Welsh Cellar Doors

Here is a post that I wrote over a year ago but never got round to publishing. I’m not sure why as it was almost complete, with only minor editing required (though some may debate that point). I offer it now as a Christmas present to the wider world. Nadolig llawen!

Quite a long time ago, I mentioned in one of my blog posts the subject of cellar doors.

There is a branch of linguistics called phonaesthetics, which considers the aesthetic properties of sound. Within this is the idea that certain words or phrases are particularly euphonious (i.e. nice sounding). This can be because the sound seems particularly fit-for-purpose in conveying the meaning or the word or can be entirely independent of the meaning. It’s obviously a highly subjective concept, since beauty is in the eye (or, in this case, the ear) of the beholder. In other words, whereas it’s generally possible to classify a given word as, say, a noun or a verb (although sometimes there are words that defy easy categorisation), or to agree on how many letters or syllables a word has (again, there are potential cans of worms to be opened there), it’s almost certain that there will be some words I consider to sound beautiful that you will think are rather plain, if not downright ugly, and vice versa.

One particular word / phrase (depending on whether you hyphenate it, and if so whether you consider that to bind it tightly enough to be a single word, though I don’t want to get too sidetracked into semantics at this point) that many people, including both me and J. R. R. Tolkien, take to be especially beautiful in the English language is “cellar-door” and, because it has often been cited by Tolkien and others as a good example of euphony (in Tolkien’s opinion, at least, this is best appreciated when the sound is dissociated from the meaning and perhaps even the spelling of the word), “cellar-door” is often used as a shorthand way to refer to the general concept of euphonious words.

Another point on which I totally agree with the good Professor is that Welsh is a language that is particularly rich in “cellar-door” words. Here are a few of my own personal favourites, in alphabetical order (rather than any attempt at ordering according to preference):

Ailwampio

To revamp. “Ail” means “second” (the ordinal number, not the unit of time) and is quite often used as a prefix equivalent to “re-” in English. “Wampio” is clearly either borrowed from “vamp” or they both come from the same root (I’ve no idea of the etymology there).

Panad

A cup of tea. Possibly the first Welsh word I learned on moving to Wales (though I’d previously tried to learn a bit of the language), and certainly one of the most useful in everyday life. It comes from cwpanaid, which literally means “a cupful”. Some people would say that a panad specifically means tea, though many others (myself included) would include coffee and other hot beverages in the definition; you can narrow it down by referring to a “panad o de” (tea), “panad o goffi” (coffee), etc. Interestingly, in South Wales they tend to use the word dishgled instead, which means “a basinful”, although I don’t think they drink their tea from basins down there. It may be just familiarity, but I personally think panad is a much nicer word (even though the idea of a whole basin full of tea is quite appealing).

Pobty Ping

Microwave [oven]. The official Welsh word for “microwave” is the rather more boring meicrodon, which like its equivalents in just about every other language I can think of (e.g. Mikrowelle in German, Micro-ondes in French or Microondas in Spanish, and for that matter, Microwave in English), consists of the Greek-originated prefix Micro- (or some spelling variation to take account of local phonetics), meaning “small”, and the native word for “wave”. Pobty ping, by contrast, literally means “the oven which goes ‘ping'”. This is apparently quite localised slang, as I learned it from a native Welsh speaker from Anglesey (where it has wide currency) and shortly afterwards used it when talking to a native Welsh speaker from Conwy (not all that far down the road), who had never heard of it. I think it’s probably become more widespread over the last couple of decades.

Sboncen

Squash (as in the game). This one sounds nicely onomatopoeic, evoking a small rubber ball bouncing round an enclosed court at high velocity in a way that the English term doesn’t quite manage.

Smaragdus

Emerald. This is a fairly obscure word, that I came across in the William Morgan translation of the Bible (which dates back to 1588, although my copy is a later edition). The more standard word for emerald in contemporary Welsh is Emrallt, which is much more closely related to the English but doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Apparently, the Ancient Greek word for emerald is σμάραγδος (smaragdos, “green gem”), which passed into Classical Latin as smaragdus and then into Vulgar Latin as esmaraldus or esmaralda, from which it’s a short hop to the English, while William Morgan (if not the Welsh language at large) stuck much more closely to the Greek roots.

Smwddio

Ironing. I know I said this list wasn’t in order of preference but I’ve still somehow managed to save the best till last. I’ve always loved this word since the moment I first met it, largely because it seems so fit for purpose in describing the intended and usual (though not always, when I’m trying to do it) result of ironing. In fact, I once got banned from using the word in my Welsh lessons as it was always the first one I’d suggest when we were looking for verbs to try out with a new pattern we were learning (my Welsh teacher seemed to have just as much of an obsession with garden sheds, but seemed happy for them to turn up in every exercise!). It should be noted that I don’t particularly enjoy ironing, though I do like to talk about it in Welsh.

Brushing Up

After far too long a gap, I have recently begun to draw and paint again.

Although music has long been, and will probably always remain, my primary creative outlet, I have also had a lifelong fascination for, and leaning towards, the more visual arts such as painting and drawing. This is probably not altogether surprising since my dad was both an artist (primarily a sculptor, though in later life he concentrated almost exclusively on the arts of brush and pen) and an art teacher, giving me a tremendous amount of support, encouragement, instruction and inspiration over many years.

Like so many of my other interests, my active engagement with creating art tends to wax and wane. In fact, looking back through the dates jotted down in my old sketchbooks it appears that, apart from a few sporadic bursts of drawing, my last real creative period in visual art (as opposed to music, which is more or less constant, or poetry, which is also fairly sporadic but has seen some more recent activity) was around 2009. In particular, when I last moved house, in 2011, I packed most of my art materials away into various boxes and cupboards and have barely touched them since.

