Thursday, 22 June 2017

Putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle

My attention was caught the other day, for a number of reasons, by this tweet:

Chief among my reasons was that I can't see a rule without wanting to break it or prove it wrong. 
A simple example is the new paper-towel dispenser where my choir rehearses. The instructions end Pull down with both hands. When I'm alone (natch – I'm not that badly house-trained) I take great pains – and it's not easy – to do it with only one hand.
Another reason was that I didn't understand the tweet (without the context of reading the article – which I didn't have time to do). But I have since read the article and all is – relatively, considering the quality of the article (not a gem, in the Clarity Stakes) – clear.

The link was to a Business Insider article (my quotations are all from this article, but I can't be bothered to be my normal linkorrhoeic self) presented on a secondary site. So I clicked through to the original: before charging at it like a bull at a gate I should make sure  the advice was coming from the horse's mouth, at the risk mixing my metaphors.

That picture of some sort of water-ice was followed by the echolalic (is that a word? Well it is now) question

To which my answer would probably be, I thought:


But, more to the point, who was the you in their question? What is Business Insider's target readership? From the title I had guessed that it was some sort of business journal; but the tone of the article suggested that it was an ESOL resource, for use in what is unfortunately known as GBE (General Business English).
And it goes on:

Erm... not so much.

But if the target audience was ESOL students, my feelings of affront and assumed condescension were  hardly appropriate.

There were 12 key words, rather than the promised 11. Some early reader had presumably pointed out that 11 was an oddly arbitrary number, and you can chalk one more up for deadline-pressure.

Two of the words discussed (comptroller and supposedly) had nothing to do with stress; come to that, it's not easy to discern what they did have to do with. As a native speaker of English, I have never knowingly used the word comptroller. If this is a teaching resource, the students have my sympathy.

Other key words dealt with mispronunciations that I have never heard, such as

I suppose an ESOL student might meet banal for the first time and wonder whether it sounds like anal or canal. And here I'm tempted to recommend a  reference work of some kind, perhaps this.
<rant type="Is it worth repeating? You must be as bored of hearing it as I am of saying it.">
The usual. These "sounds like" 'transcriptions' do more harm than good. The arguments against teaching and using the tiny subset of IPA characters needed for teaching English are either trivial or vacuous or both. (One of the fuller rants is here.)
ELT teachers, arise: set your students free!
Use IPA symbols
/ju: nəʊ ɪt meɪks sens/

And some of the words are only incidentally involved in getting stress wrong:
This, for example, misses a trick:
The extra syllable doesn't happen because of the faulty stress. I  imagine it happens by false analogy with words such as devious (and other less similar-sounding -<glide>ous words such as impervious or extraneous).

But maybe I'm wronging the article by assuming that the focus is stress.  It just says mispronunciation; and I'm only obsessing about stress because of the original tweeter's confusion. Incidentally, I originally thought the problem was just AE vs BE: the standard AE stress on sorbet is on the second syllable, so bold does mark stress in this:
Many say "sher-bert," though there's no second "r" — not even a silent one. It's not to be confused with "sorbet" (sor-bay)
It's not so clear with this though:
Most people add an extra syllable to this word. It is pronounced "tri-ath-lon" not "tri-ath-a-lon."?
Does anyone add an extra syllable like this? It's reminiscent of the childish interpolation of extra vowels to avoid tricky consonant clusters, but I've never heard any UK adult do it. And in any case, does anyone NOT stress the second syllable in that word? (I'm drawn to AE/BE explanations because the website in question is registered in Scottsdale, Arizona.)

Anyway, the bottom line: the article strikes me as slapdash and ill-thought-out. If it's meant for ESOL students, they deserve better. If it's meant for anyone else, I can't imagine what they'd get out of it or why they'd read it.


PS And a couple of clues:
  • Janitors take back control of surrounding vehicles – (10)
  • Carnival exhibit all at sea – (5  6)

Update: 20112.05.22.15:25 – Corrected letter count for second clue(!)

Monday, 5 June 2017

Oops - cause célèbre or...

.... a storm in a twea-cup?

Just before 9.00 on 2  June 2017, James Conwyn M P tweeted this, shortly before thinking Tweet in haste, repent at leisure. There had been over a thousand retweets before (as I imagine) it was taken down.

But the genie was out of the bottle. By midday, there had been well over 3,000 retweets.

Why did this happen? The Freudian slip theory. that he recognised Tory shortcomings and subconsciously wanted to "tell the truth", doesn‘t hold water (*KLAXON* Mixed metaphor alert: What kind of permeable bottle was this genie in?) Conwyn just wouldn‘t talk this way, whatever truths his id wanted him to  admit to.

So was it a simple typo? Unlikely. If he‘s right-handed and a one-finger typist (fairly safe assumptions for a late middle-aged male WASP in the Conservative hive) typing a T takes much more effort than typing a P.

