Chopin has probably suffered more than most.’ And if the cavalier pianist isn’t sufficiently chastened, a parting shot puts amateurs firmly in their place:

BBC Light Programme, 24 July 1961 (BL REF C1644/11 S2 C7)

Many of the BBC presenters on Mr. Sussman tapes sport a similarly supercilious air, though one suspects they felt freer to talk down to some audiences than others. Still, this broadcast, and many others preserved by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, remind us how much classical music the Corporation offered audiences fifty years ago across all channels and all manner of formats, moods and ‘brows’. The BBC’s offerings ranged from Valerie Tryon’s salon favourites on the Light Programme, through repertoire familiar and not so familiar, such as Bloch’s works – which were aired surprisingly often on the Home Service – to the didactic earnestness of ‘Study Session’ on the unsung Third Network and, finally, the rarefied reaches of the Third Programme. Thanks to Mr. Sussman and other home-taping enthusiasts, by visiting the British Library’s reading rooms you can relive this almost vanished era, when classical music enjoyed a place at the heart of Britain’s homes and public life.

Follow @BL_Classical@BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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13 April 2020

Recording of the week: Frank Bowling on learning to draw

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This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

Darwin_Building-Royal_College_of_Art-2013
Darwin Building, Royal College of Art in the City of Westminster, London, U.K. Chmee2 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Frank Bowling won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where he enrolled to study painting in 1959. In this extract from his oral history recording for Artists’ Lives, Bowling vividly recalls learning to draw in the crowded life room among his peers David Hockney, Allen Jones and R. B. Kitaj. He describes his intense focus and control, and how it felt to make progress.

Frank Bowling: On learning to draw (C466/127)

To learn more about Frank Bowling’s career see Elena Crippa’s article on Voices of art, published to coincide with Bowling’s retrospective at Tate Britain in 2019.

Frank Bowling was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2001-2016. The interviewers were Mel Gooding and Cathy Courtney. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Listen to the full interview on BL Sounds.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

09 March 2020

Recording of the week: The dominion of the salmon

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This week's selection comes from Andrew Ormsby, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Caitlín Maude was an Irish poet, playwright, actress and traditional singer from Rosmuc, Connemara, in the west of Ireland. Her version of the traditional Irish song ‘Liam O Raghallaigh’ was recorded by Peter Kennedy in London in 1968, when she was 27 years old.

Catilín_Maude
Caitilín Maude, an file © Daithi Mac Lochlainn

Maude was raised in the Gaelic language and sang unaccompanied in the sean-nós style, which means ‘in the old way’. Sean-nós singing from Connemara is usually characterised by a high degree of ornamentation, using melisma and grace notes to enhance the power of the song’s narrative. To my ears, what is striking about Maude’s voice is the restraint with which she uses this technique, her approach finely calibrated to lend power to the bleak beauty of the song – austere in its matter of factness about what happens to the body of a drowned man, but ornate in its expression of loss and sorrow, and fascinated by the strange transformations that death can bring.

Listen to 'Liam O Raghallaigh'

Maude’s comments before and after the song form a shrewd and witty counterpoint to the tragedy of the story. I particularly love the careful relish with which she translates some of the more gruesome images from the Irish, including my favourite line: ‘Your two snow-white hands are under the dominion of the salmon’.

Caitlín Maude died in 1982, at the age of 41, leaving a small but important legacy of writing and song. The recordings she made with Peter Kennedy are available for listening at the British Library.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.UOSH

27 January 2020

Recording of the week: Trude Levi and Holocaust liberation

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This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist.

Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day, as well as the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. The National Life Stories oral history project ‘Living Memory of the Jewish Community’ includes many Holocaust survivors describing their experience of Auschwitz and of liberation. In this recording of the week Oral History Archivist Charlie Morgan looks at the testimony of Trude Levi.

Trude Levi and her husband Franz, London, 1989. Courtesy of Trude Levi.
Trude Levi and her husband Franz, London, 1989. Courtesy of Trude Levi.

Gertrude Levi (1924-2012) was born in Szombathely, Hungary, the daughter of a Hungarian father and an Austrian mother. Her parents were Jewish, irreligious, and socialist; her father, a gynaecologist, would perform abortions without payment at a time when this could land you in prison. Trude describes Szombathely as “the most antisemitic town in Hungary”, and when Hungary joined the Axis Powers in 1940 life became increasingly difficult for the Levi family. Then in March 1944, fearful that Hungary would abandon the war effort, the German army invaded Hungary.

