Short Cuts: A guide to oaths, ring tones, ransom notes, famous last words, and other forms of ...

Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez and Rob Flynn, OUP USA, 2010, 320pp, ISBN 978 0 19538 913 5

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

I guess I'm out of date, but when I see 'Oxford University Press' proudly declared on a cover, I still expect to find a British book inside. And to have found that this was an out-and-out US production written in US English, with clear markers such as 'that's $1,800 in today's money', plus constant references to US locations/situations (whereas the comparatively few British ones are qualified with 'British'), came as a nasty shock to me, and niggled at me all the way through. If you think I'm being over-sensitive, read Daphne du Maurier's Rule Britannia and you'll probably understand my point of view better, even if you don't agree with it.

Dastardly US hijacking

That said, this book has lots of snippets of information in it and a fair amount of insight into our cultural conditioning, which are likely to be illuminating and entertaining to those of us who are interested in language. There's no way it's a reference book – as I see it, this offering is another attempt to cash in on the newfound sexiness of language, following the trail blazed by Lynne Truss, hence good for a present and/or your own spare time.

So although I didn't manage to get into the spirit of things, I'd recommend it in that role – as long as you're totally unfazed by what I (no doubt irrationally) see as the dastardly US hijacking of one of our most ancient and revered institutions.


Note: The full title of this book is 'Short Cuts: A guide to oaths, ring tones, ransom notes, famous last words, and other forms of minimalist communication'. Unfortunately, technical restrictions within our web-editing software prevent such a long title being displayed in full in the page heading.


Book reviews are one person's opinion and others may have a different reaction. This is what happened to American Mary Ellen Foley when this book was reviewed in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Editing Matters. While acknowledging the previous review, she felt that the actual contents of the book had not been given a fair hearing. Here's her alternative review.


You may have run across jarns, quimps, and nittles, but I hadn't until encountering this survey of 'minimalist communication', which is far from a small subject.

Themed chapters – on news reporting, oaths sacred and profane, the ID we carry, etc. – read like the anecdotes of after-dinner conversation, though presented with more panache than most of us muster over the coffee. We learn about détournement, the act of a wag who changes a sign from 'NO PARKING' to 'NO BARKING'; how to swear like a Roman ('By Hercules' for men, 'By Pollux' for women); and that the balance between clarity and brevity in ancient pictograms exists today in logo design.

It's a subjective selection from a vast field. The authors chose bank robbers' demand notes and speech pillows (er, ah), where others might prefer prescription labels or limericks, Post-It notes or pillow talk – no one book could treat them all. I find the authors at their best with odd or specialist vocabulary, rather less than that when enumerating the more obvious (items on a driving licence, sections of a letter). They can't please everyone all the time, but most will find their reading time rewarded.

Published by the OUP's American arm, the book presents mostly American examples, but surely most readers won't mind, not when these come between reports of skytyping (which is to skywriting as dot-matrix printing is to handwriting) and of ghost words (erroneous entries in reference works) such as dord, a misreading of 'D or d'.

But what of quimps, jarns, nittles? All are terms for icons used in cartoon speech balloons. Such gems make this a charming book to read or to give to a fellow lover of language.

Cartoon terms to get the head round:

boozex  'XXX' on a bottle to indicate alcohol
briffits  Clouds of dust behind characters to show they're moving fast
crottles  Crosses for eyes to indicate unconsciousness
grawlixes  Horizontal squiggles
jarns  Square and round spirals
lucaflects  Little window-pane shapes to indicate a reflective surface
nittles  Asterisks or stars
plewds  Tear-drop shapes indicating sweat or stress
quimps  Crescent moons or 'Saturns'
solrads  Wavy lines indicating warmth
spurls  Corkscrew lines to indicate someone losing conciousness
squeans  Centre-less asterisks to indicate drunkenness
waftaroms  Doubled curved lines indicating tasty food.