I favour a psycho-phonological explanation: what makes the strong and stable jingle so memorable is the alliteration of the cluster /st/. If the tip of the tongue is accustomed to hitting the back of the upper gums once per  stressed word, the temptation will be to do the same even when the jingle has finished Hunt-and-peck typists vocalize the words they type. So the /p/ dissimilates to /t/ in the typist's voice and this change interferes with the fingers.
<digression type="Aha but...">
In my efforts to find out more about Conwyn, I met this unexpected impasse:

So who is it with egg on their face? A real Tory MP or thousands of left-wing retweeters of a piece of fake news?

(Or me for overestimating the accuracy of the website?)

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Make Hay while the author signs

In Spring an old man's fancy turns to books.

According to Heinrich Wallau, writing in The Catholic Encyclopedia:
Gutenberg was the son of Friele (Friedrich) Gänsfleisch and Else Wyrich. His cognomen was derived from the house inhabited by his father and his paternal ancestors "zu Laden, zu Gutenberg". The house of Gänsfleisch was one of the patrician families of the town, tracing its lineage back to the thirteenth century."
<autobiographical_note theme="Wikipedia strikes again">
Ever since 2009, when I saw a Stephen Fry documentary about Gutenberg (that link is to iPlayer's TOUGH BANANAS page – the programme is no longer available) I have wondered about the status of Gänsfleisch. Was his name Gutenberg or was it Gänsfleisch? And I wondered why, when Fry touched a Gutenberg Bible and said he had gooseflesh, he didn't exploit the pun (Gänsfleisch means gooseflesh).

A partial answer (the surname thing, not Fry's self-denial [perhaps explained by the lamentable brevity of the mini-series – I wonder what other gems were swept up from the cutting-room floor]) comes from an examination of Wikipedia's source
His surname [my emphasis] was derived from the house inhabited by his father and his paternal ancestors ...
Wallau's word was cognomen. Johannes was as much Johannes Gutenberg as Leonard Woolf was Leonard Hogarth  (whose business just took its name from Hogarth House). I imagine the wikipedioscribe saw cognomen, wondered what it meant and looked in some benighted dictionary that went for tight-lipped and simplistic one-word "equivalences" such as's

... without bothering to read the rest of the definition.
I have a note that "Gutenberg pre-sold  in Mainz"; I have no source for that snippet, but he was at least born in Mainz – so-called not because of its nearness to the Main river, but still the coincidence is pleasing). Today the hub of the universe, in the matter of pre-sales of books, is the Book Fair at Frankfurt am Main the Frankfurter Buchmesse).
Maybe this week's Book of the Week was sold there (that is non-German book rights). It bears all the hallmarks of a tolerable but not quite good enough translation, with near-miss malapropisms (like consistent for constant [on Monday]; today's was "war-horses need to be attuned [sic] to gunfire" – not habituated/accustomed/inured...?)

And another sign of translation rights having been pre-sold is this sort of illustration...

...or quotes such as this:


Sometimes translation is not really possible; some texts need to be localized as well. And international book fairs such as "Frankfurt" (to use the jargon of the publishing business) do their best to ignore this. It's in the interests of the Foreign Rights Seller to say that everything will be hunky-dory, and leave it to the poor translator to make a fist of it.
Ah well. I have more to say but DIY to do. Stay tuned.


PS And here's a clue:
  • Sounds like it calls for retreads all round? Too late for that. (10)
Update: 2017.06.02.16:45 – Added afterthought.PPS

A recent televising of a Maigret story reminded me of the name Quai des Orfêvres – the legedary (not to say inaccurate [but cp "Scotland Yard"]) address of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris . When I first  read Simenon, I just let the address wash over me: Orfêvres was a name, tout sec.

But it slowly seeped into my understanding of the word that it was built from or (of course) and fèvre; to quote the French Wikipedia page 'ancien terme désignant un ouvrier travaillant le fer...'. In other words, Orfêvres means GOLDSMITHS
But why not  Fêvres d'Or? I don't know, having cunningly avoided the History of French paper for reasons possibly explained elsewhere in this blog, but boiling down to sloth on my part...
(and I do wish more speakers of English would observe the distinction between on the part of  and on behalf of – even the BBC does it [with notable, not to say noble, exceptions]. It's got so that I am starting to doubt myself. Collins suckered me into a sense of self-righteousness with this:

But then they hit me with the sucker punch:

Oh well: yet another  solecism that I shall forever avoid but increasingly hear.
... but I expect it's something to do with the Strassbourg oaths, discussed elsewhere (with an important proviso here) which divided France between languages that put the defining word first (Neuchâtel) and that put it second (Châteauneuf).
The original users of that wharf, at one time home to La Police Judiciaire, were Goldsmiths

Finally. another snippet from Lingo, which ends each chapter with a word that has no direct "equivalent" in English. The chapter on Icelandic ends with this: Jólabókaflóð. Erm...

I'm sensing a whiff of The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. I concede that English has no one-word equivalent, but in what sense is this "one word" (except in the trivial orthographic sense that it has what Primary school teachers used to call a fingerspace at each end [with obvious exceptions for punctuation marks])? If I were to say "Yule book flood", that would be  a phonological word. So what's the big deal? The multifaceted Victorian literato/diiplomat Eça de Queiroz noticed this flood (tanto livro!) in the (as yet) untranslated Cartas de Inglaterra (a sort of Letter[s] from America, but written by a Portuguese observer, writing for a Portuguese newspaper, and based in England.).

