Monday 30 November 2009

Mind games - the difference between "brain" and "mind"

There's a poster at my local railway station which never fails to catch my attention. It reads (in classic question and answer, feed and punchline style) :
"What went through the mind of the person who slipped on the platform?" "The floor."
While I admire the wordplay and admit that it is effective as a health and safety notice - the shift from a thought running through someone's head to a piece of concrete smashing into it is as jarring as it is supposed to be - there is something that doesn't quite work.

I think it is to do with the difference between "mind" and "brain". Because "mind" is seldom used in a physical, biological sense, the pun feels like something of a cheat - you simply wouldn't refer to the floor "going through someone's mind" unless you meant that they were thinking about it.

Brains are biological; minds are psychological. A neurosurgeon operates on the brain, not the mind; if someone described themselves as a "mind doctor" you would be more likely to assume they were a psychoanalyst, or even a hypnotist. The meaning of "brain" is somewhat broader - the phrase "to have something on the brain" more often refers to thoughts than to biological conditions - but, as a noun, "mind" almost never refers to the physical brain.

Would "brain", with its double meaning of the seat of thought and the physical organ, have been a better choice? I think so, although, because is is more closely associated with the latter sense than with the former, the shock in the shift of meaning would not have been so great. My choice would have been "head", which works equally well in both contexts.

The wordplay on "running through someone's mind" reminds me of another pun with a far less serious aim. Although I have never heard it used (I must be associating with the wrong people), the phrase "You must be tired, because you've been running through my mind all day" is apparently one of Europe's top ten chat-up lines.

A mind doctor

Ratcheting Up the Pressure

Pressure, as everbody who reads the newspapers knows, is either mounting or growing, especially on ministers (government not religious). I have searched but can find no mention anywhere in the British press of pressure descending or dwindling. Indeed, I imagine the cabinet room to be rather like the Mariana Trench and its ministers to resemble the angler fish and flounders that haunt those remote and inhospitable depths. Geoff Hoon, I am reliably informed, is able to withstand pressures of up to 15,700 pounds per square inch, which would crush a normal human in an instant. It's something to do with being from Nottingham.

The mechanism by which pressure mounts is almost always a thing called a ratchet, which is used as part of the phrasal verb "to rachet up". This strange process has been reported 620 times in the last week alone. Neither Barack Obama nor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nor Rafael Benitez seems ever to leave home without his trusty ratchet. A ratchet is of course "A mechanism consisting of a pawl that engages the sloping teeth of a wheel or bar, permitting motion in one direction only." It looks like this (the pawl is the bit at the top):

The wheel can only turn anticlockwise. This device is the reason that pressure only ever mounts and grows: the pawl is stopping it from declining. This is bad news for Geoff Hoon. It's odd that journalists' imaginations should always leap to this reasonably obscure mechanism, I assume that they're all terribly keen on DIY. Many other things can be ratcheted up including sanctions, salaries and capital buffers (the people who polish London).

A capital buffer working on Nelson's Column

Sunday 29 November 2009

Take Out The TCB

R, E, S, P, E, C, T:
Find out what it means to me.
R, E, S, P, E, C, T.
Take out the TCB.
Sock it to me. Sock it to me. Sock it to me. Sock it to me. Sock it to me.

So sang Miss Aretha Franklin in a section that she added to Otis Redding's song Respect. For years I misheard the words and believed that she was singing:

R, E, S, P, E, C, T.
Take out the T, C, P.

So I would remove the letters T, C and P from RESPECT and be left with rese, which means tremble as anybody familiar with Chaucer's description of the temple of Mars in The Knight's Tale knows:

And therout came a rage and suche a veze,
That it made al the gate for to rese.

This seemed appropriate as Miss Franklin's supposed paramour, who has previously been enjoined merely to "respect" her, is now at the song's climax being asked to go further and to "rese" or tremble before her: a megalomaniac yearning to which the maenads respond with the incantation, "sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me" etc..

The only other explanation was that Miss Franklin was asking for TCP the well known brand of antiseptic, whose name is a shortening of trichlorophenylmethyliodosalicyl. Perhaps, I thought, she yearns to heal the metaphorical (or even literal) wounds inflicted upon her by her respectless beau by cleaning them with this literal and emotional disinfectant.

There was even the intriguing interpretation that Miss Franklin was demonstrating that respect could be cabalistically deconstructed into its two orthographical components of trembling and antiseptic.

Then in one damascene moment I heard that it was not P but B. Take out the TCB. TCB is an initialism for Taking Care of Business. This phrase, nearly unknown on our shores, was used as a catch-all excuse by the tardy American male of the mid twentieth century. As in:

Female: Why were you out until three in the morning?
Male: TCB, baby, TCB.

Miss Franklin is asking, therefore, that her lover cease to use this nebulous excuse; and therefore, by implication, she is entreating him to give up all those sins and divagations that would make such an excuse necessary.

Just thought you ought to know.

More discussion of such topics can be found in this video.

Saturday 28 November 2009


...either you've got to get out or you've got to have some massive increase, which is predicated on the assumption that with one last push you'll succeed
   - The Guardian

The Twilight Saga: New Moon is slickly packaged entertainment that’s nonetheless predicated on a creepy vision of teenage sexuality
    - The Times

It is a tale of sexual and sporting rivalry, bullying and manipulation predicated on the girls' passion for their teacher
   - The Independent an industry predicated on results, Pipe’s reputation, and business, is now in his own hands.
   - The Financial Times


Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?

A letter in today's Guardian runs:

Many years ago we attended an amateur performance of Romeo and Juliet in Trinidad, and the cry went up "Romeo, Romeo wherefore art thou", followed by a pause and a cry from the audience of "Romeo, Romeo, where you is boy?"

There's so much wrong with this that I needed to drink a bottle of vermouth before deciding to concentrate on wherefore. As any fule kno, wherefore does not mean where. It means why.

The story so far is that Juliet has fallen in love with a handsome young chap without knowing his name. She then discovers that the boy is called Romeo, and realises that she's fallen heels over head for the one boy she can't marry. So, thinking that nobody is listening, she soliloquises "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?", which could be paraphrased as "Romeo, why did you have to be called Romeo (a name implying that you are a scion of the Montague family and therefore denied to me)?"

