tragedy, Word stories

Every death is an absolute goat song

Tragedy - goat song

Next time you call someone’s sudden death a tragedy, you may be delving into the wholly inappropriate territory of comedy.

Because funnily enough, the word tragedy is Greek for ‘goat song’. The actual Greek word is tragoidia. (Tragos = ‘goat’. Oidia = ‘song’.)

Tragos oidia - goat song

You see, ancient Greek plays were semi-religious affairs. And since religion seems to go hand in hand with death, naturally this meant a goat had to be sacrificed. (To the god of wine, of all people.)

Then the chorus would sing a song of sacrifice.

A ‘goat song’.

Some actors would act the goat too. Or half the goat anyway. They’d dress up as satyrs. These were men from the waist up, and goats the rest of the way down.

For a reason that’s now lost in the mists of time, the main event took on the name of the curtain raiser.

Law and order, Plain English, San Francisco Police Dept

Putting it bluntly — a police chief speaks his mind

I dedicate this post to Garth McVicar.

It’s a San Francisco police chief giving the bedwetter media a bollocking for making a big deal of the speed one of his officers was travelling when he was killed chasing an armed felon.

This guy would make a great politician. He knows people despise the liberal media’s warped sense of justice, so doesn’t hesitate to get straight on the front foot.

Why do most public figures lack this instinct and resort to weasel words and apologies?

We should celebrate people who speak plainly. They’re islands of truth in a sea of deceit.

Thanks Digby for sending me this video.

Jeffrey Wigand, Poetry, Smoker's Coffin

A poem for Jeffrey Wigand

Grant McLachlan, Dan McCaffrey and I were having dinner at Leuven last Wednesday, when who should plonk himself down at the next table but Jeffrey Wigand, the legendary Big Tobacco whistleblower.

I haven’t seen Russell Crowe’s portrayal of him on The Insider, but I recognised him from a Breakfast interview that morning.

Grant greeted him like a long-lost friend. And Dan, tongue firmly in cheek, launched into a rave about how soaring cigarette prices were unfairly punishing our beneficiaries.

And boy, did Dr Wigand seize the bait. With shark-like ferocity, he replied that anyone caught spending their welfare check on cigarettes should have their benefit cut.

(Sounds fair to me.)

I could see at that moment why Jeffrey Wigand was such a handful for those tobacco lawyers. He’s one determined guy, who speaks in the plainest of English. I wish we had more of them here.

I told him I’d send him this poem from my book I Think The Clouds Are Cotton Wool:


(First verse sung to the tune of A Bicycle Built For Two

Hazy Daisy,
Give me your cancer, do;
I’m inhaling
More of your smoke than you;
It’s hard to believe that soon we’ll
Be meeting at my funeral,
And when I’m dead
It can be said
I was basically killed by you.

. . .

Nothing on this planet kills
Like W.D. and H.O. Wills;
Not the tiger, not the shark,
Not Al-Qaeda in Iraq;
More than Hitler or Bin Laden,
Genghis Khan or Joseph Stalin;
Mussolini and Saddam
Haven’t done a lot of harm
Next to the collected horrors
Of a certain Philip Morris.

Kaiser Bill and Mao Zedong
Hardly put a jackboot wrong;
Idi’s army in Uganda,
Tutsi-butchers in Rwanda;
Even naughty old Pol Pot
Couldn’t slaughter like this lot;
The worst of men from history’s annals
Did not kill like RJ Reynolds.

Slobodan Milosevic,
Serbia, the loss of which
Must have hurt — and serves him right —
But not as much as Winston Light.
Evil Nicolai Ceaucescu,
Though he left us kids to rescue,
More Romanian orphans die
From nicotine than Nicolai.

Mr Benson, Mr Hedges —
Killers both, the state alleges;
Rothmans, Carlton and Winfield —
Murderers who stand revealed.
As their legal team tap-dances,
Ask them questions, they give cancers;
Should there be a total ban?
Why not ask the Marlboro Man?

Marlboro Man, that great romancer,
Just before he died of cancer,
Choked, “I think … at last … I’ve hit
Upon a … failsafe … way to … quit.”

Lawyers stall and judges fudge;
Politicians dare not budge;
Big Tobacco’s biggest three
(Reynolds, Morris, BAT)
Hide behind the same defence:
“Inconclusive evidence.”

. . .

