Sunday, 17 September 2017

A flash in the pan

The orgy of on-the-spot fruitless speculation occasioned by the IED (Ineffectual Emphatic Deflagration) at Parsons Green brought to mind a phenomenon that I have mentioned before: the way metaphors freeze in time a technology that is time-specific and doomed to being superseded. In this post I started with this observation:
A few weeks ago I mentioned (here) a possible future post about the way obsolete arms technology is used to form metaphors that persist long after the arms technology is relegated to museums; it's not just arms-related vocabulary of course. Someone who has never seen a stair-rod or heard a telephone bell may give someone a bell and report that it's coming down in stair-rods. But arms-related (and armed-conflict-related) vocabulary is a particularly fruitful source of metaphor.
 One of this sort of metaphor that I listed was this:
Flash in the pan – in a flint-lock, the trigger sparked off an explosion in a pan which itself set off the main explosion. Sometimes there was a flash in the pan, but the main charge was unaffected.
In other words, as veterans of the Parsons Green coverage will  recognize, a flash in the pan was a deflagration. Of course, the exact confugrations of initiator and explosive don't match; but the ignitio praecox of the Parsons Green bucket bomb was a deflagration.

But this was not the only case that the bomb coverage threw up. There were two more in the accounts of the expected investigation (though I suspect my memory may have added the verb). Police would be 'scouring  CCTV footage'. They would, of course, not scour anything; this is a metaphor (and not, I now realize, related to technology, so make that one more case – footage).

CCTV may once have used film, and a few possibly still do. But surely today they produce MPEG files (file – there's another one). But it's film that is measured in feet, and people who refer to footage in the context of CCTV (or other media) are evoking a past technology (not that long in the past, and I'm sure most users [today] of the expression could work out where the word comes from; but, Trump willing, to a 22nd-century user, the technological background will be much more opaque .
When I said 'make that one'  two paras ago, I hadn't thought about a new development in the field of CCTV: if the CCTV automatically sends the file to a remote site (or even to the cloud – discussed here if you're that way inclined) it doesn't really deserve to be called Closed-Circuit TV)

In fact, film or tape has spawned quite a few of these fossils (traces of a former state)...
This metaphor commonly used by linguistics academics came immediately to mind as I read Oliver Kamm's review of How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention when in the first paragraph he writes "unlike physical organisms, the languages of prehistory leave no fossilised traces". This is true, in a strictly prosaic non-figurative sense. But since philologists regularly refer to fossils, my background has led me to almost forget that it is a metaphor. (Read on, though: everything is.)
... slow-motion, cut, fast-forward, rewind, flashback, inter-cut ...
<apologia theme="inter-cut">
There may be objections to this one, as it's use chiefly to refer to film technology (although cut itself freezes a bygone scalpel-and-sticky-tape process). But it is sometimes used to refer to other sorts of story-telling – in a novel, for example, several stories may be inter-cut.
...I'm sure there are many more. It's rather like the exercise of taking a square yard of meadow and counting the different species it contains; the longer you look at film and tape metaphors, the more you find (another illustration of Guy Deutscher's reef of dead metaphors view of language):
Guy Deutscher, in his fascinating The Unfolding Of Language: The Evolution of Mankind`s greatest Invention calls language (in a brilliant metaphor about metaphors - a 'meta-metaphor'?)  'a reef of dead metaphors'. In fact, Deutscher says more; it's not just words that were born phoenix-like from dead metaphors; dead metaphors are 'the alluvium from which grammatical structures emerge'.

More here
Thankfully, though, I've just heard on the News that all but one of the victims of that flash in the pan are now out of hospital . Which is not to say that it was a damp squib (see what  I did there?)

But the pyracantha ("fire-thorn-plant") is demanding the resumption of its annual trim, suspended when the heavens opened a while ago.


Friday, 8 September 2017

Eeny, meeny, tekel, upharsin

One of my occasional "State of the Notion" posts, with a suitable mixture of weighing-in-the-balance and counting (in the otherwise totally arbitrary subject line).

In its first twelve months, from October 2012 to September 2013, the Harmless Drudgery blog attracted just over 7000 visits. July 2013 was the only month with more than 1000 visits (1070, to be precise). In the first 5 days of September 2017, the total was just over a thousand (1053 to be precise – another 17 would have supplied a pleasing symmetry, but the gist is clear):

HD visits, courtesy of Blogger
(Of course there are more at time of going to
<whatever> -- almost, already, as many as in August)
Given a following wind, the  total for September should exceed the peaks in April and May of this year, and might approach the December 2016 peak (which I imagine represents teachers catching up with their blog reading over the Christmas break [there's a similar peak at Easter, but attenuated because the lawn has started to need mowing]).