Why wouldn't work in the iambic penameter of te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM [te] (Romeo is two syllables); so Will used wherefore instead.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? 
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

It is not a question of location, but of name. That's why she talks of no longer being a Capulet.

The Guardian's epistle doesn't even mention the final Romeo of the line, which would change the question completely to "Romeo, why do you exist?"

I'd jabber on about the punctuation of vocatives, but enough is enough.

Allegedly the actual balcony

Friday 27 November 2009


Years ago, at university, a friend of mine asked me what the pejorative of Greek was. I asked him what he meant and he said that the French were Frogs, the Italians Wops, the Germans Krauts, the Spanish Dagos and he wanted to know what the Greeks were. We couldn't work it out but we had fun trying. We had a good sense of hummus.

Just so you know, here are the etymologies of the major European pejoratives:

Frog Short for frog-eater (1798). Previously (1652) the pejorative for Dutchman because Holland is so marshy.

Kraut From the German for cabbage. First recorded in 1841, but popularised during the First World War.

Hun meant destroyer of beauty in 1806, long before it became the pejorative for German. That's because the Huns like the Vandals were a tribe who helped to bring down the Roman Empire (the actual order was Vandal, Goth, Hun pushing each other from Germany through France to Spain and North Africa). Matthew Arnold called art-haters Philistines on the same basis of naming people you don't like after an ancient tribe. It was Kaiser Wilhelm II who first applied it to Germans in 1900 when he urged the army he was sending to China to mimic the behaviour of their supposed Hunnish forbears and "Take no prisoners", a phrase that is usually attributed to him, although someone had doubtless said something like it before ("I'll be back" is similarly attributed to the film Terminator). The word was taken up as a pejorative during the World Wars as, though the Germans imagined their ancestors to be raffish and rugged, we thought them beastly.

Wop (1912) American term, from Neapolitan dialect guappo meaning dandy or gigolo.

Dago (1823) From Diego (obviously). Originally for either Spanish or Portuguese sailors.

Spic (1913) American term for anyone in the slightest bit Hispanic. Derives from "No speak English". Or maybe from spaghetti via spiggoty (1910).

Yank is far more complicated, which is why I'm sticking to Europeans. A rundown can be found here.

I, meanwhile, am a Limey (contra scurvy), Beefsteak (contra cows), Pommy ((?) rhyming slang pomegranate=immigrant or maybe Prisoner Of Her Majesty(?)), Sassenach or Sasnaes (Scots and Welsh terms for Saxon), depending on which of my detractors you ask. I believe in Kenya I may be a mzungu, but that's only because in dictionaries mzungu is always the last word listed under M.

I firmly believe that the pejorative should be a part of speech listed in dictionaries along with the accusative, genetive and so forth. In schools, pupils would conjugate words by chanting, "Child, children, brat."

I may start a campaign.

An early campaign against the use of pejoratives

Thursday 26 November 2009


Last night I was joyriding on the Docklands Light Railway. I made my way through the computer-controlled monorail, car by car, cruising for sentient beings, when I happened upon a copy of The Sun, which is indubitably the best-written newspaper in England. It had the words SLAMMED and BLASTED in two different headlines of a single page, which made me dance with delight. Moreover, The Sun was, I would wager, the only one of yesterday's papers to use the word ikhthusphretophobia, which apparently means "an irrational fear of aquariums".

Ikhthusphretophobia popped up in a heart-cockle-warming story about a chap called Toby Davies, 21, (in The Sun your age is part of your name) who had conquered his phobia of fish tanks so that he could keep his job at the London Aquarium.

Ikhthusphretophobia doesn't show up on Google. Not once. This made me a mite suspicious, but there's always the possibility of variant spellings in the transliteration from the Greek: the study of fish is usually spelled ichtyology with a ch.

I was googling around and found lots of people who were frightened of aquariums including several who want to give a name to their phobia. One fellow said he was worried that the fish would leap out of the tank and he would tread on them.

Also floating around the internet is the utterly unsubstatiated assertion that 73% of test-tube babies suffer from ikhthusphretophobia. I want that to be true. I demand that that be true.

Ikhthusphretophobics contemplating a goldfish

P.S. Any ikhthusphretophobic readers out there will be happy to know that Toby Davies, 21, was cured after only four hours of therapy.

A deceptively simple topic

Today I read a review describing a film as "deceptively lightweight". What, I wondered, did this mean? Did the reviewer think the film seems deep on the surface (surely an oxymoron), but was essentially frivolous? Or did he mean that it is in fact serious, only appearing lightweight?

This is the problem with the word "deceptively" - nobody can agree what it means when used to modify an adjective in this way. The OED definition of "in a deceptive manner, so as to deceive" is not very helpful, while the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (cited here at notes that "when deceptively is used to modify an adjective, the meaning is often unclear" - when its Usage Panel was asked to decide what a "deceptively shallow pool" meant, 50 percent thought the pool shallower than it appears, 32 percent thought it deeper than it appears, and 18 percent said it was impossible to judge.

Deceptively simple

The potential for ambiguity does not seem to have stopped people using it, particularly in arts reviews, sports commentary and property advertising. With some common phrases, it is fairly easy to grasp the general meaning. When a book, film, piece of music or other work of art is described as "deceptively simple", this generally means that it appears simple in a way that deceives the reader/viewer/listener about its essential complexity or cleverness. When applied to a recipe, however, as in Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's "deceptively simple" blue cheese gougères, "deceptively simple" seems to mean the opposite: something which looks impressive or complicated, but is really very easy to prepare. And The Independent's description of Muse's debut album as "deceptively sophisticated" - which one might imagine to mean the reverse of "deceptively simple" - in fact suggests very much the same thing: that the album's superficial simplicity disguises an underlying sophistication.