(This last verse sung to the tune of Chim-chim-cheree)

Chim-chimney chim-chimney
Chim-chim cheroot;
Time we were giving
Tobacco the boot;
How many more, how many more
Graves must be filled
Full of the smokers
You jokers have killed?

© J Ansell 2003

I hope he likes it.

A few years back, when the air quality in most pubs was on a par with the inside of a chimney, I plucked up the courage to perform the above in a bar full of smokers.

I thought I’d be lucky to get out alive, but I wanted them to know how I felt about their selfish habit.

And did they attack me?

Er, no. They clapped and cheered, and voted me the bar tab for best poem of the night.

So did my brave recital cause them to rethink their attitude toward polluting other people’s lungs?

Again, no. When the reading had finished, most of them went back to the bar and lit up a fag.

helicopter, kiwi (apteryx), Language, pterodactyl, Word stories

What do kiwis, helicopters and pterodactyls have in common?

If the above is all Greek to you, don’t worry — just wing it. Why? Because the root word for wing in Greek is pter. 

You’ll find it hiding in helicopter and pterodactyl. And, in its longer form pteryx, in the official name of our beloved kiwi, apteryx.

Now it may strike you as odd that our flightless national bird should be any sort of relative of the mega-winged prehistoric predator, let alone of the rotor-bladed mechanical whirlybird.

You may be thinking that our little nocturnal groundgrubbing stickybeak could hardly have less in common with these two high-flying giants.

And there, I’m afraid, you’d be dead wrong. There’s a secret link, you see.

It’s the a at the front. In Greek, a means without or not. As in:

  • amoral — not moral
  • apathy — without feeling
  • atypical — not typical. 

In the same way, we get apteryx without wing — flightless.

And as in English, the Greek adds an n when it precedes a vowel. So an also means without. Hence:

  • anaesthetic — without sensation
  • anarchy  — without  a ruler
  • anhydrous — without water.

As for the helico part of helicopter, that’s Greek for spiral. Science buffs will know it in its other form, helix.

Oh, and the dactyl in pterodactyl means finger.

(Mind you, dactyl also means toe, just as pter sometimes means feather. So pterodactylwinged finger could just as easily mean feathered toe.)

Who said English was the only crazy language?

Design, Poetry, Sodden Art, Turner Prize

Owed to installation art

 Talk of the Turner Prize in my last post reminded me of a little poem I wrote about the 2001 prizewinning ‘installation’ below.

Actually, installation is a slight misnomer, since clearly not a lot of installing went on.

The ‘work’, if we can call it that, had the refreshingly self-explanatory title The Lights Going On and Off.

And by all accounts, it delivered on its promise with metronomic efficiency.

And no, in case you’re wondering, that geometrically-appealing ceiling was not part of the exhibit. That’s the aircon. Everything below that is the art con.

This decidedly spare room won British so-called artist Martin Creed the Turner Prize of £20,000. (It’s now £40,000.)  

Before I present my own version of the empty room, you must  read this majestically pompous official justification of the fraud from the Turner Prize website: 

For the Turner Prize exhibition, Creed has decided to show Work # 227: The lights going on and off.

Nothing is added to the space and nothing is taken away, but at intervals of five seconds the gallery is filled with light and then subsequently thrown into darkness.

Realising the premise set out in Work # 232, Creed celebrates the mechanics of the everyday, and in manipulating the gallery’s existing light fittings he creates a new and unexpected effect.

In the context of Tate Britain, an institution displaying a huge variety of objects, this work challenges the traditional methods of museum display and thus the encounter one would normally expect to have in a gallery.

Disrupting the norm, allowing and then denying the lights their function, Creed plays with the viewer’s sense of space and time.

Our negotiation of the gallery is impeded, yet we become more aware of our own visual sensitivity, the actuality of the space and our own actions within it.

We are invited to re-evaluate our relationship to our immediate surroundings, to look again and to question what we are presented with.

Responding to the actual condition in which he has been asked to exhibit, Creed exposes rules, conventions and opportunities that are usually overlooked, and in so doing implicates and empowers the viewer.

‘Allowing and denying the lights their function’ – I love that.

The more cynical media were predictably underwhelmed. Tom Parry from The Mirror wrote:

‘Take a bare white room with a light switching on and off and what have you got? A Turner Prize winner.’

Just as predictably, the artistic mafia leapt to the fraudster’s defence. This from Germaine Greer in the Newsnight Review:

‘He wanted to get the biggest effect with the least effort. It’s the dis-proportion between the effort and the effect.’