PS My  nomination for a TEZZY goes to this site. 
<explanation reference="passim">
The TEZZY awards go (irregularly) to the Time-wasting Site of the Year. The Ur-TEZZY was awarded nearly 3 years ago :
The prestigious Time-wasting Site of the Year Award (familiarly 'Tezzy') goes to the University of Nottingham [2017: a site that explains the origins of place names].
Avoid this one if you have a deadline to meet: it's a guessing game based on sound clips from world languages. I don't know how big the corpus of clips is, but it‘s big enough to keep you "busy" for several kilo-yonks.


PPS And a couple of clues:
  • Organic solution is close, but not quite good enough (2,5)
  • Imprisoned the subject of genealogy – jolly angry. (12)
Update: 2017.09.08.15:20 ‐ Added PPPS

PPPS Also, while I think of it, do sign this, although I'm  not sure what good it will do: the meddlesome priest will just have his zealotry heightened. The more signatories to the petition, the greater the Celestial-Jobsworth's self-regarding sense of martyrdom.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Captain Corelli‘s Egg-Slicer - Pedants of the world unite, Part the second

In last week‘s Review (one of the many pull-outs of The Times that almost ALWAYS goes astray on the way from the warehouse and it‘s not the shop‘s fault, honest, there‘s nothing we can do, it‘s the wholesaler) someone had taken the trouble to write in with a bit of misplaced pedantry that I used to be a believer in myself. (And if you're a fan of  "in which", read this – you're damned if you do invert and damned if you don't; I've chosen my route to damnation.)

In a letter to the Feedback column, a correspondent said he was writing ‘as a science student‘, but I suspect he meant ‘as a schoolboy who did GCSE Physics‘ or – depending on his age – O-level Physics, or even (as in my case) O-level Physics with Chem (that hasty genuflection at the altar of Mammon that, at one time, we Lotus Eaters were allowed to make on the way to a Greek class).

I first wrote about pedantry over four years ago here (well, I‘m sure I had written about it many times before,  but that early blog post was my first airing  for the PEDAI gag: "you have nothing  to lose but your PEDAI [=‘chains‘ [Greek – I wasn't kidding in my opening para]" – geddit? It‘s an etymological joke... Oh well):
One of the grammar checker's shibboleths [BobK 2017: the object of my disdain at the time was grammar checkersparticularly Microsoft Word's: "a sort of Strunk & White incarnate"] is 'that in defining relative clauses' (and now the gloves are off – the underline is RED.)
<grammar_point importance="negligible" skip="yes, if you value your sanity" status="shibboleth">
Suppose I have two lawn mowers. The green one is in the shed and the red one ... is in the garage. Woe betide you if you refer to the green one as 'the mower which is in the shed'. However, you will have Mrs Thistlebottom*'s blessing if you say 'The red mower, which is newer, is in the garage.'

... I know the rule is hooey, but... 
And speaking of hooey, the other thing about using that in subordinate clauses is that it forces you to 'break' another 'rule', by relegating a phrasal verb's particle to the end. (I have mentioned this before, in the red excursus in the middle of this post).

And that is the point on which I shall end. 
*Mrs T is not my invention; I have mentioned her before. She haunted Dave Barry's Mister Language Person columns, which have gone the (sorely lamented) way of the songs of Tom Lehrer.
As I said, I was – until quite recently – a participant in this oft-repeated nitpick ("Quanta are really small, look at the ignoramus suggesting it‘s big"). But then I saw this explanation in a UsingEnglish forum:
According to quantum theory, electromagnetic radiation can only exist in certain values as opposed to being on a continuous scale. Passing from one value to another is taking a 'quantum leap'.

This has entered the language as a metaphor for abrupt or significant change in something rather than a gradual evolution.

Another response offered further clarification (together with a helpful link to more detailed stuff at Wikipedia):
The electron can't gradually change. It is either at one energy level or another. No inbetween.

As it moves from one level to another it emits or absorbs photons. The "color" (wavelength) of the photon depends upon the size of the leap.
So the  metaphor works perfectly: the nature of the electron changes suddenly and radically because of the quantum jiggery-pokery going on inside it, and as a result there's a significant change in the behaviour of the atom it haunts (I doubt if that's the right word... But what do electrons do? Whizz?).

Quantum Leap may well be, as the Times Style Guide says, a cliché (to be avoided like the plague [my silliness, not their word]). But it makes sense.

