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The Case of the Unemployed Oil Engineer

The Case of the Unemployed Oil Engineer

The Case of the Unemployed oil engineer (transcribed below...)

was written in 1982, during my many years translating for the Customs department.

(There is of course no connection whatsoever with the BP oil spill in 2010..)

The jokes are mainly linguistic and the whole idea that words ("lexical items" as I call them here) could be subject to customs duties is a fantasy, but run with it, just for fun....

The oft repeated reference to the "Mañana scandal" is, of course, a discussion that is always put off until later, as you might expect...

The references to muhandis (= engineer), bilaad (= countries), kalimaat (= words) and mudiir (= director) relate, of course, to Arabic words, which were "imported" into European languages only under the terms of this work of fiction.

The reference to the burning of lexical items and the scaring of the sheep upwind is an oblique reference to that day when seized cannabis was officially burned in the open air to the mellow delight of neighbouring campers upwind of the fire....

The "Assistant translator, Dawn Slovnik", who is the apparent owner of the file, is my own female alter ego, the surname being the Czech or Slovak word for "Dictionary"....

Jeanne, my boss at the time (in the 1980s and 1990s), read the story and commented:

"I think this is very good, muhahis muhandis" - a glorious pun on

"mutatis mutandis".... Oh I do miss the punning atmosphere of the Translation Service ;-)

I hope you enjoy this somewhat esoteric journey into the mind of a

somewhat individualistic, now retired, customs translator....

The Case of the unemployed oil engineer

by Dawn Slovnik , Assistant Translator,January 1982


1. To General Customs Headquarters

      From Language Improvement Corporation Ltd UK        17 October 1994

 Re: Seizure of goods by German Customs

Dear Sirs

On 5 October 1994 a consignment of individually containerized phonemes and lexemes were searched by Homburg Customs and various valuable lexical items were seized on the grounds that they had been misdescribed as being of Common Market origin.

In particular, we were hoping to market a fine quality lexical item which has a specially restricted semantic field, viz: “Muhandis”, which, as you are no doubt aware, means “engineer” in Arabic.

“Muhandis” was therefore intended to fill the gap which has recently appeared in our journalistic and novelistic media, and would cover only those engineers who have become unemployable due to the drying up of the oil-fields throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

It has the advantage of being pronounceable while still maintaining a certain nostalgic and middle-eastern pathos which now pervades the Arabian world because of the collapse of their main industries – a pathos which could not be recaptured in the bald phrase “unemployed oil engineer”.

Unfortunately, this particular word, which we correctly declared as being “not of EEC origin” on importation to Dover, was misinterpreted by our forwarding agent.  He considered it to be merely a corruption of the English word “handy-man” and therefore, to avoid unnecessary payment of customs duties, he declared it as a UK word, and therefore of EEC origin, when the consignment was transhipped and sent to Homburg.

The penalties imposed by Homburg Customs when the goods were seized, however, are most unreasonable and could severely hamper our trading potential in the linguistic world.  

Would you therefore please ask your German colleagues to reconsider their action?

Yours faithfully

Saleem MacJones (Managing Director)


2. To: General Customs  IN CONFIDENCE

From Homburg Customs

Word Clearance Section                     31 October 1994

Dear Colleagues!

I refer to your letter of 21.10.94 reference GENCUS/1/94/LIC/242a.s.

And the enclosed letter of Mr MacJones of LIC Ltd

Mr MacJones has a long history of fraudulent importations of non-EEC lexical items and is even suspected of complicity in the recent “Mañana” scandal, although nothing has been proved in that particular instance.

His high-sounding motives and appeals to nostalgia and middle-eastern pathos do no more than cover up the simple monetary lust of any run-of-the-mill smuggler with his eye to the main chance.

The case of the “unemployed oil engineer” also brings with it certain unpleasant overtones which Mr MacJones carefully omitted to mention.

If the word “Muhandis” were to be granted EEC status it would not beautify the recognised European languages at all; its anglicized plural would hiss nastily in English and the word is unpronounceable in French and Italian in its present form.

It is true that it fits German tolerably well and could even generate a teutonic plural such as “Muhandisse”, but it is certain that the Arabic-speaking immigrant workers here would insist on the proper plural: “muhandisiin”, and this would further contribute to the splitting of working-class society in Germany.

One could even foresee the white workers turning the Arabs’ word against them and “muhandisiin” would join the swelling ranks of terms-of-abuse in this troubled land!

One is led to ponder why Mr MacJones saw fit to transship his cargo in Dover in order to introduce the word first into Germany and not some other country where it could do less harm.

I am writing this letter in the strictest confidence and in all frankness, in the hope that you will understand our position.  The penalty cannot be waived and the lexical item in question will remain in our warehouse until the charges and penalty have been paid…

The Federal Government is being urged to prohibit the importation of such potentially dangerous words, so Mr MacJones will have to re-export it or have it destroyed in any case.

Yours faithfully

Maria Ursula Helena Andis (supervising officer, Word Clearance)


3. To: General Customs

 From LIC Ltd                              10 November 1994

Dear Sirs

I enclose a confidential letter from Fräulein Andis of Homburg Customs which must have been sent to us at Language Improvement Corporation by mistake.

