Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The Brexicon

Whether you parse my subject line as Br[itish]+ exit + lexicon or Br[itish] + exit + con[fidence trick] is a matter of personal conscience. I couldn't possibly comment (well, I could,  but as the whole sorry shambles reduces me to incoherent/impotent rage, my comments woudn't have much force either way).

On 25 March of 2018 The Westmnster Hour included an item that dealt with the language of Brexit "[f]rom Cakeism and Remainiacs, to Regulatory Alignment and Insufficient Progress" as the iPlayer blurb puts it. The programme as a whole is not available, but iPlayer's largesse makes up for this, by making available a "clip" of about 8 minutes.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly told us that Brexit means Brexit. But what do the words associated with Brexit mean? The Westminster Hour's John Beesley has been exploring the etymology of the Brexit lexicon. 

More here
Graeme Davis, Profeeor of Humanities at Buckingham University, gives the interviewer some basic pointers to start with. It all started with Grexit – which, as you may remember, referred to a putative exit of Greece from the Euro. Britain was never in the Euro, so Brixit [sic, with an i – an early form that didn't catch on] wasn't just about money.

Brexit spawned various spinoffs, includind Brexiter and Brexiteer. Dr Davis calls the first of these  "I suppose, relatively neutral" [hmmm – not sure what that "relatively" is doing; just – suppose  academic feigned diffidence] and the second "has quite a positive spin on it".  Again, hmmm; I think the direction of the spin depends on the attitude of the hearer. If you think Brexit is A Bad Thing, then Brexiteer has more of the negative spin of racketeer (one might link this word with capitalists with off-shore wealth profiteering from the chaos which is bound to... No Bob, don't go therre. Even words like privateer and buccaneer have spin that can be either positive or negative, depending on which end of the cutlass is involved. 

And the addition of the prefix arch- seems to me to impart renewed negativity. If I call Jacob Rees-Mogg an arch-Brexiteer, I don't think there's much risk of my being thought to  approve of his antiquarian antics. 
Excuse the gratuitous assonance; I can't hear a word without being tempted down playful back-alleys. At least I spared you the 'Jacob Real-Smug' gag...
No I didn't.
In the end, I didn't find the Westminster Hour clip very enlightening. But I did find the words of Kathleen O'Grady ("a journalist with a special interest in linguistics") interesting:
German is currently the most widely spoken native language  about 16% of the EU speaks German as a native language. But once you take into account people who speak various languages as a second language, English then quickly overtakes both German and French, and also Italian – which is quite widely spoken. So 38% of adults in Europe speak English as a second langage. If you compare that to the total of German speakers – both native and as a second language – that's only 27%.
And she goes on to refer to research that suggests the use of English may be boosted by Brexit:

After the UK leaves, most people speaking English n the EU ...
Most people? Perhaps she has some Astèrix-like vision of a redoubt of hardy native speakers of English among all the second-language speakers – perhaps led by Nicola Sturgeon in the Astèrix role, with Alex Salmond playing Obèlix...
will be on the same footing. If everybody's on the same footing, everybody's speaking it as a second language, people might be more happy to use it.
This is strangely reminiscent to me of David Crystal's work in Original Pronunciation (OP)  and his observation that OP gives non-UK actors ownership of the text. I heard this at a British Council talk a few years ago., but the same point is made by David Crystal's son Ben:
The accent draws him [HD: the actor using OP] more out of the head of the standard accent and into the heart. This, he believes, brings “an ownership over Shakespeare that is rare,” both for the actor and the audience. Americans, he notes, have sometimes told him that they feel like Shakespeare isn’t theirs because “we can’t do your accent,” but that many of the vowel sounds in O.P. may in fact be more accessible naturally to Americans than to modern Brits.

More here
So Globish will go sailing off pluckily into the unknown, leaving us speakers of RP clinging to the wreckage.

