Friday 27 July 2012


The British have never been known for their sensitivity to issues of ethnicity or nationality. This week has already seen excruciating blunders by the organisers of the Olympics. 

Joe Allen, a footballer from Wales playing for Britain, suffered the ultimate insult of being described as an Englishman in the programme. He then refused to sing the UK National Anthem (composed by Henry Carey, a paranoid 18th-century songwriter who subsequently committed suicide). The North Korean women’s football team walked off the pitch in Glasgow after the big screens displayed the flag of South Korea, with which nation North Korea is still officially at war, since no treaty was ever signed after the 1953 armistice.

Westfield Shopping Centre
But the most embarrassing debacles have been over security signs and ‘welcome’ signs in Arabic printed backwards. Several important rail stations, including King’s Cross and St Pancras International, displayed notices in this bizarre inverted script warning travellers not to leave baggage unattended. And Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, London, which is at the epicentre of Olympics activity, hailed Arabic speakers with the equivalent of NODNOLOTEMOCLEW (‘Welcome to London’) blazoned across banners and on the T-shirts of the mall staff.

'Jabberwocky' as written by the 2012 Olympics organisers
Some people customarily write or speak backwards, either because they are geniuses (Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart) or because they have a learning difficulty. In the inverted world of Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1871), the book in which the ‘Jabberwocky’ poem is inscribed is, of course, in mirror-writing.

Right-to-left inscription, on 'Nestor's Cup (Cumae,8th-c. BCE)
So just for a minute, let us try giving the benefit of the doubt to the administrators responsible for not being able to locate a single Arabic-speaking Briton (there are about a million of them) to check these signs. In archaic Greece, for example, you could write backwards or even backwards and forwards (‘ox-track’ writing, boustrophedon, like cattle ploughing a field). Perhaps the backwards Arabic is a coy reference to the origins of the Olympics?

But the most charitable explanation is that the signs are a covert invitation to all Arabic speakers to try the revolutionary new sport of running backwards, which I am about to take up. 

The world champion is Garret Doherty, 33, from Dublin in Ireland, who, astonishingly, can run a seven-minute mile backwards and has recently won the world championship for the third time in succession.

Garret says: 'Backwards running is like a drug — once you start, you’ll never want to run forwards again. It’s truly liberating, and there are enormous health benefits.'

In preparation for taking up my new sport, I have consulted the website at  But it advises that the first step is to ‘FIND A PARTNER. If you struggle to find anywhere suitable, then run with a partner and take turns to run backwards.’ 

Is there anyone out there willing to share my new hobby with me?  At next year’s championships we can substitute for the dreadful National Anthem the far superior Goons’ song, “I’m walking backwards for Christmas, across the Irish Sea” (lyrics available at


  1. Running backwards sounds absolutely hilarious, it must be wonderful for you! I might actually try that in the park one of these days...
    The backwards Arabic is awful, though. I cringed just reading that; it seems such a typically British blunder to make.

    Your blog is fabulous reading, I'm already a fan (anyone who quotes the Goons!..) though I have to admit, I'm a 2012 KCL Classics graduate so I was deliberately pointed here by one of the London Classics Mafia!
    Thanks :)

  2. It's slightly more confusing than that: the letters are actually facing the right way, but they're written in the wrong direction, so the words are spelled, rather than printed, backwards - i.e. backwards not mirrored.

    S D R A W K C A B - like so.

    That might make it easier to read, but for the fact that additionally the same fault in rendering the fonts (somewhere these signs have gone through a computer not properly set-up to handle right-to-left languages) has also led to the normally cursive and connected letters being broken apart and rendered individually in their standalone forms, normally only seen in isolation as part of abbreviations, on license plates, and so on. The effect is to make word boundaries much harder to identify, even if you can adjust to the wrong direction.

  3. Thanks so much! I must learn Arabic as soon as I retire from the day job!

  4. Oh, it's much simpler than Greek. We English speakers are forever being told how regular Latin and Greek our in comparison to our own primitive island creole - neither of them have got anything on Arabic; almost every word in the language derived predictably from a three letter root, no irregular verbs (those that are sometimes claimed are actually perfectly regular, just according to rules governing the presence of a semivowel), only five irregular nouns (although almost all nouns have 'irregular' plurals), case as supplemental rather than obligatory, and standardised spelling for almost its entire history. Some evidence that the writing system is harder to learn, though, because character distinctions are apparent only in small details, not overall form. Arabic would be a good language to push in schools more, in my opinion - it can be studied both as a classical and a modern language, without any real duplication or redundancy. It would be a far superior choice of 'new' language than the Chinese people always harp on about "everyone wanting to learn these days". (I also speak some Chinese, so I'm certainly not suggesting people shouldn't learn it; I just think there's much myth and misconception in notions of what is current and useful.)