Update: 2017.06.02.21:45 – Added PPS

PPS What has this to do with the price of fish? you may well ask. Well earlier this week I heard an interview with Jane Goodall, whose observation of chimps "fishing" for termites with a stripped rod showed that tool-making was not a specifically human activity. The pre-existing belief  was epitomized (that‘s one for the etymologists) in the book Homo faber , and it was the Latin faber (the root of fèvre) that brought the Maigret memory to mind. Though this seems madness yet there is method in‘t.

Update: 2017.06.26.20:55 – Added PPPS

PPPS That crossword clue answer: RETIREMENT. And here‘s another:
  • If opened, cynical deal with DUP‘s a way of guaranteeing this. (10,3,6)

Monday, 22 May 2017


Time for another of my periodical looks at Harmless Drudgery‘s vital statistics.
In  Oct 2016 I wrote of the previous 2 years and 3 months:
It would be unrealistic, I think, to expect a similar near-doubling readership over the coming 9 quarters;  and, besides, it takes quite a bit of (writing) effort to maintain interest – which is at odds with the original purpose of the blog [which, longer-term visitors will know, was to support my other writing efforts].
In April 2015, in a PS to this) I had written of a record average of daily visits of 55. Well, 55 schmifty-five. The average for this month so far is about four times as much – over 200. The trend started about Christmas 2016, followed by another up-tick at Easter 2017, leading me to think that maybe my key demographic was teachers, who saved their recreational blog-reading for the school holidays, but page visits in May are already (after about two-thirds of the month) almost as high as the total for April (5,147).
HD stats, courtesy of Blogger
And while we're on the subject of numbers, I have long felt something that grates on my ear as "just American"...
(pace Susie Dent, whose Americanize!: Why the Americanisation of English Is a Good Thing on Radio 4 last Saturday neither was  particularly persuasive nor had to be; I don't need persuading. I prefer -ize myself where admissible – certainly NOT in the lamentable cases of *televize or *analyze, for example  And incidentally, I suppose the inconsistency of that programme's title [Americanize but Americanisation] was intentional)
...needed further attention – preferably on the basis of numbers. My source as usual is the British National Corpus (BNC) and its much bigger and more recently updated transatlantic cousin the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). My first three searches seemed to confirm my prejudice:

sooner rather than later (just click and sit back while BNC does its thing) 65
sooner than later (just click and sit back while BNC does its thing)
sooner than later (just click and sit back while COCA does its thing) 105.

QED. Sooner than later could be assigned, along with I could care less (and incidentally I don't buy Steven Pinker's irony argument – but I don't have time to trace the reference, given the length of the grass) to the Expressions that don't make sense in American English pile.

But COCA is more than five times the size of BNC, so I might have expected a frequency for the preferred form of more than 5 times 65 – well over 300. So I looked again in COCA.
sooner rather than later (just click and sit back while COCA does its thing) 486
So what was demonstratum was not what was demonstrandum. Based on those corpus figures, sooner rather than later is more than 10 times as commonly used by British English speakers/writers than sooner than later. But among American English speakers/writers the predominance is similar; just more less pronounced – less than half the ratio of sooner rather than later to sooner than later. And perhaps the preference is on the wane – taken up by a smaller proportion of linguistic ground-breakers on this side of the Atlantic; the sort of comparative-historical corpus query that could prove that though is beyond me.

Enough. Biomass destruction is the hors-d'œuvre of the day, and the mower awaits.


PS – a clue to be going on with:
  • VIP? Mark; a nut, when crushed. (6,5)
Update: 2017.05.22.22:40 – Added PPS

PPS – Whoops; got the polarity of the comparison wrong, fixed in bold.

Update: 2017.05.26.14:10 – Added PPPS

PPPS – I said I'd write more about Americanisms. I find it hard to say anything new, because I've been fighting this prejudice for so long and in so many different forums.
(And there's another one – pluralizing of words with a clear Latin provenance. I'm with Fowler on this one, as I've said before. He wrote:
 ...that all words not English in appearance are in English writing ugly and not pretty, and that they [HD: Latin plurals] are justified only (1) if they afford much the shortest or clearest, if not the only way to the meaning ... or (2) if they have some special appropriateness of association or allusion in the sentence they stand in.
A consequence of the practice of using English endings is that you avoid solecisms such as syllabi; incidentally, for what it's worth – not a lot for writers of English – the Latin plural of syllabus is syllabūs [or a u with some such diacritic – we didn't need them for the exam, so like any self-respecting school-child I ignored them.)