Other meanings are harder to pin down. The estate agent's favourite, "deceptively spacious" - does it mean a property which looks small from the street, or from photos, but is actually very large? Or does it - as Dogberry thinks - mean a property which is rather small, but gives the impression of being spacious through use of light and clever decorating? Either way, it means a property whose spaciousness is compromised in some way - not very desirable, but perhaps intriguing enough to persuade a buyer to set up a viewing.

Deceptively spacious

And some usages are simply baffling. What does The Times's description of a cricketer's bowling as "deceptively effective" mean? That it was more effective than it looked? Or that it was effective because of its deceptiveness? Similarly, I quite can't work out what the "deceptive" is referring to in The Independent's description of "deceptively well-crafted poems" or The Times's of "deceptively well-made" short films, although I suspect the meaning in both cases is something close to "deceptively simple". The most marvellously mysterious, though, was the reference in a Times music review to Deep Purple's "deceptively funky cymbals". It is clear from the context that this is a good thing, but beyond that the meaning is entirely lost on me.

It seems that the advantages of versatility and conciseness (it's quicker and neater to say "deceptively shallow" than "shallower than it appeared") overrule any concerns about confusing the reader. "Deceptively" also allows the writer to lay claim to a degree of perspicacity in discerning what is not immediately apparent; this may also be part of its appeal.

Deceptively funky


Wednesday 25 November 2009


According to the Guardian the boxing promoter Don King manages a fighter known as Kali "Checkmate" Meehan. Checkmate comes from the Persian Shah mat meaning King is dead. I am sure Mr King, who is a keen etymologist, delights in the suicidal connotations of his pugilist's nickname.

Incidentally, a nickname is a metanalysis from an ekename meaning an extra name, in the same way that an apron was originally a napron.

Someday I shall do a long and extraordinarily dull post on every word that derives from chess (even cheque does).

A keen etymologist

Start 'Em Young

   - According to the BBC

I remember the time I applied for the post of "Hate Crimes Coordinator" for Hackney Council. I thought I had that job sewn up. There are a lot of hate crimes coordinators out there, from Wigan to Los Angeles.

Well done, Jenkins! You're making progress.

Distress signals 2

Following my earlier post, I started thinking about the various meanings of the word "distressed".

The most topical cluster of meanings seems to be the financial ones: applied to companies, "experiencing financial difficulty or near bankruptcy", applied to assets, "offered for sale at a low price due to liquidation, insolvency, or foreclosure".

I had a vague idea that phrases like "distressed assets" and "distressed debt" stemmed from the 1980s junk bond era, so was surprised to find the word used in both these senses as long ago as the nineteenth century, in contexts that would not look too out of place in today's financial press. The Times in 1866 reported on tightening credit conditions, writing that the "leading banks..vehemently shut out even the smallest applications of any of the distressed companies for momentary assistance".  The OED cites an 1899 article from The Chicago Tribune which commented (apparently in reference to some early bailout or aid for speculators fallen on hard times): "If the relief of distressed stock gamblers alone were contemplated nobody outside of Wall street [sic] would defend the proposition".

A comparatively modern usage is the fashion/design one - as in "distressed denim" or "distressed furniture". But again, it's not as modern as I assumed - the OED shows that it was in use as early as 1940 to refer to reproduction furniture made to look antique through "simulated marks of age and wear".

One sense which does not feel very current is the OED's note that the primary definition of "afflicted with pain or trouble" applies specifically to people living in reduced circumstances. This nuance seems to be disappearing - to refer to "distressed gentlefolk", or people living "in distressed circumstances" now has a quaint, old-fashioned air, evocative of Victorian philanthropy. Dogberry tells me that there is a sign on Greek Street in London (not London's Greek Street) offering aid to "ladies in distress", but I have never been able to find it.

A damsel in distress

Tuesday 24 November 2009


   - The ever-so-fuddy-duddy Daily Telegraph

Aside from everything else that's morally wrong with this headline, I have never really understood what a jibe is. I can find it in the dictionary but I have never spoken the word in my life. 'Oi!' I have never shouted during a row. 'Stop making jibes and hurling them at me. I'll only brush off or dismiss them.'

Some dictionaries tell me that the word doesn't exist in America, or that over there it means fit well with, which is odd as the New York Daily News used it the other day. The only people who don't use the word are people (as opposed to journalists).

The typical headline form, by the way, is:


As in:


Nautical jibing

Distress signals

I have just been invited to pay £125 for a spa treatment which includes a "distressing scalp massage". Being a sensitive soul, I find the mispelling distressing enough on its own without paying £125 to be upset further.

Another two words which look similar but have opposite, or near-opposite meanings, are energise and enervate (which originally had something to do with cutting a horse's tendons, but now means to weaken, to destroy someone or something's capacity for vigorous effort). I was very distressed when I found Oliver James (or his editors) had used "enervate" throughout Affluenza to mean "energise" - I found it impossible to take any of his advice seriously after that.

A distressing scalp treatment

Monday 23 November 2009


A sirenical young lady once texted me with the simple message "drink tonite?"  This threw me into a panic as tonite is a high explosive made of pulverised gun cotton impregnated with barium nitrate and I didn't think anyone knew that I was, at the time, addicted to drinking it.  I'd down pints of the stuff at a sitting.

It turned out that there had been a misunderstanding and she was simply illiterate.

2C12H14O4(NO3)6 = 18CO + 6CO2 + 14H2O + 12N

Exclamation Marks

I once went to the town of Westward Ho! in Devon, which is a bleak and barren place: boarded-up amusement arcades behind a tempest-beaten promenade. However, it's the only place in Britain with an exclamation mark in the name. This is because the town was built from scratch in 1865 as a resort that would feed off the popularity of Charles Kingsley's novel Westward Ho!. The town was a marketing tie-in.

Kingsley's novel derived its name from the renaissance play Westward Ho! by Thomas Webster and John Dekker about a group of people who take a trip up the Thames to Brentford. The title came from the Thames boatmen who were going upstream who would shout "Westward Ho!"

So Westward Ho! being in the West of England is pretty much a coincidence.

There's also a town in Canada that is called Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!, but nobody seems to know why.

