Thursday, 30 June 2016

Thinking up new phrasal verbs

Just over three years ago I wrote this, decrying the raw deal...
I can't use the expression raw deal without remembering a conversation I once had with someone who thought he had been mistreated, as I had. The details of the alleged mistreatment don't matter – we've all passed a lot of water since then and there's no sense in crying over split peas – but he said  "I got a similar raw deal from <miscreant>". I felt that I'd been a bit hard done by, but calling it a similar ordeal seemed to be coming it a bit strong. 
...being given to young people. On the subject of tuition fees I wrote:
This solves another problem for the young. They have little chance of getting a mortgage.  'But they couldn't repay a mortgage anyway while they're repaying their student loan.  It's a Win-Win!' 
So young people's paranoia is fed for the first quarter of their lives. Until they're about 20. But the hell-hounds weren't finished yet.   'How else can we load the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune against the young...? Got it. Housing Benefit.'  [There was, at the time, a proposal to raise the qualifying age for Housing Benefit.] 
We're filling the streets with angry young men. And somehow I don't think it's just a revolution in theatre we're fomenting. Today's Jimmy is armed not just with an ironing board but with the power of the Internet. 
I wish I could see an up-side to this, but 'hell' and 'handcarts' spring to mind.
I don't want to contribute to the growing store of Brexi-doom-mongering, and again I hope there's a silver-lining out there somewhere; but I think Giles Coren was right on the money in last Saturday's Times calling for a re-run with a much younger electorate: I think he suggested 16–60. I'd like to suggest a small amendment in the light of the fact that younger voters don't rely on traditional news media. My suggestion is simple, though I admit I haven't thought it through fully: keep coverage of the re-run off the mainstream media. That way it needn't bother me.

Anyway, I'm acutely aware of the risk of talking the economy down. So I've been changing the subject, and not thinking too hard about Brexit, in an ostrichy sort of way, thinking instead about that phrase – talking down.

One of the most striking things we did on the first day of my CELTA course.was....

I think we  may have been brain-storming a list of problems confronted by learners of English. (although maybe that's a false memory – the course had too tight a curriculum for that sort of thing; more likely chalk and talk or perhaps felt-tip and... umm THING).
...Anyway, we got onto the subject of phrasal verbs, and English's tendency to string together a verb and something else (often a preposition, but the right-thinking Phrasal-Verb-ese buzzword is particle) to form a new meaning  leading to memory-taxing seeming-paradoxes like You cut a tree down before you cut it up. There were 14 students on the course, and that activity I found so striking was that we each in turn had to construct a sentence using the phrasal verb pick up  in a way different from all previous ones. We managed 14; my trusty Cobuild dictionary lists 15 (though I'm sure various one-off contexts could  support new coinings).

I hadn't realized, until I started to  teach ESOL, what a big hurdle phrasal verbs were. Try Googling English Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs. You get (or at least I get – Heaven alone knows what customized search algorithms are at play) over 500,000 hits. That's a world of pain for ESOL students; who have to remember not only apparently-paradoxical meanings but a range of syntactic oddities. And to make things worse, we English-speakers keep inventing new ones.

Returning to talking down, my Cobuild lists only two meanings, apart from talk down to. They are:
  1. the one used in disaster movies: the hero amateur pilot, who's told by the control tower "You can do it  kid, we're counting on you" [cut to control tower conversation off-mic: "Jeez, he'd better be up to it, there's only five minutes of fuel.... etc etc" – you get the gist]
  2. the one I'm trying to avoid in present circumstances: saying things that cause economic and/or political  harm.
But as I said of pick up "various one-off contexts could  support new coinings". One of those suggests itself without too much thinking (perhaps this meaning has appeared relatively recently – my Cobuild,  at the age of nearly ten years, is a valuable relic; [I'm sitting on a gold-mine, though I think MrsK might have a different way of characterizing my collection]): talking down is what people do to potential suicides about to throw themselves off a roof/bridge/ortcetera.  In fact,  Collins Online does add to Cobuild's two meanings: what people do in negotiations to make someone charge less, but it still doesn't  include the potential-suicide meaning.

And, with an ever-broadening range of meanings, look what happens to usage:
from Collins Online

Looks pretty straightforward; but ...
<not_so_fast reason="There's more to this than meets the eye">

But the phrasal verb didn't spring fully-formed out of the ether at the turn of the 18th century.  It had been around for over a century before that: 

I wonder why...? (No time now though.)


PS Another clue:

Mischief-makers' solidarity? They'll get away with it. (8)

Update: 2017.02.09.15:15 – Added PPS, and afterthought in bold.

PPS The answer: IMPUNITY

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