A ‘best of album’?! 

Oh my, this is just asking for a withering take down of ‘best of’s as a concept, a defense of the ‘proper’ album and a searing, Alan Partridge-based putdown joke or two. Begging for it.

And I had all that ready to go. I’d been practicing my defense for owning this  (“Pavement have loads of records and the rereleases are really expensive”) all week. It probably would’ve been a pretty adequate piece.

But then my very wise friend, colleague, and fellow #Write52 gang member Alice said something that inadvertently made me change my mind about what to write about. 

She was talking about how hiring a virtual assistant (another #Write52 aficionado and wise friend, Susanne) was helping her to deal with overwhelm, and she used this lovely turn of phrase: “I feel like I have so much more room to breathe now.

And it made me think of one of my favourite words:

Dyspnoea and phonetic spelling


Mmm. That gorgeous triple vowel ending: a Scrabble player’s best friend. It rolls off the tongue beautifully, too, with an almost onomatopoeic hiss and gasp. Historically, it’s an etymologist’s dream: pure, unadulterated ancient Greek; something it has in common with many other medical terms. “Dys” for difficulty (as in ‘dysfunction’, ‘dysphoria’, or ‘dyslexia’) and “Pnoea” for breathing (as in ‘pneumonia’). And that’s what it means:


It’s fair to say that it’s a word well out of vogue in the medical profession (and has been since the turn of the century), having been replaced by easier to grasp terminology like ‘shortness of breath’ or ‘breathing difficulties’. And that makes perfect sense: no one wants to have to thumb through their English <> Ancient Greek dictionary when talking to a doctor, particularly if they can’t breathe. 

But there’s a beautiful elegance in the Greek term.

It comes, I think, from the concept of breathlessness having been given greater significance, outside of a medical context. Breathing is, of course, one of the fundamental mechanisms that keeps our human bodies alive. But humans are not just machines: we love to attach meaning to everything, no matter how routine or mundane.

So while breathlessness can be a medical symptom, or a natural product of recent aerobic exercise, it can mean so much more, too.

‘Breathing room’, as Alice was talking about, uses respiration as a metaphor for stress and busyness: carving out time from a hectic schedule. Someone who is angry may be told to ‘take a breath’; children, in particular, are told to ‘take a deep breath and count to ten’, as if it is their breathlessness that is causing their rage.

And yet, contradictory as it may seem, being short of breath – literally temporarily losing one of the core survival functions of the human body – can be a positive thing.

A ‘breathless’ passage of play in sport denotes a hugely entertaining game played at frenetic pace, with momentum rapidly shifting back and forth between opposing teams. Vistas that overlook gorgeous landscapes are described as ‘breathtaking’. A powerful, tense, or beautiful work of art or fiction can ‘take our breath away’, like a sudden shock to the system. And then, of course, there’s romantic love… Loss of breath is a physical sensation that can be brought on by all kinds of emotional stimuli.

And that’s why I love the word dyspnoea; because what could be more natural than breathing? 

As it turns out, all sorts of things.


Go on, leave me breathless.

  1. Breathless – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  2. Windfall – Cass McCombs
  3. Stop Breathin’ – Pavement
  4. Don’t Breathe Out – Roots Manuva
  5. Take My Breath Away – Berlin
  6. Let Me Clear My Throat – DJ Kool & Biz Markie
  7. A Breathtaking Guy – The Supremes
  8. Avant Gardener – Courtney Barnett
  9. The Lung – Dinosaur Jr.
  10. Ocean Breathes Salty – Modest Mouse
  11. Oh Comely – Neutral Milk Hotel
  12. The Air That I Breathe – The Hollies
  13. Lungs – Townes Van Zandt
  14. Breathe in My Lungs – Big Thief
  15. Baby’s Breath – Bill Callahan
  16. Breathing – Grouper
  17. Breath – Four Tet
  18. I Would Give My Breath Away – Hammock
  19. Breathing Out – Keaton Henson