No argument there.

But when the Chairman of the British Council for Contemporary Art objected to the awarding of so much financial effect for so little artistic effort, he was rewarded with what an art critic might call the hessian receptacle – but which you and I would call the sack.

In his honour, I penned the following:


The exhibit resembles
A large empty room
With a solitary cupboard
Marked TOWELS,
As through the front door
The sophisticates pour,
Oozing glamour
And elegant vowels.

To a volley of cheers
The artist appears!
He’s applauded
And generally fêted,
But no one’s quite sure
What the towels are for;
Then the sprinklers come on
And they get it.

(c) J Ansell 2003

canary, Word origins

Word origin: Canary

Two popular misconceptions about the word canary are enough to put even the most dogged linguistic sleuth off the scent.

If you’ve studied Latin, you might reasonably point out that canere means to sing.

So it must follow, mustn’t it, that this little songbird takes its name from that sing-songy verb that also gives us canto, canticle and cantata, (not to mention accent, chant and sea shanty)?

Only it doesn’t. 

Canary and canere may look and sound like lexical kissing cousins, but they come from totally different word families.

You’d be right on the money, though, if you guessed that the canary bird hails from the Canary Islands, that sunny Spanish chain off the coast of Morocco.

But if you were then to jump to the etymologically logical  conclusion that the islands must be named after the bird, then I’m afraid you’d again be twittering in the wind.

In fact, the bird is named after the islands.

And the islands are named after another beast entirely, as you can see from their coat of arms, below.

(My use of dogged at the start was a bit of a clue.)

That’s right, the little yellow birds weren’t the only native species to grace the archipelago.

Also sharing the islands when the Romans came across them were some rather big and fierce dogs. 

Dog in Latin is canis, as in canine – like those four pointy, dog-like teeth that you can feel in your mouth with your tongue right now.

And there were native people there too – the guanches – who worshipped said dogs to the point of mummifying their remains. 

And the Romans called these dog-worshippers canaari (the ones with dogs), and the island on which they found them Insula Canaria (Island of Dogs).

Today the Spanish call that island Gran Canaria and the 7-island group Islas Canarias.

The modern descendant of that ancient cantankerous canine is the presa canario or dogo canario, which means (you guessed it) Canary dog.

And so, as we near the end of this wild canary chase, we see that canary birds are named after the Canary Islands, which are named after Canary dogs.

Or not.

You see, there’s also this other theory doing the rounds…

Some believe the Romans might have named the islands after a species of  Monk seal that also lived on Gran Canaria.

Lived, note, not live. That seal is now extinct, but this drawing gives you some idea of why the Romans were moved to name it  canis marinus (dog of the sea).

So to recap: canary has much in common with birds, dogs, islands, people and seals. But nothing whatever to do with singing. 

What a bird-brained language.

Thanks to my friend Fay Clayton, whose books on etymology teach me something new every day about the fascinating origins of our words.

Posts like this will be a regular feature of this blog, and some of Fay’s books will be available for you to buy.

Language, Lord Monckton, Plain English

Lose the Latin, your lordship

 The world owes a great debt of gratitude to the explanatory powers of Lord Christopher Monckton, my 2009 Man of the Year.

His magnificent speeches have done more than any others to alert the world to the ulterior motives of the global warmmongers.

But even a great man can have an off day.

In this letter to Kevin Rudd, Lord Monckton seems more intent on showing off his Latin, Italian and French than making sure his readers understand his point: 

Therefore, a fortiori, transnational or global governments should also be made and unmade by voters at the ballot-box.

In fact I have never argued that, though in general the market is better at solving problems than the habitual but repeatedly-failed dirigisme of the etatistes predominant in the classe politique today.

The questions I address are a) whether there is a climate problem at all; and b) even if there is one, and even if per impossibile it is of the hilariously-overblown magnitude imagined by the IPCC, whether waiting and adapting as and if necessary is more cost-effective than attempting to mitigate the supposed problem by trying to reduce the carbon dioxide our industries and enterprises emit.

Let us pretend, solum ad argumentum, that a given proportionate increase in CO2 concentration causes the maximum warming imagined by the IPCC.

The answer is that the “global warming” theory is not true, and no amount of bluster or braggadocio, ranting or rodomontade will make it true.

Three Latin and four French expressions in five paragraphs. (And the Italian braggadocio for good measure.)

Now I studied French for seven years and Latin for two, but I confess I had to look up a fortiori, dirigisme, solum ad argumentum and rodomontade.

