Those unspeakable things that have remained nameless

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The Independent Online
I ONCE wrote a piece about the difficulty of talking about things that have no name. Let us say, for instance, that you want to talk about modern pedestrian crossings where not only does the light turn green and show a green walking man, but a noise is emitted during the safe crossing time. This noise is, I take it, to inform blind people that it is now safe to cross. Fair enough. But what is it called? A pedestrian crossing noise? A blind pedestrian tone? I think I am not exaggerating when I say that never in my life have I witnessed a conversation about the noises made by pedestrian crossings, and although it may be because they are intrinsically uninteresting except to blind people and highway engineers, I think it is also because you cannot talk about things with no name.

Anyway, in this piece I mentioned something else that seemed to have no name, and that was the plastic tube in which baby trees are grown to protect them. You must have seen them on hillsides, looking like a neglected war cemetery. They don't look much, but you tolerate them because one day they will bring forth a new forest that one day the Department of Transport will cut down to build a new road. What you don't do is talk about them because they have no name, I wrote.

Here, it turned out, I was wrong, A reader wrote to tell me that in the trade (the baby tree division of the forestry trade, that is) those tubes are called Tooley Tubes, named after a Mr Tooley, who did much to develop them. So now, whenever I want to initiate a chat on the subject, I can point to a hillside and say, 'Those Tooley Tubes . . .'. The snag is, of course, that people still have no idea what I'm talking about, and my reputation for being slightly unbalanced gains momentum.

Nevertheless, I am pressing on with another list of things that, it seems to me, are seldom mentioned because they have no agreed name, and if anyone knows what they are really called, I would be glad to hear from them.

1. The sort of bodystocking that is pulled down over wine bottles in duty-free areas after you have bought them, presumably to prevent them banging together and breaking. Perhaps more of a corset than a body stocking . . . Or a leotard . . .

2. The plate that is lying ready in your place at a restaurant table as you sit down, and which is then inexplicably removed by the waiter.

3. The people at airports who stand by the arrivals exit holding up placards with which they try to attract the attention of the right person, saying things like 'Mr Yashimoto' or 'Rainproofing Conference'. There must be a name for this slightly lonely trade.

4. The tag in trousers that bears the washing instructions and tells you not to bleach it.

5. Things that are used by people for bookmarks in library books and then left inside the library books by accident when returned to the library. (There is a survey once a year of the most extraordinary things left inside library books by borrowers as bookmarks, and the winner for some reason is always either a kipper or a piece of bacon.)

6. The label on the back of the wine bottle. (The traditional front- of-bottle wine label is very pretty and has nice drawings of French chateaux or Australian landscape on it, but it doesn't tell you anything, except maybe a year and a place. Hence this new back label telling you the history of the vineyard, the name of the present owners, the names of their children, what to eat with the wine, etc.)

7. The clingfilm covering on the entrance to a packet of British Rail sandwiches that is designed to keep them fresh and moist until you need to eat them but which proves almost impossible to remove when it comes to the crunch.

8. The kind of remark that sounds like a quotation but isn't - for instance, 'when push comes to shove' or ' chance would be a fine thing'.

9. The plastic scaffolding left behind after you have taken all the working bits from a product such as a Playmobil toy.

10. Any free drink, food, accommodation, etc, offered by a travel firm in return for a delay.

Incidentally, I was told last time round by a reader that there is no term in English for the kind of animal toy that makes the apposite noise - a cow that moos, a chicken that clucks or, more recently, a Jurassic Park dinosaur that makes a noise just like a cow. He was a translator by trade and had just worked on a French novel that referred to these toys, but not even toy shops could tell him what they are called, and the toy catalogues only referred to them as 'novelty items'. Any ideas . . . ?

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