Prior to 1944 Hungary had passed antisemitic laws, deported thousands of Jews, and been an active ally of the Third Reich, but it was after the German invasion that a concerted attempt was made to implement a ‘Final Solution’. In July, when Trude was twenty, she and her parents were forced into a ghetto, then to a local concentration camp and finally were placed onto a cattle truck and transported out of the country. On 7 July 1944, they arrived at Auschwitz; Trude was immediately separated from her parents and never saw them again.

When it became clear the Allies would win the war, the Nazi regime committed itself to ensuring as little evidence of the Holocaust remained as possible. Trude, like tens of thousands of others, was placed on a death march to Riesa, a town in Saxony, and around her the war effort collapsed:

“Anyway, I didn't, I think I didn't want to die by that time, I mean, the, not that I wanted to die before, but I didn't care. But by that time I, I decided that I really would like to survive, because, I mean, the Russians were here, the Americans were here, you heard them, you knew that it was the end, and you saw the Germans fretting, and so you knew it was the end, so now that was the point where you felt, "Well, there is no point in dying any more. And we won. So, one should remain alive. But I couldn't go on, I couldn't walk on in spite of it, and I knew that I would be shot, but they didn't shoot me, they said, "Dies keine Kugel mehr wert" - "She's not worth a bullet any more", and so they left me on the road, next to the bridge.”

After dragging herself away from the road, Trude managed to hide in a barn before she was liberated by Allied troops. In this recording of the week Trude explains some of complexities of liberation; she was adamant that she would not return to Hungary, but “somehow we were still in Germany”. Furthermore, even though she had escaped from German troops “I wasn’t yet sure whether it was really the end,” and although smoking a cigar “was freedom… I think the real freedom came when I arrived in France, when I felt that I was out of Germany”.

"Everything was still unsure, everything was chaotic”

Trude Levi’s story of liberation is different to other survivors of Auschwitz, but her sentiments are common. While liberation is often presented as a singular, joyful moment it was in reality a lot more complicated and harder to pin to one specific point in time. Trude’s oral history is just one way in which Holocaust survivors have been able to express these experiences in their own words, and even after her death her testimony remains.

Trude Levi was interviewed by Gaby Glassman for Living Memory of the Jewish Community in 1989, and she is featured on the online web resource ‘Voices of the Holocaust’. Her full life story interview can be found on sami.bl.uk, and can be listened to in Reading Rooms at the British Library in St. Pancras or Boston Spa.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

20 January 2020

Recording of the week: Night in a várzea forest by boat

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This week’s selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds.

Rainforests are noisy places, even after dark. This recording was made in one of the Amazon’s many várzea or floodplain forests, in the dead of night, by wildlife sound recordist Ian Christopher Todd. Based in a boat in the middle of the Amazon River, our recordist found himself surrounded by a cacophony of sound.

Night in a várzea forest recorded by Ian Christopher Todd (BL shelfmark 201326)

Giant Marine Toad

The rattling calls of Giant Marine Toads (Bufo marinus) can be heard alongside the calls of other amphibians. In the distance, unknown sounds emerge from the darkness beyond, creating a multi-layered soundscape. And, as with many recordings of this type, the more you listen the more you’ll hear.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

30 December 2019

Recording of the week: Wax cylinder recordings of Nigerian music

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This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Northcote Whitridge Thomas
Northcote Whitridge Thomas

The Library’s World and Traditional Music collections include some of the world’s earliest ethnographic recordings, made on wax cylinders. Amongst these is a collection of recordings made between 1909 and 1915 by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote Whitridge Thomas, during his work in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. To learn more about the recordings and to engage researchers and original community members with the sounds, the Library has partnered with the ‘Museum Affordances’ project, funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council and led by Paul Basu at SOAS University of London.

As part of the project, Samson Uchenna Eze, musicologist and lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, chose some of Thomas' recordings to explore through transcription of the lyrics and music, and through engaging musicians in Nigeria to re-record them.

The song Igbo bu Igbo (Great Igbo) [NWT 417; C51/2277], is a call to Igbo people to remember their identity and ‘return to [their] truthful ways’. Prof. Eze writes: ‘In this song the female singer repeats the phrase [Great Igbo (all Igbo), come and hear the truth] several times and improvises in the internal variation section, calling on neighbouring villages to come and hear the truth’.

Listen to Igbo by Igbo (BL shelfmark C51/2277)

[Re:]Entanglements is the website of the Museum Affordances project. Prof. Eze has written a blog showcasing some of his work with the recordings.