Exclamation marks are so rare in formal writing that many of the style guides simply ignore them like the drunk at a wedding reception. The Economist and Gowers' Plain Words fall into this camp (if you can fall into a camp) while The Times and The Guardian limit themselves to the three words: "nearly always unnecessary" and "do not use".

Fowler starts by arguing that !s must be used for exclamatory statements such as What a pity! or How dull! and wishes proper such as May the force be with you! This does not work for a normal reader. Alec Guinness did not speak with an exclamation mark in his voice and the main purpose of punctuation is to denote what voice the sentence should be read in. Indeed, this is not simply a purpose but an inevitable outcome of punctuation. Fowler vaguely concedes this point but then reels off a list of varied emotions and varied voices. To be fair to Fowler, punctuation and voice change more with fashion than most matters verbal, so I shall leave him be.

Instead, I shall go with Bryson who says that exclamation marks should be used to display "strong emotion or urgency" and nothing else. They mean that the voice should be raised. Eureka! The roadsigns that say STOP! are correct. The swooning women who cry "Oh God!" are correct. The Fun Facts columns that say "A cheetah can run at 75mph!" are wrong, unless you go around shouting at people about cheetahs, which I confess I sometimes do.

The crime against humanity, though, is the exclamation mark used to designate a joke. I took the main road out of town, but the police made me put it back!!! is a capital offence and if you ever do it I will hunt you down like a dog (I hunt dogs) and then do foul things to your corpse.

Worst, though, is an exclamation mark used to indicate a joke that isn't a joke. This is a variation of the person who exclaims, "I'm always losing my car keys,' and then laughs as though they had said something funny. Such people look at me hoping that I will laugh too, but I do not. I do not. I return their glance with a still, acidic gaze and reach for my set of recreational scalpels.

If this is replicated in print I get properly angry. I once received a wedding invitation that said that you could drive to the ceremony "if you can find a place to park!!!!!"

Five exclamation marks.

And then, when the church was set ablaze during the service with the doors locked from the outside, the police had the temerity to call my crime "motiveless".

Serves them right!!!!!

Sunday 22 November 2009

Too Much Is Bad For You


I was about to write a long and fascinating post on Myles Coverdale and his psalter. It was going to be great: no journalese, just a learnèd exposition of the metonymic meaning of the Hebrew word nefesh. Then I toddled down to lunch and found my place at table usurped by an opened copy of the Sunday Times. Here is the offender, bluetoothed from paper to your screen:

I could hardly have missed it, could I? It's a quarter of a broadsheet page.

Palaces of wisdom aside, how could too much be good for you? Too much is too much. By definition it is bad: that's what too means. Any negative judgement on too much is pleonastic.

It's astonishing how often people employ this tautology making useless statements like don't eat too much, walk too fast, go too far, try too hard, try too little. It's very trying.

A similar paradox oppresses the question "Do you believe in the supernatural?"

Well of course not. I believe in ghosts, telepathy, the power of crystals, dream-catchers and leprechauns which means I believe all of them to be natural. It would be impossible to believe in the supernatural.

Without wishing to allow mission creep to tiptoe into this blog I think I can...

After that aposiopesis I shall limit myself to the following: Sesquipedalianism is the use of overly long words. Sesquipedalianism is therefore autological: it is a word that is an example of itself. Word is also autological because word is a word. A trochee (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one) is a trochee. Polysyllabic is polysyllabic.

Monosyllabic, on the other hand, is heterological because the word monosyllabic is not monosyllabic, it's polysyllabic. Got that? Hyphenated, iamb and unpronounceable are all heterological.

So, here's your question for Sunday: is the word heterological heterological?

If it is then it isn't, so it is, so it isn't, so....

This is called the Grelling-Nelson Paradox and there's more on it here.

This illustration is for the reference above to "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom", which is from William Blake's Proverbs of Hell along with "The cut worm forgives the plough [or plow]." A friend of mine once sent me an e-mail with the subject line "The cut worm forgives the plough." The body of the e-mail read simply "Like fuck it does."

Saturday 21 November 2009

Bluetooth and Hat-Tips

Harald I of Denmark had blue teeth. Perhaps he had black teeth, nobody is quite sure as the meaning of blau has changed over the years. His other great achievement was to unite the warring provinces of Denmark and Norway under a single king (himself).

Jim Kardach developed a system in 1996 that would allow mobile telephones to communicate with computers thus uniting two independent areas of technology. Whilst working on the project he read The Longships by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson (which I read when I was twelve and remember to be rather good). The novel is set in the time of Harald Bluetooth. Jim Kardach felt he was uniting warring provinces of technology so he named the project Bluetooth. It was never meant to be the actual name on the marketing: blue teeth are not a pleasant image. But the name that was meant to be used - Pan - was already taken. So bluetooth it was and bluetooth it ever shall be.

You can read a full account of the naming process here.

I was reminded of all this indirectly by a friend who mentioned how much he liked the old-fashioned phrase hat-tip which is used by bloggers to give credit to a source. He was reminded of it by a hat-tip that I put up the other day and e-mailed me to say that "In my mind, the tipped hat is always a trilby."

It set me wondering when hats started to be tipped in the blogosphere. I can't work it out with any accuracy but here's a graph that I managed with Google on the use of the phrase in the news over the last ten years.

The last month without a single hat-tip appears to have been February 2004, so I imagine that the phrase must have come into common usage some time over the next few months.

There's something lovely about the antiquity of these phrases, rather like the old-fashioned freelance to describe somebody who will work for anyone.

An original marketing slide for Bluetooth technology incorporating a (slightly altered) runestone image of Harald Bluetooth.

Friday 20 November 2009

Unfortunate Names


That's what it said in the Evening Standard. How was I to remember that Ed Balls is the secretary for children of somesuch and that watchdog means something about people who observe standards? It will be a terrible day for headline writers when Balls, Darling et al head off to the great press conference in the sky.

The name should not, though, debar Balls from Downing Street. Kohl, as in Helmut Kohl, means cabbage in German. Indeed, our Teutonic cousins have a saying, Schöne Worte machen den Kohl nicht fett, which literally means fine words grease no cabbages and is the equivalent to that mysterious English proverb Fine words butter no parsnips.