But this isn't getting the lawn patched. Bye for now

PS: A couple of clues:
  • Hostile response to insult, with intervention of mountain bike in reverse; formidable. (11)
  • Men and girl conspiring to put a spanner in the works (7)

Thursday, 14 June 2018


The other day  an edition of Notes from the Stave reminded of a piece I'd written in the early days of this blog on Gabriel Fauré's Requiem. One of people commentating on the manuscript also featured as a boy soprano in the King's College Choir recording – Bob (credited at the time as "Robert") Chilcott. (In particular it alerted me to a mistranslation of mine, now fixed. To make matters worse, it was in a section that corrected a common mistranslation [of In Paradisum as *in paradise – which it doesn't mean]).
...In can mean many things  in Latin, but when followed by a noun in the accusative it doesn't mean 'in'. If the words were In Paradiso they would mean 'In Paradise'; but they are In Paradisum ... going on ...deducant Angeli : 'May angels will lead you into Paradise...' One of many other meanings of in, this time followed by the dative, is exemplified in the next phrase: in tuo adventu: that's closer to 'in' in meaning, with a sense something like 'on the occasion of', though I'd favour a simpler translation: 'When you arrive...'.

More here
My mistake (future simple rather than subjunctive) was perhaps  explained (though not of course justified – mea maxima culpa) by Fauré's own attitude to the Requiem as a lullaby of death. I let his view of death as a peaceful return to a state of eternal rest influence me. As Michael Lewanski‘s blog says
Unlike nearly all other works in the genre, it [HD: Fauré's Requiem ] contains none of the drama, anxiety, or fraught emotions one tends to associate with human thinking about death.  Nearly all references to the last judgement from the Catholic liturgy (and trust me, there are plenty) are excised. 
This nonchalance  in the sense of "not getting  hot under the collar" misled me into  assuming on the part of Faure a certain (not to say sanctimonious) belief that angels would lead the departed into paradise.

The manuscript, and thus the stuff of the discussion, was an unbound version without some movements added later (Offertorium, Libera me, etc.); it was, in the words of the Bibliothèque Nationale's Head of Music Manuscripts a manuscript de travail working copy rather than a draft of something to be  published.

Bob Chilcott makes frequent additions to the discussion based on his experience as a chorister;   from the sublime (David Willcocks‘s observation that the high strings after the triumphant Hosanna  represent  the angels flying off  into the distance) to the ridiculous (after the recording of  Pie Jesu, when the sound engineer asked if Chilcott wanted to listen back to his efforts, the response was "Sorry Sir, he's gone off with  Marriner [Neville‘s  son Andrew] to buy sweets" [not the exact words – check Bob Chilcott's memory in the 17th minute of the programme]).

At one point (maybe more than one) Bob Chilcott calls attention to Fauré's word painting, which put me in mind of my own favourite example, discussed in an old post of mine:
My choice of 'listen out' [HD: the post was discussing phrasal verbs in  a context that had nothing to do with music] as an example is not entirely accidental. I'm singing this season Fauré's Requiem, which includes the prayer Exaudi orationem meam. This phrase is preceded by a soprano tune marked both piano and dolce: a very gentle and not-very-down-to-earth (in fact angelic)  'It is fitting that a hymn should be offered to you in Sion, O God'. Here the human penitent breaks in,  fortissimo: Exaudi – as if they were saying 'Enough of this airy-fairy stuff  "it is fitting that..." my Aunt Fanny! This really matters to a human soul. Among all the millions of prayers addressed to you throughout Christendom not to mention that bl**dy  'hymnus' listen out for mine.' The rather limp translation 'Hear my prayer' doesn't do justice to the word.
And in the same post I returned to the theme of 'listen out':