A few years ago I wrote here:

...Less well-informed commentators go so far as to say - when asked the difference between authorise and authorize -
No difference at all ... only that americans spell it different cos they feel the need to be different . The correct spelling is with an -s-

Oh dear. In one such discussion I said
There's nothing unBritish about the spelling 'apologize'. It has been the house style of The Times for well over a hundred years, and is used by many large and influential publishers (Oxford University Press, for example). I'm tired of being accused of flirting with modernity and excessive American influence, just because I use a spelling that millions of British people use (so long as they haven't been got at by generations of school-teachers peddling misinformation).
That may have been true of The Times at the time of writing, but 'the times they are a-changin''. A few cases of '-ize' pass the scrutiny of the subs' eyes - especially when there is a strong etymological justification - as in the case of 'baptize' (where there is a zeta rather than a sigma in the original Greek); but fewer and fewer.
But to quote the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors

The first line is crucial:

WHERE verbs can be spelled with either an -ize or -ise ending...

American and British English speakers simply disagree over that can: not, say we, in a case like televise; to give it a z would be to suggest that there was the noun or adjective telev - and if you televized something you made it either more like one (in the case of the noun) or just more televvy (in the case of the adjective).

The rest, as Professor Brian Cox might say, is science (sic).

    Thursday, 18 May 2017

    And only man is vile

    (But the island in question is not Heber's "Ceylon" (isle...vile is the rhyme); it is on Henderson Island that

    In vain with lavish kindness

    The gifts of God are strown

    Besides, that lavish kindness doesn't really work, and I doubt if The Big Fellah would be in a hurry to claim discarded Tizer bottles as part of his bounty.)

    But I'm getting off the subject. Ahem...

    I spotted this sub-head in a Guardian article on Monday.
    Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairn group, is covered by 18 tonnes of plastic – the highest density of anthropogenic debris recorded anywhere in the world
    Anthropogenic debris. Take a moment to consider that phrase. The article goes on:
    The largest of the four islands of the Pitcairn Island group, Henderson Island is a Unesco World Heritage Listed site and one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by humans.

    The island exhibits remarkable biological diversity given it covers only 3,700 hectares, with 10 endemic species of plant and four land bird species. Its isolation had, until recently, afforded it protection from most human activities...

    ...The threat to biodiversity posed by plastic debris has come under increased scrutiny as findings reveal the extent of the problem, with millions of tonnes ending up in the ocean every year.
    The natural world has put up a brave response  to this assault.  Hermit crabs, for example, have started using bits of this debris to stand in for empty shells. On the face of it, this is a Good Thing – reuse rather than refuse. But a member of a research group working on the island, interviewed for the Guardian article, reported finding
    ...  hundreds of crabs living in rubbish such as bottle caps and cosmetics jars, and has been told of one living inside a doll’s head.

    “From the looks on people’s faces, it was quite grotesque,” she said. “That was how I felt about all these crabs – we are not providing them a home, this is not a benefit to them.

    “This plastic is old, it’s brittle, it’s sharp, it’s toxic. It was really quite tragic seeing these gorgeous crabs scuttling about, living in our waste.”
    Hermit-crab chain, about 6/7 minutes in
    By the way, while  we're on the subject of hermit crabs, I recommend this Natural World programme, part of which deals with an  informal house-swapping chain formed by a sequence of different-sized hermit crabs, with the biggest finding a new shell and all the others swapping theirs for the next size up.
    But a solution could be provided by the natural world. At the end of April 2017 in an article in Current Biology reported on Polyethylene bio-degradation by caterpillars of the wax moth Galleria mellonella a title that rather telegraphs the message (and promises a less than inviting overview of the research). I admit that I was more inclined to read about a Caterpillar found to eat shopping bags, suggesting biodegradable solution to plastic pollution in a piece in the University of Cambridge's Research review.

    This very hungry caterpillar produces "something that breaks the chemical bond, perhaps in its salivary glands or a symbiotic bacteria in its gut", says Paulo Bombelli, a Cambridge researcher and co-author of the article.
    ...the degradation rate is extremely fast compared to other recent discoveries, such as bacteria reported last year to biodegrade some plastics at a rate of just 0.13mg a day. Polyethylene takes between 100 and 400 years to degrade in landfill sites.  "If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process, its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable," said Cambridge's Paolo Bombelli...

    ...As the molecular details of the process become known, the researchers say it could be used to devise a biotechnological solution on an industrial scale for managing polyethylene waste.
    So it looks as if we might not need to go as far as Mars to do our terra-forming. Maybe we can do it on Earth. Hang on though, that doesn't make much sense: TERRA-forming on Earth?  Holy pleonasm, Batman.

    And here's a clue:
    • Buy on favourable terms – in other words, credit. (7)

    Update: 2017.05.30.22:45 – Added PS.

    PS I imagine Mr (Signor?) Bombelli is one of the overseas students who could do with a guarantee of continued residence. I wish the Brexit preparations would  pay more attention to this sort  of thing.

    Oh yes, and the answer to that clue: BELIEVE.

    Update: 2017.06.19.10:45 – Added PPS.

