Monday, 23 January 2017

Snowflakes and avalanches

In my days of thinly-disguised fascism I used to defend Latin in schools (which I still believe would be a good idea, by the way) by saying 'If what you think is a thought can't be expressed in Latin, it's not a thought.' I admit that this was a bit priggish, and it implied that logicality was a particular characteristic of Latin – a pretty silly implication. It's a not uncommon one, though – it rears its insidious head with respect to various languages; I've heard it said not only of Latin, but of French, of German... even of English.

But it hides a general truth about translation – that in order to translate meaningfully you have to grasp a text's meaning...
<autobiographical_note>
One of my few forays into  the realm of professional  translation (by which I mean I got paid for it, as opposed to having any professional training or standards or ethics or any of that good stuff) involved an article about aneurysms and arterio-venous fistulae, and I spent more time in a medical library than in a more general library with a technical Portuguese dictionary in front of me (this was in the mid-'70s, and the association of libraries with computers was yet to be made).
</autobiographical_note>

....(in a language possibly uniquely adapted to one area of interest), which makes it harder to translate into a language that is not similarly endowed. So it can be tempting to overlook or even ignore bits of sense

The translatability of Donald Trump's ravings has been in the news of late, in a way that I find unsurprising at best, and at worst  a non-issue flagged up by self-regarding elitists. Of course he's hard to translate; so was – to cite a more UK-based politician – John (now Lord) Prescott, of whom Simon Hoggart famously wrote
'Every time Prescott opens his mouth, it's like someone has flipped open his head and stuck in an egg whisk.'
Come to that, many politicians and off-the-cuff public speakers speak nonsense. Speaking nonsense is something that happens more and more in an increasingly unreflective world dominated by rolling news and its inevitable bastard offspring fake news (alias LIES).

On the subject of the Trump campaign, the word snowflake, used as an insult to the liberal intelligentsia (and anyone else with two brain-cells to rub together), easily disturbed and slipping 'in a moment out of life' has recently become popular. It is analogous to the rather more traditional 'hot-house plant'.

But the thing about snowflakes is that when they mount up and reach a tipping-point (or, more relevantly, a sliding-point) they start an avalanche.
And that point is, we are told, 38 degrees – though I'm not sure it's as simple as that – the name of what Wikipedia calls
a British not-for-profit political-activism organisation. It describes itself as "progressive" and claims to "campaign for fairness, defend rights, promote peace, preserve the planet and deepen democracy in the UK".[2] In October 2013, it was reported to claim 1.9 million UK members.[3][needs update]
It goes on
38 Degrees takes its name from the critical angle at which the incidence of a human-triggered avalanche is greatest [THAT sounds more like it, though they give as a reference the same simplistic wording as the 38 degrees website gives

the angle at which snowflakes come together to form an avalanche – together we're unstoppable


] Ah well, their hearts are  in the right place. I'm keeping my head down for the next four years – the Trump era (British English /i:rǝ/, and in American English – not without irony – /ɛrǝ/). See you on the other side, Gaia volente.



PS And here's a clue:
  • Invalid given wrong sort of IUD is like a cup-cake (10)

Monday, 16 January 2017

Trumpery and Popery

Just  imagine: Trump  meeting Pope Francis; the personification of being in denial meets the personification of self-denial. What I wouldn't give to be a fly in the ointment during that conversation...

But there are two metaphors where the vocabularies of rampant, bullying, exploitative, self-regarding capitalism on  the one hand and the papacy (though probably not Pope Francis in one case) on  the other intersect. The one where the present occupant of the shoes of the fisherman is presumably blameless is nepotism

Nepotism

Many readers of this blog won't need telling that the word is derived from the Latin nepos -otis (= "nephew"), or – in the simpler, more direct Vulgar Latin notation (explained elsewhere in this blog, passim) NEPOTE(M). Where the papacy comes in is that in the bad old days of monastic shenanigans the nephew-word (whatever it was, certainly not "Italian", which didn't exist at the time; something Italic [or come to think of it, given the context, maybe they just used Latin]) was used as an (impious, not to say impish) euphemism for what the strait-laced OED [secondary source, I'm afraid] calls "the natural son" of the Pope; born the wrong side of the chasuble, as it were.