How about you? Am I the only ignoramus who’d have preferred he’d stuck to the English? 

Here, in case you need them, are the translations:

a fortiori  ‘Even more so’: if all donkeys bray, then a fortiori all young donkeys bray.

dirigisme  Control by the state of economic and social matters.

etatistes  Statists.

classe politique  Political leadership. 

per impossibile  As is impossible.

solum ad argumentum  For argument’s sake.

braggadocio  Empty or pretentious bragging.

rodomontade  Arrogant boasting or blustering.

Humour, Language, NZ Poetry Society, Poetry, Tom Lehrer

Planning a new career

After a fun night performing silly poems, monologues and novelty songs at the Thistle, I’ve decided to try and do this full-time. 

By what I seriously hope was popular consent (!), my 30 minute slot finally ended after 75 minutes.

To fill out the time, I strayed from my poetry brief to include the monologue about rugby as a series of mathematical formulae that I wrote for Jim Hopkins as part of a Shell ad campaign in the 90s.

That went down well, so I thought I’d attempt to do justice to several songs by my all-time favourite lyricist Tom Lehrer.

One of these was The Elements Song – the one where Lehrer rattles off 102  elements from the periodic table in about 150 seconds to the tune of I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.

Check out this Flash-illustrated version of the original – oh, and see if you can spot the handful of uncharacteristic pronunciation errors 🙂

And don’t tell Mr Lehrer, but I took the liberty of adding another verse to include the elements discovered since his 1960 recording:

And then there was lawrencium
And hassium and dubnium,
Meitnerium and bohrium
And finally ununbium;
It’s next to unununium
And don’t forget seaborgium,
And also ununilium
And (Ernest) rutherfordium.

We’ll tell you any other ones
The minute they discover them,
And just in case you wondered
There are one hundred and twuv o’ them.

I’ve long thought it would be fun to spend my time touring schools and enthusing and amusing kids about our crazy language. But somehow, the grownup world and its baubles has always got in the way.

Well, no I’m going to give it a shot, and see what happens.

(I always make my life-changing decisions on the spur of the moment like this. If I think about it too much, sanity will prevail. Far better to back myself into a corner with a public announcement :-))

With a mix of conference speeches and school ‘word concerts’, I hope to keep my head above water doing what I love most.

If it works, it will be a vindication for Mum, who always said I should ditch the serious stuff and concentrate on the silly.

My speaking agent will hopefully be able to get me enough conference work to compensate for the lower fees paid by schools.

If anyone can point me to any schools that would welcome such an addition to their literacy programme, please email

Same if you know of any conference speaker-seekers needing a keynote or after-dinner speech about words.

Tell them I’d be happy to give them a demo down the phone. As soon as I can, I’ll put something on YouTube.

Thanks to Laurice Gilbert of the NZ Poetry Society for inviting me on Monday night.

NZ Poetry Society, Poetry, Thistle Inn

Guest poet at Thistle Inn tonight

The Thistle InnTonight (Monday) I have the honour of giving Wellington’s most recent poetry performance at the city’s oldest pub, The Thistle Inn in Mulgrave Street.

The Thistle dates all the way back to Wellington’s founding year, 1840.

There it is below in 1865 (the two-storeyed building) shortly before being fire-damaged in 1866.

These days the pub is separated from the sea by the railway yards and the Cake Tin. But before the 1876 reclamation, sailors could make a quick dash from the bar to their boats if need be.

One of my fellow poets is a descendant of Te Rauparaha, who by all accounts used to pull up his waka and enjoy a drink there.

The NZ Poetry Society hold their meetings upstairs from 7.30 – 9.30pm on the second Monday of every month, and they’ve asked me to be February’s  guest poet.

That’s good of them, given that I don’t exactly fit the poet stereotype.  My style is more silly verse a la Milligan and Ogden Nash.

I love the challenge of trying to create perfect rhymes without using my poetic licence and disrupting the flow of the story. Not easy, but good when it works.

Why not come down for a pint and a laugh? Better still, bring a poem and read in the open mic session that kicks off the evening.

Not sure how many will come given that the meeting is being promoted as the NZ Poetry Society’s January meeting 🙂

Chargoggagoggmanchaugaggogchaubunagunggamaugg, Language, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Poetry, Songs, Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateahaumaitawhitiurehaeaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, Welsh

A song about Llanfair PG

My highlight of our trip to the UK in 2006 was a visit to the North Wales town with the longest place name in Britain. That’s me at  Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch Station.

