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Whimsical ways of counting sheep

Alistair Reid reads a poemThere's more than one way to skin a cat, and there's more than one way to count sheep. David Halperin read last month's story about Cumbrian shepherds having counted yan, tan, tethera, instead of one, two, three, and told us in an email that we should read a book called Ounce Dice Trice by Alastair Reid.

"The book lists different ways of counting to ten," he said. "Reid writes, 'If you get tired of counting one, two, three, make up your own numbers, as shepherds used to do when they had to count sheep day in, day out. You can try using these sets of words instead of numbers, when you have to count to ten.'

"There are 57 pages of this delightful nonsense, with equally delightful illustrations. My wife and I love it."

David, who lives in Urim, Israel, told us "I have been a member of Kibbutz Urim for the past 50 years, and so have had many -- and varied -- jobs over the decades: lathe operator, physics and mathematics teacher, factory worker, bookkeeper... But for the last few of them I was a musicologist at Tel-Aviv University until my retirement eight years ago."

In the book Ounce, Dice, Trice, now sadly out of print, Alastair Reid, a Scottish-born author, poet and translator turning 80 this year, cites these witty ways of counting to 10:

  • Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim.
  • Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist.
  • Archery, butchery, treachery, taproom, tomb, sermon, cinnamon, apron, nunnery, density.
  • Acreage, brokerage, cribbage, carthage, cage, sink, sentiment, ointment, nutmeg, doom.
He also suggests ways of naming the fingers, such as Tommy Thumbkins, Ettie Wilkson, Long Lauder (a distant relative of today's Laura Norder?), Davy Gravy, and Little Quee Quee Quee.

He suggests that times of day should include daypeep, dimity, dewfall and owlcry.

"And if someone tells you something you don't believe, look at him steadily and say FIRKYDOODLE, FUDGE, or QUOZ."

Warming to the word firkydoodle, we googled it. We found the word, spelt slightly differently, with this definition in The random pseudodictionary:

Firkytoodle, (n) Foreplay. Not my original word, but a wonderful word to say. Try it. Firkytoodle. Probably got it from Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary. Example: As in a song lyric: Momma don't 'low no firkytoodlin' 'round here.


Alastair ReidAlastair Reid is celebrated for his poetry, his peerless prose, his translations, and his life. In addition to some rare new material, Oases draws on the best of his work written over the years, thus giving a full picture of this enigmatic man.

"What drew me always to his writing was its portability: it required essentially no more than a notebook and a pencil, and it allowed me to own my own time, to travel light, to come to rest anywhere, a freedom I made full use of. I travelled however, mainly to find places to come to rest in, places to write in, oases"

Over the last thirty years Alastair Reid has shared his unique perspective in more than twenty books of poetry and prose and in his contributions as staff writer for The New Yorker: the politics and poetry of Borges and Neruda; football, in all its guises, burying treasure in Scotland; the life and personality of Robert Graves. Be the subject ordinary or extraordinary, he will transform it into his own, magnifying the particular, giving an unexpected dimension, turning a preconception on its head.

Oases captures the best, the essence, of this restless man... It is also a celebration of life, his life.
- Oases - Prose and Poetry - Alastair Reid

* Last month, we wrote that Cumbrian shepherds used to count sheep by saying yan, tan, tethera, instead of one, two, three. Those and other Celtic words were also used for marking school attendance records, counting money and stitches in knitting, and in children's rhymes.



Story first posted June 2006

Copyright 2006

Eric Shackle

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