Caesar, from which we derive Kaiser and Czar, meant hairy.

Cicero meant wart.

Hello, Mr Wart

The Famous Lord Reith

Lord Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC, was listening to his radio one day when he heard someone described as a "famous lawyer". So he sent a memo which read thuslyly:

The word famous. If a person is famous, it is superfluous to point out the fact; if he is not, then it is a lie. The word is not to be used by the BBC.

O God, I was born too late. Well, to be fair (which I never am), you could usefully say that somebody was famous in the past or that somebody is famous in Uruguay. So Reith, though not wrong, was not completely right. I am not certain, though, that those two caveats could account for the 188,000 uses of the word famous on the BBC website. That's 188,000 metaphorical expectorations on Lord Reith's grave. I would have searched for famously but my eyes were filled with tears and I couldn't see the screen.
And the worst is this: when I started writing this post a couple of minutes ago I googled Lord Reith BBC famous. There were 177 results, including a reference to Lord Reith's famous dictum "Inform, educate and entertain".

This paradox of a word whose use can never be useful relates to my previous post on revealed. Someday I shall write on honestly, really, truly and actually, none of which I mind in the slightest.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Sad Pathetic Mean Killer

A friend of mine once pointed out to me that there is something wrong with a society where pathetic and sad are both terms of abuse. This was back in the nineties and we were schoolboys so anything we disliked was sad and anybody we disliked was a sadcase.

I remembered this yesterday when I happened to hear Pinball Wizard by The Who. The chorus, if you can call it that, goes "That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball", meaning that he's very good at pinball. "He makes a mean lasagne", means that the lasagne is good.

It made me wonder what the word mean means in this context. It can't mean miserly and it can't mean lowly so mean must mean malevolent, but in a good way.

This in turn reminded me of when I worked briefly as a researcher for a headhunting firm. They had a database of all the candidates they had ever interviewed. It was divided into four categories: bad, ok, good and killer. Killer was the best. I mentioned this to the CEO and he told me that the company always used the language of the ghetto (which would, technically, be Venetian). There's also a thing much talked of at the moment called a Killer App which, according to Wikipedia, is a "computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology". App means computer program. So killer must mean "so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value". Does that seem odd to you?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary pathetic was first used to mean "so miserable as to be ridiculous" in 1937 and sad began to be "inferior" in 1899. Meanwhile, mean began to mean good in about 1900 and killer first meant good in 1937. So all the semantic shifts I had put together happened within 38 years of each other.

Significantly, I can't think of any equivalent in French. Pathetique still means moving and triste still means unhappy. I might investigate some other languages, but this post is getting too long.

Now, there's a well known aspect of slang, especially children's slang, that words can shift meaning to become their opposites. At my school yoi meant no and noi meant yes. That's why good things used to be wicked and are now sick. There's also a common etymological observation that many words once meant themselves and their opposites. That's why when you withhold something you don't hold it in common and when you withdraw you do it on your own. It's preserved in the two meanings of cleave: to split in two or to cling together. But I don't think that either of those principles can apply here. There is no jocular sense to killer. We simply feel that malice is better than suffering and our words follow.

Necessary and desirable, apparently.

Journalese in North Korea

I was looking, as is my wont (I just hurled myself at a dictionary and discovered that wont (habit) doesn't relate to want (desire) at all. One comes from the Anglo Saxon gewunian meaning to be accustomed to and the other from the Old Norse vanta meaning to lack)...

As I was saying: I was just looking, as is my wont, at the North Korean News Agency's website. It's almost the only place on the internet where I can get all the facts I need about power stations and "profitable lag" without all the late-capitalist gobbledegook and propaganda that you find in Western "so-called" newspapers.

A lot of doom-mongering nay-sayers will tell you that North Korea has fallen a tad behind the West in areas like "human rights" and "not starving". However, I'm pleased to see that this is not true of its journalism. Glancing at the main page of headlines I saw with indescribable delight:




When blasted and lauded have replaced the outmoded and decadent criticised and praised, a "rush ahead towards the victory of building a great prosperous and powerful nation with redoubled courage and full of confidence, with great pride of making revolution as a member of Kim Il Sung's nation under the leadership of the great Workers' Party of Korea" simply cannot be far behind. Indeed, I would imagine that it's almost inevitable.

Intrepid DPRK reporters have even mastered the journalist's passive where you have no idea who is doing the verb (although to be fair it says in the body of the lauded article that the lauder is one Jorge Pereyra who glories in the title of "general secretary of the Extraordinary Congress Communist Party of Argentina").

The next editor of the Sunday Telegraph?

Hat tip to Foam and Skies for reminding me of this.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Novels of Misspelling

Gentle reader, I should warn you that there may be some coarse language in this post. In fact, I'm sure there will be.

The first line of the deliciously delicate novel Londonstani goes like this:

Serve him right he got his muthafuckin face fuck’d, shudn’t b callin me a Paki, innit.

You see, what the author is doing, which is very clever, is to tell us the accent in which the character is speaking. That’s why he spells mother as mutha. That’s how they pronounce it in Hounslow.

Etonians, Oxonians and indeed all those who don’t live in Hounslow pronounce mother as mow-thear. We also pronounce the e in fucked, which we write as fuckèd. A typical conversation at my boarding school would run something like this:

- Is your mow-thear coming to visit you this weekend?
- I’m afraid not; she’s too busy being fuckèd by my faither.
- Noi.

That’s how it was. As for the b – well I’m not going to tell you how we pronounce b because then you would be able to move among us undetected and it would be worse than the worst excesses of the French revolution.

What really gets my goat about all this, though, is that he spells right with a ght. I can only deduce from this that the ght is always pronounced in full around the farther reaches of the Piccadilly Line.

In the pubs near me (North West London, far from Hounslow) people employ a strange rhetorical device whereby a noun is immediately followed by a superfluous pronoun. The conversations are hard to punctuate but they go something like this:

Mike, he reckons that Arsenal, they’re going to win the league this year. Me, I reckon that Chelsea, they’ve got the strength and depth for a long and bitter campaign.