In fact this Etymonline excerpt shows that the word was not specific to one particular relation:
nephew (n.)
c. 1300, from Old French neveu (Old North French nevu) "grandson, descendant," from nepotem (nominative nepos) "sister's son, grandson, descendant, grandchild," and in a general sense, "male descendant other than son" (source also of Sanskrit napat "grandson, descendant;" Old Persian napat- "grandson;" Old Lithuanian nepuotis "grandson;" Dutch  neef; German Neffe "nephew;" Old Irish nia, genitive niath "son of a sister," Welsh nei)....
In that respect, come to think of it, it is reminiscent of cousin in Shakespeare's day: Falstaff, as I remember, was wont to address Prince Hal as "cuz". Old English nefa, which Etymonline says persisted into the 16c, could mean "nephew, stepson, grandson, second cousin"; almost any male blood relative – so it doesn't quite work for Trump's son-in-law [not that I'm a sufferer from  the Etymological Fallacy].

Pontifex

The simplest and most self-evident explanation of this word is that it is an amalgam of words for bridge and make; the maker of a bridge between us miserable offenders and Heaven. There have been suggestions that there has been an element  of folk etymology in the derivation, and that something either Umbrian or Etruscan was involved; I'm satisfied, though , with bridge-builder, as was the Northumbrian monk who used the word brycgwyrcende "bridge-maker". (If you screw your eyes up you can just about see work in the middle of that calque – linguist's jargon for a loan-translation).
<digression>
To form a calque the receiving language borrows the format that the donor language uses to construct a typically two-part compound, but not the word itself. It translates each element of the compound using a native word: for example Latin omni- + potens, Old English æl- + mihtig (whence our almighty), Spanish todo- + poderoso. [Incidentally, that bunch of examples isn't supposed to suggests a series of any kind; its just a bunch of examples.]

Incidentally, it's /kælk/, not /kɔ:k/ or /kɔl:k/;  I'm not sure I've ever heard it said, though – it's that sort of word.
</digression>
Oops  – left a bit out. See update.

L'Envoi 

So [and that is a subordinating conjunction, if that sort of thing bothers you] these two metaphors make a (fairly tenuous, admittedly) link  between the sublime and the ridiculous. Time's wingéd chariot, though...

b

PS Here's a clue:

Re-recording makes Midge Ure a really legendary creator. – (8)

Updat: 2017.01.17.11:45  – Added PPS

PPS
Sorry  – I missed out a bit of the argument: what links Trump to pontifex? Given a pontiff,  together with a belief in his infallibility, you get an action verb: pontificate  – to say what must be true, on the highest authority.  In a way familiar to students of language ...
<digression theme="semantic somersaults">
(here I mentioned the link between glamour and grammar, as discussed by David Crystal in The Story of English in 100 Words. You can read Crystal's discussion for yourself, but I would go a bit further; as I said in that post:
...This is the root of the word glamour, which came to refer to charm or attractiveness in the early twentieth century. Crystal doesn't say so, but it seems likely to me that Hollywood had something to do with it. The progression from wizardry to smoke & mirrors to magic lantern shows to movies strikes me as a fairly likely one.
</digression>
... the meaning flipped. From being a Good Thing (telling the truth, unquestionably) it became a Bad Thing (shooting your mouth off on subjects you have a shaky grasp of and expecting to be believed unquestioningly). Trumpery? You make the link.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The world is just an oblate spheroid

In the year of my birth, the 17-year-old Alan Bennett went to Der Rosenkavalier at Leeds Grand Opera House. At the time he was under the innocent misapprehension that the young man had "just stopped by for tea and toast"; (I think those were his words in the televised selection  from his Diaries). He had no idea of what was going on behind the curtain during the overture. I was told many years ago by a then young lady called Joy (who blushed with a giggle that suggested  "Isn't Strauss awful?" as she said that the horns in the overture were "representative of the act of love"). I'd say they were about as subtle as the train going into the tunnel in the last scene of North by North West, while the young lovers in the sleeping car are studiously observing the Hays Rules. Con fu*co, knowha'Imean?

The television programme was loosely based on an edition of Private Passions, notable (to my hyper-sensitive – not to say anal – ear) for Michael Berkeley's mis-quoting of the words he had just heard (from The Dream of Gerontius): "Softly and gently, dearly ransom’d soul". He said "dear departed soul".  Come to think of it, it may not be a misquote but a quotation from elsewhere in the text, made to sound like a misquote because of the editing. He surely can’t be that cloth-eared? (Though, come to rethink of it, the angel, in the Celestial Arrivals Lounge, surely wouldn't have addressed Gerontius as departed ; he'd only just got there, for Heaven's sake.)