At the funeral of a
grande dame yesterday... I witnessed an underlining of the importance of this Ex-  [HD: in exaudi]. We were in the middle of one of those interminable call-and-response prayers, with the congregation saying ‘Lord, hear our prayer‘ again and again. And The Angelus butted in. (For the uninitiated:  The Angelus is a very noisy Call-to-prayer – much noisier than the Islamic version: ding ding ding <pause> ding ding ding <pause> ding ding ding <pause...has it stopped?>  <oh dear me NO, suckers> DING DING DING DING DING DING DING DING... [ad nauseam]).  And the congregation was bleating (that‘s one for the etymologists: grex = ‘flock‘) ‘Lord, hear our prayer‘. Here was the perfect opportunity for something more robust: ‘Listen out for my prayer‘.
Not all believers would recognize this as a call to prayer exactly, but the name 'Angelus' is the first word of the prescribed prayer.
 But this isn't getting the lawn repaired (Don't ask; in short I'm doing a Rooney
[transplanting bits of "turf" from where it's spread over a path though it's not turf exactly; it's just a bit greener than the weeds that are in the "lawn"].)


PS And here are a couple of clues:
  • Hatter in cahoots with odd characters from Idaho returning to get rich. (11)
  • Neat ass at the Gare du Nord on track for underhand trickery (9)

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Advertorial or what?

Generally speaking, I'm in favour of the BBC. No prizes, though,  for detecting a none-too-faint whiff of adversity (or but-ness) in the offing.  A while ago the first of three facinating programmes was aired. The second and third programmes were a vast improvement...
 (although it's hard not to judge the acuity of the analysis  on the basis of a scarcely credible abuse of incredulously 15'17" into the third, as if bacteria were going around scratching their tiny heads – but one shouldn't be snobbish about... hell yes I will:

this is BBC Radio 4 for pity's sake, and we
can expect at least a MODICUM of literacy
<loaded_term value="literacy">
Tricky word that one. I've seen it used in the context of an infant ...
<etymological_fallacy risk="high">
And I have to admit that when I use the word "infant" I have a perhaps over-zealous regard for its root. Sorry, but I regard 'infant who has not yet learned to talk' as pleonastic; infants haven't.
...recognizing and responding to the golden arches indicating a certain McFood outlet. But here I'm using it in the specific sense of ability to use words to convey meaning. And don't try any clever-clever stuff about "the meaning of meaning"; you know what I'm talking about.
But the later programmes were less of a hook-line-and-sinker regurgitation of a press release from the company that has the very same name as the BBC series (which took the name verbatim from the market leader in this area: The Second Genome...
At least they didn't add the TM. Here's the  iPlayer link
...) At the time of the series I made a note in a draft that I was inspired to dust off by last Tuesday's Life Scientific, which dealt with the immune system. To quote the programme's précis:
Traditional descriptions of the human immune system bristle with military analogies. There are "lines of defence" against "enemy invaders"; "border guards" at "strategic points. And when barriers are breached, there's "a call to arms". That's before you mention Natural Killer Cells.

But Professor of Immunology and Public Engagement at the University of Manchester, Sheena Cruickshank, tells Jim that as well as the war-like descriptions, our immune system is now being understood in terms of its capacity for diplomacy too. Jaw-jaw as well as War-war.

Our immune system has to know when to tolerate the trillions of microbes that live on us and in us, to hold fire but also to know when full-scale immune activation is required.

More here
But the whole thing  is well worth a listen. Give it a go.

I, meanwhile, must go and learn my words for this – less than 3 weeks away as I type:

(One or two notes could do with some attention as well.) 

Sadly it'll be our  Musical Director's UK swansong with the choir; I say 'UK' specifically because he and the choir will be performing in France in August.


PS: A couple of clues:
  • Blackbird embracing upstart noose in a big way (10)
  • Mistaken queen preceding onerous with queen coming first. (9)

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Oh what a tangled web we weave...