That really is how they speak, like the bits of newspaper at the bottom of an old lady's drawer. Yet the funny thing in the gritty novels of misspelling like Londonstani is that after throwing in a bunch of oaths and curses the author almost always forgets to do anything so extended as to make a line of dialogue sound structurally convincing.

In Carl Hiaasen’s novel Skinny Dip, which is set in Florida, one word is misspelled throughout. Son of bitch is consistently rendered sumbitch, which is perfect because that is how they pronounce it in the Profound South. The word only pops up every ten pages or so, but that one eccentricity of spelling combines with Hiaasen’s excellent ear for the structures of speech to keep the accent in the reader’s mind.

But those writers who misspell more than once a page are almost always cloth-eared when it comes to patterns of speech.

The only exception I can think of to this rule is Dickens who, of course, rendered speech perfectly but still made poor people reveal their lack of education by saying woz instead of was.

It shouldn’t really be me writing this post. Mrs Malaprop – a former Miss Hounslow finalist with relations in Florida – could have knocked it together better than I have done, but I fear the swearing would have made her take fright, which she would pronounce friggahut.

UPDATE: Mrs Malaprop informs me that nobody in Hounslow would ever pronounce the t in innit.

Vibrant 2

Apparently, Hillary Clinton has said that David Miliband is attractive and "vibrant".

I have posted on this word before, and now I'm off, weeping, to the fishmonger.

It also occurs to me that Hillary has one L too many and Miliband one too few. I feel sure an agreement could be reached. She could give us an L and we could give them Cornwall.

Quivering, apparently.

Meteoric Rise

Before her meteoric rise, Berlusconi told Ms Carfagna he'd "marry her in a flash" if he were single.
   -The Independent

Meteors don't rise.

They fall.

Incidentally, a meteorite is what's left of a meteor after it has hit the ground.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Reverse Dictionary

There's a site called OneLook where you can put in a definition and it tells you the word. Well, I didn't believe this claim at all (there's a pseudo-apocryphal urban myth about a computerised translation system that rendered out of sight, out of mind as blind mad) so I decided to test it by trying the definitions of some of my favourite words. I put in area between nose and lips, dark rusty colour, relating to breakfast and beautiful buttocks and it came straight back with philtrum, fuscoferuginous, jentacular and callipygian.

It works!

Then, because I like to put a pretty picture at the bottom of each post, I put all four words into Google to see if there were a picture that combined them all. Nothing! I'm not sure what the picture would have looked like, but I'd like to have seen it nonetheless.

Instead, I'll tell you that there was a cult in classical Syracause dedicated to Aphrodite Kallipygos, or Venus of the Beautiful Bottom. At least, there may have been. All we know about it comes from an ancient Greek chap called Alciphron, who spent his time composing imaginary letters.

The Greeks carved statues of the goddess making her as callipygian as they possibly could. It was far too much for one young man, but to find out about him you'll have to follow this link to Lucian's Venus of Knidos and read paragraphs fifteen and sixteen. I promise you that it's terribly, terribly funny.

An immodest deity

P.S. For the latter half of this post I was using my copy of Nigel Spivey's Understanding Greek Sculpture, which is awfully good.

P.P.S. I knew about callipygian before, though, as it pops up in Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay, which is probably my favourite novel.

Minding your p's and q's

Almost everybody knows that it is wrong to use apostrophes before an ‘s’ which denotes a plural rather than a possessive. So it is “breakfasts” and “tomatoes”, not “breakfast’s” (which I saw on a sign yesterday) or “tomato’s”.

But what about plurals of words made up of initial letters, like “GCSE” or “CEO”? (Incidentally, these should – strictly speaking – be referred to as initialisms, rather than acronyms – see explanation below)*. Does the same rule still apply?

I think it does, but perhaps not so strongly. A reference to “CD’s” or “MP’s” may not stand out so clearly as being wrong as “tomato’s”, but the apostrophe is still unnecessary – the lower case “s” is on its own enough to denote the plural. The Economist’s online style guide, in its section on acronyms, recommends using a regular lower-case “s”, with no apostrophe in sight. The same – and here The Economist is explicit – holds true for decades, so it is “the 1990s”, not “the 1990’s”.

Things get a little more complicated when it comes to plurals of single letters. Here the authorities do not agree. The Times style guide advises that “an apostrophe should be used to indicate the plural of single letters - p's and q's”**. This is presumably to avoid confusion with two-letter words (or initialisms) ending in "s", like "ps", "as" or "is",

But, although a recent Sunday Times feature followed this format, a Times column earlier this month referred to “Ps and Qs”. A similar discrepancy can be found between a recent article from the Daily Mail (“Ps and Qs”) and one from its sister paper, the Mail on Sunday (“p’s and q’s”). This suggests that with plurals of single letters, either format will do – upper case letters with no apostrophe, or lower case letters with an apostrophe.

* An acronym is made up of initials, or first syllables, of other words, and is pronounced as if it were a word – like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) or Unicef (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). With an initialism like CD, MP, GCSE or CEO, each of the initials is pronounced separately.

** The etymology of this phrase, which means “to be careful or particular in one's words or behaviour; to mind one's manners”, is mysterious; The Phrase Finder discusses it at some length. Some people think it stems from advice to apprentice typesetters or children learning to write (not muddling up two similar-looking letters), but it has also been suggested that it comes from “pints and quarts” or “pleases and thank-yous”.
(Picture from a Walk in the WoRds)


   - The lovely Daily Mail

Someday I shall see a newspaper page with the headline NOT REVEALED: and everything underneath will be blank.

I shall doodle there.

The article also says that the gig "has been hotly anticipated", a phrase that could only be used in the passive.


Monday 16 November 2009

Lovemaking, Actually

When I was seven, a helpful children's librarian gave me a copy of Jane Austen's Emma to read. I think I must have looked older than I was, or perhaps the librarian believed in exposing children to the classics as early as possible. I must have disappointed her when I returned it half-read, explaining that it was very boring and that "nothing happened except for people getting married".