Until now.

I have been thinking for several years that I ought to get round to doing some more painting, and looking at the various pieces of my own artwork adorning my walls (the latest of which, until this week, was painted nearly 10 years ago) reinforced that feeling, but never quite enough to actually doing anything about it.

The first step back to painting came after Dad died last February. When I was down for the funeral I did a painting using some of his art materials, which was probably more successful on a therapeutic level than a strictly artistic one. I planned to dig out my own paints when I got home, but somehow that didn’t quite happen.

Fast forward to early December and I found myself putting together some slides for a carol service. I needed a background picture of a nativity scene, which had to be simple enough not to distract from the foreground text but still recognisable, and I needed it quickly (as in, within about half an hour). Searching online failed to turn up any particularly suitable images, let alone any which were public domain or released under a sufficiently non-restrictive license such as Creative Commons. In a fit of madness that turned out to be serendipity, I decided that the best solution was to make one of my own. I was going to try drawing one but on my way to dig out the felt pens, I came across a few scraps of black paper so it occurred to me to try making a collage instead. I found a nice sturdy bit of deep blue card, and some white for the star (which I could keep off to one side and out of the way of the text in my slides). Here is the result:
Stable Collage

That collage worked pretty well as the backdrop for my slides and also turned out to be just the catalyst I needed to dig out my art materials and get to work on some more drawings and paintings, despite December being pretty much the most hectic month of the year. I haven’t produced anything earth-shatteringly wonderful yet and I am unlikely to do so anytime soon (or, in fact, any time), but I am rediscovering both the joy of creating visual art and the satisfaction of seeing some new stuff on my walls and in my sketchbooks.

Hopefully now I’ve restarted I’ll be able to keep the creative juices flowing well into 2019 and beyond. In a way, I regret not having started painting again in time to show Dad some of my latest pictures and get his feedback on them, but I know that he would be delighted to know that my brushes are now back in action.

Here are a few more of my recent pictures. You can see bigger copies of these, and quite a lot more of my artwork (including some older stuff) on Flickr.

Red Shift (acrylic on paper)

Incense (line & wash)

Last year's advent candle (oil on paper)

Braid Theory triptych (various media)

The Pleasures of Pitta

I find myself torn between the Scylla of ending up with a blog that only updates once a year (though I suppose at least that would be nice and regular) and the Charybdis of turning into a monothematic food blog, since my last post was on that subject and the thing I’ve just thought about writing is too. Still, since it would seem a shame to put up such a short post just to say I was thinking about posting, I suppose it’s better to steer more towards the latter danger than the former one.

Recently I find myself eating quite a bit of pitta bread. It’s always been a bread product that I have enjoyed but in the last few months it seems to have become my go-to bread and I have discovered that it’s even more versatile than I thought.

A few months (or perhaps a year or two) back, I came up with an idea which is probably not entirely new in the grand scheme of things but I’m fairly sure I hadn’t (consciously, at least) borrowed it from anywhere. This is a tasty snack that I call a zapped cheese pitta and is essentially what happens when pitta bread meets cheese on toast (described by Bill Bailey as the National Dish of Wales). Or rather, what happens when I get a craving for cheese on toast but realise the only bread I have to hand is pitta and then decide that the microwave is quicker and easier than the grill.

Zapped cheese pittas are easy enough to make. First take one or two (or more, if you’re making for several people or feeling especially hungry) pitta breads, cut or tear them open and put in some thinly sliced cheese (as with regular cheese on toast, I usually use cheddar but a whole range of different cheeses work and give some quite pleasingly different results), stick them on a plate and microwave them for about a minute, leaving to stand for a short while and proceeding with caution as the cheese can get pretty hot. I quite often add a little bit of mustard, especially when I’m using cheddar. I’m sure other condiments could be used too. I suspect brie and cranberry would work nicely, and that reminds me of another pitta-related snack that I’ve enjoyed several times in the last few months…

Bacon butties (or sandwiches, if you prefer) are one of life’s great joys (and one of the reasons I don’t think I’d ever entirely convert to vegetarianism) and can be nicely enhanced by a slice or two of brie (and quite possibly some cranberry sauce, though I’m not sure I ever tried that). In recent months, most of the bacon butties I’ve consumed (pretty much all, sadly, without brie – although some have been enhanced by other delights such as maple syrup instead) have been put together with pitta breads. For these I might gently zap the pittas in the microwave to warm them through, and if I’m feeling decadent I may slide a bit of butter into them before piling in the bacon, but actually they work fine with cold pittas and no butter, just letting the heat from the bacon warm them through.

That last one was a bonus, as I didn’t actually have bacon butties in mind when I started writing this post. The thing that prompted it was in fact my discovery this evening of a perhaps surprising combination: a pitta noodle sandwich!

At the moment I am stuck in my office awaiting a meeting later on and don’t have access to my usual cooking facilities and ingredients, so I had a pot noodle for dinner. When I say “pot noodle” I mean one of the nice spicy ones from East Asia – this one from South Korea, I think – that are a bit cheaper and, IMHO, much tastier than the western version (which I pretty much never eat). To go with it, I had a couple of pittas and a chunk of slightly stale cornbread. I started with the cornbread, as that most needed using up, and it soaked up quite a lot of the liquid from my noodles so when I got on to the pittas I decided to try putting some of the noodles into the pitta rather than dipping it into the broth. It turned out to be very tasty (although I suspect not super healthy) and is probably an idea I’ll try again sometime.

Meanwhile it’s nearly time for my meeting, so I’d better publish this and go and wash up my fork.