The collocation “departed soul” is a pretty strong one; and the syllable-count and stress pattern are right (hence my subject line – the words you're looking for are "great big onion"). But it makes dear define soul, whereas in the original – by John Henry Newman  – dearly modifies ransomed.
<autobiographical_note type="hair-splitting">
A lot of ransoming goes on in Christianity. In the second line of the version of “O come O come Emmanuel” that I learned at my mother’s knee (which was never far from Aunty Katy’s, genuflecting away like billy-o,...
<digression>
(a coincidentally – I didn't know until I checked the spelling – but strangely appropriate word,  given one of the possible derivations of the word; as The Phrase Finder says,
...Alternatively, the derivation is said to be from Joseph Billio, the zealous 17th/18th century Puritan preacher. Billio preached at the United Reformed Church in Market Hill, Maldon, Essex, in and around 1696. He was an enthusiastic 'hellfire and damnation' preacher and, given his name and reputation, ought to be a serious contender as the source of the phrase. They are certainly convinced in Maldon, and it must be true - they have a plaque to prove it. 
                    But, as I was saying, genuflecting....)
                    </digression>
...as only knees can [that’s one for the etymologists]) was And ransom captive  Israel. In the C of E-preferred version I have sung since then, the words of that line are Redeem thy captive Israel. Wha...? Israel's not Emmanuel's captive  – not guilty, yer 'Onner  –  it's Pharaoh's. Israel was (in the 15th-century, when the carol surfaced in France) a metaphor for Christendom, and in the word's of Elgar's angel, the ransom (the price paid for redemption) was dear (in the expensive sense): the soul may be dear to some people, but the point is that it was dearly ransomed.
</autobiographical_note>
The programme was worth watching, though. In the view of the Guardian critic, it was the best of the Christmas TV:


The whole review's  here; "best Christmas TV", though, isn't the warmest of accolades (a word discussed here:
When a knight was welcomed to the ...knightate? ...he was given a big hug; his liege lord wrapped his arms around his neck (think of our 'collar'). He embraced him, to use another physical metaphor, which I haven't time to pursue.

And so we come to accolade, quite appropriate in this week of Nobel prizes. Those Swedish grandees are echoing that welcoming embrace...
 )

b

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Watching and seeing

A quick reflection on a quirk of collocation (words that go with each other).

I noticed the other day when my Daughter-in-law-Elect asked  'Have you watched <film_name>?' that here there was a difference between my collocation rules and hers. I  'SEE a film' and 'WATCH a television programme'. I looked in the British National Corpus, and found these results:

watch a film    number of instances:  7
see a film        number of instances: 19

But the sample size is quite small and quite old (100 million words; 1980-93). The larger and more recently-updated Corpus Of Contemporary Anerican (520 million words, 1990-2015)

watch a film    number of instances: 20 (a much smaller proportion)
see a film      number of instances: 61 (a slightly smaller proportion)

But, as we're looking at American usage in the case of COCA, perhaps these figure are more representative:

watch a movie   number of instances:  253
see a movie       number of instances:  293

And they give a much more evenly-balanced picture.

Besides, this generic vocabulary is rather suspect. I thnk it's probably likely that people would say 'I have seen The Magnificent Seven n times' or – to quote a primary school colleague of mine, of dubious taste (and no less dubious veracity) – 'I have seen The Guns of Navarone 15 times.' And I don't see how one could  frame a corpus query in a way that would catch all such collocations.

Perhaps, as the speaker who started this hare was a millennial, as they say, this just indicates the age and movie-consumption mores of the speaker. Whereas I and my contemporaries look on movie-going as going to a (big-screen) show (to see a film), younger speakers are more likely to catch their movies on a smaller screen (and perhaps watch a DVD or something streamed, or whatever these young folks do, m'lud). That could account for the much more even COCA figures.

Anyway, there goes a year of great notability (make that notoriety in some respects). See you on the other side. :-)

b

Update: 2017.01.01.15:00 – Added PS

PS And while we're on the subject of corpora, one of the many retrospective programmes that have been aired in the last week has reminded me of two things:
  • Jeremy Corbyn's use of ram-packed
  • my response to the question What's wrong with Google as a corpus?
Google reports nearly 17,000,000 results in a search for ram-packed. But Garbage-In-Garbage-Out. Here's BNC's search for *am-packed (as usual, just click on the link and sit back while the corpus does its stuff): spoiler – 21 jam-packed, 1 dream-packed, nothing else.  COCA has a different story: 266 jam-packed, and a single alternative; but that alternative is cram-packed (only three).

Ram-packed is an interestng neologism. It combines the idea of jam-packed with the idea of people being pushed willy-nilly into a carriage. As of 2017, I'd hesitate to call it a word; but that certainly doesn't mean it  will never be . This Google search shows that only 70-odd thousand of those 17 million results link ram-packed with Corbyn. So it's well on the way to... verbitude? Perhaps OED will name it  Word of the Year 2017.