I did, however, read far enough to reach the scene (a few pages into Chapter 15) when Emma finds herself in a carriage with Mr Elton "actually making violent love to her", a folly she attributes in part to "drunkenness". This being my first brush with nineteenth-century literature, I only knew that "making love" was something to do with where babies came from; the idea of it being "violent" or taking place in a carriage with somebody else's lover was quite alarming, and I was shocked at how lightly Emma seemed to take it, rebuking him in a "polite" and "playful" way.

This is an example of a powerful new association making earlier usage bewildering or unintentionally amusing. The use of lovemaking in the sexual sense first appeared in the early twentieth century, but it has now so completely overshadowed the earlier meaning of "wooing" or "courtship" that using it in the original sense is almost impossible.

Elizabeth and Mr Darcy: Making love, Austen-style

The Journalism of the Future

There's a fascinating article in the future tense on the front page of today's Times. It begins:

Gordon Brown will fire the starting gun this week for a general election campaign that could run for six months. He will outline a programme of populist measures in the Queen’s Speech and challenge David Cameron to support them.

The Prime Minister is to emphasise his determination to carry on governing with a political programme designed to exploit Labour’s differences with the Conservatives on health, education and the economy. He will use Wednesday’s speech to reveal plans to provide free care at home for about 350,000 of the neediest people and to tear up “risky” bankers’ contracts

In the 1960s Michael Frayn tried to write a novel entirely in the future tense. It was called A Very Private Life and it began:

Once upon a time there will be a little girl called Uncumber...

But Michael Frayn, master of the English language, smasher of literary idols, couldn't keep it up. He just wasn't good enough. After a few pages he switched, defeated, into the present. The Times, though, is far better than that.

Reading the article, one almost feels that Gordon Brown exists as nothing more than an excuse for the writer to display his virtuoso use of tenses; and if that is so, Gordon Brown should feel honoured. The lazy insouciance with which, after five paragraphs of Delphic futures, the article switches to the past tense in the first line of the sixth is as harsh yet hearty as Eric Pickles himself. Then in the seventh paragraph there is the dreamy sprezzatura with which we ease seamlessly into the present tense with three soothing participles in a single sentence.

With Labour trailing heavily in the polls, Mr Brown is pinning his hopes on a long election campaign focusing on an expected economic recovery and public services.

I challenge anybody to read the article and not be reminded of Coleridge's panchronological "ancestral voices prophesying war".

Except The Times is better.


Sunday 15 November 2009

Bunking and Debunking

It is vital that you know that debunking has nothing to do with bunk beds. It's connected to bunk as a contraction of bunkum or rubbish. Bunkum, as any fule kno, derives from Buncombe County, North Carolina, whose representative in Congress made a particularly stupid speech in 1820 "for Buncombe". It was such an inane oration that the word bunkum, with a K, has now spread around the world. Buncombe, North Carolina, was named after Edward Buncombe who fell down stairs and died. Edward Buncombe must have been a descendant of Richard de Bounecombe of Somerset (1327), whose name meant "dweller in the reed valley" from the Anglo Saxon bune meaning reed and cumb or coomb meaning valley. Coomb relates to cwm in Welsh and is one of the very few words that the Anglo Saxons took from Celtic languages.

The origin of bunk bed is unknown.

All of which is utterly irrelevant to what this post was meant to be about.

Michael Flanders once said, "The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth. And our job, as I see it, is to put it back again."

So in the interests of continuing his good work:

Kangaroo does not mean 'I don't understand' in aboriginal. This is a myth.

Yucatan does not mean 'I don't understand' in Mayan. This too is a myth, a deliberate untruth spread by Cortes to discredit a province-naming rival. It means "place of richness" in nahuatl.

However, before you tearfully decide that there is No Fun in etymology anymore, there is in Madagascar a kind of lemur known to science as the indri. Indri, in the native tongue, means Look at that!

The reason, as you have no doubt already guessed (aren't you clever?), is that a naturalist called Pierre Sonnerat was wandering happily through the jungle naming things (like Adam) when his guide shouted "Look at that!"

Out came the notebook and it has been the indri ever since.

This is not, alas, a useful titbit of information for cocktail parties as nobody else will have heard of the indri. But it is useful to know that something from Madagascar is not Madagascan but Malagasy, just as something from Monaco is not Monacan or Monte Carlan but Monegasque. So it's the Monegasque Grand Prix.

Look at that!

Opening the Kimono

This suggestive little phrase originally meant opening the books, or providing additional information about a company, to an outsider - typically a potential investor, employee, merger partner, acquirer. But it is also used as a metaphor for "organisational openness and transparency".

According to the Microsoft Lexicon it is:
"A marvelous phrase of non-Microsoft origin, probably stemming from the rash of Japanese acquisitions of American enterprises in the ‘80s, that has been adopted into the Microspeak marketing lexicon. Basically a somewhat sexist synonym for "open the books," it means to reveal the inner workings of a project or company to a prospective new partner".
Those who like to "open the kimono" praise it for its vividness, but - quite apart from the "somewhat sexist" connotations - it feels almost too vivid for use in business meetings. To me, at least, the image of kimono-swathed businessmen opening their robes and letting it all hang out - or alternatively, trying to get a peek under somebody else's kimono - is too distracting, too comical and too suggestive of striptease for such a serious setting. But after reading reports this week of a financier who attended overseas meeting accompanied by an escort in "revealing hot pants and high heeled shoes", I think I may have been underestimating the tolerance for burlesque in business.

Saturday 14 November 2009

The Realms of Possibility

According to the ever racy Times Educational Supplement,

It is not beyond the realms of possibility for schools on very tight budgets to make really significant changes themselves

I love the idea of the realms of possibility. In my mind's eye I see a verdant and expansive kingdom ruled by a plump, benign queen. I don't know why Possibility should be female, but she is. And imagine what the border checkpoints are like! Imagine the customs officers! All those bootleggers trying to smuggle in four-sided triangles, Labour election victories and good D.H. Lawrence novels from the cloudy lands beyond.

Incidentally, realm derives from royal or real as in Real [Royal] Madrid, which was granted its royal title by the football-loving King Alfonso XIII.

