Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The lesser of the two weevils

The Académie Française takes a dim view of écriture inclusive – the proposed script reform that attempts to make French gender-neutral in spite of itself. The Times last week referred to a "mid punctuation  point", a glyph that French keyboards are soon to include. And they gave as an example cher⋅es amies [HD: their impoverished fonts presumably don't go as far as an è]. You can sidestep the Infernal Firewall by looking at this Indie article.

Their one English academician, Sir Michael Edwards, calls the result "gibberish"  – missing the point rather  (écriture – the clue's in the name); I don't think the words with the mid punctuation point are supposed to be read aloud – any more than the solidus is supposed to be read aloud in our "his/her". It just lets the reader's mind skip over the gender variation without missing a beat. So when the university of Nancy addressed imminent graduates as Futur⋅es diplômé⋅es it was simply doing them the courtesy of accepting that they might be of either gender, rather than, as heretofore, even in a class of 99 diplômées and a single diplômé, addressing them all as men.
Perhaps those more sexist times should be evoked as "as himetofore". He is certainly to the fore.
One sententious self-important windbag, the philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, speaking on Europe 1 Radio, denounced it as "an attack on syntax by egalitarianism". 
Generally, I've noticed that people who complain about "an attack on <abstract_noun>" tend to be blowhards.
But language  is pretty insidious stuff. George Orwell (pace David Crystal, as I've said before) was right on the money when he warned about the influence of language on political power; Big Brother and Donald Trump have a lot in common: if something you want to be true isn't, say it is and keep saying it. If the existence of someone in history doesn't suit your politics, make them an unperson; people will stop talking about them if their identity has been erased... If you want to change a social reality, changing language is a good place to start.

And one system that has been thriving for millennia is the undervaluing and belittling of women. Which brings us to another topic (which turns out to be part of the same story). Harvey Weinstein got away with his pitiful predatory behaviour for so long because the system facilitated it; a pretty significant part of that system (hmm, "significant"... What would de Saussure have to say about that?) is language. If you want to excuse or ignore something, hide it behind a jokey euphemism, like 'casting couch', say. Many a protégée turns out to have been a victime. Disrespecting women ...
Incidentally, I was surprised to learn from Etymonline that "disrespect (v)" pre-dates "disrespect (n)":

1610s (v.), 1630s (n.), from dis- + respect. Related: Disrespected; disrespecting.
Just because I met the noun first, just because I heard the verb as a bit of a newcomer, I assumed the noun had greater "validity" in some way (not a way that a linguist should take any pride in). Of course, 20 years one way or the other in a word that goes back about 400 years is neither here nor there. But still...
...is something that involves language, and the language of patriarchy (at best – a more appropriate word escapes me at the moment, that's the thing about something being unspeakable) underpins the male-dominated status quo, not only in La La Land but...well, just about everywhere.

And physical assault is just the tip of the iceberg the visible loathsomeness that is supported by a raft of tiny acts of disrespect. The other night I saw a repeat on BBC 4 of a programme made nearly ten years ago – a fascinating account of where we come from (<spoiler alert>: out of Africa) . Dr Alice Roberts was treated to this amazing exchange (about 16 minutes in to The Incredible Human Journey):
REWOP from The Incredible Human Journey
That's like a little spearhead.
Yes that's exactly what it is. We think it's actually the ... [looking for the right word, to avoid blowing her little mind with the AWESOMENESS of his findings]  ...TIP to a ...SPEAR.

Perhaps I'm being over-sensitive here; perhaps there was no slight. Almost certainly there was no slight intended. (They were two specialists, repeating something for the benefit of a less well-informed public.) But it just felt a pit patronizing to me.

It was 20-odd years ago that English-speaking female actors started to complain about the term actress. A Quora article, basing its conclusion on the Guardian's archives, said
In 1994, the word actress appears 1150 times in the Guardian, and actor appears 2418 times, so about 2:1.