But the season of mists (chemical clouds?) and mellow fruitfulness is nearly upon us. The drive-by fruitings of the unreasonably prolific pear-tree are coming to an end, but things need doing to the apple-tree. I am going out, and may be some time...


PS: A couple of new clues:
  • Immerse lowest ranker reportedly in the shallows here. (7)
  • After play,  M. S. Dhoni gets a talking to. (8)

Monday, 28 August 2017

Little birdies in their nests agree

I came late to Twitter, though late is relative (I followed Stephen Fry ...
Don't judge. I'm not just a star-struck celebrity-stalker. we are fellow near-contemporaries (a few years apart) at CU Footlights, and have a number  of connections and interests in common.

...before he reached 20,000 followers and he's now at about 13 million). At the 2008 Language Show I saw a talk given by the amazing Joe Dale, and he recommended it. But I resisted until I saw him again at the 2009 Language Show, and since then I've been an aficionado and a user (rather more than some might wish. :-)

But  the other night two tweets reminded me of one of my many reasons for loving Twitter. The first was this:

This doesn't use the #mfltwitterati tag, so I have no reason to suppose the tweeter is a language specialist (though she might be – I know the Retweeter of the second tweet is).  But the first two words set me off on a fascinating trail – scent perhaps.

CANICULUS. Long-time followers of this blog will recognize the -ULUS ending (it's a little one of whatever it is – the magic words are diminutive suffix). And related words such as English canine and, less obviously, French chien (and canaille, someone on the radio has just told me...
I've checked, but not in my usual source for this sort of thing, Etymonline (which presumably doesn't... whoops, it does. Still... 

More here 
...), point to the doggy part. CANICULUS -> Canis Minor.

According to this site
Canis Minor contains two primary stars and 14 Bayer/Flamsteed designated stars. It’s brightest star, Procyon (Alpha Canis Minoris), is also the seventh brightest star in the sky. With an apparent visual magnitude of 0.34, Procyon is not extraordinarily bright in itself. But it’s proximity to the Sun – 11.41 light years from Earth – ensures that it appears bright in the night sky. 
And from there we get to the Dog Days:
The dog days or dog days of summer are the hot, sultry days of summer. They were historically the period following the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, which Greek and Roman astrology connected with heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, and bad luck. They are now taken to be the hottest, most uncomfortable part of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.
So an alerte canicule is not just a "dogs die in hot cars" warning, although that is something worth considering during the Dog Days.

Attentive readers will have noticed an unexplained inflation in the size of the dog. French canicule derives from CANICULUS (which should be Canis Minor) But the Dog Days are related to Sirius, which is in Canis Major. The only explanation for this that I can see is that, to quote that Universe Today site, Canis Minor‘s brightest star is "Procyon ... the seventh brightest star in the sky". And then:
The star’s name is derived from the Greek word which means “before the dog”, a reference to the fact that it appears to rise before Sirius (the “Dog Star”) when observed from northern latitudes.
So, when Procyon rises, it makes sense to think "Here come the Dog Days".

The second tweet gives less food for thought; it's just an example of the sort of linguistic trouvaille (never thought I'd use that word  :-) ) that Twitter tends to throw up.

Note for Anglophones: mec means something like "bloke". I think this is much more elegant than "mansplaining", which seems to me to suffer from the same neologizing crudeness as "chocoholic" or "gyrocopter" (just lumping two bits of words together, regardless of their structure). I‘m not hung up on origins; but I like neologisms to hang together like other words do, morphologically.
<rant type="another bugbear">
And I'm unreasonably hostile to "atpersand" (for the sign @). Its model is obviouslly the word ampersand. but the structure of that is "and (per se and)". So the at-based analogue should be ATPERSAT.  
"SHOULD? – that's the way it is.  Ask Google." says the little descriptivist dæmon on my shoulder  Still...
But I'm missing the cricket.


PS And here are a couple of clues.

  • Is introduced to soupçon, pesky thing! (8)
  • Legal document introducing sort of Elgar maestoso; really clear. (4,5)

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Fever isn't such a new thing

Everybody's got the fever, that is something you all know
Fever isn't such a new thing, fever started long ago.
Romeo loved Juliet, Juliet she felt the same*
When he put his arms around her, he said "Julie baby you're my flame"

Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell wrote about the physiological effects of sexual attraction "around 1955", says Wikipedia. By the time of Elvis Presley's cover, the example of Cap‘n Smith and Pocahontas had been introduced; a New World example from the seventeenth century added to an Old World example from the sixteenth.

But the clue is there in Cooley and Blackwell‘s lyrics:

Fever isn't such a new thing, fever started long ago...