    PPS The blog has gone quiet for a bit, but I’m still here. A recent article has added some background to this story:

    More here.
    We can only hope that Galleria mellonella can stand the cold.
    A photograph by Dr Waller caught my attention for two reasons, one of which has nothing to do with with pollution – though the use of a pound coin for scale is an intesting multi-layered metaphor (about the link between environmental damage and getting and spending)
    The second, and totally irrelevant reason was that it reminded me of a recent conversation I had with an old (not to say coæval) friend about the similarity between the new coin  and the old threepenny bit – though, when I compare the two, Browning‘s Far brighter than that gaudy melon flower comes to mind. 
    I can think of no more polyphonic word (to abuse the term in my own Humpty-Dumpty-esque way – I mean pronounced in many different ways). The first syllable could have any of four vowel sounds:
    • /ɪ/ as in thrips
    • /ʊ/ as in whoops
    • /ʌ/ as in trundle
    • /e/ as in rep
    But not, of course /i:/ as in three

    Monday, 8 May 2017

    Unwitting puns

    The oldest secular building in Rye is the Ypres Tower. It's been many things in its time, particularly a prison. One part of the prison was built on in the 19th century.
    ...Only a few stone buildings survive, one being the one we known as Ypres Tower. . The Court Hall was one casualty of this raid, and while a new one was being built, the Tower was used for Corporation business and the various courts. In 1421, all offenders were ordered to attend here on pain of a fine of 12 pence which suggests that part of it was also used as a prison.

    However, in 1430 the Tower was leased to one John de Ypres (hence the name), for use as a private residence, with the proviso that ‘the Mayor Jurats and Commonality’ could enter it at a time of hostility or war for the purpose of town defence. Fortunately the attack never came.

    In 1484 or 1494 the Corporation rented the Tower for use as a prison, and in 1518 bought the freehold — for £26; shortly afterwards a new roof and new floors were added.


    And in a later addition ("changes follow[ing] the 1830′s legislation to improve prison conditions: a new exercise yard (the present Medieval Garden), four additional cells, and a tower for housing women prisoners (the focus of the ongoing Women’s Tower Project...)" on a recent visit I saw what may have been a 20th-century pun by a garden designer with a sense of humour – although quite possibly the pun was unintentional and the garden designer was as po-faced as they come....

    A feature of spoken English is often known (misleadingly) as Cockney Rhyming Slang – "misleadingly" because much of the known (and growing) corpus of terms has no links with Cockney. While Tom may well have originated in Cockney criminal cant as meaning jewelry (Tom foolery/jewelry), the professional wrestler's Doin' yer Gregory (meaning feigning an injured neck [Gregory Peck]) did not.

    But one word that is a good candidate for having a criminal background is porridge (meaning time in jail) –  borage and thyme/time... which brings us back to that waggish garden designer. One of the main herbs in the Medieval Garden was borage. "Why no thyme?" I hear a doubting mutter. O ye of little faith. Thyme prefers to grow in full sun. Imagine an aetiolated thyme seedling reaching up forlornly for
     that little tent of blue
      Which prisoners call the sky

    The Ypres Tower is managed by the National Trust – a marvellous institution though  possibly natural home of  folk etymology. Unquestioning "derivations" I have heard from tour guides include
    • face the music – turn round and sing a solo, facing the music from the back of a chapel
    • nod off – from church pews designed with a sloping seat to prevent worshippers from  going to sleep
    • learn the ropes – what growing gentlemen had to do in the nursery (using model ships) before taking a commission in the Navy
    • Humpty Dumpty  – English Civil War gun
    • one that's so improbable I can't remember it – it was something to do with a hangman: kick the bucket, maybe...
    • etc etc... They are a well-intentioned lot, but one has to carry a large block of rock-salt...(Hmm, is it pinch or grain...?)
    <digression type="certainty versus uncertainty">
    The Phrase Finder seems quite sure about Learning the ropes...
    A nautical term, from the days of sailing ships when new recruits had to learn how to tie knots and which rope hauled up which sail. After which of course they would know the ropes.
    ... but less so about knowing them:
    There is some doubt about the origin of this phrase. It may well have a nautical origin. Sailors had to learn which rope raised which sail and also had to learn a myriad of knots. There is also a suggestion that it comes from the world of the theatre, where ropes are used to raise scenery etc [HD: see PPS].

    During that visit to Rye I went to Hastings,    where in another museum I saw what a deadeye  was. The picture on the right shows a single one (alias bull's eye). But more  ambitious sailing ships had the more complex triple deadeye shown below. When, as a 10-ish year-old I went to my big sister's school production of The Captain of the Pinafore I assumed ...
    (probably anachronistically, as the Wiktionary definition of Deadeye Dick as "An especially accurate marksman" probably  post-dates the days of sail [and certainly post-dates the days of accurate marksmanship])
    ---that W.S. Gibert's character Dick DeadeyePS was a sort of Butch Cassidy.

    A triple deadeye

    Which (oh do keep up – theatrical scenery) brings me to my other unwitting pun (although I wouldn't put it past the speaker to have known what he was doing). A recent Book of the Week (start here, but it went on all week) was Nicholas Hytner's Balancing Acts  (which unaccountably didn't mention me, his near-contemporary at Cambridge; we may have bumped into each other at an ADC party).

    He was talking about the NT version of Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. In this they had to represent the characters' daemons – played by puppets (which the NT players had no experience of dealing with). For the later production of War Horse, he said, they didn't confront the problem in the same "cavalier" fashion. The word cavalier has an obvious connection with horses, although this usage (arrogant/disdainful) presumably relates to the demeanour of a Cavalier (right but romantic) (as opposed to a Roundhead – wrong but revolting).