Follow @reentanglements, @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

20 December 2019

British Library Sports Word Of The Year 2019

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

This year marks the sixth annual British Library Sports Word of the Year (SWOTY) review. While I can’t claim it’s a major fixture on the annual awards circuit, six does, at least, have some sporting significance: six games in a tennis set; six pockets on a snooker table; and six cricket balls in an over (well until next year’s Hundred, that is). This annual review takes its inspiration from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) and various Word of the Year nominations. Firstly, then, congratulations to Ben Stokes for winning SPOTY 2019, and to the equally magnificent Dina Asher-Smith for running him close (actually if they’d had to race there might well have been a different outcome!); and to they and climate emergency for emerging as Word(s) of the Year according to Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries respectively.

And so to the ten candidates for SWOTY 2019, selected from a personal scrapbook of words and phrases that caught my attention on broadcast and social media platforms and in the mainstream press during the last twelve months:

January (Marina Hyde reflecting on the European PGA decision to stage a prestigious golf tournament in Saudi Arabia, Guardian Sport): Understanding the wider issue of sportswashing ought not be beyond your ken, either.

ScrapbookApril (Tanya Aldred previewing the 2019 county cricket season, Guardian Sport): If you thought the tension of Dom Bess’s heave at Ciderabad last September couldn’t be beaten, just watch and wait.

May (Richard Barnes reviewing Tottenham Hotspur’s 2018-19 season, Guardian Sport): Biggest surprise: our ability to find a way in the Champions League against the odds. Very unSpursy.

June (Vic Marks reporting on England versus Afghanistan at ICC Cricket World Cup, Guardian Sport): This made it the six-iest match in World Cup history.

July (Athar Ali Khan analysing bar chart of England’s runs per over versus Bangladesh at ICC Cricket World Cup, Sky Sports): Look at those big overs in the middle Manhattans.

August (Phil Tufnell reflecting on fading light during England versus Australia Lord’s Test, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra): It’s getting a bit Noah’s out here.

September (Paul Farbrace describing outgoing England coach Trevor Bayliss, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra): He absolutely loves the game ... he's a cricket nuffy.

September (Jamie Jackson describing James Maddison’s performance for Leicester City against Manchester United, Guardian Sport): Maddison could be spied in the classic trequartista position.

October (Sean Ingle quoting Daryll Neita’s assessment of World Athletics 200m champion Dina Asher-Smith, Guardian Sport): She’s a G. You are doing bits, darling.

November (Gerard Meagher quoting Siya Kolisi’s comments on the impact of South Africa’s triumph at IRB Rugby World Cup, Guardian Sport): We appreciate all the support – people in the taverns, in the shebeens, farms, homeless people and people in the rural areas.

This year’s list namechecks five sports with one entry each for golf, athletics and rugby union; two for football; and five for cricket. The dominance of cricket can probably be attributed to England’s triumphant World Cup on home soil and to the fact it represents an extremely rich source of innovative and specialist terminology. As ever, the selection illustrates a range of linguistic phenomena and encompasses dialect, slang and jargon; it includes a loan word; and, for the first time, examples of the potential of morphological creativity. Of the ten nominations, seven straddle the blurred lines between sporting jargon (i.e. specialised vocabulary), dialect (i.e. localised variants) and slang (i.e. informal forms): sportswashing, Ciderabad, unSpursy, six-iest, Manhattan, nuffy and trequartista. The other three occupy a similarly undefined position on the dialect-slang continuum but are not restricted to sporting contexts: Noah’s, do bits and shebeen; they qualify, however, as they demonstrate how sporting discourse in the press and on broadcast and social media – especially interviews with athletes, live commentaries etc. – gives vernacular English a mainstream platform.

In the light of increased corporate sponsorship of sport and the expansion to new territories of prestigious international sporting events it’s not surprising that sportswashing [= ‘a strategy whereby a nation or corporation leverages sport to enhance its reputation’] has made the headlines this year. Sport frequently serves as a legitimate tool for soft diplomacy, but sportswashing – recorded in the MacMillan Dictionary from 2018 – describes a deliberate policy of harnessing sport’s popular appeal and wholesome image to deflect criticism from a regime or company’s corrupt or unethical behaviour.

From a British point of view we might justifiably consider nuffy [= ‘person with particular passion/obsession’] Australian dialect, but the Macquarie Dictionary categorises it as ‘colloquial’ and even includes cricket nuffy as one of its examples of typical usage. Likewise, shebeen [= ‘illicit drinking den (esp. in South African townships)’] is classified as South African English in the OED. Both forms demonstrate the ‘World Englishes’ dimension of cricket and rugby as sports predominantly played in Commonwealth countries, as does the initially puzzling Ciderabad [= ‘Somerset County Cricket ground, Taunton’]. This is a wonderful example of wordplay containing multiple layers of cultural reference and requires considerable knowledge of cricket to deconstruct and interpret. Firstly, one needs to know that Taunton and Somerset, in the heart of England’s West Country, are synonymous with cider production and consumption and, secondly, that cricket pitches there have recently been unusually receptive to spin bowling. Finally, one needs to be familiar with cricket in the subcontinent, where pitches – such as the Test ground at Hyderabad in India – are traditionally associated with dry, dusty conditions ideally suited to spin bowling. To capture all that implicit knowledge in a single word is pure genius.