In 2003 the word actress appears 1173 times in the Guardian, and actor appears 3948 times, so about 4:1. That dates the change to 10-20 years ago.
although AMPAS (as the Oscar-dispensing organization is called – not without irony ...impasse?)  has yet to catch up. But if actors in France want to be addressed as act⋅eur⋅rice⋅s what's the problem? OK, it looks a bit ugly; but there are worse things.


Update: 2017.10.17.15:50 – Added PS

PS – And here are a few clues:

  • I‘m muscular (or perhaps something like it). (10)
  • Editing...editing.., until smoke began to rise? (7)
  • Trees that bear fir cones. (8)

Friday, 6 October 2017


In a choral singer's life, the pronunciation  of Latin is bound to become an issue. People learn one way in school, and can't help being infected. Fortunately, in the Venn diagram of my life,  Church Latin (which I started to ... enunciate at the age of about 7, as described here), school Latin (there are several of course, but mine was Church-Latin-speaking), and the Latin used in the study of Romance Philology (Vulgar Latin), all coincided.

I can't claim to know the whole story, but there are at least four gross variants – old and new Classical systems, Church Latin, and Germanic or continental Latin; there are probably more. And these are further compounded by  national phonemic peculiarities (sounds that are excluded – made effectively unpronounceable – as a necessary part of the acquisition of a mother tongue) such as those I mentioned here.

I  discussed one of the many problems arising from this clash of pronunciation regimes here. But in this post I want to talk about an old system that has almost died out but was once widely taught both in the UK and of course in many schools around the world in the British Empire (ensuring that the colonies paid at least twice for the dubious accolade of the imposition of the Pax Britannica).

Ask the search engine of your choice about Benedicite and you will be told this:
If you're not a user of the IPA, I recommend pressing the little loudspeaker doofer (in your browser that is, not on my screen-capture).

Elsewlere I wrote:
<autobiographical note>
In a choir I used to sing in, there was a great kerfuffle about how one should pronounce Benedicite. It couldn't have mattered less, as it happens, since that word does not occur in the [Ed: English] text.  But in  Benjamin Britten's world (and particularly at the school he went to when he went there) the first "i" (but not the second) had this same /ɑɪ/ diphthong.
<PS date=2017>
Benedicite was just the name of a canticle he was familiar with in the Book of Common Prayer: "Bless ye the Lord".
</autobiographical note>

The first i has the same /aɪ/  diphthong as the mori that ends that poem: as I said here (a post that unaccountably has attracted nearly 1 in 3 of all 100,000+ page visits that all HD posts have enjoyed over the last 5 years):
... in the school where Wilfrid Owen learnt his Latin, the last two lines rhymed...
The words are "old lie/mori", but it is an internal rhyme, I now see, as "Dulce" doesn't – as I had thought – start the last line.
...(and they may have scanned as well – I dunno; even  if they didn't they probably did in schoolboy-speak, where the stress  is often inverted in memorized (and drilled) Latin. Think of aMO aMAS aMAT..., whose actual stress [Ed: on the first syllable] is attested by most [if not all] Romance languages.)
(Naturally, if you know and remember and love the poem with the sound /'mɔ:ri:/ don't let  me interfere. In my house there are many mansions/let a thousand flowers bloom/etc.)

Many examples in legal Latin show a similar vowel sound: prima facie (/praɪmә feɪsi:/), decree nisi (/naɪsaɪ/).... The same system of diphthong vowel sounds accounts for habeas corpus (/heɪbiәs.../) among others (although later "corrections" may have been made, especially in parts of the world where the English legal system was adopted).

But I have promises to keep, and files [sic] to weed before I sleep.


PS: A few clues:
  • Do about 50, not completely. (6)
  • Used up exemplary piece, in which to be used no longer. (9)
  • Publish electronic Bible version? (7)

Update: 2017.10.07.15:30 – Added PPS.

PPS Just heard one on the radio (a misquote, FWIW, but enough to remind me: anno domini (the second i with an /aɪ/ sound). In fact, this phrase may have been the catalyst for the misquote, now I think about it: it was "laudato domini" ( for "laudate dominum"): <some-latin-stuff>o <more-latin-stuff>i).

