Tag Archives: wordplay

The first Tuesday of November: think like a horse

I’ve just watched a short, award-winning play about three horses, locked in their stalls and bickering about their lot in life (no pun intended). One of them is a self-satisfied champion, the two other horses feel deprived and exploited. It all sounds very human.

That’s entirely reasonable. The play, Fabio the Great, was written by a woman, not a horse. Even the most subtle, incisive mind within a human head will never know what it’s like to be a horse. Or a whale, a rocking chair, or any other animate or inanimate object. That shouldn’t stop us imbuing them with human qualities and characteristics in the wonderful grown-up game of pretence many of us like to play.

Rarely will anyone contemplate what it’s like to be a baked bean. Still it would be an interesting exercise to set for children and adults: you are a baked bean who keeps a diary: write an entry for one day. Note that you are not allowed to be eaten at lunch time to save imagining how baked beans while away their afternoons.  

But leave baked beans aside. It’s early November in Australia and there are bound to be a few people wondering what it’s like to be a horse in the Melbourne Cup.

A giddying mix perhaps of fitness, sleekness and nervousness?

Do the animals give each other “may-the-best-horse-win” neighs of encouragement? Or are they conscious of all the money riding (no pun again) on the outcome and determined to stay “in the zone,” just the way a champion human athlete would. Do they have their own favourites, encouraging the young, or maybe deliberately giving an older runner a last hurrah? Do the horses themselves ever fix the result, knowing they won’t be held to account? Do they contemplate the horror of an accident, talking in hushed whinnies about what happened last year or the year before and why some contenders will be forever absent. Do they bridle (alright, that one is intended) at the fact that injured jockeys are rushed to the hospital while injured horses often end up in the knackery.

And just what do horses think of their jockeys: do they like some more than others, making more of an effort for them? Do they resent the hypocrisy of rules which allow riders to whip them while society at large decries animal cruelty?

What’s truly going on in a horse’s mind will forever remain a mystery, as much as the mysteries of being a baked bean or whether an apple feels discomfort when it’s pulled from the tree.

Still, “I wonder what it’s like to be a …” is a critical question we should ask every day. If we can’t or won’t imagine how others see the world, and us, we can’t expect much understanding or sympathy from human beings, or animals for that matter.

Exercise: you are a wombat; write a short play about three humans sitting near your burrow and discussing their lives. (Remember: a group of wombats is called a wisdom.)

Word play

People in Buenos Aires, especially the locals (porteños or people of the port) don’t get much sleep. Many commute for several hours to get to and from work during the week, so they are used to eating late and rising early. On weekends, they might get to sleep in, but those who like to party won’t be adding many credits to their sleep bank because nightlife doesn’t get started till close to midnight: quite a challenge for visitors used to eating at eight and going to bed before twelve.

In local dives, musicians carry on the tradition of singing tango, yes, singing. The music and lyrics are as essential as those sexy dance moves. Elsewhere, young Argentinians are bopping to rock ‘n roll or testing out their own songs in soirees hosted in people’s flats.

One aspect of tango lyrics that intrigues me is the incorporation of vesre, a play on words that switches around the syllable of words. So, café (coffee) becomes feca, mujer (woman)/ jermu, amigo (friend)/ gomía, pizza /zapi (which is also the name of a major Argentine pizza chain).

Pity the poor student of Argentinian Spanish! And for that matter of English and its rhyming slang. Like vesre, the tradition of Cockney rhyming slang came out of the working class, people who were traders in London’s markets in the 19th century. Their slang is also confusing, and complicated. It finds an expression that rhymes with another word, which is replaced by that expression, or part of it at least. For example, the word ‘look’ rhymes with ‘butcher’s hook’ but the actual rhyming word ‘hook’ is omitted leaving the word ‘butchers’ to mean ‘look’. In the same way ‘feet’ rhymes with the word ‘meat’ in the phrase ‘plates of meat’, so in Cockney ‘feet’ are ‘plates’, while ‘teeth’ rhyme with ‘heath’, as in Hampstead Heath, so become ‘Hampsteads’. For more on these mind-frazzling expressions – not all obsolete — visit http://www.cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk

Both these versions of wordplay show us how adaptable language is and how people and cultures influence the development of dialects, vocabulary and humour in local communities and beyond. With more than 300 languages spoken in Australian homes, Australian English is, according to Ingrid Piller, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Sydney’s Macquarie University, becoming more diverse. Newcomers don’t just come to terms with colloquialisms, Cockney slang and other word forms, like ‘brekkie’ and ‘barbie’, or weird uses of words like ‘average’ to mean ‘bad’ or ‘mate’ not to mean ‘friend’. They also introduce words from their native languages and create their own versions of English, getting their revenge on the vagaries of English spelling and utter confusion of its slang.

Image: the bandoneon,  an essential instrument in tango and much more complicated to play than the accordion.