Happy New Year. :-)

Friday, 23 December 2016

.. and then TWO come along at the same time

In Wednesday's Book of the Week, Love of Country, a word leapt out from Madeleine Bunting's reading and stirred a – you guessed it – memory, tinged with regret.
<autobiographical_note date_range="1981–1983">
In the early '80s I worked for Macdonald and Co. (Publishers) Ltd. When the firm was swallowed up by BPPC, owned by Robert Maxwell, we moved to a large office building (a hastily converted factory, to be honest) renamed, with sublime lack of  social awareness, Maxwell House.

One of my favourite authors was the old (nay auld) Scot Finlay J Mcdonald (no relation), and the first of the three autobiographical reminiscences of his childhood on Harris was called Crowdie & Cream. I handled the photographs used in this book, one of which was very valuable (he had borrowed it from someone who ... I'm not sure, but anyway it was important to the owner)..

When I was let go (as discussed, or at least referred to, before) I had a few minutes to clear my desk, and the converted factory had no space for storage. The photo went missing, and the people left behind, failing to find the photo, did the natural thing and blamed the absentee. Although I had visited him and his wife at Twechar (then on the outskirts of Glasgow, since no doubt englouti enGlasgowed?) and we had been on friendly terms (I remember amusing him by observing that when I telephoned the key-tones in his 10-digit number played
There was a wee cooper wha lived in Fife
) I never heard from him again. He was a fairly spry old man at the time, but is almost certainly no longer with us*. His much younger wife (a singer of Gaelic songs, [Catriona possibly]), though,  may well still be with us, and I hope she doesn't bear a grudge.
 </autobiographical_note>
The word that brought this to mind was machair, a sea-side strip of rough grass typical of the Hebrides. I had met the word in the typescript of Crowdie & Cream, and checked the spelling of course, but had never heard it spoken – /ˈmæxər/, says Collins   (though Ah hae ma doots about that first vowel).

Next on the morning's schedule was Woman's Hour, in an edition called Seven at 70. One of the seven was Liz Lochhead. Jane Garvey ( for it was she) didn't use the word, I think, in introducing the poet. but she is (or was – Wikipedia would know)  holder/occupant of the Scottish equivalent (a word that may well raise some hackles: what sort of worth are talking about?) of  the UK's Poet Laureate. This position's name is transcribed in the many ways typical of a borrowing, one transcription (a hotly disputed, hypercorrect one) is machair. I think makar is more politically correct (some would say just CORRECT), bur this coincidence, thrown up by the aleatoric whimsy of the radio schedule, tickled my fancy.


Ho hum... yuletide ballast to be collected... In the immortal words of Tom Lehrer

Deck the hall with hunks of holly
Brother  here we go again.

b
PS And here's a clue:
  • Dr Spooner's instruction to Capt. Kirk, jumper in line-out? (9)
Update: 2016.12.23.13:30 – added PPS

PPS A festive clue:
  • Drumstick? Stocking-filler? (3)

Update: 2016.12.31.14:55 – Added footnote.

* This morning, by chance, I heard on the radio a programme that incorporated an interview with Finlay,  which made me wonder whether there was yet time to make my peace in person. But I soon realized that as it was on Radio 4 Extra it might well not  have been live. I've just checked: Old Year's Night was indeed recorded some 20 years after I knew him, but still 13/14 years ago.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Waiting Around, take 2

See full-sized version here
A quickie to preview tomorrow's carol concert, when I'll be revisiting the perennial crowned all in white problem first mentioned here.
In my (painfully RC) schools the line was unbending: the 'children' (the souls of the righteous) in the carol are 'crowned all in white'. In other words, they are sainted – and marked with haloes; which makes them look, from a distance, 'like stars' (Geddit?).
This was at oods with the version sung by my present choir, who put the breath after crowned (at least, they have done with previous MDs). I later (in the same post) concluded
... the waiting around needn't detain us. In any case, the unfortunate vision – of juvenile delinquents hanging about on street corners – applies to both readings. The position of the breath (after 'crowned' or after 'white') affects only the colour of their hoodies. While 'wait around' is a phrasal verb in current English, it probably wasn't when the carol was written towards the end of the 19th century. I suspect the 'wait' has the sense of 'being available to serve'; and the 'around' is a simple preposition of place.
To summarize,, the souls of the righteous, wearing haloes (in the manner of well-dressed saints everywhere, especially in Heaven) are positioned all around Himself, ready to jump to attention.