I’ve wanted to write a poem about it since penning one about Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagogchaubunagunggamaugg, the  longest place name in the US. That one took me four months. 

(Part III will be even harder: paying homage to the world champ  Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateahaumaitawhitiure-haeaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu out the back of Waipukurau.)

The Welsh poem turned musical when I realised that the name could be made to scan with a beautiful Welsh folk song we used to sing at Hutt Intermediate.

As follows… Continue reading

BBC, Graham Ansell, Language, News, One News, Samoan tsunami 2009

Cousin Graham’s Samoan tsunami fund

(Source: ONE News)

I nearly fell of my chair when my cousin Graham Ansell’s face appeared in the One News review of the year’s events.

I knew Graham, Diann and family had a lucky escape from the Samoan tsunami, but I didn’t know his story had been filmed – or that he’d helped to raise $15,000 for the survivors.

(I even found his story on the BBC News site.) 

Continue reading

Language, Trivia

Which airline bans apostrophes?

I thought it was oil we were supposed to be running out of, not punctuation marks.

Seems the dangling possessive is just the latest artefact to be restricted on Air New Zealand flights, along with cellphones, bomb jokes, knives that don’t bend,  laptops, liquids, legroom, and decent food.

As you can see from these four screenshots from yesterday’s Air New Zealand inflight quiz, the airline now has a zero tolerance policy towards apostrophes. 

Why this possessive prevention programme has been mounted is not immediately clear.

Perhaps Air New Zealand see themselves as stewards, not just of our cabin ambience, but also of our linguistic environment.

Perhaps it fears that environment becoming polluted by overpunctuation.

Or perhaps it’s more worried about the legal ramifications of its quiz writers developing a bad case of POOS (Punctuational Obfuscational Overuse Syndrome).

Either way, Air New Zealand, it’s not on.

Punctuation marks are navigation aids. They help guide readers on their  flight path toward the destination of understanding.

They’re our linguistic landing lights. 

You’re our airline. Please show more respect for our language.  


Chinese speakers: WASH your English

I was the guest speaker at China Toastmasters in Taipei a few years ago.

My topic was The Crazy English Language.

I desperately wanted to be of use to these brave people. (Learning to speak in public is hard enough, let alone in your second language.)

So I sweated for three weeks to think of what I could say that would help them in their heroic efforts to master my mother tongue.

Nothing happened in my head that was remotely useful.

Then at 3pm on the day of the speech that was due to start at 6pm, it finally dawned on me what I should do.

I’d write a poem about the mistakes Chinese people make in English, and how they can avoid them.

I worked out there are four parts of speech that they typically scramble and cause us confusion: 

  • tense
  • article
  • number, and
  • gender.

Iris told me why.

It’s because they don’t use these devices in Chinese. 

For example, say a Chinese speaker is telling you about something happening yesterday, today or tomorrow. 

They’ll establish which day it is right upfront, at the start of the sentence.

Then they’ll just stick with the normal present tense after that.

They’ll say, “Yesterday I go to beach”.

They quite logically wonder why the stupid English speaker would want to bother with ‘went’ or ‘was going’, when ‘go’ is really all you need.

And if it’s tomorrow that you’re doing the going, why waste valuable brainpower putting together ‘I will go’ or ‘I will be going’?

‘I go’ works just fine there too.

(You’ll see they also see no need for a ‘the’.)

That, in short, is why Chinese speakers speak English in shorthand. They’re just being logical.

(Mind you, I’m not sure that logic always holds true. I had to politely correct my China Toastmasters introducer for saying, “Our next speaker, she is from New Zealand.”)

For those Taiwanese and Chinese friends who want to be more clearly understood in English, memorise this little rhyming checklist:

WASH your English

Was or will be?
A or the?
S or no S?
He or she?

© J Ansell 2004

If you’re a linguist with Chinese experience, you may wish to expand on this, as I’m by no means an expert.

Language, Poetry

My new Taiwanese national anthem

It was my wife’s homeland of Taiwan‘s 97th birthday on 10 October. (Double 10.) 

I don’t think their anthem does justice to their strong capitalist instinct. So, in honour of this dynamic fellow democracy, I took the liberty of composing a new one:

Taiwanta new computer
Taiwanta motor scooter
TaiwanTaiwantit now
To spit on Chairman Mao!