...when we try to organize our thoughts about language ...
(and it's no accident that the idea of weaving is at the root of the word text – 'from PIE root *teks- "to weave, to fabricate, to make; make wicker or wattle framework."', as Etymonline puts it. They quote Robert Bringhurst, from The Elements of Typographic Style:
An ancient metaphor: thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns -- but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth.
I've written before about the damage done by thinkers about language, who create their whole petty world of Mrs Thistlebottom's "rules", policed by Strunk & White, purveyors of jackboots to all discerning grammar Nazis. Here, for example, I wrote
When Dr Johnson defined a lexicographer as 'a harmless drudge' I think he knew what he was doing. Lexicographers can make life much more difficult for students. They say 'Look, what a boon is standardization'; but look at the mess they make!
(Interested readers can look in that post for examples of the mess.)

But, as  a representative of a pattern-loving species I have to put my hand up for the fault of  seeing rules where there is only (messy, almost chaotic) usage.

In The Changing English Language (my entree into Linguistics, which I first read in the late 1960s), Brian Foster wrote:

Nouns ending in "-ee" have long been a feature of the English  vocabulary, and such a modern-looking  formation as "payee"  goes back to the 18th century, while "recognizee" (the person to whom one is bound in a recognizance) is dated 1544 by the SOED, These particular examples show the fairly characteristic passive meaning implied by this suffix..

There are many examples of this passive sense. The Macmillan English Dictionary (not a notable authority, but the publisher of the dictionary software I happen to use) lists addressee, amputee,  appointee, deportee, detainee, employee, evacuee, franchisee, inductee, internee, interviewee, licensee, nominee and payee – all unarguable  patients of the verb in question. An element of indirectness is discernible in referee: the person is not referred; what is referrred (to the referee) is a point of fact or interpretation. Devotee is also different, in  that the actor and the patient of the act are one and the same – except in the case  of forced conversions (where "devotee" would in any case be a misnomer). And the passiveness in the case of retiree is questionable; some people "of pensionaable age" are happy to put their feet up; it is only their more dedicated colleagues who fit the passive pattern and are retired  against their will.

But Brian Foster goes on to say

Such indeed is the usefulness of this device that an endless succession of nonce-words based on it  is made possible,  like the one made up by Gilbert Harding when he wrote in his Book of Manners that '... a hug from the Russian bear might well crush the huggee to death.' This semi-humorous [HD Only semi- ? Well, maybe not a rib-tickler, but definitely jocular] procedure is not a new one, for in Mr.  Sponge's Sporting Tour, published in 1853, R. S. Surtees refers to a person being toasted as the 'toastee'.

But, he goes on

... the possibility of using this suffix in an active sense is old-established, because 'absentee' goes back to 1537 and 'refugee' came into the language  in 1685, the year of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV when many French Huguenots fled the country to escape persecution. Escapee is attested in 1865...

Hang on, I thought when I read this. S'abstenir is reflexive anyhow, so someone who does it to him/herself is an absentee with no problem for the seeker after passives. And both  s'échapper and se refugier are as my old French master would have said verbes de déplacement: someone who has escaped s'est échappé[e], and someone who has sought refuge s'est refugié[e]; again, there's no problem for the passive-o-phile. (If you've met the argument about 17th- and 18th-century grammarians making the mistake of trying to force English into the grammar of Latin [so, for example, no sentence-final prepositions], you may get a sense of dêjà vu here: it's just that the mistake here is the adducing of French grammar.)

So despite evidence to the contrary, I still have a quiet resentment of arriviste non-passives like attendee.
This issue came to a head when I was in a working group that had rotating minute-takers. Many of my colleagues had knocked up a clever bit of time-saving software that highlighted differences from meeting to meeting. As I was their junior, and they expected a flag to mean Something's new rather than Bob's at it again, I soon learnt not to change Attendees: to Present:

But that evidence to the contrary  (to the contrary, that is, of the passive implication of -ee endings) keeps mounting. Attendees are joined by resignees, even dilutees (unskilled workers who dilute the skill-level of a group of skilled workers).  I feel that these new -ee words with no passive implication are in some sense regrettable. But they happen, and a student of language can only recognize it and avoid creating yet another angels-on-a-pinhead  "rule" for the unwary to stub their toes on (and yes, I did write their).  