... thousands of years ago. in fact.

Sappho was born around 630 BCE and very little is known about her. One of Natalie Haynes‘s Stands up for the Classics programmes (a series now in its third season of what I hope will be many) deals with this "distinguished Lesbian" (as she was described in a fairly recent academic French work – in which she had a blank page devoted to her).

Natalie Haynes says, about 19 mins in:

She pathologizes love in a way that nobody had before. So when Sappho writes about love it‘s a medical condition... She has fever... She‘s afflicted with madness... She‘s going green...She‘s sick... She calls Eros, at one point, a "melter of limbs". Literally any time you listen to any love song, and someone says "you give me fever",  it‘s Sappho...'.
So, assuming Sappho started producing poetry (not publishing, this was before the advent even of alphabetic script) in the mid-7th century BCE, Cooley and Blackwell‘s 'long ago' – written in the mid-20th CE – meant "well over 2½ millennia.

Just sayin'. But Kindle Direct Publishing calls.

PS A few clues:
  • Out-of-town stadium with the aid of redrafting. (6)
  • "Him!" moaned this sort of argument. (2,7)
Update: 2017.08.26.20:45 – Added this footnote:

*When I first heard this song – possibly in the mid-fifties (the Peggy Lee version , my oldest brother being a fan)...
[on one notable occasion he raised eyebrows by walking down Ealing Broadway in those unenlightened times singing : 
"I‘m a woman, W - O - M -A - N"  – 
... I heard this line as "Juliet she fell for same"  – a bit over-formal, I thought.

Friday, 11 August 2017

All the world's a stage

Carrying on with a very irregular series of posts relating to metaphors with a shared background (I've done card-games, war & weapons, transport, food, drink, sport... maybe more, – no time for research though), I've drawn up a list (far from comprehensive) of metaphors relating to the theatre.

All  singing all dancing

This is ASM shorthand for everyone: over the tannoy in the dressing rooms cast members are summoned by orders such as Beginners on stage. that is, any cast member who doesn't appear in Act I Scene 1 can carry on doing whatever the Health and Safety Executive allows; I was going to say smoking, but that's a fire risk.

Centre stage 

An obvious one: this is the place of most significance


The word is derived by a circuitous route from the Italian far fiasco, from the late Latin flasco [="bottle"]. The Italian expression means, says Etymonline, "suffer a complete breakdown in performance". I once heard a historian of popular theatre (Roy Hudd?) suggest that it might be related to the phrase used for the member of a street-theatre group who collects money (originally in a bottle – the bottle-man). This strikes me as interesting but improbable; in any case, it's unnecessary to an understanding of the original Italian.

[The] final act/curtain/curtains 

The expression "the final curtain" may have been popularized by Paul Anka, but certainly curtains (to mean death) was in use long before My Way came to prominence in the late '60s. The expression the final act opens the door to a range of other types of drama: comedy/tragedy/farce...


Before electricity was used for theatrical lighting (see also the next item but one) lime was burnt to produce an intense flame, which could be focused by a mirror and used to pick someone out. As well as the commonly used general term limelight, actors' jargon still includes lime with the meaning spotlight.
(Quite possibly it's only used by people who want to impress: I have heard it used only once, in a student production, in the mouth of a primadonna (qv) who interrupted a  Technical Run-through with the complaint ''I THOUGHT I was going to have a lime here.' But he did go on to become an actor, so maybe he wasn't usinig the word  just for show.

Play a supporting/leading/crucial... role

Spoonfeed, moi? This one's so obvious it's easy to miss. (I'd been collecting theatrical metaphors for  several months before it struck me.)

"The play's [not] worth the candle"

Some time ago, blogging about the frugality of candle-use anywhere but Hollywood, I wrote this (and I've edited in the quote, which was originally in an update) about...
...the expression not to be worth the candle. In 1611, Randle Cotgrave published
A dictionarie of the French and English tongues, where the expression appears in the form Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle...
Cotgrave entry

..., but its first appearance in English was ca. 1690 in Sir William Temple's Works:
"Perhaps the Play is not worth the Candle."
Maybe Sir William was making a bilingual pun on jeu , as I believe he may have been talking about lighting a theatre; he didn't make enough in ticket receipts to pay for the lighting.  Lighting a theatre, like lighting a cathedral, required a significant outlay


Play to the gallery

The gallery is where the cheap seats were. Someone playing to the gallery is catering for common tastes.


Obviously, this is the leading lady (but possibly a drama queen of any sex).

