Unmentionable goings on

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Not for the first time, it occurs to me that it is very difficult to talk about a thing if there is no name for it, and this goes for activities as well as things. There must have been a time, for instance, when there was no way of describing the process of just wandering past the shops and looking at the things in the windows longingly and fantasising about buying them without actually making a purchase. Then one day someone invented the term "window shopping" and suddenly you could talk about it.

Similarly, things must have been difficult before we invented terms like "shoplifting". At least they must have been much more long winded. Instead of having signs saying: "We always prosecute shoplifters", you would have to have had signs saying: "We always prosecute people who slip small items off the shelf and into their shopping bag, thinking themselves to be unobserved, and then fail to declare the same items to the cashier for payment."

Yet this still happens. There are still plenty of activities going on around us that are never referred to because there is no name for them. They are not particularly taboo activities, they are just not talked about. Here are a dozen for you to ponder.

1. Writing your trade name on the front of your car or van in mirror writing, back to front, so that it can only be read clearly by the driver of the vehicle in front when he looks in his driving mirror, and the image is reversed laterally. Even ambulances do this nowadays. (I once read the registration number of the car behind me as "VILLA" in mirror writing, and realised it must in real life be ALLIV - the only reg number I've ever seen chosen for its mirror qualities.) There is probably a trade name for this reverse writing on bonnets but none in general parlance.

2. Getting involved in a really long and boring telephone conversation, and starting to do something else like reading or writing a shopping list, and suddenly realising you haven't taken in a word of what the other person has been saying for 10 minutes.

3. Living in constant fear that anything slightly out of the ordinary happening to you will lead straight to your appearing on This Is Your Life or some Jeremy Beadle stunt, and therefore perpetually shying away from anything even slightly untoward.

4. Seeking a rhyme for a word that supposedly has no rhymes in English, like "orange". This is one of those peculiarly modern time-wasting activities, like compiling lists of 10 famous Belgians or putting together a fantasy football team. In the case of the myth that there is no rhyme for orange, I would have thought that Mr Gorringe, the one-time shop-owner, qualified. The other day I found myself speculating on whether there was any rhyme in English for "pilchard", and couldn't think of any. My wife found me staring into space.

"What are you doing ?" she asked.

"Oh, I'm just ..." my voice trailing away into silence. No word for it, you see.

5. Cutting out something from a newspaper and finding you have also cut out half of something you wanted to keep on the other side of the page.

6. Ringing a telephone number and getting a fax machine.

7. Ringing a phone number, getting only a recorded answering machine message, starting to dictate your message in return and then have the person you were ringing break in in person and say: "Oh, it's you - hi!"

8. Searching the Indian subcontinent for another kind of cooking to sell to the British. Well, someone must be doing it. How else do you explain the sudden emergence of tandoori cooking ? And then tikka cooking? And now "balti" cooking? To be honest, I haven't tried balti cooking yet. For a long time I was under the illusion that Baltic cooking had caught on, and that a whole series of Finnish or Danish bistros had opened, until it suddenly occurred to me that not all of them could have lost the final letter "c". I suppose I had better try balti cooking before the next Indian craze catches on, unearthed by that man who even now is scouring the Indian subcontinent for ...

9. Dropping a CD or cassette case, and breaking off one vital corner without which it will not close or fasten properly, and yet persisting in continuing to use it.

10. Storing something carefully in the fridge until it acquires mould under the cling film and then carefully throwing it away.

11. Flipping through a telephone directory to find a number until, just as you have nearly reached the right page, your hand relaxes and lets the pages go, and you have to start over again.

12. Suing an erstwhile friend for a share of his National Lottery winnings, on the grounds that he used your birth date as one of his numbers.

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