Two entries reveal a similar kind of linguistic playfulness, but rather than exploiting a phonological association, unSpursy and six-iest require imaginative grammatical manipulation. For many years, Tottenham Hotspur – nicknamed Spurs – have played attractive football but ultimately failed to win trophies, despite frequently coming agonisingly close. As a result many football fans, including Tottenham’s own supporters, have adopted the word Spursy [= ‘the tendency to falter when within reach of success’], such that it has attracted the attention of Collins Dictionary. As an adjective, Spursy adheres to normal English rules of derivation so additional forms can be generated. In this year’s Guardian I’ve spotted the noun Spursiness – note the adherence to English orthography in the substitution of a medial <i> for the adjectival suffix <y> – and, here, unSpursy, with its cheeky nod to the non-conformist conventions of e-publishing whereby a capital letter (denoting the underlying proper noun, Spurs) appears word-medially. On the other hand, six-iest [= ‘match with the highest total number of boundary sixes’] is a nonce-formation based on the number six with an unconventional superlative suffix added. The inspiration here is, I suspect, similar idiosyncratic sporting superlatives – to British English speakers anyway – such as US English winningest [= ‘individual athlete/team with the most victories’], but with the additional appeal of a phonological similarity with sexiest, capturing the notion that a game featuring such a high number of risky shots must be the most exciting and glamorous.

The term Manhattan appears to be widely used among cricket statisticians and commentators, and thus probably constitutes cricketing jargon. Modern sports analysis relishes a data visualisation tool and cricket has embraced this technological development enthusiastically. The wagon wheel [= ‘visual representation of direction of batsman’s run-scoring shots’] has been around for some time, but until this year’s ICC World Cup I was completely unaware of the Manhattan [= ‘bar chart showing rate of progress by runs per over’] and its counterpart, the worm [= ‘line chart showing rate of progress by runs per over’]. I’d be intrigued to know if either term is used by mathematicians more broadly.

Manhattan
Due to the prominent role played by the British in codifying football, English dominates much of its associated specialist terminology so it’s rare for non-English words to enter football jargon, hence the inclusion here of the Italian loan word trequartista [= ‘attacking midfielder, playmaker’]. The greater presence in recent years of European footballers and coaches in the UK has meant an increased appetite for European tactics and, hence, the vocabulary to describe these innovations. In addition to trequartista, Guardian articles have this year featured the words rondo [= ‘training drill in which players seek to keep possession of the ball in an enclosed space’], regista [= ‘deep-lying midfield playmaker’] and raumdeuter [= ‘player who reads (and exploits) tight spaces’], from Spanish, Italian and German respectively. All three appear in numerous online glossaries of football and – more importantly – in spontaneous conversations about the game among English fans.

Finally, we turn to two slang terms: Noah’s and do bits. The former confirms our enduring enthusiasm for rhyming slang – Noah’s is, underlyingly, Noah’s ark [= ‘dark’], but the conventions of rhyming slang dictate that the rhyming element (ark) is omitted. Green's Dictionary of Slang records Noah’s [= ‘lark, prank’] from 1891; [= ‘park’] from 1924; and (in Australian English) [= ‘shark’] from 1963, but has no record in this sense, while the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2006) records Noah’s ark [= ‘dark’] from 1934 – coincidentally including a citation from 1992 in a cricketing context. The endlessly productive and light-hearted nature of rhyming slang explains its continued appeal. The quote from Daryll Neita, by contrast, is a fantastic example of current British urban slang: do bits [= ‘to do well, to succeed’] is first recorded by Green in 2017 – Dary’lls use of G [= ‘term of praise’] in the same breath, by the way, is also cited from 1991.

All of this year’s entries are captured in The British Library’s Contemporary British collections, making the Library an incomparable resource for anyone interested in monitoring vernacular language. And so to the winner: well … my head tells me it should be sportswashing as I sense sports governing bodies should respond to calls for greater social responsibility, but hey – it’s Christmas – so I’m going with Ciderabad. Because it’s brilliant.

CIDERABADFollow Spoken English collections at https://twitter.com/VoicesofEnglish