    But I can't put it off any longer: HMRC – need I say more? (Probably, for non-UK readers: HMRC is otherwise known as the taxman.


    Update: 2017.05.0916:25 –Fixed a clutch of typos, and added PS

    I got the words the wrong way round yesterday, but the Deadeye comes second.

    Update: 2017.05.10.17:10  – Added PPS.

    According to this there's a link between the two. If theatre technicians were out-of-work sailors who whistled signals to each other (because a whistle is more audible than a shout in stormy weather),  this explains the superstitious avoidance of whistling backstage. In the days before head-sets and radio mikes, a rogue whistle could reward the siffleur with a sandbag or flat in the face – or on the head.

    Tuesday, 2 May 2017

    Being in two minds

    My attention was caught (while I was making other plans, as usual :-)) by a blog about bilingualism and its correlation with personality. I have to admit, though, that the distraction from those other plans was not as great as I'd hoped. Like many academic blogs it's more of an amuse-bouche than a main course.

    It starts out with the less than flabbergasting observation that
    You might think of the shy person who becomes much more extroverted when talking to family or close friends. Alternatively, we could think about someone who acts in one manner with his co-workers but acts very differently when having a drink with former college dormmates.
    Well GOSH. Next he'll be telling me the Pope wears a big hat. This observation seems to me like that Einstein line about time seeming to speed up when you're with a pretty girl [Einstein's sexism, yer 'Onner] and slow down if your hand's on a hot stove; it's  true but its relevance to Relativity (in the physics sense) is tenuous at best. What I wanted to be told about was whether processing different languages favoured distinct character traits (a point I touched on here, referring to a personal experience):
    ...[T]his has resonance in my own experience selling magazines in Spain. I found it much easier to be deceitful (not lying but painting a rosy picture of the future – I was selling subscriptions). My initial belief was that this was a feature of the language; this belief fitted in with vocabulary that related to my own position, back in England.
    <autobiographical_note blush_factor="10">
    I was a boy-friend to someone who thought I was a fiancé; the one word novio blurred the distinction. Did I love her?  I doubt it; but I was happy to say Te quiero, because – past-master as I was in the field of casuistry [fruit of an RC education] – I did want her, and querer can mean 'want' (cf. Kant's 'murderer at the door' dilemma, and this  [specifically 'All men are false']).
    But maybe it's to do with speaking in foreign languages generally; maybe it works for any L1/L2 combination.
    But, returning to that blog [do keep up] that disappointing aperçu was followed by a more promising  later reflection:
    As I thought about it more, I realized that language might serve as a form of context that triggers certain memories. One interesting analogy comes from work with deep-sea divers. Divers often seem to forget what happened to them underwater. Follow up work on this observation has found that when divers are taught a list of words underwater they are better at recalling more of those words later underwater than they are outside water. The opposite was also true. They exhibited better memory for words learned above water when they were asked to remember outside of water. Hence, a particular context serves to elicit memories relevant to that context. In this view, memory is driven by a set of cues that elicit certain responses from us. 
    Source [My emphasis]
    But this is just about speaking different languages, not about bilingualism (growing up in an environment that uses two languages). Is a Catalan child cheekier, say,  when using Catalan than they are when using Castilian? And, given the same context, if they are being cheeky, are they more likely to use one language than another?

    Dunno –  Maybe I'll have to take the course mentioned in that blog.


    Friday, 21 April 2017

    The little things of life

    I have mentioned diminutives before; and they're always lurking quite close to the surface when you think about words. In my last post, for example:
    ...bacilli  [Latin baculum  'little staff'; there's that '-ulus/m' again, denoting a diminutive...]
    Spaghetti are little spaghi ["strings"]; cigarettes (and cigarillos) are little cigars. A scintilla is a little piece that's been cut off (from the irregular verb scindere [whose part participle is scissus, recognizable in the English scissors]). Often, their meanings diverge widely from the mother-word: a tabernacle) ultimately from tabernaculum doesn't have much of an obvious link with a tavern (> taberna); the altar wine doesn't even go in  the tabernacle...
     (at least not in my day, when catering was easier [just a mouthful for the celebrant]).

    The reason for this focus (on diminutives) is a chance reading of the title of an Italian board game: Il gioco dell'oca.  In Italy (and much of the Romance world) they don't have Snakes & Ladders (although Google Translate says that Snakes & Ladders is an English "translation" of Gioco dell'oca. Un' oca is thought to have derived from the Vulgar Latin *AUCA(M) (the preceding asterisk signifies that the word is not attested, but is the source of other Romance words that require it to have existed).