But laudato means "to|by|with|from the praised [one]"; and domini means "of the lord". Put them together and... well, I imagine a Latin scholar could find a context that they would fit in, but that ain't me, babe.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Fings ain't what vey used to be - they're a lot better

My latest Tezzy nomination (for the meaning of Tezzy see this blog, passim) goes to this paper (and the site that it links to). The paper is called

The short history of global living conditions and why it matters that we know it

– a bit of a misnomer (as to its shortness), if you click on links within the paper, which takes you to more detail. For example, one of the first links is to a paper on Working Hours which itself is liberally spattered with thought-provoking stuff such as this:

Come on, chaps, could do better: 100 years ago, men  did about 10% as much as women did (productively) in the home. The balance is much better now, but still about 1:2. What's more, both the blue and the pink curves (see what they did there?) look pretty assymptotic: the women's "NO LESS" is droned  (sic?) out by the men's "NO MORE". But there is an irony here: are male bloggers more common than female ones?

Sadly, the

...and why it matters that we know it

bit gets short shrift. There are only four short paragraphs, none of which contains a link. Here's a taste:
For our history to be a source of encouragement we have to know our history. The story that we tell ourselves about our history and our time matters. Because our hopes and efforts for building a better future are inextricably linked to our perception of the past it is important to understand and communicate the global development up to now. A positive lookout on the efforts of ourselves and our fellow humans is a vital condition to the fruitfulness of our endeavors. Knowing that we have come a long way in improving living conditions and the notion that our work is worthwhile is to us all what self-respect is to individuals. It is a necessary condition for self-improvement.
(Come to think of it, that was quite a long paragraph. It just should have been shorter. I ran it through the text analysis tool at UsingEnglish, and here are the results:
Not bad on word-length, but not very readable; it almost qualifies for a FOGGY [see this blog, passim {again :-)}  – Average Sentence length a shade under 20, Lexical Density a shade under 60, Fog Index over 14).

So if you want some more palatable auto-back-slapping, try this video from Bill Gates.

But about that productive effort...


Sunday, 17 September 2017

A flash in the pan

The orgy of on-the-spot fruitless speculation occasioned by the IED (Ineffectual Emphatic Deflagration) at Parsons Green brought to mind a phenomenon that I have mentioned before: the way metaphors freeze in time a technology that is time-specific and doomed to being superseded. In this post I started with this observation:
A few weeks ago I mentioned (here) a possible future post about the way obsolete arms technology is used to form metaphors that persist long after the arms technology is relegated to museums; it's not just arms-related vocabulary of course. Someone who has never seen a stair-rod or heard a telephone bell may give someone a bell and report that it's coming down in stair-rods. But arms-related (and armed-conflict-related) vocabulary is a particularly fruitful source of metaphor.
 One of this sort of metaphor that I listed was this:
Flash in the pan – in a flint-lock, the trigger sparked off an explosion in a pan which itself set off the main explosion. Sometimes there was a flash in the pan, but the main charge was unaffected.
In other words, as veterans of the Parsons Green coverage will  recognize, a flash in the pan was a deflagration. Of course, the exact confugrations of initiator and explosive don't match; but the ignitio praecox of the Parsons Green bucket bomb was a deflagration.

But this was not the only case that the bomb coverage threw up. There were two more in the accounts of the expected investigation (though I suspect my memory may have added the verb). Police would be 'scouring  CCTV footage'. They would, of course, not scour anything; this is a metaphor (and not, I now realize, related to technology, so make that one more case – footage).