© J Ansell 2004

A warm welcome also to the new Taiwanese ambassador, Mr Charles Tsai.

(Note: if you are from Communist China and you are offended by the terms Taiwanese national anthem and Taiwanese ambassador in this post, I invite you to kindly get stuffed.)


Is anemone an enemy?

On Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? last night, both Mike Hosking and his contestant repeatedly pronounced anemone “an enemy”.

They did it so often I had to check that it wasn’t meant to be pronounced that way.

(It isn’t.)

This inspires me to compile a list of the Most Mispronounced Words in English. Right up there near the top would have to be pronunciation, which so many pronounce pronounciation.

Maybe the list should be called Mispronounciations?

Vunrable for vulnerable would be up there too.

 Feel free to contribute.

Language, Poetry

Nelson’s unhelpful column

Noticed this as we drove through a Richmond intersection en route to Nelson. Apologies to The Scrapbook Store – that lamppost has a lot to answer for! 

(Looks like a good shop actually.)

Further up the road is the recently-voted top provincial bookshop in the South Island, Nelson’s  independent Page and Blackmore.

One of the owners, Peter Rigg, was at the For the Love of Words book launch event and liked what he heard, so is going to push my book.

Language, Poetry

Painkiller poems

Writing rhymes with a twist in the tail can be a maddening pastime.


I like to get the scans just right, and often the words won’t come. Then the poem has to be abandoned.


Sometimes a poem will take on a life of its own, and you don’t know when it’s going to end.


Two in my book (In Defence of Egyptian Daddies and A Lake in Massachusetts – about the longest place name in America, Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagunggamaugg) took four months each to write.


But it’s all worth it when you get comments like this one that arrived today:

John’s poetry is a powerful antidote for pain, which I can personally vouch for.


I recently attended a poetry evening at Nelson Library at which John was performing.  I was in intense pain due to my rheumatoid arthritis, and was considering having to leave.


The pain was so bad I had beads of sweat on my forehead, and didn’t know how I was going to cope. I had an overwhelming urge to dig my nails into my friend’s leg to relieve some of the pain.


However, once John started telling his funny stories about the English language and reading his hilarious poetry, I began laughing so much that I had a huge reduction in my pain level, which was amazing and wonderful.


“Poetry for the people, poetry for the pain.”


Margaret A. Fearn, Nelson

I rang Margaret to thank her.  She’s had rheumatoid arthritis for 47 years.


It’s in her bones, lungs, joints, muscles – everywhere. Yet she has an extremely positive attitude to life – and writes poetry! 


It’s a great feeling knowing I made a difference to her, even if just for a short time.  

Poetry, Politics

Mr Hager replies

Dear John,

I think you see yourself as a principled wordsmith so I hope you will leave this reply on your site so others can judge whether I really misrepresented your poem.

I do, I will, and they can.

Below is my full introduction to your poem from chapter 12 of The Hollow Men. Readers will see that I did not in the slightest suggest it was you writing about Don Brash.

I would have thought “Four verses can serve as a tribute to Brash’s years as National Party leader. It is fitting that Ansell, who nearly got him into power, provides a well-crafted epitaph.” was more than a slight suggestion.

I explained it was part of a poem written generally about politicians from before you began working for Brash (note the “can serve as”, not “was written as”).

A fine legal distinction that Winston would be proud of.

Also, as anyone can read, I explained that it was part of fourteen-verse poem.

Yes you did.

I did not pretend that the four verses were a consecutive whole.

You printed them consecutively!  

That’s all you needed to do to create your desired false impression.  Who would assume they were not consecutive?

A ‘principled wordsmith’ would have inserted dots or a footnote to make it clear they were not consecutive in the original.

Here it is:

“A month before Ansell decided to return to advertising to help Brash, he published a book of poetry including a long fourteen-verse poem about politicians called “Political careering”. Four verses can serve as a tribute to Brash’s years as National Party leader. It is fitting that Ansell, who nearly got him into power, provides a well-crafted epitaph.”

Yes, it was cheeky to use your words to write about Brash.

I don’t mind a bit of cheek directed my way. (How could I with my track record?!)

But I did not misrepresent what I was doing nor misrepresent what your poem is about.

Didn’t you?

Well, let’s see…

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Poetry, Politics

Hager’s hollow hoax

I want to show you in my customary left-right way how Nicky Hager operates.

Have a look below at how this self-styled truthseeker hollowed out one of my poems to create the exact opposite meaning.