Steal someone's thunder

The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume IV tells of the 'peevish dramatist' (as Wikipedia calls the 18th-century dramatistt John Dennis):
Mr. Dennis happened once to go to the play, when a tragedy was acted, in which the machinery of thunder was introduced, a new artificial method of producing which he had formerly communicated to the managers. Incensed by this circumstance, he cried out in a transport of resentment, 'That is my thunder by G—d; the villains will play my thunder, but not my plays.'
Other accounts have neatened the story (not unusually), by making him say The villains have not simply <done_something (there are many variants)> they have stolen my thunder. The meaning 'take credit for someone else's idea' is a generalization from this very specific technological device (not unlike flash in the pan, which I mentioned here).
Flash in the pan – in a flint-lock, the trigger sparked off an explosion in a pan which itself set off the main explosion. Sometimes there was a flash in the pan, but the main charge was unaffected

[It's] showtime

This one needs no explanation (though I suspect some research would confirm my belief that it's a relatively new one – perhaps fom a film script).

Take a cue from someone

Nor this one.

Take a bow

Nor this one.


Stage directions are back-to-front; for example, Exit stage left means Exit to the RIGHT as seen by the audience. The meaning of the verb upstage refers to a bit-part player, standing upstage of the main action, spoiling a dramatic moment by doing some business to distract the audience from the main action.

But, there is a horticultural biomass crisis in the back garden; so

Finita la commedia


PS: A couple of clues:

  • Soft-core sex allowed, and - hold on a tick - you can see everything! (8)
  • Renegotiating or browsing for loans. (10)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017


... or, as the Italians would have it, coda. This post started out as an update to my last, but it jes' growed.

On a tour founded on an extraordinary coincidence (family members singing in the same cathedral on the very same day, but 17 years apart), I noted two other coincidences (not quite so notable, but still mildly striking).

While chatting over coffee with a fellow choir-member, I noticed a sign on a pub, pointing to the almost hidden Church of St Lawrence. By way of conversation. I observed that Lawrence was my confirmation name and my companion was gobsmacked (I think that's the word) as his confirmation name was also Lawrence.

MrsK was not deeply impressed. As myself and my interlocutor were of an age, she imagined the name Lawrence was just popular at the time. She also wanted know why we Papists had to have an extra name. At the time, not feeling it would advance the conversation, (Ils sont fous, ces [Catholiques] Romains), I didn't mention the theological background.  Confirmation marks the beginning of the first stage in one of those trinities so popular in the doctrines of the One True Church.

The three are the Church Militant (we mortals,  striving), the Church Penitent (in Purgatory), and ...
<digression type="autobiographical">
When I was first in a Spanish train I misread a sign about giving up your seat to a war-hero. I was new to Spanish and to Spain at the time, and had just started stumbling my way through a selected poems edition of Lorca, with the aid of a parallel translation. 
People who didn‘t offer their seat would be multados según la ley....(The memory came to me because the Church Penitent weren‘t just suffering, they were paying their fines.) But with my head filled with Lorca‘s evocations of the dastardly, unruly, inhuman...(etc etc) Guardia Civil as Franco came to power, I was quite ready to believe that offenders, with legal sanction, could be mutilated.

...the Church Triumphant (reaping their rewards in Heaven). People becoming a miles [Latin, "=" soldier] needed – not inappropriately – a nom de guerre. And the confirmand – not sure if that's a word, but in any case it is now – chose it.
<digression subject "choice">
The choosing was significant. Whereas you got your first name(s) at somebody else's whim ...
In my case,"Robert" to placate my maternal grandfather [a staunchly Presbyterian Scot, kicking against the papist pricks]), and "Joseph" [to placate my father, educated by Jesuits]).

But I chose my confirmation name. (You may detect a theme here: no women were involved in the process of naming; my mother [whom Saints preserve] had no say (although she did have a role – holding the ring between her father and mine :-).)
... the confirmand (see?) did the choosing.
People who know me may imagine how contrary I was even at that age. Usually, people chose solid Biblical names like David or Michael or Joseph, or John or....  I knew nobody who had chosen Lawrence.

So I think finding another Lawrence was a bit of a coincidence.

The other coincidence, not quite so notable,  is that our MD had studied at post-graduate level at the same college that I had – although a good 30 years later.


Finally, a post-tour coincidence. BBC Radio 3‘s Breakfast Show has a slot where they invite suggestions for a thematic piece. The latest  is Musical Youth. On 31 July, I tweeted this suggestion:

Later the same day, Rowan Pierce sang the same aria  on In Tune., (at about 43‘30").

(Oh, and on the subject of music  in schools, try this blog-post.)