CCTV may once have used film, and a few possibly still do. But surely today they produce MPEG files (file – there's another one). But it's film that is measured in feet, and people who refer to footage in the context of CCTV (or other media) are evoking a past technology (not that long in the past, and I'm sure most users [today] of the expression could work out where the word comes from; but, Trump willing, to a 22nd-century user, the technological background will be much more opaque .
When I said 'make that one'  two paras ago, I hadn't thought about a new development in the field of CCTV: if the CCTV automatically sends the file to a remote site (or even to the cloud – discussed here if you're that way inclined) it doesn't really deserve to be called Closed-Circuit TV)

In fact, film or tape has spawned quite a few of these fossils (traces of a former state)...
This metaphor commonly used by linguistics academics came immediately to mind as I read Oliver Kamm's review of How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention when in the first paragraph he writes "unlike physical organisms, the languages of prehistory leave no fossilised traces". This is true, in a strictly prosaic non-figurative sense. But since philologists regularly refer to fossils, my background has led me to almost forget that it is a metaphor. (Read on, though: everything is.)
... slow-motion, cut, fast-forward, rewind, flashback, inter-cut ...
<apologia theme="inter-cut">
There may be objections to this one, as it's use chiefly to refer to film technology (although cut itself freezes a bygone scalpel-and-sticky-tape process). But it is sometimes used to refer to other sorts of story-telling – in a novel, for example, several stories may be inter-cut.
...I'm sure there are many more. It's rather like the exercise of taking a square yard of meadow and counting the different species it contains; the longer you look at film and tape metaphors, the more you find (another illustration of Guy Deutscher's reef of dead metaphors view of language):
Guy Deutscher, in his fascinating The Unfolding Of Language: The Evolution of Mankind`s greatest Invention calls language (in a brilliant metaphor about metaphors - a 'meta-metaphor'?)  'a reef of dead metaphors'. In fact, Deutscher says more; it's not just words that were born phoenix-like from dead metaphors; dead metaphors are 'the alluvium from which grammatical structures emerge'.

More here
Thankfully, though, I've just heard on the News that all but one of the victims of that flash in the pan are now out of hospital . Which is not to say that it was a damp squib (see what  I did there?)

But the pyracantha ("fire-thorn-plant") is demanding the resumption of its annual trim, suspended when the heavens opened a while ago.


Friday, 8 September 2017

Eeny, meeny, tekel, upharsin

One of my occasional "State of the Notion" posts, with a suitable mixture of weighing-in-the-balance and counting (in the otherwise totally arbitrary subject line).

In its first twelve months, from October 2012 to September 2013, the Harmless Drudgery blog attracted just over 7000 visits. July 2013 was the only month with more than 1000 visits (1070, to be precise). In the first 5 days of September 2017, the total was just over a thousand (1053 to be precise – another 17 would have supplied a pleasing symmetry, but the gist is clear):

HD visits, courtesy of Blogger
(Of course there are more at time of going to
<whatever> -- almost, already, as many as in August)
Given a following wind, the  total for September should exceed the peaks in April and May of this year, and might approach the December 2016 peak (which I imagine represents teachers catching up with their blog reading over the Christmas break [there's a similar peak at Easter, but attenuated because the lawn has started to need mowing]).


PS My  nomination for a TEZZY goes to this site. 
<explanation reference="passim">
The TEZZY awards go (irregularly) to the Time-wasting Site of the Year. The Ur-TEZZY was awarded nearly 3 years ago :
The prestigious Time-wasting Site of the Year Award (familiarly 'Tezzy') goes to the University of Nottingham [2017: a site that explains the origins of place names].
Avoid this one if you have a deadline to meet: it's a guessing game based on sound clips from world languages. I don't know how big the corpus of clips is, but it‘s big enough to keep you "busy" for several kilo-yonks.


PPS And a couple of clues:
  • Organic solution is close, but not quite good enough (2,5)
  • Imprisoned the subject of genealogy – jolly angry. (12)
Update: 2017.09.08.15:20 ‐ Added PPPS

PPPS Also, while I think of it, do sign this, although I'm  not sure what good it will do: the meddlesome priest will just have his zealotry heightened. The more signatories to the petition, the greater the Celestial-Jobsworth's self-regarding sense of martyrdom.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Captain Corelli‘s Egg-Slicer - Pedants of the world unite, Part the second

In last week‘s Review (one of the many pull-outs of The Times that almost ALWAYS goes astray on the way from the warehouse and it‘s not the shop‘s fault, honest, there‘s nothing we can do, it‘s the wholesaler) someone had taken the trouble to write in with a bit of misplaced pedantry that I used to be a believer in myself. (And if you're a fan of  "in which", read this – you're damned if you do invert and damned if you don't; I've chosen my route to damnation.)