The poem, Political Careering, from my book I Think The Clouds Are Cotton Wool – Rhymes Committed by John Ansell, is about the journey from lobbyist to disgraced PM of a Clark/Muldoon/ Peters type of politician.

By the time Hager had finished his gutting and pasting, it had become my epitaph to Don Brash.

You’ll see it at the end of the Iwi/Kiwi chapter of The Hollow Men. Page 74.

Nowhere did Hager admit that the four verses he fused together were not meant to be consecutive. They were, in fact, verses 3, 9, 12 and 13.

I think we call that a breach of copyright. (Not that a rich boy like Hager would have anything much to worry about if I sued him.)

And nowhere did he tell you that I had clearly dedicated the original to New Zealand’s fiercest political animals, Rob Muldoon, Winston Peters and Helen Clark.

He just allowed me to embarrass my boss and myself in public – something I felt compelled to apologise to Don for at the time.

(It was the last of Don’s worries, given the scale of the other misrepresentations he’d found.) 

If Hager can be so dishonest about a simple poem, what does that suggest about the rest of the tale? 

But you decide.

Here are the two versions side by side, so you can see how much of the truth Hager left out.





Dedicated to New Zealand’s fiercest political animals, Rob Muldoon, Winston Peters and Helen Clark.


…a tribute to Brash’s years as National Party leader. It is fitting that Ansell, who nearly got him into power, provides a well-crafted epitaph.

Working on a politician,

Lobby for a strong decision,

Lots of lolly on commission

As a lobbyist.


Working for a politician,

Always been a long ambition,

Dominate a strong division,

Party activist.



Wanna be a politician,

Follow me I’m on a mission,

Gotta get a strong position

On the party list.


Wanna be a politician,

Follow me I’m on a mission,

Gotta get a strong position

On the party list.


Gonna be a politician,

Gotta be on television,

Shot of me in each edition,

Babies getting kissed.



Finally I’m a politician,

What a battle of attrition!

Sock it to the Opposition,

Then I’m getting pissed.



Up and coming politician,

Got a lot of recognition,

Tons of perks and tunnel vision,

No expenses missed.



Double-dipping politician,

Higher Salaries Commission,

Should decline, but what they’re dishin’

Out I can’t resist.



Party’s leading politician,

Not a lot of competition,

Clobbered ’em into submission

With my iron fist.



Leader of the Opposition,

Keeper of a strong tradition

To articulate a vision

People can’t resist.

Leader of the Opposition,

Keeper of a strong tradition

To articulate a vision

People can’t resist.

Country’s leading politician,

Blunted by the coalition,

Hunted by the Opposition,

Wish they would desist.



Country’s leading politician,

Made a rather odd admission,

Order ’em to block transmission,

Really must insist.



One embattled politician,

I’m a picture of contrition,

Honestly to God I’m wishin’

I did not exist.

One embattled politician,

I’m a picture of contrition,

Honestly to God I’m wishin’

I did not exist.

Soon-to-be ex-politician,

Step aside on one condition:

“Leaving of my own volition”—

Think you get the gist.


Soon-to-be ex-politician,

Step aside on one condition:

“Leaving of my own volition”—

Think you get the gist.


Sick of being a politician,

God I made the wrong decision,

Damn it all, I’m going fishin’ —
Get me out of this!



Nelson word lovers’ event this Friday

If you’re in Nelson on Friday 10 October, you’re warmly invited to For the Love of Words, a triple book launch-cum-celebration of wordcraft.

The idea came from poet, children’s author, social commentator and organiser extraordinaire Amy Brooke of Summersounds Symposium fame.

Amy’s got a poetry book to launch, Deep Down Things. 

And she very generously thought, why not make it double as the South Island launch of I Think The Clouds Are Cotton Wool – Rhymes Committed by John Ansell?

(Which is good of her, since the North Island launch was five years ago.)

Add to the mix Nelson poet Mark Raffills, who is christening his latest volume Loved, Mis-loved and Loved Again, and it promises to be a revealing and  ‘edutaining’ night for word lovers.

Nelson Library, 5.30 – 7.00pm.

No charge. (Thanks to sponsor Nelson Institute.)

All ages welcome.


One death is a goat song

Woke up yesterday to a sombre Paul Holmes breaking the news of the sudden death of singer Rob Guest.

It was quite a body blow to those of us who remember the eternally youthful Rob from ’70s pop shows.

It was one of those ‘I remember where I was when I heard’ moments.