Some clues:
  • Before? After? Get up, with last going first. Ridiculous! (12)
  • Truncated Hamlet done recast as contemporary political thriller. (8)

Friday, 18 May 2018

Quod erat pudendum

Prove is a tricky word; "to try, test; evaluate; demonstrate," says Etymonline
with the line  between test and show falling about halfway down that list. The idea of trying is (it seems to me – I can't think of a way to show this) waning in English; in Spanish, on the other hand, the trying end of the "meaning pool" is quite deep: a stall-holder in a food market in Barcelona will invite passers-by to probar their produce, whereas the equivalent stall-holder at a Farmer's Market in Swindon would say "Try some"; calling "Prove it" wouldn't help sales.

It was not always this way .  When a printer wanted to test how accurate his typesetter had been, he produced a proof copy – whence comes the use of proof as a verb meaning "read and correct a proof copy" (which is not to deny that proof was already a verb; Etymonline puts it at 1834).

Which brings us to "the proof of the pudding is in the eating", mangled by people who didn't understand this meaning of proof.  There are various juxtapositions of words beginning with p. Something is (?) "the proof in the pudding"...
<example source="Boston Globe, 2003, quoted in Quinion piece, vide infra">
While the team’s first Super Bowl victory back in 2002 could be explained away by some skeptics as a fluke, the second victory is the proof in the pudding in cementing the Pats’ status as the cream of the NFL crop.
...but far and away the winner is "the proof is in the pudding". Google shows the size of the victory – about 6 times more for the meaningless newcomer.

Full form: 159,000 results
Demonstrative charcuterie:  1,080,000  results

In a 2012 edition of Morning Edition, Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer anointed the meaningless interloper thus:
Well, the proof is in the pudding is a new twist on a very old proverb.
Hmm...."New twist", sounds pretty catchy. He goes on to fill in the back story:
The original version is the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And what it meant was that you had to try out food in order to know whether it was good....Back then, pudding referred to a kind of sausage, filling the intestines of some animal with minced meat and other things - something you probably want to try out carefully since that kind of food could be rather treacherous.
OK. That's the way language works: a sort of linguistic Gresham's Law:

Bad language drives out good

But I know what I know; my prescriptivist in desriptivist's clothing credentials are unchanged. My lip will always curl when I hear about the proof being in the pudding. And I agree with Michael Quinion's
The proverb is ancient — it has been traced back to 1300 in a rather different form and is recorded by William Camden in his Remains Concerning Britain of 1623. It’s sad that it has lasted so long, only to be corrupted in modern times.

More here
But that corruption is terminal. "Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour. England has need of thee..." Well, best not to make a fuss.  :-)

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Beware geeks bearing gifts

Poor old Jeremy. If he wasn't such a wazzock I'd feel sorry for him. As poisoned chalices go, his brief in the Commons the other day was a doozie. His PPS, or whoever does these things told him "There's been a bit of a whoopsie. A number of women in their late sixties, who were meant to be invited for their last smear test, weren't. As a result a few hundred may die – we can't be sure how many (if any)  but in any case we're jolly sorry. Now go out and tell the world."

What he didn't say, though, as Professor David Spiegelhalter said on More or Less last Friday, is that as a result of the absence of invitation, a few hundred may LIVE – we can't be sure how many (if any). Or, as Doctor Karsten Jørgensen summarized,
The evidence says that this is a close call, and increasingly the benefit is being brought into doubt and people are beginning to worry more about the harm.
But this is a nuanced problem, and experts are inclined to say things that are on the face of it quite upsetting to a non-expert's equilibrium, like "Of course, these people haven't died yet" (which invites the non-expert to add an unsaid "... so what's all the fuss about?" And given the length of the grass and the growth of the hedge, I don't have time to do it justice. But have a listen.