In a letter to the Feedback column, a correspondent said he was writing ‘as a science student‘, but I suspect he meant ‘as a schoolboy who did GCSE Physics' or – depending on his age – O-level Physics, or even (as in my case) O-level Physics with Chem (that hasty genuflection at the altar of Mammon that, at one time, we Lotus Eaters were allowed to make on the way to a Greek class).

I first wrote about pedantry over four years ago here (well, I‘m sure I had written about it many times before,  but that early blog post was my first airing  for the PEDAI gag: "you have nothing  to lose but your PEDAI [=‘chains' [Greek – I wasn't kidding in my opening para]" – geddit? It‘s an etymological joke... Oh well):
One of the grammar checker's shibboleths [BobK 2017: the object of my disdain at the time was grammar checkersparticularly Microsoft Word's: "a sort of Strunk & White incarnate"] is 'that in defining relative clauses' (and now the gloves are off – the underline is RED.)
<grammar_point importance="negligible" skip="yes, if you value your sanity" status="shibboleth">
Suppose I have two lawn mowers. The green one is in the shed and the red one ... is in the garage. Woe betide you if you refer to the green one as 'the mower which is in the shed'. However, you will have Mrs Thistlebottom*'s blessing if you say 'The red mower, which is newer, is in the garage.'

... I know the rule is hooey, but... 
And speaking of hooey, the other thing about using that in subordinate clauses is that it forces you to 'break' another 'rule', by relegating a phrasal verb's particle to the end. (I have mentioned this before, in the red excursus in the middle of this post).

And that is the point on which I shall end. 
*Mrs T is not my invention; I have mentioned her before. She haunted Dave Barry's Mister Language Person columns, which have gone the (sorely lamented) way of the songs of Tom Lehrer.
As I said, I was – until quite recently – a participant in this oft-repeated nitpick ("Quanta are really small, look at the ignoramus suggesting it's big"). But then I saw this explanation in a UsingEnglish forum:
According to quantum theory, electromagnetic radiation can only exist in certain values as opposed to being on a continuous scale. Passing from one value to another is taking a 'quantum leap'.

This has entered the language as a metaphor for abrupt or significant change in something rather than a gradual evolution.

Another response offered further clarification (together with a helpful link to more detailed stuff at Wikipedia):
The electron can't gradually change. It is either at one energy level or another. No inbetween.

As it moves from one level to another it emits or absorbs photons. The "color" (wavelength) of the photon depends upon the size of the leap.
So the  metaphor works perfectly: the nature of the electron changes suddenly and radically because of the quantum jiggery-pokery going on inside it, and as a result there's a significant change in the behaviour of the atom it haunts (I doubt if that's the right word... But what do electrons do? Whizz?).

Quantum Leap may well be, as the Times Style Guide says, a cliché (to be avoided like the plague [my silliness, not their word]). But it makes sense.

But the season of mists (chemical clouds?) and mellow fruitfulness is nearly upon us. The drive-by fruitings of the unreasonably prolific pear-tree are coming to an end, but things need doing to the apple-tree. I am going out, and may be some time...


PS: A couple of new clues:
  • Immerse lowest ranker reportedly in the shallows here. (7)
  • After play,  M. S. Dhoni gets a talking to. (8)

Update: 2017.10.20.10:55


Monday, 28 August 2017

Little birdies in their nests agree

I came late to Twitter, though late is relative (I followed Stephen Fry ...
Don't judge. I'm not just a star-struck celebrity-stalker. we are fellow near-contemporaries (a few years apart) at CU Footlights, and have a number of connections and interests in common.