Others in that category for me were the shock deaths of Norman Kirk (I was babysitting the neighbour’s kids in Woburn), Elvis Presley (driving along the Hutt Road), John Lennon (at home in Newtown), Princess Di (on the phone in Kent Terrace), Steve Irwin (at Christchurch airport) and Rod Donald (driving through the Paremata roundabout). 

Now perhaps the first word that leaps to mind at such times is tragedy.

But just be careful there.

Because to call any death a tragedy is to dice with a wholly inappropriate emotion, comedy.

You see, the word tragedy means ‘goat song’.

It’s from the Greek tragoidia.  (Tragos = ‘goat’. Oidia = ‘song’.)

Clear as muck? 

Well, it so happened ancient Greek plays were semi-religious affairs. And naturally, this meant a goat had to be sacrificed. (To the god of wine, of all people.)

Then the chorus would sing a song of sacrifice.

A ‘goat song’.

Some actors would act the goat too.  Or half the goat anyway. They’d dress up as satyrs. These were men from the waist up, and goats the rest of the way down.

For a reason that’s now lost in the mists of time, the main event took on the name of the curtain raiser.

And so, as we mourn New Zealand’s finest exponent of musical theatre, it might be more respectful – or at least more etymologically correct – to call the passing of Rob Guest a tremendous loss rather than a tragedy.

Plain English

Gareth utters the D word

“Main Street just told Wall Street to get stuffed.”

So Gareth Morgan told Paul Holmes on Newstalk ZB this morning.

Then, just when I thought financial English couldn’t get any plainer, Gareth said this: 

“We’re toying with a depression.” Ouch.

And this: “New Zealand is extremely exposed.” Double ouch.

Even Gareth can’t get much more black and white than that. And this morning, his mood was all black.

Clearly the American moms and dads are leaning on their congressmen to exact revenge on the fat cats.

Yet by vetoing the $700 billion bailout of the finance sector, guess who they’re really punishing?

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The Stricken Chicken

“Oh why did the chicken cross the road?”
The chicken farmer cried.
The clairvoyant answered:
“To get to the other side.”

“You mean it wanted to be dead?”
The stricken chicken farmer said.
“Why else with death would it have diced
If not to be… a poultrygeist?”

(c) J Ansell 2008

An idea that came after a meal of satay chicken and an episode of Sensing Murder.

Plain English

Gobbledygook going forward

My highlight of the week was the WriteMark Plain English Awards dinner at Shed 5. 

Last year, I had the honour (and pressure) of being the after-dinner speaker

This year, I could just relax and enjoy the wit of Fair Go’s Kevin Milne, and the wisdom of my former Colenso colleague Ian McDougall.

Turns out Kevin’s most loathed piece of gobbledygook is the same as mine: 

…going forward.

The explosion of cheers at its every mention suggested that this ghastly phrase has attained the status of Plain English Enemy Number One.


Because it’s mind-numbingly, teeth-gnashingly, hair-tearingly, eye-gougingly superfluous. That’s why.

No prizes for guessing where it came from, either.

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Language, Uncategorized

The First Post

Gentlies and ladlemen,

Welcome to the latest newest blog on the entire internet.

Before long, it should be chock-full of quirky observations about the crazy words we use, and the weird world in which we use them.

Hey, did you notice that the words entire and internet are cobbled together from the same five letters? 

And did you know that each of them – e, n, t, i and r – will only earn you 1 measly point in Scrabble? That’s because they’re five of our most common nine letters – along with a, o, s and h.

And did you know that, etymologically speaking, letters are indeed French?

Sorry, sorry. Now I’m getting carried away. (Some say I should be.)

Anyway, here we are. Stuck in a blog. With no paper.

Which is the perfect image for introducing my next category…

You see, we’ll also be plumbing the murky depths of advertising, and politics, and the advertising of politics – since that’s what a lot of people think I do.

(I did. But I don’t. Now I do public speaking, and private writing.)

And there’ll be the odd rhyme too, I dare say. Most of my rhymes are odd. Especially the ones that don’t rhyme.

Mary had a little lamb.
She couldn’t eat the rest.

When the time is right, I’ll be unveiling my new New Zealand flag, which is not the least bit odd. And my new Taiwanese National Anthem, which is.

Who knows what else we’ll be getting up to?

At the very least, I hope you and I will be able to use this humble forum to simplify the world, so I can understand it.

Mank you thery vuch.