Before I sign off, though, I am reminded of a related programme in the Inside Health series a few weeks ago, about prostate screening (which I should say Doctor  Jørgensen said was a whole 'nother thing, because some sorts of screening have more hope of predicting the usefulness of possible treatments then others... but still). Dr Margaret McCartney warned about what the presenter called "a poor test" (screening for Prostate-Specific Antigen):
 ... [M]y heart sinks very often when we hear celebrities tell us that their life was saved by having a PSA test done... 
Because of the timing (early March 2018 programme) I assumed Dr McCartney was thinking of this celebrity endorsement:

But the Inside Health programme was a repeat, so Mr Fry just happened to have his head above the parapet at the time of that fusillade.
...And part of this is what’s called often the popularity paradox and that’s where bad tests become more popular.  The worse a test is, the poorer it performs, the more false alarms we create.  And the more false alarms are created the more treatment people have for conditions that were never going to become life threatening and were never going to harm people in any way.

Margaret McCartney on Inside Health 6 March 2018

Stuff happens... Live with it (until of course circumstances force you to suspend that operation in the land of the mortals.)


Saturday, 21 April 2018

Et in arcadia Lego

What people say and the way they say it often grates with me. This is my problem rather than theirs, but as I've said elsewhere, I'm a prescriptivist in descriptivist's clothing, Believe me, my life would be a lot easier if I didn't have a gnome brandishing a red pen sitting on my shoulder  muttering 'That's wrong' all the time. Meanwhile, on my other shoulder, the Good Fairy of Descriptivism says 'No it's not. Take a chill pill. That's how language works.'

Politicians are frequent offenders, because of the need to produce verbiage at the drop of a hat (or maybe that should be at the thrust of a microphone). As it happens – with no particular political axe to grind – my latest irritant has come from the mouth of Theresa May, who in a Commons debate accused Jeremy Corbyn of letting anti-Semitism run rife in the Labour Party.

"Run RIFE"? The British National Corpus (hereafter "BNC")  has no instances of run rife, and 1 of ran rife. [With this and other BNC searches, click on the link and sit back while the search engine does its stuff – which might take a second or two, depending on the usual computicle variables: Your BIT-RATE May Vary] .

On the other hand, in BNC, with the searchstring * riot, run riot is 3rd most common with 44 instances, running riot is 11th most common with 16 instances, ran riot is 12th most common with 15 instances, and runs riot is 20th most common with 7 instances. Running is what happens in the vicinity of the word riot: or, as a bean-counter might say "run is the most common verb to appear in collocation with riot"; this search (for any verb preceding riot) confirms it; (the figures don't match; I don't know why [e.g. 44 instances of run riot according to the first search, but 36 in the second],  but they're in the same ball-park).

But whenever the prescriptivist gnome says "That's wrong" I risk coming a cropper. Another Corbyn-related word supplies an example, only this time he was the speaker; the word was ram-packed. When he used it I thought "Well, he means jam-packed, doesn't he, he just made up this new word to emphasize how people were crammed in [to a Virgin train, if you must know]."

BNC  is too small to have a statistically convincing number of examples of jam-packed, so I've turned to the less authoritative but much more populous {if that's the word – one populates a database, so no one can say people have to be involved} Google. Given the Google treatment,  jam-packed has more than nine million hits  – more than a match, I thought, for the arriviste "ram-packed" (which of course the Good Fairy says is fine, but...).

However, ram-packed is more than a match for jam-packed, as this search shows; 22.5 million, rather than a piffling 9.27 million. It was an arriviste to my limited ken, but not to English.  Wiktionary says it was formed from ram and packed (natch)
... originally (since at least the 1940s) literal, referring to something packed with a ram. (Possibly reinforced by the rhyming synonym jam-packed.)
So he who hesitates has a chance of getting things right.