We will be singing several pieces new to the choir, among them Joys Seven – which is, in jazz terms, a paraphrase of The Lincolnshire poacher.
<digression>
That's something they don't seem  to do in  Primary Schools any more  – communal singing of  what were known as "Folk Songs" before the Revival of  the late '50s–early '60s.. I remember at St Gregory's RC Primary School singing with gusto
When me and my companions were
    setting of a snare

'Twas then we spied a gamekeeper
For him we did not care
For we can wrestle and fight,
    me boys,

And jump o'er anywhere...
A one-time colleague of mine, who already played the piano and the violin, during her teacher-training was required to learn the guitar so that she could maintain eye-contact with her pupils. As a consequence of this sort of thinking, today's schoolchildren can sing Kumbaya but not Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill.
</digression>
The interjection "me boys" in that extract are significant in a mistake I am always tempted to make in Joys Seven, because the two-word interjection at the equivalent place is "good man" – and I find it hard to avoid the less devout version.

Words, though; they won't learn themselves.

b


PS: The blog is becoming increasingly popular; I may have celebrity followers. On 13 Nov I posed this clue (here):

Unprepossessing discount store stocking entertainer. (8)

And I think, as you've had a month, I can point to an Uxbridge English Dictionary item from the 6 December edition of  I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue which uses the same wordplay: Susan Calman  said,  "Grimaldi: A run-down supermarket". Hers is less cluttered, but it's essentially the same joke. Not that I'm discounting independent evolution of the idea; it's not that obscure.

Update: 2016.12.16.14:50  – Added PPS

And while we're on the subject of the words to Joys Seven, the sixth verse (which needs a rhyme for six)
evokes in me another conditioned reflex from my old  St Gregory's days, provoked by the words
"To see her own son Jesus Christ upon the crucifix"
.

A cross is a cross; an image of someone on one (there have been thousands of people tortured to death that way, if not  millions, but Christ is usually the one depicted) is a crucifix. I thought I'd better confirm this bit of pedantry, and it seems that dictionaries tend to agree:
Cambridge

Macmillan

Cobuild

Still, they needed a rhyme for six, and there aren't too many. Besides, the Collins English Dictonary is more forgiving:


Monday, 5 December 2016

Carry on bell-ringing

You might have to work a bit at that one.... Try saying it with a French accent. :-)

But they're not (carrying on). The knell has been rung (!) for Whitechapel Foundry, which cast both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, based in London's Whitechapel, has long been the international centre for bespoke bells but the family run business has announced it is now set to close due to the "changing realities" of running a niche business. 
said the Daily Telegraph on Saturday not unbreathlessly. (What's wrong with a comma after the but? Apart from making the whole horrid sentence more readable it would make the absence of a hyphen from family-run less likely to derail the reader.)

The number of significant bells they have cast...
<etymological_digression>
I expect (yep) foundry is related to font (as in typeface) – the  format           
"f<Vowel>n<DentalStop*>"
 gives it away. The word font is yet another  example of  metaphor surviving long after the technology they're based on is obsolete. (I keep finding examples: here is a list (by no means exhaustive) that just deals with the technology of warfare.) In the days of hot-metal typesetting, a font actually involved molten metal. Microsoft and Apple's use of font is as metaphorical as their use of window.

* The dental stops in English are /t/ and /d/. They are both articulated with the tip of the tongue in the same place. The chief other difference (not the only one) is in the voicing.
</etymological_digression>
... suggests that bell-foundries  aren't thick on the ground.  And this suggests that the Jenga tower of bell foundries is starting to wobble. So maybe a post-Brexit UK can say goodbye to church bells and start importing carillons....(?)

Will We Ever Learn?

The other day the lady at the Post Office offered me one of the new fivers, and said defensively "Are you OK with that?" The problem was animal fat.
<autobiographical_note>
This took me back to an O-level history  class that dealt with the Sepoy Mutiny: Mr Crosby told his class ...
<digression>
(it was a history class and we were boys, but you can forget The History Boys: he dictated and we wrote.
</digression>
... that the mutiny was caused by the use of tallow in the manufacture of a new rifle cartridge. More recent scholarship suggests that this was never proved, but anyway the rumour was enough to prevent your average Hindu soldier from tearing off the top of the cartridge with his teeth.
</autobiographical_note>
More than a century later, the makers of the new fiver have made the same mistake, introducing new technology and not thinking about the implications of using animal fat in its manufacture. I wonder how much this will cost to put right; one of the main new features of this note was its long life in comparison with the old ones – a feature that won't be of any value if the bulk of the new notes have to be recalled and destroyed.

b
 
Updated: 2016.12.06.14:45 – Added digression in red.

Updated: 2016.12.20.16:25 – Typo fix in bold. I've no idea why examples became exams; it's a while since I thought of exams. Apologies to anyone who feared for my sanity. :-)