    On the right is a rather mangled excerpt [cobbled together from the foot of one column and the top half of the next] from the Romance philologist‘s bible Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. The book was compiled more than a century ago, when the centre of the philological universe was in Germany, (Grimm's Law, remember)  so it's not a light read. And it says so much about auca, avicella and avicellus that I missed out an elision after the first four lines on avicellus: Section 828 goes on, but my interest ran out after the French oiseau.
    <tangent status="just thrown out there">
    I wonder if Pooh's Woozle owes anything to A.A.Milne's knowledge of Chaucer's ousel... So little time, so many speculations.
    Anyway, oca means "goose", and there are diminutives in its back-story. But when I first (knowingly, as I imagine I may have come across the word before I saw that Italian board-game) saw the word I wondered whether it might have any connection with the English word ocarina – this odd-looking musical instrument:

    I went to my usual source for this sort of information, Etymonline:
    ocarina (n.)
    1877, from Italian ocarina, diminutive of oca "goose" (so called for its shape), from Vulgar Latin *auca, from Latin avicula "small bird," diminutive of avis "bird" (see aviary).
    My guess was right (though I'm not sure I buy the so-called for its shape. The instrument comes in all sorts  of shapes, but the most common one doesn't remind  me of a goose; perhaps the noise it makes comes into  it).

    Returning to the game, its instructions were in Italian; and I suspect  – my command of Italian is more of a comma – they claimed a millennial origin for the game, though Wikipedia suggests that the author of this pooh-poohs the idea with a rather curt sniff:
    [The games]...are unlikely to have been the same
    Geese figure elsewhere in much language. The rather dated silly goose, cooking someone's goose, wild goose chase...
    <digression theme ="goose".
    In my partial soon-to-be-released new vowel book, the *IL* section says this of the expression wild goose chase:
    When Shakespeare put this expression in the mouth of Mercutio (in the first recorded use), he was probably referring to a certain kind of horse-race, with a leading horse being followed by other riders in the V-shape typical of migrating geese. When used today, it refers more directly (although figuratively) to the notion of chasing after wild geese. (It seems to me that this change in meaning may have been influenced, in days when Latin was more widely studied, by an awareness of the fact that a mission to find the solution to a question that has no anser [=Latin, "goose"] was vain; but there is no documentary proof of this – which, I admit, smacks of folk-etymology.)

    ...what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander....[I'm not sure where that "good for the goose" in the UsingEnglish version comes from. Both BNC and COCA prefer sauce as a noun in that context {before "for the goose"}... Oh I get it. I was searching specifically for a noun . BNC prefers the noun, with only a single good; but COCA has much closer balance (indeed, an ABSOLUTE balance, in its corpus – alliteration trumps gastronomy )] Geese certainly get about. But things need doing. Further reflection on ocarinas and goslings will have to wait, sine die].


    PS A clue:
    • Reportedly Spooner's porcine challenge for a sympathetic cure (3, 4, 2, 3, 3)

    Friday, 14 April 2017

    My old man said Follow the lobster...

    ... and don't Dili-Dali on the way.

    'You couldn't make it up' – said the John Waite in this week's Pick of the Week, introducing  a BBC report on a self-styled Grammar Vigilante. This masked crusader roams the streets of Bristol righting the wrongs done to Milady the Blessed and Inviolate Language of Our Forefathers the Way Mrs Thistlebotham Taught It. [Mrs Thislebotham was a stickler for proper English who inhabited Dave Barry's Mr Language Person columns, one of which observed that an apostrophe just meant Here comes an S.], The Apostrophizer's special interest was the wayward apostrophe, and the arcane/arbitrary rules governing its "correct" application. I wrote a  few years ago (here) about this:
    ... my late twentieth-century sightings of apostropho-clasm are far from original. GBS wrote
    I have written aint, dont, havent, shant, shouldnt, and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only when its omission would suggest another word: for example hell for he’ll. There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli. [ed, 2017: the source I originally gave had papering for peppering, but this is obviously wrong: peppering is the perfect choice, whereas papering makes no sense at all; I suspect the finger of blame points at Optical Character Recognition]
    (Isn't that bacilli marvellous? Bacilli were in the news at the time, because of discoveries in connection with these stick-like [Latin baculum  'little staff'; there's that '-ulus/m' again, denoting a diminutive, as noted in a previous post microscopic objects. Shaw was a contemporary of Fleming [HD 2017: I have no idea why I mentioned Fleming. The reason is probably a circumstantial link now lost on the cutting-room floor.] – who was born before Shaw but outlived him. One can imagine Shaw reading a newspaper or scientific leaflet illustrated with a slide covered with these things looking like chocolate vermicelli - and there's another metaphor, 'little worms', but that would be a digression too far). You can read more about apostrophes here [ed, 2017: this source is no longer there. Here's an option], if you're that way inclined. I really can't get awfully excited about this sort of thing. [HD 2017: I'd like to include a contemporary picture {mid-late 19th cent.} but for the time being you'll have to make do with this:
    A better one is TBS, but breath retention is not advised.]
    The Pedant column in The Times, responding to the BBC's story, layed into the Apostrophizer in a column entitled ...
    See rant here (the bit in red) if you're interested in my feelings about this wronged word.
    ...The Apostrophiser should Apologize. I'm not convinced the writer came up with that title; maybe a sub-editor was just attracted by the assonance
    For a start, the grammar vigilante has misunderstood his own moniker. Grammar encompasses syntax ...morphology ... and phonology .... Mr Vigilante is concerned instead with orthography, the conventions for writing a language, which has nothing to do with grammar.