Naturally, we have kept a certified photocopy in our files!

As the letter is self-explanatory and is itself substantial evidence for us to bring a case of victimization before the Strasbourg court, we could take action against your German colleagues forthwith.  

However, we shall not do so if you are able to convince them of the error of their ways, using the official channels.

Yours gratefully

Saleem MacJones (Managing Director)


4. To: General Customs

From Homburg Regional Finance Directorate                     18 November 1994

Dear Colleagues,

I refer to your letter of 13 November 1994 ref GENCUS/1/94/LIC/242 a.s., in which you suggest that Fräulein Andis is victimizing a so-called reputable company.  She has put her case to me for arbitration and I can only agree with her arguments ….

What are Customs services for if not to protect the European Market from imports of potentially harmful goods!?

I enclose for your information a report of a previous case where Language Improvement Corporation attempted to smuggle non-EEC lexical items into an unsuspecting and already flooded market.

I shall leave the “Mañana”   scandal to a later letter.

Yours faithfully

Maximillian Uriah Hans Andis

(Collector in Chief for Homburg)

Encl: 1 report


5. Summary Report    17 July 1990

Subject: Language Improvement Corporation Ltd UK

On 16 July 1990 the above company declared goods entered at Esbjerg to be lexical items of European Origin and free of all customs duty.

On opening the container, a string of guttural sounding expletives was discovered, believed to be intended for the pornographic film industry.

Despite repeated and very polite interrogation, the Managing Director of the company would not reveal the true country of origin of these highly-spiced lexical items and they remain in customs control as seized goods pending further inquiries into their origin.

Additional Note: 17 July 1993

As the above lexical items have not been adequately accounted for and no country has claimed ownership, they have been destroyed in the official incinerator.

It is reported that various sheep upwind of the incinerator subsequently panicked and jumped into the sea.  The farmer’s claim for compensation is being considered,


Note for file 2 Jan 1995

Messrs LIC finally agreed to pay the penalty to Homburg Customs and re-exported the whole consignment to Kuwait by air, changing at Orly.

The case is settled; the file may be put away.

To: General Customs 17 October 2019

From: Filing Clerk

Before destroying this file now the requisite 25 years are over, I thought you might like to see it – especially in view of the fact that Prime Minister MacJones has ordered all confidential files on language to be reviewed.


To: Chairman of Customs in the EEC

From: General Customs  17 October 2019 URGENT

Dear Mr Andis

This file may shed light on the secrecy surrounding the fateful group of lexical items which gained a strange and unaccountable popularity in Northern France over twenty years ago, shortly after the scandal of the collapse of the Paris and Lille oil-fields.

No evidence was found to prove that LIC had connived in the spread of such emotive words as “Mouandisse” in strife-torn France, but it appears from the attached correspondence that the word may have “fallen off the back of an aeroplane” to use the old expression.

The subsequent “Muhandisiin” riots in Germany show indeed how your own aunt Maria Ursula, in her prophetic good sense, has truly deserved the honours recently bestowed on her by the Homburg Council.  I take my hat off to her!

I suggest, however, that action against LIC is fraught with difficulties now that Mr MacJones has been elected Prime Minister of England and Monmouthshire.

I therefore address the file for your attention.

Yours in deference, peace be with your soul,

Tom Smith (Mudiir of General Customs)


To: General Customs

From: The Chairman of EEC CUsotms

31 October 2019

Dear Mr Smith,

Many salutations and heartfelt gratitude for sight of these esteemed papers.

The fact that your post has been renamed from “Head” of General Customs to “Mudiir” of same is a sign that all is not well.

The aeroplane you refer to must have discharged much of its load before it left EEC airspace!

Much has happened of an unseemly nature since we last corresponded on the subject of LIC.

I shall enlarge on the “Mañana” scandal in a later letter, but would request at present that you investigate more thoroughly the continued illegal imports of non-EEC kallimaat – sorry, I mean non-EEC lexical items!

MacJones notwithstanding, I suggest the present file will do as a start.

Yours, throwing flowers to your esteemed feet,

Maximillian Andis

(Chairman of EEC Jamarik

- er sorry, I mean Chairman of EEC Customs)


To: The Chairman of EEC Customs

From General Customs    31 November [sic!!] 2019

Dear Mr Andis

I have just received word from our esteemed Prime Minister of England and Monmouthshire, who suggests that to delve deeper into these matters would prove detrimental to the state of our relationships with certain non-European bilaad – I mean countries.  

However, the letter ends with a word I cannot place although it has been mentioned once or twice by your good self.

That word is “mañana”.  Does it mean anything to you?

Yours with all the humble esteem of an ant to a great lord

Tom Smith (Mudiir of General Customs)


To: General Customs

From: The Chairman of EEC Customs      20 July 2039

Dear Mr Smith

I apologise for the delay in returning this file.

It was accidentally put away for nearly twenty years.

I return it for your continued inquiries and hope to hear from you before my impending retirement.

I shall enlarge upon the “mañana” scandal in a later letter.

Yours with all the desire to please as a flower for a humming bird

Maximillian Andis


Note for file: The General Customs Section has been Muhandissed.

This file may be destroyed.

Signed: Ahmed MacJones (Mudiir of International Customs)

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