...before he reached 20,000 followers and he's now at about 13 million). At the 2008 Language Show I saw a talk given by the amazing Joe Dale, and he recommended it. But I resisted until I saw him again at the 2009PPS Language Show, and since then I've been an aficionado and a user (rather more than some might wish. :-)

But  the other night two tweets reminded me of one of my many reasons for loving Twitter. The first was this:

This doesn't use the #mfltwitterati tag, so I have no reason to suppose the tweeter is a language specialist (though she might be – I know the Retweeter of the second tweet is).  But the first two words set me off on a fascinating trail – scent perhaps.

CANICULUS. Long-time followers of this blog will recognize the -ULUS ending (it's a little one of whatever it is – the magic words are diminutive suffix). And related words such as English canine and, less obviously, French chien (and canaille, someone on the radio has just told me...
I've checked, but not in my usual source for this sort of thing, Etymonline (which presumably doesn't... whoops, it does. Still)... 

More here 
...), point to the doggy part. CANICULUS -> Canis Minor.

According to this site
Canis Minor contains two primary stars and 14 Bayer/Flamsteed designated stars. It’s brightest star, Procyon (Alpha Canis Minoris), is also the seventh brightest star in the sky. With an apparent visual magnitude of 0.34, Procyon is not extraordinarily bright in itself. But it’s proximity to the Sun – 11.41 light years from Earth – ensures that it appears bright in the night sky. 
And from there we get to the Dog Days:
The dog days or dog days of summer are the hot, sultry days of summer. They were historically the period following the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, which Greek and Roman astrology connected with heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, and bad luck. They are now taken to be the hottest, most uncomfortable part of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.
So an alerte canicule is not just a "dogs die in hot cars" warning, although that is something worth considering during the Dog Days.

Attentive readers will have noticed an unexplained inflation in the size of the dog. French canicule derives from CANICULUS (which should be Canis Minor) But the Dog Days are related to Sirius, which is in Canis Major. The only explanation for this that I can see is that, to quote that Universe Today site, Canis Minor‘s brightest star is "Procyon ... the seventh brightest star in the sky". And then:
The star’s name is derived from the Greek word which means “before the dog”, a reference to the fact that it appears to rise before Sirius (the “Dog Star”) when observed from northern latitudes.
So, when Procyon rises, it makes sense to think "Here come the Dog Days".

The second tweet gives less food for thought; it's just an example of the sort of linguistic trouvaille (never thought I'd use that word  :-) ) that Twitter tends to throw up.

Note for Anglophones: mec means something like "bloke". I think this is much more elegant than "mansplaining", which seems to me to suffer from the same neologizing crudeness as "chocoholic" or "gyrocopter" (just lumping two bits of words together, regardless of their structure). I‘m not hung up on origins; but I like neologisms to hang together like other words do, morphologically.
<rant type="another bugbear">
And I'm unreasonably hostile to "atpersand" (for the sign @). Its model is obviouslly the word ampersand. but the structure of that is "and (per se and)". So the at-based analogue should be ATPERSAT.  
"SHOULD? – that's the way it is.  Ask Google." says the little descriptivist dæmon on my shoulder  Still...
But I'm missing the cricket.


PS And here are a couple of clues.

  • Is introduced to soupçon, pesky thing! (8)
  • Legal document introducing sort of Elgar maestoso; really clear. (4,5)
Update: 2017.10.03.11:15 – Added footnote (and crossword answers).

PPS With some regret, I have cancelled my @BobK99 account (because of Twitter's new Ts&Cs, the gist of which is "Everything you write or link to is ours to do with as we will, and we have the right to pass it on willy-nilly to third parties of our choice"), keeping my toe in the water as @WVGTbook – which won't point to my blog. But as a result of this rejigging I've noticed that the account dated back to 2008; I must have signed up in the fog of post-Language Show admin. I just didn't start using it until 2009.

Crossword answers: NUISANCE and WRIT LARGE

Update: 2017.10.13.11:15 – Added PPPS

PPPS: A while ago I noted another of those marvellous tweets that reveals something about another language:

... Les planches as metonymical reference to the theatre. An English actor treads the boards, but "boards" and planches aren't cognates.  I  wonder which came first...?