A good poem by Sylvia Plath

P.S. According to this page here there are equivalent phrases in many other languages including the French domaine du possible. I've asked our indentured linguist Everet Lapel to check up on this.

P.P.S. Everet says it's all true, but he doesn't know why.

How the Plague Spreads

As a little sequitur to Mrs Malaprop's splendid post about railway-speak on Thursday, the train I was on today suddenly stopped somewhere in Staffordshire. I assumed at first that the driver was a keen botanist who wanted to examine the hedgerow on our right hand side. It was a pretty hedgerow, blooming and blowing with all sorts of shrubs and bushes, and I wouldn't have blamed the driver for wanting to stop the train and have a closer look. Indeed, I was a trifle envious. But then his voice came from the loud-speakers telling us that the train was delayed - Imagine that! A British train delayed! - the delay, he told us in deep and masterful tones, was:

Due to a road traffic accident

Not  because of a car-crash, but  due to a road traffic accident.

Due, because it was clearly owing, the debt paid by reality to causality and collected with the violent assiduity of a starving mafioso. Road traffic because there's an awful lot of traffic off-road. Or perhaps because there's an awful lot of road accidents that don't involve traffic. I don't know.

Anyway, we sat there for a while and after about forty minutes which I had passed by re-reading L'Innommable the fellow opposite me made a call on his mobile phone. (The Americans call it a cell phone, which has always put me in mind of a garrulous monk).

'Hello? Dave?' he said in a broad Cumbrian accent. He seemed, indeed, to be a broad, Cumbrian man. 'I've been delayed... What?.. There's a been a...'

And I saw the flicker, the confusion, the slight linguistic tsunami pass across his face. It was the face of a man who has been hypnotised to kill his mother and, as he holds chisel above her sleeping head, is half remembering something, half knowing who he is, was and could be again. But he was too weak. TOO WEAK!

'It's due to a road traffic accident,' he said like one of those hostages saying he's being treated well.

'Yes... a road traffic accident... I know it's a train but... listen, I won't be at Preston before five at the earliest.'

It was like watching this:

Gender Studies

The UK Government’s Treasury Select Committee has recently conducted an enquiry into “Women in the City” (which, until I checked the Committee’s homepage, I was convinced was called “Sexism and the City”, in homage to the television series Sex and the City; I was rather disappointed to find out that this was not the case). The enquiry is part of a broader debate about equality and the role of women in business, which has seen much written about “gender diversity”, “gender-related differences” and “gender pay gaps”.

One might have expected such language to be greeted with peevish letters from linguistic prescriptivists. Only a few years ago, this was still something that troubled newspaper readers, like the correspondent who ticked off the Guardian’s leader writers for confusing “the word sex (biology) with gender, a grammatical term for a linguistic oddity confined, I think, to Indo-European languages”; or the one who wrote to the Sunday Telegraph in 2003 citing Fowler’s edict that “gender is a grammatical term only”.

But the complaints, unless there has simply been a collective decision not to publish them, seem to have stopped. This suggests that “gender” is now accepted as a synonym for “sex”, particularly in social or cultural (as opposed to biological) contexts. It may be because it is useful to be able to make this distinction. It may also be because “sex” has become so associated with the act of having sex that some people prefer “gender” as less smutty: in an article on the subject, Rutgers English professor Jack Lynch imagines the frustration of pollsters after “finding the "Sex" blank on a form filled in with "Yes, please" for the jillionth time”.

“Gender” hasn’t edged out “sex” entirely – “sexism”, despite dating back less than a hundred years in its present sense, is firmly ensconced in the language, as are phrases like “sexual politics” and “single-sex school”. But in many other phrases, particularly newer ones or ones to do with feminism, “gender” may make more sense than “sex”. “Gender diversity” is much less ambiguous than “sexual diversity”, which is now almost always used to mean “diversity of sexual orientation”. And “sex studies” would mean something entirely different from “gender studies”.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that “gender” is a “modern euphemism” for “sex”, it cites examples of the usage going back to the fourteenth century. In 1709, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (above) wrote that “of the fair sex… my only consolation for being of that gender has been the assurance it gave me of never being married to any one among them”, while an 1896 edition of the Daily News expressed the admirably enlightened opinion that “as to one's success in the work one does, surely that is not a question of gender”.

Friday 13 November 2009

The Sartorial Singular

I have just received an email inviting me to buy Christmas presents at Sweaty Betty, which for the uninitiated is a shop selling fashionable sports and fitness clothes for women - in some cases so beautifully designed that customers are inspired to take up certain sports simply for the opportunity to wear the clothes.

One item in particular caught my eye: the "unwind pant". Pants, of course, is an American word for what the British call trousers. Although it is still considered an Americanism, it is gaining ground in Britain for terms referring to sportswear. "Sweatpants" is far more common than the unpleasant-sounding "sweat trousers". "Jogging pants" and "tracksuit pants", meanwhile, are used about half as frequently as "jogging trousers" and "tracksuit trousers" - although "bottoms", as in "jogging bottoms" and "tracksuit bottoms", remains the most popular word by a wide margin.

But it was not the word "pant" in itself, nor the use of the verb "unwind" as an adjective which struck me - it was the use of the singular. I have never referred to a "pant" or a "trouser", any more than I would use "a glass" to mean a pair of spectacles - it is always "pants" or "a pair of pants". "Pants" is what is known as a plurale tantum - a word that only ever appears in the plural form - and "pant" is a bizarre and grammatically incorrect back-formation.

However, the use of the fashion singular - identified here by the wonderful Hadley Freeman, although even she seems uncertain about the word "pant" - is becoming more and more common, mostly in marketing and advertising copy (as in the Gap advert above) but also in the words of designers themselves. We can probably expect to hear more about "the pant", "the trouser" and "the legging", although I hope that we will be spared "the bottom", at least in reference to sportswear.

A week or so ago I surprised myself by using the word "jean" in the singular - something like "that's a nice jean", or "I like a jean with a high waist". Thus fashion-speak insinuates itself into everyday life.

* Curiously, the only recent reference I have found to "sweat trousers" appears in a Financial Times fashion review).