    The distinction matters. [HD: Well yes. I thought as much when I first heard the BBC report but dismissed it as a bit of typical dumbing down; and eternal vigilance in this sort of thing strikes me as almost as anal as the malefactor.] Whenever you hear a complaint about “bad grammar” levelled at a native speaker it will almost invariably be untrue. We know how the rules of grammar go (real rules, I mean, like word order or inflection for tense) and don’t get them wrong. But the conventions of spelling and punctuation have to be learnt. Mr Vigilante believes it’s a “crime” to get these wrong. [HD: Well, again, yes. The self-styled Apostrophizer was making a rhetorical rebuff of the interviewer's question (about the legality of his efforts), without weighing his words more carefully, so ...] What nonsense [... it was indeed pretty silly. He needs a PR training course. But his use of "It's a crime" to refer to something not strictly criminal is fairly standard hyperbole and hardly merits this put-down. Sledgehammers and nuts spring to mind.].
    Though agreeing with a lot of what Oliver [Pedant] Kamm writes, I fear this article was not his finest hour. He talks about the history of orthography, giving loads of detail. I sympathize with his objection to being corrected by an ignoramus who thinks English should be pickled in aspic.

    Incidentally, Kamm obviously knows but has over-simplified the story:
    The apostrophe didn’t enter the English language till the 16th century. It was adopted from French as a printers’ convenience to denote an elision or contracted form. From that usage, [HD: Here's the missing bit, expanded below.]  it was adopted to denote singular possession and then plural possession. But this was no logical stepwise progression. The conventions fluctuated and they didn’t settle down in their current form till around 1800, with mechanised printing.
    The printers' convention was applied, in a case of a possessive usage, to a missing letter or  letters that had been part of the possessive inflexion. Chaucer's Pardoner inveighs against the casual use of oaths such as

    "By Goddes precious herte," and "by his nayles"...

    and the possessive ending is necessary for the metre. So those compositors weren't just inventing a convention for denoting possession, but using a trick used in other contexts (such as ñ for nn); it was just a convention for making the artisan's work easier. The apostrophe came to denote possession more-or-less by accident, by marking the elision of a possessive ending.

    Anyway, I must start on the picnic bench in the gaps between rain showers and neighbours' bonfires.


    Friday, 7 April 2017

    Crossed wires

    Not for the first time, my Tai Chi class has set me off on what might politely be called a tangent (less politely another hare-brained reflection).
    <digression theme="hare-brained">
    Interesting metaphor, that; presumably not unrelated to the Mad Hatter: darting about, with random changes of direction. (They're not really boxing;  something to do with mating, I think. Wikipedia would know.) 
    And another thing. In Western culture we have the association of the moon with lunacy (which does what it says on the tin, as it were), but many Eastern cultures see  not a Man in the Moon  but a Rabbit in the Moon. I wonder... (For Further Study, as they used to say in the ISO world: "FFS" [meaning "interesting, but don't hold your breath"])
    My teacher often teaches in mirror image, and refers to our bodies: 'Your right hand,' she says, demonstrating with her left. This is easy enough to understand, once you know the convention and have practised a few hundred times: the body just gets used to reproducing (or, at least, trying to reproduce) the movement demonstrated. But to a newcomer it‘s not so easy. What Wordsworth called our meddling intellect gets involved, willy-nilly.

    This is reminiscent, I thought, of the Stroop Effect
    ...a demonstration of interference in the reaction time of a task. When the name of a color (e.g., "blue", "green", or "red") is printed in a color that is not denoted by the name (e.g., the word "red" printed in blue ink instead of red ink), naming the color of the word takes longer and is more prone to errors than when the color of the ink matches the name of the color.
    More here
    In short, red is easier to make sense of than green. Presumably, colour is processed in a different part of the brain than writing, and the translation of writing to meaning in yet another, and the translation of writing to sound in yet another. So there's a huge amount of processing going on here, and if two  of those domains overlap (the written glyphs' meaning and their cognitive content – R-E-D) the brain has life a bit easier.

    This crossing of wires, the interference of the intellect with a motor skill, is often apparent to a language teacher. Many years ago, when I was teaching Portuguese to a group of adults (people who've been taught at school the stifling and confusing and just plain WRONG lesson that the way to solve a problem is to turn the intellect loose on it) I drew this diagram to show what I wanted them to do:

    There are many more steps on the left-hand route, each being error-prone. So there's a Chinese Whispers effect, which means that there's next-to-no chance of the sound output of the two routes matching.

    The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to other motor skills (and speaking is unquestionably a motor skill).
    <digression theme="Underhill talk">
    I missed a recent talk by Adrian Underhill, in which he talked about decognitvizing the teaching of pronunciation to ESOL students. I must catch up with the transcript. Watch this space.
    So a teacher has to beware of the interference of intellect. On the other hand, though, it's easy (and fashionable) to go too far in what has been called, in another context, the romanticization of ... illiteracy (that "..." represents the one word musical, which is what I meant by another context. See this letter  to the Guardian from many leading musical lights).